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June 8, 2011, 10 a.m.

House Hunters, data edition: Meet Curbwise, the Omaha World-Herald’s real-estate news app

The Omaha World-Herald wasn’t looking for blockbuster traffic and wave upon wave of pageviews with the launch of Curbwise. Rather, they were looking for a sustained audience, which would justify their investment in the project just as well as any rush of clicks.

That’s because Curbwise is an evergreen news app, a site that uses public data to give homeowners in the greater Omaha area (Douglas County, to be exact) valuations on their homes and neighborhoods, as well as historical data on property values and taxes. And since the app also offers homeowners custom reports on property values in their neighborhoods, Curbwise is also a potential revenue stream. Which makes the investment — basically part-time hours from three staffers — well worth the while.

And that’s where Curbwise is instructive to other newspapers, particularly those that may have more in common, either in circulation size or staff, with the World-Herald than with, say, The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune.

“We had three guys working part-time on this for a couple of weeks. This is doable, it’s possible,” said Matt Wynn, a developer/reporter for the World-Herald. “You can do this without having to turn to consultants or IT guys. You can build these products.”

Wynn worked with World-Herald online editor Ben Vankat and reporter Paul Goodsell to build the app, whose antecedents were the basic property look-up databases featured on Omaha.com.

Curbwise is built on what Wynn calls “a big, hairy database,” including 21 years’ worth of home sales, 11 years of assessments from the county assessor’s office, and Census information. Using all of that information, the team was able to break down metro Omaha into roughly 90 neighborhoods, allowing users to gather information both on their own homes and on those within a quarter-mile radius.

For anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper and covered tax disputes or the ebb and flow of property assessments, Curbwise makes sense. Now instead of writing up a text story on every new property tax and valuation change (and then fielding the resulting calls from readers), the World-Herald can just direct readers to Curbwise, where they can dig into the numbers themselves.

“It gives a one-stop shop for really understanding and getting in the thick of the data of your tax valuation,” Wynn said.

For all its slickness, Curbwise is intended for a fairly small audience. As a niche product, Curbwise’s value is pretty much limited to homeowners or potential homeowners. “Knowing that a house is cheap is not enough,” Wynn said. “We need a holistic approach, a broader sense of what is going on in the market.” But Wynn, who recently became a homeowner himself, says that the audience, despite its size, is also a strong one (not to mention an attractive one to advertisers). Prospective homeowners can use Curbwise for comparison shopping while current homeowners can keep tabs on their homes’ worth. They could even use its information to challenge property valuations.

And that’s why Wynn and his team also decided to throw in custom reports for homeowners, which for $19.95 displays a list of comparable properties and other key indicators about the real estate market in a given neighborhood. Aside from being an additional source of revenue for the paper, Wynn said the reports also demonstrate to the audience that Curbwise has value. “There’s an absolute dollar value to getting the report,” Wynn said. “And if you can save a few bucks on the property tax bill, why not give it a shot?”

Another potential audience for the app is developers. Curbwise has an API offering neighborhood data (“The World’s Least Advanced API,” Wynn calls it), which is something like a proof of concept to the team, Wynn said. One of the hurdles in creating Curbwise was defining the neighborhoods it tracks: Some had easy geographic and Census boundaries, while others required the team to make calculated guesses. If developers can use the neighborhood data to produce something, Wynn figures, that means their reasoning was sound.

So far traffic to Curbwise has been steady, built off a homepage link on Omaha.com as well as house ads online and in print, Wynn said. Though he didn’t talk specifics, Wynn said views of the content on Curbwise have multiplied 5 times over since launch. They’ve also already sold a fair amount of custom reports.

If the site continues to update sales and tax records, it should be able to draw a sustained audience, Wynn said. They’ll continue to adapt it, perhaps finding more reports to break out or other ways of delivering the information on the site. This isn’t a blockbuster, multi-day, big-traffic project, he said, but maybe more of a long game that pays out over time.

POSTED     June 8, 2011, 10 a.m.
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