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June 27 2013

16:27

Sensor journalism, storytelling with Vine, fighting gender bias and more: Takeaways from the 2013 Civic Media Conference

mit-knight-civic-media-conference-2013Are there lessons journalists can learn from Airbnb? What can sensors tell us about the state of New York City’s public housing stock? How can nonprofits, governments, and for-profit companies collaborate to create places for public engagement online?

There were just a few of the questions asked at the annual Civic Media Conference hosted by MIT and the Knight Foundation in Cambridge this week. It covered a diverse mix of topics, ranging from government transparency and media innovation to disaster relief and technology’s influence on immigration issues. (For a helpful summary of the event’s broader themes check out VP of journalism and innovation Michael Maness‘s wrap-up talk.)

There was a decided bent towards pragmatism in the presentations, underscored by Knight president Alberto Ibargüen‘s measured, even questioning introduction to the News Challenge winners. “I ask myself what we have actually achieved,” he said of the previous cycles of the News Challenge. “And I ask myself how we can take this forward.”

While the big news was the announcement of this year’s winners and the fate of the program going forward, there were plenty of discussions and presentations that caught our attention.

Panelists and speakers — from Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and WNYC’s John Keefe to Columbia’s Emily Bell and recent MIT grads — offered insights on engagement (both online and off), data structure and visualization, communicating with government, the role of editors, and more. In the words of The Boston Globe’s Adrienne Debigare, “We may not be able to predict the future, but at least we can show up for the present.”

One more News Challenge

Though Ibargüen spoke about the future of the News Challenge in uncertain terms, Knight hasn’t put the competition on the shelf quite yet. Maness announced that there would indeed one more round of the challenge this fall with a focus on health. That’s about all the we know about the next challenge; Maness said Knight is still in the planning stages of the cycle and whatever will follow it. Maness said they want the challenge to address questions about tools, data, and technology around health care.

Opening up the newsroom

One of the more lively discussions at the conference focused on how news outlets can identify and harness the experience of outsiders. Jennifer Brandel, senior producer for WBEZ’s Curious City, said one way to “hack” newsrooms was to open them up to stories from freelance writers, but also to more input from the community itself. Brandel said journalists could also look beyond traditional news for inspiration for storytelling, mentioning projects like Zeega and the work of the National Film Board of Canada.

Laura Ramos, vice president of innovation and design for Gannett, said news companies can learn lessons on user design and meeting user needs from companies like Airbnb and Square. Ramos said another lesson to take from tech companies is discovering, and addressing, specific needs of users.

newsroominsidepanel

Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said one solution for innovation at many companies has been creating research and development departments. But with R&D labs, the challenge is integrating the experiments of the labs, which are often removed from day-to-day activity, to the needs of the newsroom or other departments. Bell said many media companies need leadership that is open to experimentation and can juggle the immediate needs of the business with big-picture planning. Too often in newsrooms, or around the industry, people follow old processes or old ideas and are unable to change, something Bell compared to “watching six-year-olds playing soccer,” with everyone running to the ball rather than performing their role.

Former Knight-Mozilla fellow Dan Schultz said the issue of innovation comes down to how newsrooms allocate their attention and resources. Schultz, who was embedded at The Boston Globe during his fellowship, said newsrooms need to better allocate their developer and coding talent between day-to-day operations like dealing with the CMS and experimenting on tools that could be used in the future. Schultz said he supports the idea of R&D labs because “good technology needs planning,” but the needs of the newsroom don’t always meet with long-range needs on the tech side.

Ramos and Schultz both said one of the biggest threats to change in newsrooms can be those inflexible content management systems. Ramos said the sometimes rigid nature of a CMS can force people to make editorial decisions based on where stories should go, rather than what’s most important to the reader.

Vine, Drunk C-SPAN, and gender bias

!nstant: There was Nieman Foundation/Center for Civic Media crossover at this year’s conference: 2013 Nieman Fellows Borja Echevarría de la Gándara, Alex Garcia, Paula Molina, and Ludovic Blecher presented a proposal for a breaking news app called !nstant. The fellows created a wireframe of the app after taking Ethan Zuckerman’s News and Participatory Media class.

The app, which would combine elements of liveblogging and aggregation around breaking news events, was inspired by the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing and manhunt. The app would pull news and other information from a variety of sources, “the best from participatory media and traditional journalism,” Molina said. Rather than being a simple aggregator, !nstant would use a team of editors to curate information and add context to current stories when needed. “The legacy media we come from is not yet good at organizing the news in a social environment,” said Echevarría de la Gándara.

Drunk C-SPAN and Opened Captions: Schultz also presented a project — or really, an idea — that seems especially timely when more Americans than usual are glued to news coming out of the capitol. When Schultz was at the Globe, he realized it would be both valuable and simple to create an API that pulls closed captioning text from C-SPAN’s video files, a project he called Opened Captions, which we wrote about in December. “I wanted to create a service people could subscribe to whenever certain words were spoken on C-SPAN,” said Schultz. “But the whole point is [the browser] doesn’t know when to ask the questions. Luckily, there’s a good technology out there called WebSocket that most browsers support that allows the server and the browser to talk to each other.”

To draw attention to the possibilities of this technology, Schultz began experimenting with a project called Drunk C-SPAN, in which he aimed to track key terms used by candidates in a televised debate. The more the pols repeat themselves, the more bored the audience gets and the “drunker” the program makes the candidates sound.

