Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor’s new safety feature makes it a must-use

Nextdoor, the private social network for neighborhoods, never seemed relevant for my millennial age demographic. It was the app version of a community board meeting or tea with your nosy neighbor, a place to learn about upcoming events, get recommendations on a plumber, hear the local chatter about the weird red car that’s been hanging around. Twenty-somethings in urban areas by-and-large don’t have kids, their lives don’t revolve around their home and they know their neighbors hardly, if at all. So even though I covered Nextdoor, I never felt compelled to actually become a user.

That changes today. Nextdoor has introduced a new element to its application that makes it a must-use network, even for the disinterested younger generations. It has started partnering with police and fire departments across the country — in 250 cities initially, with more to come — to use Nextdoor to communicate about emergencies and safety issues with local residents. Want a heads-up on a series of break-ins that have been happening in your area? The police precinct that oversees it can send information blasts, just to the neighborhoods that it impacts. Want to know whether it’s time for you to evacuate during a nearby brushfire — a major issue every fall in Southern California? Your local fire department might be using Nextdoor to get the word out. In fact, after the August earthquake, Napa — which was part of the 250 city test program — used Nextdoor to send out update information to residents.

In other words, the social network that initially connected neighbors to each other is now connecting vital city services to the residents themselves. Social networking has reached local government.

Of course, many local government branches have been using Twitter and Facebook for awhile to communicate with people. But these one size-fits-all platforms don’t work well for conveying detailed information that might only apply to people living on a few street blocks. Nextdoor is a whole different system. In order to join your neighborhood’s network you have to verify that you live there by — old school style — ordering a physical postcard sent to your home address. Various neighborhood newsfeeds are restricted, both for viewing and posting, to people who live there.

To integrate with police and fire departments, Nextdoor had to build an entirely separate application for government bodies to use. It didn’t want to violate the privacy of original Nextdoor neighbors, so it needed a way for these officials to post in the relevant networks without having access to view those networks’ content. Furthermore, it needed a way for government bodies to send targeted messages — specifically to particular Nextdoor neighborhoods, or to particular precincts or battalions or even to specific street coordinates. That way, they wouldn’t spam all Nextdoor users in a city.

And lastly, in order for this system to scale without massive manpower from Nextdoor, the site needed city onboarding to be an automatic process. Enter: Nextdoor for public agencies. It’s a self-serve site where police and fire chiefs can set up their department, determine who has access to messaging what neighborhoods, and send notifications to users in different areas of the city. Nextdoor built various prototypes over the span of 18 months with the 250 initial test cities. Now, it’s releasing its self-serve technology to the rest of the nation, so that even small provinces can use it.

It makes Nextdoor a far more significant use case, even if you aren’t a happy family of four who spends Saturdays barbecuing on your front porch. It’s a direct line to important, geographically relevant, safety-related communique from your local government. For those unfamiliar with the site, Nextdoor has been growing rapidly according to the vanity metrics the company released. When I wrote about it almost a year ago, roughly 23,000 neighborhood networks had been created (Nextdoor won’t allow a neighborhood to have its own network until ten people have confirmed they’re interested in joining). Now, that number is up to 43,000.

But the number that’s perhaps more relevant is engagement — that’s what will make or break this as a useful communication tool for local government. If people aren’t actually using their networks, police and fire departments aren’t going to waste their time sending out information blasts.

I would have guessed that people might create a Nextdoor network for their neighborhood and then stop using it if it didn’t provide enough value. That may be the case, but Nextdoor’s co-founder Sarah Leary told me 46 to 50 percent of users have created unique content on the site, like a post or a comment. “We push out a daily digest summary of the conversations, pointers back for people to engage back in the site,” Leary said. “The [digest] open rate is very high because as you can imagine if you see something in crime and safety you’ll want to know what’s going on.”