We experimented with various concepts for SocMap.com for a whole year in an effort to create a map-based social network for connecting and informing people in local neighborhoods.

The conclusion: Even though we can reach commendable levels of new user registration, our users don’t create content and so the platform doesn’t grow. Experimenting with usability didn’t solve this, so we dug deeper.

We came up with the idea of decentralizing SocMap — creating small and useful map applications instead of a big geo-social platform. Creating applications are cheaper and easier than managing a large website, so we find them to be much more suited for experimenting with, and finding the right concept for, SocMap.com

In February, we launched our very first application, HotBills, which we created in partnership with the Baltic Centre for investigative journalism (Re:Baltica). The idea behind the app is to determine how much people pay for heating in various parts of Latvia, so that the data can later be used in journalists’ research into heating prices, transparency and validity, as well as to give people an incentive to talk to their landlords about the prices, ask for explanations, and get adequate answers. We asked users to scan their bills and submit them.

Developing this application took just a couple of weeks — so we saw it as a minor experiment that wouldn’t deter development of SocMap.com even if it failed.

The outcome

The idea was well-received from the start — we secured partnerships with the largest media outlets in Latvia, including LR1, the national radio broadcaster; TVNET, the second-largest news site; TV3, the largest TV channel; DIENA, the largest newspaper; and DRAUGIEM.LV, the top local social network.

Within a month, the application was used by almost 2 percent of the population, or 37,800 people, almost 2,400 of which uploaded real bills. Analyzing these bills revealed: the cost of heating per square meter differs by up to several times; even neighboring houses can have vastly different costs; people do not know how their bills are calculated; and there’s confusion about how the calculations are carried out and what some entries in the bills mean since there are no national guidelines or methodologies for this.

Thanks to data being visible on a map, it was easy for people to understand. Following the launch of the app, the minister of economy promised to look into these and other issues that were raised by journalists at a conference.

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During the first two weeks, we managed to get four out of 100 users to upload a bill. This was unexpectedly high, especially considering the effort required — even a couple of seconds of attention are worth a fortune, but with this, the users had to find the bill, scan it, and send it over, which can take up to several minutes. Good results notwithstanding, we decided to push them even higher — we improved the landing page and usability and reached a conversion rate of 6.4 percent!

You’re welcome to check out the user experience before:

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… and after:

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Key facts about HotBills (Jan. 9 – Feb. 15)

  • 6.4% users uploaded their bill
  • 37,800 unique visitors – 1,9% of the population of Latvia
  • 2,400 submitted bills (20 of which were sent by snail mail)

Receiving bills from all across Latvia convinced us that an application like this is an indispensable tool for crowdsourcing and displaying location-based data. This prompted us to develop a tool that would allow journalists without technical skills to set up similar studies within minutes. This tool was developed together with Re:Baltica. TVNET, one of the biggest Latvian news portals, has agreed to become our pilot-client!

It seems that SocMap can succeed in a scenario where we focus on creating task-tailored applications — and we expect to introduce new concepts in the coming months. It seems, after years of searching, SocMap.com has finally found its right path. This summer will show us for sure.