But while Drunk C-SPAN was topical and funny, Schultz says the tool should be less about what people are watching and more about what they could be watching. (Especially since almost nobody in the gen pop is watching C-SPAN regularly.) Specifically, he envisions a system in which Opened Captions could send you data about what you’re missing on C-SPAN, translate transcripts live, or alert you when issues you’ve indicated an interest in are being discussed. For the nerds in the house, there could even be a badge system based on how much you’ve watched.

Schultz says Opened Captions is fully operational and available on GitHub, and he’s eager to hear any suggestions around scaling it and putting it to work.

followbiasFollow Bias is a Twitter plugin that calculates and visualizes the gender diversity of your Twitter followers. When you sign in to the app, it graphs how many of your followers are male, female, brands, or bots. Created by Nathan Mathias and Sarah Szalavitz of the MIT Media Lab, Follow Bias is built to counteract the pernicious function of social media that allows us to indulge our unconscious biases and pass them along to others, contributing to gender disparity in the media rather than counteracting it.

The app is still in private beta, but a demo, which gives a good summary of gender bias in the media, is online here. “The heroes we share are the heroes we have,” it reads. “Among lives celebrated by mainstream media and sites like Wikipedia, women are a small minority, limiting everyone’s belief in what’s possible.” The Follow Bias server updates every six hours, so the hope is that users will try to correct their biases by broadening the diversity of their Twitter feed. Eventually, Follow Bias will offer metrics, follower recommendations, and will allow users to compare themselves to their friends.

LazyTruth: Last fall, we wrote about Media Lab grad student Matt Stempeck’s LazyTruth, the Gmail extension that helps factcheck emails, particularly chain letters and phishing scams. After launching LazyTruth last fall, Stempeck told the audience at the Civic Media conference that the tool has around 7,000 users. He said the format of LazyTruth may have capped its growth: “We’ve realized the limits of Chrome extensions, and browser extensions in general, in that a lot of people who need this tool are never going to install browser extensions.”

Stempeck and his collaborators have created an email reply service to LazyTruth, that lets users send suspicious messages to ask@lazytruth.com to get an answer. Stempeck said they’ve also expanded their misinformation database with information from Snopes, Hoax-Slayer and Sophos, an antivirus and computer security company.

LazyTruth is now also open source, with the code available on GitHub. Stempeck said he hopes to find funding to expand the fact-checking into social media platforms.

Vine Toolkit: Recent MIT graduate Joanna Kao is working on a set of tools that would allow journalists or anyone else to use Vine in storytelling. The Vine Toolkit would provide several options to add context around the six-second video clips.

Kao said Vines offer several strengths and weaknesses for journalists: the short length, ease of use, and the built-in social distribution network around the videos. But the length is also problematic, she said, because it doesn’t provide context for readers. (Instagram’s moving in on this turf.) One part of the Vine Toolkit, Vineyard, would let users string together several vines that could be captioned and annotated, Kao said. Another tool, VineChatter, would allow a user to see conversations and other information being shared about specific Vine videos.

Open Space & Place: Of algorithms and sensor journalism

WNYC: We also heard from WNYC’s John Keefe during the Open Space & Place discussion. Keefe shared the work WNYC did around tracking Hurricane Sandy, and, of course, the Lab’s beloved Cicada Project. (Here’s our most recent check-in on that invasion topic.)

keefecicadas

As Keefe has told the Lab in the past, the next big step in data journalism will be figuring out what kind of stories can come out of asking questions of data. To demonstrate that idea, Keefe said WNYC is working on a new project measuring air quality in New York City by strapping sensors to bikers. This summer, they’ll be collaborating with the Mailman School of Public Health to do measurement runs across New York. Keefe said the goal would be to fill in gaps in government data supplied by particulate measurement stations in Brooklyn and the Bronx. WNYC is also interested in filling in data gaps around NYC’s housing authority, says Keefe. After Hurricane Sandy, some families living in public housing went weeks without power and longer without heat or hot water. Asked Keefe: “How can we use sensors or texting platforms to help these people inform us about what government is or isn’t doing in these buildings?”

With the next round of the Knight News Challenge focusing on health, keep on eye on these data-centric, sensor-driven, public health projects, because they’re likely to be going places.

Mapping the Globe: Another way to visualize the news, Mapping the Globe lets you see geographic patterns in coverage by mapping The Boston Globe’s stories. The project’s creator, Lab researcher Catherine D’Ignazio, used the geo-tagged locations already attached to more than 20,000 articles published since November 2011 to show how many of them relate to specific Boston neighborhoods — and by zooming out, how many stories relate to places across the state and worldwide. Since the map also displays population and income data, it’s one way to see what areas might be undercovered relative to who lives there — a geographical accountability system of sorts.

This post includes good screenshots of the prototype interactive map. The patterns raise lots of questions about why certain areas receive more attention than others: Is the disparity tied to race, poverty, unemployment, the location of Globe readers? But D’Ignazio also points out that there are few conclusive correlations or clear answers to her central question — “When does repeated newsworthiness in a particular place become a systemic bias?”

June 24 2013

15:44

Opening up government: A new round of Knight News Challenge winners aims to get citizens and governments better information

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest round of winners in the Knight News Challenge, its currently semiannual competition to identify fundable ideas that advance the interests of journalism and the information needs of communities. This round focused on the open government movement, and its eight winners all fit squarely into that box. More about them below.

