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April 12 2012

14:00

SocMap: Why a Small Map App Can Be Better Than a Big Geo-Social Platform

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.

Screen+Shot+2012-04-11+at+19.14.37.png

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:

siltums_socmap-5_1.1ENG.png

... and after:

siltums_socmap-5_1.2ENG.png

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.

June 28 2010

14:00

Opening up journalism’s boundaries to bring change back in: How Knight and its News Challenge have evolved

It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.

Go figure.

Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”

But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]

So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)

The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”

Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.

For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.

From the news industry to the crowd

The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.

Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.

The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).

From professional control to participation

These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.

What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.

All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.

From journalism to information

In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.

But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:

If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”

In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”

Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:

One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]

This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.

June 21 2010

14:00

Knight News Challenge: GoMap Riga won’t make much new, just (hopefully) make things work better

The lines between news, civic engagement, and crowdsourcing blur for one of the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners. A project called GoMap Riga wants to build a more active community (in this case in Riga, Latvia) by combining preexisting local communications — like tweets, Facebook wall posts, and news stories — on an interactive map, putting content in geographic context and fostering local engagement.

Perhaps that sounds more confusing than it should. Imagine a tool that pulls in a variety of content and plots it where it happened — a news story, a tweet, or an idea for a project. It doesn’t matter what it is. A user can also directly post a video, a photo, or text. Then community members can discuss the item within the context of the interactive map. The goal is to bring a community together around ideas, projects, and places by weaving together all of the tools we already use. If the tools are working together, they’ll be better tools, and so will the surrounding community.

“Honestly, we’re not innovating the world of journalism right now,” co-winner Kristofs Blaus told me. “What we’re trying to do is empower these existing things to work better.”

Blaus and his business partner Marcis Rubenis received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build out this idea. They’re starting in Riga, their home city, and hope to see it spread to other cities.

They stressed that they’re developing this project in response to user requests and feedback; they’ve used a meeting format called DoTalk to run the discussion, taking in ideas. And like several other KNC winners this year, they’ll use technology from a previous KNC winner — in their case, using Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock tech to pull in local news content on their interactive map.

Here’s a brief introduction to the project from Blaus and Rubenis:

June 16 2010

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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