This post was originally published on June 20 on Medium.
On a Friday in mid-April, I stayed late at the office with a few co-workers to finish a couple items and chat about plans for the upcoming long weekend. The mood was casual and relaxed, until we received a HipChat message from a fellow co-worker who had just left and was met by a big stampede near Penn Station.
It turns out that a false report of gunshots sent hordes of people running out of the station to hide behind garbage cans, dive behind cars, and rush into the nearby Macy’s at Herald Square. For a brief moment, we lacked any information about what was potentially a very dangerous situation unfolding around the corner.
In the short span of time before the confusion settled, we turned to Citizen, a mobile app that sends select alerts of incidents reported to 911 that are happening in your vicinity. The app provided us with a real-time feed of updates happening after the purported shooting, an active chat of people either nearby or looking to glean more information about the incident, and live-streamed video, from those who deemed it safe enough to open the app and capture the situation for others. In that particular moment in time, Citizen, not social media or any local news site, quickly became the most important service we could access.
I’ve been intrigued by Citizen since reading about the app’s launch in March and using it since. By the beginning of May, Citizen had reportedly been downloaded 34,000 times and today ranks among the top 20 apps in the “News” category of the App Store. While the app is still crash-prone, below are some thoughts on why I currently find Citizen exciting:
Unbundling local news about public safety. Ben Thompson wrote a great post last month titled The Local News Business Model, in which he details that “nearly all of the content in most newspapers is not just unnecessary but in fact actively harmful to building a sustainable future for local news.” He goes on to add that “absolutely none of it has anything to do with local news, and it should not exist in the local news publication of the future.”
With that in mind, it’s interesting to note some of the product decisions Citizen has made recently. Specifically, the prominent “Go Live” feature has disappeared in favor of the addition of “Stories” up top, featuring curated edited video footage of streamed events along with text summaries of what happened and, at times, on-scene interviews. This change moved the product from an app for taking action to one primarily used for consumption. As of right now, the app is featuring nine local “Citizen Stories” from the last week for its New York users. Combined with the feed of real-time communications and updates on various incidents around the city, one could see how this could become a new platform for consuming the most relevant local news about public safety enabled by the precondition of live video. Looking ahead, one could see how this local news content could be used by news partners or supported by a mobile local ad model targeted by content, location, or use of the app.
Redefining the local news operation. In college, I took a quarter-long journalism course in which we reported local news stories out of a downtown Chicago “bureau,” which doubled as an empty storefront. This meant going out with our recorders and notebooks and interviewing sources with clunky video equipment and attempting to produce a somewhat polished shot. Citizen’s product enables a mobile reporting operation utilizing the monitoring of and communicating new updates from real-time data sources, quick smartphone video streaming, editing the live videos recorded by others, and communicating on the fly.
Notifications as a moat. I probably receive about 4–5 geotargeted notifications from Citizen each day. Of those, most are serious but a few each week are for more minor occurrences nearby. But these notifications can also serve the double-function of enabling word-of-mouth growth as a hook for users to tell others with them about the app or in some cases share more publicly. Some might argue these notifications, absent of context, do more to desensitize your awareness of how vulnerable you are to a threat, but they can be very powerful especially when augmented by sirens or the sound of a fire truck nearby. As Scott Belsky recently wrote, “Taking the time and care to get notifications right can become a powerful moat…live video companies must innovate on when and how they notify users of events.” I look forward to seeing how Citizen’s notifications get smarter over time toward its broader mission of keeping locals safe and informed.