But the big news is what Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen just said here in Cambridge at the opening morning of the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. He asked openly for ideas on what the future of the News Challenge should be, because, as he put it, “It may be finished. It may be that, as a device for doing something, it may be that we’ve gone as far as we can take it.”

#civicmedia @ibarguen @knightfdn asks for ideas on how to take #newschallenge to the next level. He asks is #newschallenge dead? Send ideas

— Damian Thorman (@dthorman) June 24, 2013

The six-year-old News Challenge is probably the highest-profile effort to fund innovation in journalism and media. It has funded many dozens of projects over the years, and beyond that, its application process has forced thousands of people to turn fuzzy ideas into concrete proposals. Knight devotes $5 million a year to the News Challenge, which has evolved from a single annual open call to a series of smaller, faster, more focused contests, which a significant reboot leading into 2012.

With more than a half decade in the rearview, Ibargüen asked what had been accomplished: “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?….They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

To be clear, he gave no sign of stepping away from funding journalism innovation, which remains a core Knight mission. But he noted that the foundation had maximum flexibility in how to accomplish that goal: “We have a huge luxury: We can do whatever we want to do. We can use whatever process we want to use.”

Which was behind his question to the assembled crowd: “What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

There will be at least one more round of the News Challenge later this year (topic TBA), but beyond that, Knight’s thinking about where to take the broader idea. Ibargüen said he expected the foundation would make these decisions over the next four to five months. If you’ve got an idea, get in touch with Knight.

But that’s the future. How about the brand new round of winners? Civic Insight promises to create better databases of vacant properties so activists can better connect land to opportunities. OpenCounter wants to make it easier for small businesses to navigate local regulation. Outline.com aims to build public policy simulators, estimating the impact of legislative decisions on people’s circumstances. The Oyez Project will offer clear case summaries of the suits before American appellate courts. GitMachines wants to make it easier for governments to add servers quickly.

As I wrote in January for the last round of announcements, the “News” in Knight News Challenge seems to be moving out of the spotlight in favor of a broader concept of connecting civic information to people who can use it. In the classical American 20th century news model, that was a role that typically involved journalists as intermediaries. Today, though, those communities of self-interest can organize in ways more efficient than a newspaper’s subscriber list. While a few of the projects funded could be of use to journalists — making data available to the general public also makes it available to reporters, who can then approach it with a different set of interests — they’re not the primary target. (That growing disconnect, I imagine, is something that will be addressed in whatever new form the News Challenge takes.)

Civic Insight

Award: $220,000
Organization: Civic Industries
Project leads: Alex Pandel, Eddie Tejeda and Amir Reavis-Bey
Twitter: @CivicInsight, @alexpandel, @maromba, @eddietejeda

Neighbors, cities, nonprofits and businesses all have an interest in seeing vacant properties become productive again. However, a lack of public access to information about these properties makes it difficult for groups to work together on solutions. By plugging directly into government databases, Civic Insight provides real-time information on vacant and underutilized properties, enabling more collaborative, data-driven community development. With Civic Insight, journalists and residents can search for a property on a map and learn about its ownership, inspection and permitting history, and subscribe to receive real-time notifications about changes. Civic Insight grew out of a successful pilot in New Orleans called BlightStatus, which was created during the team’s 2012 Code for America fellowship. It is now available for licensed use by cities nationwide. Knight Foundation’s support will help the team expand the software and test new use cases in more communities.

Team: Eddie Tejeda is a web developer and former Code for America fellow who brings 10 years of experience working on open-source civic projects such as Digress.it and Littlesis.org. Tejeda is engaged in the Open Gov movement in his home city of Oakland, where he co-founded OpenOakland and serves as a mayoral appointee to the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which oversees government transparency.

Alex Pandel is a designer, communicator and community organizer. Before her 2012 Code for America fellowship with the City of New Orleans, Pandel was engaged in public-interest advocacy work with CalPIRG, as well as designing print and web solutions for organizations like New York Magazine and The Future Project.

Amir Reavis-Bey is a software engineer with experience building client-server applications for investment bank equities trading. He also has web development experience helping non-profits to collaborate and share resources online to promote human rights activism. He spent 2012 partnering with the City of New Orleans as a Code for America fellow.

GitMachines

Award: $500,000
Organization: GitMachines
Project leads: Greg Elin, Rodney Cobb, Ikjae Park, Terence Rose, Blaine Whited and John Lancaster
Twitter: @gregelin

Governments are often reluctant to adopt new software and technology because of security and compliance concerns. GitMachines allows developers doing civic innovation to easily build new technology governments can use faster, by offering a grab-and-go depot of accreditation-ready servers that support their projects. Unlike traditional servers that can take hours or days to set-up, GitMachines can be up and running in minutes and are pre-configured to meet government guidelines. This makes it easier for governments to adopt open source software, and will help government agencies adopt new technology more quickly in the future.

Team: Rodney Cobb is a mobile developer and data analyst working in Washington D.C. Through his previous work with Campus Compact, Cobb has worked on several projects combing civic engagement/service learning and virtual interaction. Cobb received a bachelor’s in political science from Clark-Atlanta University and his master’s in politics from New York University.

