Network: Just a second, this is right up your alley

Crime statistics, school league tables, pool opening hours... all you need to know about an area is only a click away.
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The Independent Culture
One of this year's most talked about websites owes its existence to a dislike of corporate brochures and the frustrations of buying a house. Upmystreet.com is one of the most popular places on the Internet for finding local information. The site is just two web pages, but they link to powerful databases covering statistics such as house prices, crime rates, school league tables and the e-mail addresses of local MPs.

Upmystreet has won praise from Internet users because it manages to be useful, relevant and simple. The site is attracting significant commercial interest, as well, and already has adverts for Virgin's One Account mortgage and the online insurance broker Screentrade.

Upmystreet was created by Aztec, an internet consultancy whose clients include the Financial Times and the BBC. The site, according to the Aztec chairman, Ian Charles Stewart, was designed as a technology showcase for the company. At the time, Aztec had no website, but Stewart was reluctant to build a standard online brochure. "I don't like brochure sites, and I wanted a site that says something about us," he explains.

What Stewart hoped to say was that websites can be simple and still be effective; that good data is more important than lavish designs, and that a market-leading site can be built in a short space of time for little money. It took Aztec around five weeks to design and build Upmystreet.This included compiling the data, which is a combination of public and paid- for information and the company's own research.

The success has prompted Aztec to create a separate company to run the site. The new operation will be headed by Tony Blin-Stoyle, a co-founder of FT.com, the Financial Times's web operation and a co-director of FT Electronic Publishing. Blin-Stoyle admits that leaving a senior position in a large company is never an easy move, but it is a risk he is willing to take because he truly believes in the idea behind Upmystreet.

"I am putting my money and my career into it because I have so much belief in it," he says. "Opportunities like this do not come along that often, and when they do, you have to grab them. I believe we can build a very very powerful site very quickly. We already have a significant amount of traffic for a UK site."

The strength of Upmystreet lies in the basic idea. It is something many others could have thought of, but no one did. Aztec wanted to build a website that showed its database capabilities. As a promotional project, resources were limited, so the focus was on information that is either free or can be licensed at a reasonable cost. "We wanted to do something that was useful and elegant," explains Stewart. "We looked at local information because we wanted it to be useful in real life, not just on the Net."

When Aztec started work on Upmystreet, both Blin-Stoyle and Stewart were buying houses. Data such as property price, lists of the best schools and crime rates is the sort of information that home buyers value but estate agents cannot always provide. "We wanted to aggregate the information that influences home-buying decisions, and we were looking for data that was freely available," he says.

Much of the information that Upmystreet provides is available to private individuals but not in one single place - let alone one single Internet site. According to Stewart, the data came in myriad forms: diskette, paper, tape, e-mail. To make Upmystreet work, the data had to be cleaned up and aggregated into a single database. Stewart also set out to create a site where the information is only one click away. Visitors to Upmystreet only need to enter their postcodes and select a topic from a pull-down menu to find the local data they want.

This simplicity means that around 95 per cent of visitors to Upmystreet click though to the second - and final - page. "As the site evolves, it might not be quite as simple as it is now," concedes Stewart. But maintaining relevance is still a priority. Upmystreet has no plans to become a portal, a magazine or an online trading community.

"We don't want to put things in that are superfluous," says Stewart. "Our goal is to make sure every single element of the service is relevant, right through to any sponsors and advertisers."

Blin-Stoyle agrees. "I want to do five or six things really well rather than do hundreds badly. It is so easy to be deflected into areas of content or technology broader than you need."

What sets Upmystreet apart from other listings and information websites is "measured statistics"; the site not only lists information, but it evaluates and ranks it. This means not just publishing a list of local schools, but also telling parents which are the best.

In the coming months, the site will add more data and more links. Development, though, will not just be restricted to the website. Upmystreet has turned into a valuable database in its own right, and Tony Blin-Stoyle is looking for other ways the information can be put to use. "We have to think about it not just as the website but as the database sitting behind it," he says. "We are looking at other ways the data can be redistributed. We have been approached by companies who want to take the data and distribute it as ink and paper." Upmystreet will become a multiple media publisher rather than a multimedia publisher, he suggests. He is also looking at how Upmystreet could work in overseas markets.

Blin-Stoyle sees potential, too, in the new information services being developed by the mobile phone networks. Soon, mobile phones will be able to display their locations, and technologies such as Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) and, later on, UMTS, will make it much easier to display text-based information on a mobile handset. Local information lends itself to this sort of publishing: users will want quick access to clear data.

The challenge for Tony Blin-Stoyle is to develop Upmystreet, take its information into new markets and bring in commercial revenue such as advertising while keeping true to the idea of a small, one-click site. "Outside Upmystreet, one of the sites I like is the search engine Google," he says. "I like it because it is very simple. You do a search, or take a guess. It is very very fast and very relevant."

As Upmystreet grows, it will not just be about local information. Already, visitors can use its database to find out about areas away from home, perhaps because they are thinking of moving there or going there on holiday. All they need to do is select a town or put in the first part of a postcode.

Upmystreet started life as a conversation about home-buying, but Tony Blin-Stoyle has higher ambitions. "Although it was started around property, it is much broader," he explains. "It is the one-click guide to your neighbourhood, and your neighbourhood is much more than just the house that you live in. It is the services around it, the eating establishments, the swimming pools. It's all the things that you really need to know about. It is your real-life guide."

Upmystreet:

http://www.upmystreet.com

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