Härnu is map-based social networking and it’s brilliant

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And now, for something special. Härnu is a refreshing approach to connecting people, a social network of sorts, but it’s quite unlike one you’ve used before.

It’s hard to pin down what Härnu really is. A portmanteau of the Swedish “Här”, meaning “Here”, and “Nu”, meaning “Now”, it appears useful for a myriad of things, but there’s a strong focus on geographical context. If you’d like to learn a foreign language, discover new music from a specific part of the world, find out more about world events from a local perspective, or if you’re simply curious about how people on the other side of the planet live, Härnu might be just what you’re looking for.

Through a map-based interface, choose a country, post a question and receive replies from people inside that country. If you’re a journalist for example, this type of thing would probably have been very useful during the Arab Spring. Härnu acts as a type of Babel fish — the fictional universal translator from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which simultaneously translates from one spoken language to another — there’s no language barrier to one-to-one conversations. Someone in Kenya for example, can receive an answer in Swahili even if the reply is originally written in Japanese. Users can switch between the original and translated version — useful if they’re keen on learning a new language.

“We recognized that there really is no good way to meet people around the world based on shared interests, and we concluded that the world would be a better place if one existed. We also realized that the technology exists, particularly with respect to translation services and mobile devices, to make this possible now, whereas it might not have as little as three years ago,” says Härnu founder Jason Gowans. Gowans is former VP Business Development at DS-IQ and previously served as Senior Director of Consulting at MicroStrategy

The Seattle USA based service was launched earlier this year, a time when major Western nations such as the US and the UK are becoming more insular, due to declining foreign news reporting and social networks that don’t encourage users to seek out alternative perspectives beyond their friends. Gowans cites a report by the The Guardian, revealing that foreign news reporting has declined by 40% over the past three decades in the UK and a recent study by the American Journalism Review, reporting that 18 major US newspapers and 2 chains have closed all their foreign news bureaus since 1998. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune being prime examples of this.

Härnu not only encourages users to branch out and connect with people around the world, it helps with foreign news discovery. Gowans sees the service as a boon for bloggers, “in the near-term, we’ve been especially focused on the global blogging community since Härnu is a great platform for them to gain a wider audience and share their perspectives on their part of the world.”

Härnu’s interface is separated into apps. Reading news about a country and sending a question to someone in that country happens via the “news” app. Härnu currently taps into the Google News and Global Voices APIs for news. The “music” app enables people to discover music from around the world and hooks into the SoundCloud API. “We expect to develop more apps in the future as well as enabling developers to create their own,” says Gowans.

Interestingly, one of Härnu’s shareholders is Dr. Paul Dixon former Director of Analytics at aQuantive, the company that was sold to Microsoft. The acquisition made headlines when it was later written off after Microsoft failed to produce enough revenue from it.

Other shareholders include entrepreneur Will Little and Brent Turner — executive vice president of products at Marchex and former General Manager of Search and Media Network for Microsoft.

Härnu’s has no revenue model yet, but optional premium features are in the works.

“People will have an unprecedented opportunity to gain knowledge and perspective from every country and culture in the world. We believe that this opportunity can and will only lead to an increase an empathy for other people all over the globe. If in five years we have moms in Middle America talking to moms in the Middle East about everyday things like raising kids we’ll know we’ve built product that’s changing the world,” says Gowans.

Härnu is one of those rare feel good projects and we’d love to see it succeed.

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