Greg Elin has spent 20 years developing easy-to-use information tools and helping organizations embrace disruptive technologies. In 2006, Elin created the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs. Previously, he was chief technology officer at United Cerebral Palsy before entering the civil service in 2010 as one of the first chief data officers in federal government. Elin has been leading the Federal Communications Commissions’ efforts to lower data collection burden and improve data sharing with modern web service APIs. He was a member of the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure exploring machine-readable data as a policy tool and citizen aid. Elin has a master’s in interactive telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School of Art.

John Lancaster has bachelor’s degree in computer science, a minor in studio art and is studying for his master’s of information systems technology. He has worked as a technology consultant the past four years at the Department of State where he builds mission critical websites that reach a global audience in over 60 languages, and manages the server infrastructure that supports the entire operation.

Ikjae Park is an expert in software development and system administration working for a government contractor and has developed enterprise JAVA applications at Salesforce.com, among others. He is passionate about development and making a simple workflow process for the community.

Terence Rose is a senor business Analyst with MIL Corp., currently leading the content development and user experience for high profile Department of Commerce projects. He previously worked as a technologist on contract for the Office of Head Start.

Blaine Whited is a programmer and systems administrator with a bachelor’s in computer science.

OpenCounter

Award: $450,000
Organization: OpenCounter
Project leads: Peter Koht, Joel Mahoney
Twitter: @opencounter, @yurialeks, @joelmahoney

While entrepreneurs may have market-moving ideas, very few can expertly navigate the local government permitting process that allows them to open and operate. Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop. A team of Code for America fellows developed and piloted OpenCounter in Santa Cruz, Calif. during 2012. Knight Foundation funds will support OpenCounter’s expansion to new communities, including several 2013 Code for America cities.

Team: Peter Koht, a self-described civics nerd, is an experienced economic development professional who most recently worked for the City of Santa Cruz. Koht worked on a number of issues at the city, including leading a regional broadband policy group, opening up city data and spearheading policy initiatives that lowered administrative barriers to job creation. Previous to his public sector role, he worked in technology and media.

Joel Mahoney is a civic technologist and serial entrepreneur. He was an inaugural fellow at Code for America, and served as a technical advisor to the organization. Before Code for America, Mahoney founded several startups, including an online travel site, a genetics visualization tool and an m-health platform for diabetics. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Open Gov for the Rest of Us

Award: $350,000
Organization: LISC Chicago
Project leads: Susana Vasquez, Dionne Baux, Demond Drummer, Elizabeth Rosas-Landa
Twitter: @liscchicago

Open Gov for the Rest of Us is seeking to engage neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side in the Open Government movement. The three-stage campaign will connect more residents to the Internet, promote the use of open government tools and develop neighborhood-driven requests for new data that address residents’ needs. Building on the success of LISC Chicago’s Smart Communities program and Data Friday series, the project aims to spread a culture of data and improved use of digital tools in low-income neighborhoods by directly involving their residents.

Team: Susana Vasquez is LISC Chicago’s executive director. Vasquez joined LISC in 2003 as a program officer and soon became director of the office’s most ambitious effort – the New Communities Program, a 10-year initiative to support comprehensive community development in 16 neighborhoods. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois and a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Dionne Baux, a LISC Chicago program officer who works on economic development and technology programs, has worked in city government and for nonprofits for more than seven years. Baux leads LISC’s Smart Communities program, which is designed to increase digital access and use by youth, families, businesses and other institutions. She has a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus in government, from Roosevelt University.

Demond Drummer is tech organizer for Teamwork Englewood, an organization formed in 2003 as part of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. Its goal is to strengthen the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Drummer joined Webitects, a web design firm, in summer 2009. Previously, he coordinated a youth leadership and civic engagement initiative in Chicago. A graduate of Morehouse College, he is completing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Elizabeth Rosas-Landa is the Smart Communities program manager at The Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. A Mexico City native, she received a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Insurgentes University and later joined the Marketing and Promotion Company in Mexico. In 2008, she moved to the United States to work with community organizations on technology issues. At The Resurrection Project, Rosas-Landa has implemented computer literacy programs for residents and businesses.

Outline.com

Award: unspecified, through Knight Enterprise Fund
Organization: Outline.com
Project leads: Nikita Bier, Jeremy Blalock, Erik Hazzard, Ray Kluender
Twitter: @OutlineUSA

Outline.com is developing an online public policy simulator that allows citizens and journalists to visualize the impact that particular policies might have on people and their communities. For instance, with Outline.com, a household can measure how a tax cut or an increase in education spending will affect their income. The project builds on the team’s award-winning app Politify, which simulated the impacts of the Obama and Romney economic plans during the 2012 campaign. The Outline.com simulator uses models developed by a team of economists, backed by open data on American households from the IRS, the Census Bureau and other sources. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has hired Outline.com to develop an official pilot. The team is a part of the accelerator TechStars Boston.

Team: Nikita Bier, CEO, recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honors and degrees in business administration and political economy. During his college years, he researched higher education finance, receiving recognition for his insights from the president of the university. While a student, he founded Politify.us, an award-winning election application that received national coverage. Before that, he worked in business development at 1000memories, a Greylock and YCombinator-backed startup.

Jeremy Blalock, CPO, led design and development for Politify.us. He is currently on leave from UC Berkeley, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Erik Hazzard, CTO, is an active member of the data visualization and mapping communities. He was formerly lead developer at Visual.ly. He is the author of OpenLayers 2.10 Beginner’s Guide. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in information science.

