How TapIn plans to master location-based news for the iPad

A new iPad app released Tuesday, TapIn, takes some bold approaches to location-based news and to mobile business models.

TapIn puts news and local information on the map.

“We think that it’s going to serve as an interesting prototype for the newspaper of the future,” said Luke Stangel, chief marketing officer of the app developer Tackable (a startup incubated by the San Jose Mercury News) in a partnership with MediaNews’ Bay Area News Group.

“We think about the newspaper that our kids and our grandkids are going to be reading. Increasingly, it’s not yesterday’s news on dead trees delivered to your house. And it’s not necessarily even a website.”

Most mobile news products developed so far resemble print newspapers or text-based websites, he said. TapIn is an attempt to design something different. The experience is dominated by an interactive map, with layers of markers for news, video features, events, shopping deals, movies and user-contributed information.

A handful of things about TapIn distinguish it from other apps and make it notable for other news organizations to watch.

A focus on the relevance of location

Most players in online news are trying to solve the big relevancy question — how to display the most relevant content for any given user. Some try to determine what topics you like, or what your friends have read. TapIn places its bet on location as the best driver of relevance.

Users can view map markers for news, features, events, movies and more at the same time.

It’s not a perfect solution. Some stories can’t really be mapped to a specific place. A flu outbreak occurs everywhere, but nowhere in particular. A baseball game is played at the local stadium, but doesn’t interest only people who live in that neighborhood. And then there are the 81 road games played in other cities you can’t map at all.

But it’s a good solution for a lot of community news, such as crimes, business openings or road construction. If that is the bulk of your content, the location-based filter works well.

Geotagging with computers and humans

Any effort at location-based news requires geocoding — designating a location for each story. The temptation is to let a computer algorithm do this based on the cities and places mentioned in the article. But any attempt to do so stumbles on what I call “The Springfield Problem.”

There are at least 40 places named Springfield in the United States, including five different ones in Wisconsin alone, and many more in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. How does a computer know to which Springfield your article is referring?

Another geocoding challenge is that not every location mentioned in a story is central to that story. If a man commits a violent crime downtown on 1st Street, gets arrested on 5th Street and is taken to the county jail, you don’t want the algorithm to map that story at the location of the jail. The big stuff happened downtown.

To solve these problems, the TapIn team is developing a hybrid system in which an algorithm would identify places in the story and determine their latitude-longitude coordinates — but a reporter or editor makes the final choice of which locations are appropriate for the map.

Geocoding is “a little bit of science and a little bit of art,” as Stangel put it. Computers bring the science, humans bring the art. That’s a smart, balanced approach that minimizes staff effort while protecting the user experience.

Letting users earn free access

TapIn is free to download and use for now, but a price may be imposed later. And the folks behind it are considering an interesting model that others should consider, too.

The idea, Stangel explained, is that you pay to use the app but you can earn your way to free access by engaging with it in certain ways. TapIn users can earn points for writing comments, sharing content, clicking on ads or taking actions that help improve the app community. Users who earn enough points could redeem them for free access or other rewards.

Earning free access is a great idea for several reasons. People are less hesitant to pay if they think they could get the money back later. The developers give users a strong incentive to continue using the app, and to use it in beneficial ways. This creates a feedback loop where users contribute to the community and engage with ads, leading to more users and advertisers.

Building in a user-generated content system

TapIn doesn’t settle for just mapping newspaper stories and data feeds. It uses those to attract a community of users, who it hopes will post their own map items called “gigs.”

The “Create a Gig” button is featured prominently.

Gigs can be many different things, Stangel explained, such as a garage sale notice, a comment about the food at the airport, or a traffic complaint. One of the big post-launch questions is how people will decide to use gigs.

User-generated content systems are always tricky things to set up. With too little structure, they devolve into noise. With too many restrictions, they are ignored. So I think TapIn will have some work to do in tuning the gigs system to be useful over time. But their commitment to the idea of user engagement through the app, instead of just one-way content distribution, is notable.

It’s common among other location-based apps, such as Foursquare, or apps specifically designed for citizen journalism, such as Meporter. But few mainstream news organization apps have such direct user contribution systems.

Use of iPad and iPhone, but for different things

The TapIn app I’ve been describing is for the iPad. There is a companion app for the iPhone as well, but it does different things, such as accessing your saved discount deals for use on the go or posting gigs. It doesn’t include the map and other news browsing features.

The developers were smart, in my opinion, to consider where and how people use the different devices, and customize each app to those needs.

“The iPad is mostly a consumption device. You have a huge map and you can pinch and zoom and read these full screen things and you can go through the videos and look at the photo slideshows,” Stangel said. “The iPhone is much more utilitarian, it’s a digital wallet, it’s a way for you to upload content to the map.”

The iPhone app may get more features over time, he said, but it’s important to see the two devices differently.

Expansion hopes

For now, TapIn only serves news from the MediaNews newspapers in the San Francisco Bay region. Later versions may include more map layers with aggregated news and data, such as posts from blogs or other local news sites, or Yelp reviews.

The long-term goal is to expand the app to the Los Angeles and Denver markets, where MediaNews has other clusters of newspapers. If it’s very successful, Stangel said, TapIn could become a national platform for other news organizations to plug in their own news, ads and local deals.

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