BlockAvenue is a location-based website which is like “Yelp for neighborhoods.” Grades A to F are assigned to an area by aggregating more than 50 million data points on quality-of-life factors such as crime, sex offenders, restaurants, attractions and schools. Users can contribute reviews, comments and opinions on an area, or on features of that area such as parks and businesses. Renters, prospective home-owners or visitors can use BlockAvenue to get a real sense of what a neighborhood is like, and where it’s heading.
Cantina worked with BlockAvenue to help design and develop the product in order to launch a minimum viable product (MVP), the goal of which was to get good press, get early user feedback, and interest angel and venture capital investors. The project succeeded on each of those fronts.
Cantina’s lead consultant acted as interim-CTO and architect heading up development with creative support for art direction and graphics. Cantina also worked with BlockAvenue to select and hire the core team, design the product roadmap, and manage other technical and strategic considerations.
Challenge: Get From a Concept to a Product
BlockAvenue started development on an initial concept private alpha release and realized that more senior level development people, and a large-scale technology architect, would be needed to achieve their goals. With angel funding powering development, but no live site to show, BlockAvenue needed to quickly release a product that would be well received by users, the press, and the investor community. The company needed to develop momentum to get through current and next rounds of funding, build an initial user base, and attract top talent for their core product team.
In addition to the challenge of creating the right product, it was clear BlockAvenue had become a “big data” company, bringing with it concerns about scalability and performance as well as managing the risks of choosing the right technology and architecture to power the product.
After speaking with top-tier consulting and development firms, they chose to go with Cantina, based on talent, personality and development philosophy. Cantina would provide technical expertise and help identify product definition challenges to be analyzed and refocused.
Approach: More than Reviews – It’s Big Data
The Cantina and BlockAvenue teams started with a fast-turnaround strategic review to assess the state of the data and current code base, as well as define what the product should do and the features required. In order to get to the MVP in as short a time as possible, an Agile development process was adopted for its efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and high degree of collaboration.
The current state of the product was assessed: a LAMP-based application using PHP and hosted on a set of private servers. After outlining the features required for the MVP, it was decided to move to a cloud-hosted Rails application that would allow faster development and be able to quickly scale as traffic levels fluctuated.
The ability for users can add their own area reviews in the form of BlockReviews was incorporated into the service. In addition a number of external data feeds including schools, sex offenders, crimes, restaurants and more were integrated. This allowed BlockAvenue to offer users unprecedented visibility into the experience of an area from a number of perspectives, while building it’s own proprietary data set.
BlockAvenue also provides BlockScores, an A to F grade of an area, for the entire US based on available third-party data and BlockReviews. To achieve fine granularity the US into divided into 1.9 billion tiles (approximately 300 sq. ft. sections).
To support the scalability and performance required for displaying BlockScores, a custom tiling server based on REDIS was developed. Unlike traditional tiling servers which return images, this server allows layering and querying layers of arbitrary data at multiple levels of resolution across the entire globe. With response times averaging 100ms, with many under 70ms, this solution scaled successfully without requiring costly IT infrastructure.
- REDIS for the tiling server, caching, message queue, and job processing
- Ruby on Rails
- AWS EC2
- Backbone.js and jQuery
- AJAX, PJAX, and progressive display techniques for dynamic UI
- UserVoice for user Feedback
- NewRelic for application monitoring and statistics
Results: A Product is Launched and Gets Big Press
The BlockAvenue technology solution was delivered on time, on budget and fully functional. The service expanded from a review site to a large-scale data-driven multi-use site that flexibly informs people about what’s important to them at any given location.
BlockAvenue received wide-ranging press coverage. For instance the Boston Globe said “On the Internet, you can dole out stars and write reviews for doctors, hotels, restaurants, and even your evil employer. Now a Cambridge start-up, Block Avenue, will do the same for the street where you live.”
The next areas of focus are expanding the product, getting to the next level of funding, building the core team, and creating new revenue streams by selling the technology to real estate and other location-based businesses. As the system matures BlockAvenue will be able to provide insights for trend spotting and providing civic organizations with a new view of their region.