Ray Kluender graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin with majors in economics, mathematics and political science. His extensive research experience includes involvement in developing value-added models of teacher effectiveness for Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles public schools, election forecasting for Pollster.com and studying optimal health insurance design and government intervention in health care at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He will be starting his Ph.D. in economics at MIT this August.

Note: Outline.com is receiving funds through the Knight Enterprise Fund, an early stage venture fund that invests in for-profit ventures aligned with Knight’s mission of fostering informed and engaged communities. In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed.

Oyez Project

Award: $600,000
Organization: University of Chicago, Kent School of Law
Project lead: Jerry Goldman
Twitter: @oyez

The activities of courts across the country are often hard to access and understand. For the past 20 years, the Oyez Project has worked to open the U.S. Supreme Court by offering clear case summaries, opinions and free access to audio recordings and transcripts. With Knight Foundation funding, Oyez will expand to state supreme and federal appellate courts, offering information to the public about the work of these vital but largely anonymous institutions. Beginning in the five largest states that serve over one-third of the American public, Oyez will work with courts to catalog materials and reformat them following open standards practices. In conjunction with local partners, Oyez will annotate the materials, adding data and concise summaries that make the content more accessible for a non-legal audience. Oyez will release this information under a Creative Commons license and make it available online and through a mobile application.

Team: Professor Jerry Goldman of the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has brought the U.S. Supreme Court closer to everyone through the Oyez Project. He has collaborated with experts in linguistics, psychology, computer science and political science with major financial support from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Google and a select group of national law firms to create an archive of 58 years of Supreme Court audio. In recent years, Oyez has put the Supreme Court in your pocket with mobile apps, iSCOTUSnow and PocketJustice.

Plan in a Box

Award: $620,000
Organization: OpenPlans
Project lead: Frank Hebbert, Ellen McDermott, Aaron Ogle, Andy Cochran, Mjumbe Poe
Twitter: @OpenPlans

Local planning decisions can shape everything about a community — from how residents get around, to how they interact with their neighbors and experience daily life. Yet information on projects — from new plans for downtown centers to bridge replacements — is often difficult to obtain. This project will be an open-source web-publishing tool that makes it easy to engage people in the planning process. With minimal effort, city employees will be able to create and maintain a useful website that provides information that citizens and journalists need while integrating with social media and allowing for public input.

Team: Aaron Ogle is an OpenPlans software developer. Prior to OpenPlans, he was a fellow at Code for America where he partnered with the City of Philadelphia to build solutions to help foster civic engagement. He specializes in JavaScript and GIS development and has contributed to such applications as reroute.it, septa.mobi, changeby.us, walkshed.org and phillystormwater.org.

Andy Cochran, creative director, provides design vision for OpenPlans’ projects, building user interfaces for tools that enable people to be better informed and stay engaged in local issues. Cochran has a bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and he has over a decade of experience in print and web design.

Ellen McDermott leads OpenPlans’ outreach to community organizations and cities, to help them be effective in using digital and in-person engagement tools. She also manages operations for OpenPlans. Previously, McDermott was the director of finance and administration for Honeybee Robotics, a technology supplier to the NASA Mars programs. She is a graduate of Amherst College and King’s College London.

Frank Hebbert leads the software team at OpenPlans. Outside of work, he volunteers with Planning Corps, a network of planners providing assistance to non-profit and community groups. Hebbert holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT.

Mjumbe Poe is a software developer for OpenPlans. Previously, Poe was a fellow at Code for America, and before that a research programmer at the University of Pennsylvania working on modeling and simulation tools for the social sciences.

Procure.io

Award: $460,000
Organization: Department of Better Technology
Project leads: Clay Johnson and Adam Becker
Twitter: @cjoh @AdamJacobBecker

The government procurement process can be both highly complicated and time-consuming — making it difficult for small businesses to discover and bid on contracts and for journalists and transparency advocates to see where public money is going. As White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Clay Johnson and Adam Becker built a simple tool for governments to easily post requests for proposals, or RFPs. Based on its early success at the federal level, the team is planning to expand the software to help states and cities. In addition, they will build a library of statements of work that any agency can adapt to their needs. The goal is to bring more competition into government bidding, as a way to both reduce costs and ensure that the most qualified team gets the job.

Team: Clay Johnson may be best known as the author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Johnson was also one of the founders of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. Since 2008, Johnson has worked on opening government, as the director of Sunlight Labs until 2010, and as a director of Expert Labs until 2012. He was named the Google/O’Reilly Open Source Organizer of the Year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed 100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011. In 2012, he was appointed as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the RFP-EZ project, a federal experiment in procurement innovation.

Adam Becker is a software developer and entrepreneur. He co-founded and served as chief technology officer of GovHub, a civic-oriented startup that was the first to provide users a comprehensive, geographically calculated list of their government officials. In 2012, he was appointed alongside Johnson as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the development of RFP-EZ.

June 11 2013

17:00

OpenData Latinoamérica: Driving the demand side of data and scraping towards transparency

“There’s a saying here, and I’ll translate, because it’s very much how we work,” Miguel Paz said to me over a Skype call from Chile. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s illegal. Here, it’s ‘It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.””

Paz is a veteran of the digital news business. The saying has to do with his approach to scraping public data from governments that may be slow to share it. He’s also a Knight International Journalism Fellow, the founder of Hacks/Hackers Chile, and a recent Knight News Challenge winner. A few years ago, he founded Poderopedia, a database of Chilean politicians and their many connections to political organizations, government offices, and businesses.

