By Nate Berg, Associate Editor, Planetizen July, 2009
In August, 2009, The NavigateHollywood.com website was recognized with an Award of Excellence from The International Downtown Association (IDA).
Hollywood is a world-renowned destination for entertainment and tourism. Visitors come from around the globe to experience the palpable excitement of this epicenter of show business. And rightly so; there's a lot to see and a lot to do. But as a result, getting around Hollywood can sometimes be a struggle. Movie premieres temporarily close streets, awards shows clog roads with fans, and the consistent nightlife activity makes navigating into and around Hollywood more of a horror than a fairy tale.
In an effort to improve the way visitors and residents get to and through Hollywood, Urban Insight teamed up with the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance to create NavigateHollywood.com -- a user-focused interactive way-finding tool that tracks street closures, suggests transit options and locates parking. It's a site meant for anyone heading to Hollywood, removing the mystery of which roads will be closed, what major events might be taking place and which is the best way to get to a destination. NavigateHollywood.com collects real-time data and geographic information to take the drama out of getting to Hollywood.
The drama, as many in the Hollywood community felt, was mainly related to street closures. Concerns about these street closures came to a boil in late 2007 at a community meeting when local leaders and community members decided something needed to be done. Their idea was simple: create a place where everyone could find out when and where street closures would be before encountering them on the street unexpectedly.
"That was the hot button issue," said Katie Zandona, communications director at the Hollywood Entertainment District, a business improvement district that led the effort to create NavigateHollywood.com. There's always filming, there's movie premieres, people can't get to the hills because the boulevards are always closed. So we thought 'how can we help mitigate traffic problems in Hollywood?'"
To address this simple question, a group of Hollywood businesses, organizations and residents known as the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance contracted the Los Angeles web development firm Urban Insight. Zandona says that after initial talks with Urban Insight CEO Chris Steins, the small idea to track street closures snowballed into a whole suite of interactive way-finding technologies and real-time data streams. As a result, development began on an interactive website that coupled neighborhood transportation and transit information with live updates about traffic conditions and closures. Upon its launch in January 2009, the NavigateHollywood.com website became the first completed part of Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti's Hollywood Transportation Strategic Plan.
"NavigateHollywood.com is a one-stop shop for transit information in Hollywood," Council President Garcetti said. "From where to find parking for your car or bike, to where to get a cab, to which Metro stop to use, NavigateHollywood.com provides the community with an interactive, informational resource that will enhance everyone's experience in Hollywood."
Information on car and bike parking, street closures, upcoming construction projects, traffic conditions and public transportation information are all available through the NavigateHollywood.com interface. Based on the chosen form of transportation, the site helps to find the best ways for visitors to travel, or, if a big event is happening, the routes they should avoid.
Interactive transit maps allow visitors to see exactly where transit stops are located for trains and buses, and provides access to an online tool for planning out transit trips in between specific locations. The map also includes taxi stands and parking lots in the area.
For cyclists, bike racks, air pumps and bike lockers are mapped out, broadening the typical interpretation of "transportation" beyond the motor vehicle. Part of the impetus behind including this information is to try to make the idea of getting to and around Hollywood without a car a reasonable alternative.
By utilizing available web technologies to gather and share maps and transportation-related information, Urban Insight created this elaborate data "mashup", pulling in real-time data from various sources to make a highly specialized and focused source of only the most relevant information.
"The NavigateHollywood.com website combines a variety of free technologies to provide an affordable way-finding website for a small geographic area," said Chris Steins, CEO of Urban Insight. "Previously, such locally-focused websites would require significant investment in data and software. By combining maps and data from Google Maps with the powerful and open source Drupal web content management system, it is now possible for business improvement districts, chambers of commerce, or other local groups to affordably develop sophisticated and local mapping and economic development websites."
The result is a dynamic and interactive vision of all the components of Hollywood's transportation infrastructure.
"We put those two technologies together to make a new tool that serves the Hollywood community and helps people get information about transportation in their area," said Christian Peralta Madera, the project's lead developer.
Additionally, one of the key features of NavigateHollywood.com is its notification system. Visitors can sign up to receive emails or text messages about upcoming street closures or special events that may interfere with a planned trip.
"The NavigateHollywood website was already using Drupal to create an online database of these closures and what we were looking for was another channel to get that information out to people," said Madera. "We went ahead and connected Drupal with an application programming interface that allows SMS (short message service) text alerts to be delivered directly to mobile phones and devices."
Alongside email notifications and visits to the website, the text alert feature has allowed people to get virtually instantaneous alerts and updates about road closures in the area as soon as they're published. Project manager Kurt Rademaekers says the idea was to make the information available for people even when they are away from their computers.
"This combination of online technologies and notifications brings a tremendous value to the public, whether they're at home, driving in their car, or waiting for a bus. And it's all for free," Rademaekers said.
A collaborative project of the HPOA, NavigateHollywood.com was funded by a group of more than 20 business owners, developers, and neighborhood councils. Even the movie studios responsible for many of the movie premiere-related street closures contributed to the initial funding.
"Being a non profit, we couldn't front that on our own," said Zandona of the Hollywood Entertainment District. "So what we did is we went out to various developers, along with the movie studios -- the folks that actually implement and request the street closures -- and secured these funds. We figured if development, filming, and movie premieres are part of the reason we've had so many street closures, let's get everybody to buy into this concept."
And they did. The group raised a sum of $35,000 for the development effort. Now, the HPOA is trying to generate enough funding from local advertising and sponsorships to make this public service website self-sustaining.
After about five months since its release to the public, NavigateHollywood.com has garnered a lot of attention from the media and the community. The site has received more than 20,000 hits since its January 2009 launch. According to Zandona and the HPOA, the web traffic to this neighborhood-specific website has been impressive, but numbers can only mean so much.
"Ultimately the goal of the site is to help people navigate to, through and out of Hollywood," Zandona says, "and it is very much serving its purpose."