Imagine you're about to move to Philadelphia. You've selected the perfect house. You're not too sure about the neighborhood though. Is it right for the family? How great would it be if you could do a search for all schools within 20 blocks of your new ZIP code? Or how about parks within walking distance? Or stories of crime within one mile?
Welcome to outside.in. A place that collectively builds the geographic web—neighborhood by neighborhood. "All the time we think about, 'I'm interested in this restaurant or this school because it's near me.' But the web traditionally has not been organized around geography. It's been organized around information," says author and outside.in co-creator Steven Johnson.
With five eclectic books under his belt — three published within the past three years — Johnson is a consilient thinker. In other words, he has a knack for combining insights from a variety of disciplines and cultures and experiences to create connections not previously conceived. "That's the natural mode that my brain seems to work in. When I see a problem, I think, 'How does this connect up and down?' That pushes you into other disciplines."
Johnson's latest book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, is his first foray into historical narrative. "The genre of the book was really the seed of the book," he says. "I wanted to write a sustaining story that I could wrap an idea book around."
Much of The Ghost Map is grim. In 1854, a cholera epidemic ravaged London, claiming the lives of 30,000 people in one year alone. Prevailing wisdom blamed bad air from the raw sewage that was blanketing the city. Ultimately, the source of the contaminant was tracked to a water pump. It also signaled the transformation of a great city from squalor to splendor–all in the time span of a dozen years.
When Johnson first imagined the book, he saw it as a story with three protagonists: the city, the bacterium and scientist Dr. John Snow. Through his research, a new character emerged: Reverend Henry Whitehead. Quickly, Whitehead went from being "really interesting" to the fourth protagonist of the book.
"The more I researched, the more I realized that he was absolutely central to the actual cracking of the case," says Johnson. Whitehead ministered to residents of Golden Square, one of the poorest neighborhoods of London and home to the source of the contaminated pump. "The scholarship had done Whitehead a disservice and underestimated his role," says Johnson. "In fact, Whitehead was a social networker who knew everyone in the neighborhood intimately and whose social intelligence was crucial to the problem-solving."
Whitehead had a knack for making less than obvious connections. This is also one of the latent themes in much of Johnson's writing. He calls it the sociology of error. "It's great to study breakthrough ideas but it's just as important to study the history of how people were wrong," he says.
At the time that Johnson was writing about the London epidemic, he was living in Brooklyn with his young family and going online to read neighborhood bloggers tuned into the happenings of his community. "These place bloggers were feeding me really interesting information about my environment that I couldn't get anywhere else. They became my Whitehead." Was it possible, he thought, to help organize and amplify those voices in a geographic way? "Whitehead really got me thinking about the power of local experts, those on-the-ground change agents who mobilize action from the bottom up," he says. A few months later, outside.in was born.
Johnson readily admits that if the idea occurred to him even five years ago, the site could not have been developed. What then would have cost upwards of $30 million in technology investment, today was made with roughly $100,000 seed money and a few dedicated individuals. "Now that's an innovation story," he says. "It's far, far easier in today's innovation ecosystem for small groups of people to jump on with a great idea and turn it into something incredibly useful with a small amount of money." Perhaps this is just the kind of nugget to inspire Johnson's next book.*
*Profile update: Steven's new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," will be published in October.