But freeing, organizing, and publishing data in Chile alone is not enough for Paz, which is why his next project, in partnership with Mariano Blejman of Argentina’s Hacks/Hackers network, is aimed at freeing data from across Latin America. Their project is called OpenData Latinoamérica. Paz and Blejman hope to build a centralized home where all regional public data can be stored and shared.

Their mutual connection through Hacks/Hackers is key to the development of OpenData Latinoamérica. The network will make itself, to whatever extent possible, available for trouble shooting and training as the project gets off the ground and civic hackers and media types learn both how to upload data sets as well as make use of the information they find there.

Another key partnership helping make OpenData Latinoamérica possible is with the World Bank Institute’s Global Media Development program, which is run by Craig Hammer. Hammer believes the data age is revolutionizing government, non-government social projects, and how we make decisions about everyday life.

“The question for us, is, What are we gonna do with the data? Data for what? Bridging that space between opening the data and how it translates into improving the quality of people’s lives around the world requires a lot of time and attention,” he says. “That’s really where the World Bank Institute and our programmatic work is focused.”

A model across the Atlantic

Under Hammer, the World Bank helped organize and fund Africa Open Data, a similar project launched by another Knight fellow, Justin Arenstein. “The bank’s own access-to-information policy provides for a really robust opportunity to open its own data,” Hammer says, “and in so doing, provide support to countries across regions to open their own data.”

Africa Open Data is still in beta, but bringing together hackers, journalists, and information in training bootcamps has already led to reform-producing journalism. In a post about the importance of equipping the public for the data age, Hammer tells the story of Irene Choge, a journalist from Kenya who attended a training session hosted by the World Bank in conjunction with Africa Open Data.

She…examined county-level expenditures on education infrastructure — specifically, on the number of toilets per primary school…Funding allocated for children’s toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation (in the same spaces where they played and ate). This increased their risk of contracting cholera, giardiasis, hepatitis, and rotavirus, and accounted for low attendance, in particular among girls, who also had no facilities during their menstruation cycles. The end result: poor student performance on exams…Through Choge’s analysis and story, open data became actionable intelligence. As a result, government is acting: ministry resources are being allocated to correct the toilet deficiency across the most underserved primary schools and to identify the source of the misallocation at the root of the problem.

Hammer calls Africa Open Data a useful “stress test” for OpenData Latinoamérica, but Paz says the database was also a natural next step in a series of frustrations he and Blejman had encountered in their other work.

“Usually, the problem you have is: Everything is cool before the hackathon, and during the hackathon,” says Paz. “But after, it’s like, who are the people who are working on the project? What’s the status of the project? Can I follow the project? Can I be a part of the project?” The solution to this problem ended up being Hackdash, which was actually Blejman’s brainchild — an interface that helps hackers keep abreast of the answers to those questions and thereby shore up the legacy of various projects.

So thinking about ways that international hackers can organize and communicate across the region is nothing new to Paz and Blejman. “One hackathon, we would do something, and another person who didn’t know about that would do something else. So when we saw the Open Data Africa platform, we thought it was a really great idea to do in Latin America,” he says.

Blejman says the contributions of the World Bank have been essential to the founding of OpenData Latinoamérica, especially in organizing the data bootcamps. Hammer says he sees the role of the bank as building a bridge between civic hackers and media. “More than a platform,” he says it’s, “an institution in and of itself to help connect sources of information to government and help transform that data into knowledge and that knowledge into action.”

Giving people the tools to understand the power of data is an important tenet of Hammer’s open data philosophy. He believes the next step for Big Data is global data literacy, which he says is most immediately important for “very specific and arguably strategic public constituencies — journalists, media, civic hackers, and civil society.” Getting institutions, like newspapers, to embrace the importance of data literacy rather than relying on individual interest is just one goal Hammer has in mind.

“I’m not talking about data visualization skills for planet Earth,” he says. “I’m saying, it’s possible — or it should be possible — for anybody that wants to have these skills to have them. If we’re talking about data as the real democratizer — open data as meaningful democratization of information — then it has to be digestible and accessible and consumable by everyone and everybody who wants to access and digest and consume it.”

Increasing the desire of the public for more, freer data is what Hammer calls stoking the demand side. He says it’s great if governments are willingly making information accessible, but for it to be useful, people have to understand its power and seek to unleash it.

“What’s great about OpenData Latinoamérica is it’s in every way a demand-side initiative, where the public is liberating its own data — it’s scraping data, it’s cleaning it,” he says. “Open data is not solely the purview of the government. It’s something that can be inaugurated by public constituencies.”

For example, in Argentina, where the government came late to the open data game, Blejman says he saw a powerful demand for information spring up in hackers and journalists around him. When they saw what other neighboring countries had and what they could do with that information, they demanded the same, and Argentina’s government began to release some of that data.

“We need to think about open data as a service, because no matter how much advocacy from NGOs, people don’t care about ‘open data’” per se, Paz says. “They care about data because it affects their life, in a good or bad way.”

Another advantage Bleman and Paz had when heading into OpenData Latinoamérica was the existence of Junar, a Chilean software platform founded by Javier Pajaro, who was a frustrated analyst when he decided to embrace open data platforms and help others do the same. Blejman said that, while Africa Open Data opted for CKAN, using a local, Spanish-language company that was already familiar to members of the Hacks/Hackers network has strengthened the project, making it easier to troubleshoot problems as they arise. He also said Junar’s ability to give participating organizations more control fit nicely into their hands-off, crowd-managed vision for future day-to-day operation of the database.

Organizing efforts

Paz and Blejman have high hopes for the stories and growth that will come from OpenData Latinoamérica. “What we expect from these events is for people to start using data, encourage newspapers to organize around data themes, and have the central hub for what they want to consume,” Blejman said.

They hope to one day bring in data from every country in Latin America, but they acknowledge that some will be harder to reach than others. “Usually, the federated governments, it’s harder to get standardized data. So, in a country like Argentina, which is a federated state with different authorities on different levels, it’s harder to get standardized data than in a republic where there’s one state and no federated government,” says Paz. “But then again, in Chile, we have a really great open data and open government and transparency allows, but we don’t have great data journalism.” (Chile is a republic.)

Down the road, they’d also like to provide a secure way for anonymous sources to dump data to the site. Paz says in his experience as a news editor, 20–25 percent of scoops come from anonymous tips. But despite developments like The New Yorker’s recent release of Strongbox, OpenData Latinoamérica is still working out a secure method that doesn’t require downloading Tor, but is more secure than email. Blejman also added that, for now, whatever oversight they have over the quality and accuracy of the original data they’re working with is minimal: “At the end, we cannot control the original sources, and we are just trusting the organizations.”

But more than anything, Paz is excited about seeing the beginnings of the stories they’ll be able to tell. He plans to use documents about public purchases made by Chile’s government to build an app that allows citizens to track what their government is spending money on, and what companies are being contracted those dollars.

Another budding story exemplifies the extent to which Paz has taken to heart Craig Hammer’s emphasis on building demand. In Chile, there is currently a significant outcry from students over the rising cost of education. Protests in favor of free education are ongoing. In response, Paz decided to harness this focus, energy, and frustration into a scrape-a-thon (or #scrapaton) to be held June 29 in Santiago. They will focus on scraping data on the owners of universities, companies that contract with universities, and who owns private and subsidized schools.

“There’s a joke that says if you put five gringos — and I don’t mean gringos in a disrespectful way — if you put five U.S. people in a room, they’re probably going to invent a rocket,” says Paz. “If you put five Chileans in a room, they’re probably going to fight each other. So one of the things — we’re not just building tools, we’re also building ways of working together, and making people trust each other.” Blejman added that he hopes the recent release of a Spanish-language version of the Open Data Handbook (El manual de Open Data) will further facilitate collaboration between hackers in various Latin American countries.

With a project of this size and scope, there are also some ambitious designs around measurement. Paz hopes to track how many stories and projects originate with datasets from OpenData Latinoamérica. Craig Hammer wants to quantify the social good of open data, a project he says is already underway via the World Wide Web Foundation’s collaboration with the Open Data for Development Camp.

“If there is a cognizable and evidentiary link between open data and boosting shared prosperity,” Hammer says, “then I think that would be, in many cases, the catalytic moment for open data, and would enable broad recognition of why it’s important and why it’s a worthwhile investment, and broad diffusion of data literacy would really explode.”

Hammer wants people to take ownership of data and realize it can help inform decisions at all levels, even for individuals and families. Once that advantage is made clear to the majority of the population, he says, the demand will kick in, and all kinds of organizations will feel pressured to share their information.

“There’s this visceral sense that data is important, and that it’s good. There’s recognition that opening information and making it broadly accessible is in and of itself a global public good. But it doesn’t stop there, right? That’s not the end,” he says. “That’s the beginning.”

Photo of Santiago student protesters walking as police fire water canons and tear gas fills the air, Aug. 8, 2012 by AP/Luis Hidalgo.

August 14 2012

22:14

OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has again ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to continue broadcasting online.

Since May 2011, OpenCourt — a judicial transparency project (and Knight News Challenge winner) that provides videostreams of court cases — has been broadcasting from Quincy District Court, offering online viewers a look at things like arraignments, traffic infractions, and drug cases. Last month, a local district attorney sued the court hosting OpenCourt to halt plans to begin streaming jury trials from the Quincy courthouse. In today’s ruling, the judge in that lawsuit said OpenCourt should be allowed to go forward and must be subject to the same rules that govern other news media, writing: “There is no reason to single OpenCourt out and impose on it a variety of restrictions that do not apply to other media organizations.”

This is not the first time the project faced a legal threat aimed at stopping the streaming. In March, the Supreme Judicial Court reinforced OpenCourt’s right to broadcast after the state sued to stop the project from recording and archiving court cases.

“There is a presumption that Massachusetts courts are open to media access and this ruling today clarified OpenCourt’s contention all along it should not be singled out as anything different from any other broadcast media,” said John Davidow, executive producer of OpenCourt and executive editor of new media at WBUR, the Boston public radio station where OpenCourt is a project. Davidow said he’s pleased with the ruling because it not only strengthens OpenCourt’s position but also furthers the project’s goals of transparency. “This isn’t about OpenCourt,” Davidow said. “This is really about the public’s access to what goes on in their courtrooms.”

In July, OpenCourt was scheduled to begin broadcasting jury trials in Quincy. Norfolk County DA Michael Morrissey sued the Quincy District Court justices, arguing that OpenCourt needed concrete guidelines from a special judiciary committee for broadcasting within the court that would protect victims, witnesses, and minors.

Davidow said Tuesday’s ruling would allow OpenCourt to move forward with plans to stream those cases from courtroom A at Quincy District Court. Davidow said the cameras and other preparations were set for recording in the jury room prior to the lawsuit — meaning OpenCourt will be ready to livestream once jury cases are scheduled. Davidow said streaming jury trials is important because those are the cases most of the public is familiar with. “The public, outside perspective of the court is trials,” Davidow said. “It’s the essence of what the public thinks takes place in courthouses across the commonwealth.”

In denying Morissey’s request, Justice Margot Botsford said the project can operate under preliminary guidelines that were put in place as a result of the decision in the earlier OpenCourt case. In that case, Commonwealth v. Barnes, the court said a special committee must create guidelines for OpenCourt to broadcast and archive court cases. In June, a preliminary set of guidelines for OpenCourt was released by the Quincy District Court. The final rules from the judiciary media committee are expected to be drafted by October.

In a statement, Morrissey said his office may seek to stop OpenCourt from recording on a case-by-case basis in order to protect victims and witnesses. From the statement:

The judiciary media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming. We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.

March 29 2012

14:00

The Difference Between 'Invention' and 'Innovation'

Two and a half years ago, I co-founded Stroome, a collaborative online video editing and publishing platform and 2010 Knight News Challenge winner.

From its inception, the site received a tremendous amount of attention. The New School, USC Annenberg, the Online News Association and, ultimately, the Knight Foundation all saw something interesting in what we were doing. We won awards; we were invited to present at conferences; we were written about in the trades and featured in over 150 blogs. Yet despite all the accolades, not once did the word "invention" creep in. "Innovation," it turns out, was the word on everyone's lips.

Like so many up-and-coming entrepreneurs, I was under the impression that invention and innovation were one and the same. They aren't. And, as I have discovered, the distinction is an important one.

Recently, I was asked by Jason Nazar, founder of Docstoc and a big supporter of the L.A. entrepreneurial community, if I would help define the difference between the two. A short, 3-minute video response can be found at the bottom of this post, but I thought I'd share some key takeaways with you here:

INVENTION VS. INNOVATION: THE DIFFERENCE

In its purest sense, "invention" can be defined as the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time. "Innovation," on the other hand, occurs if someone improves on or makes a significant contribution to an existing product, process or service.

Consider the microprocessor. Someone invented the microprocessor. But by itself, the microprocessor was nothing more than another piece on the circuit board. It's what was done with that piece -- the hundreds of thousands of products, processes and services that evolved from the invention of the microprocessor -- that required innovation.

STEVE JOBS: THE POSTER BOY OF INNOVATION

If ever there were a poster child for innovation it would be former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. And when people talk about innovation, Jobs' iPod is cited as an example of innovation at its best.

steve jobs iphone4.jpg

But let's take a step back for a minute. The iPod wasn't the first portable music device (Sony popularized the "music anywhere, anytime" concept 22 years earlier with the Walkman); the iPod wasn't the first device that put hundreds of songs in your pocket (dozens of manufacturers had MP3 devices on the market when the iPod was released in 2001); and Apple was actually late to the party when it came to providing an online music-sharing platform. (Napster, Grokster and Kazaa all preceded iTunes.)

So, given those sobering facts, is the iPod's distinction as a defining example of innovation warranted? Absolutely.

What made the iPod and the music ecosystem it engendered innovative wasn't that it was the first portable music device. It wasn't that it was the first MP3 player. And it wasn't that it was the first company to make thousands of songs immediately available to millions of users. What made Apple innovative was that it combined all of these elements -- design, ergonomics and ease of use -- in a single device, and then tied it directly into a platform that effortlessly kept that device updated with music.

Apple invented nothing. Its innovation was creating an easy-to-use ecosystem that unified music discovery, delivery and device. And, in the process, they revolutionized the music industry.

IBM: INNOVATION'S UGLY STEPCHILD

Admittedly, when it comes to corporate culture, Apple and IBM are worlds apart. But Apple and IBM aren't really as different as innovation's poster boy would have had us believe.

Truth is if it hadn't been for one of IBM's greatest innovations -- the personal computer -- there would have been no Apple. Jobs owes a lot to the introduction of the PC. And IBM was the company behind it.

Ironically, the IBM PC didn't contain any new inventions per se (see iPod example above). Under pressure to complete the project in less than 18 months, the team actually was under explicit instructions not to invent anything new. The goal of the first PC, code-named "Project Chess," was to take off-the-shelf components and bring them together in a way that was user friendly, inexpensive, and powerful.

And while the world's first PC was an innovative product in the aggregate, the device they created -- a portable device that put powerful computing in the hands of the people -- was no less impactful than Henry Ford's Model T, which reinvented the automobile industry by putting affordable transportation in the hands of the masses.

INNOVATION ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH

Given the choice to invent or innovate, most entrepreneurs would take the latter. Let's face it, innovation is just sexier. Perhaps there are a few engineers at M.I.T. who can name the members of "Project Chess." Virtually everyone on the planet knows who Steve Jobs is.

But innovation alone isn't enough. Too often, companies focus on a technology instead of the customer's problem. But in order to truly turn a great idea into a world-changing innovation, other factors must be taken into account.

According to Venkatakrishnan Balasubramanian, a research analyst with Infosys Labs, the key to ensuring that innovation is successful is aligning your idea with the strategic objectives and business models of your organization.

In a recent article that appeared in Innovation Management, he offered five considerations:

1. Competitive advantage: Your innovation should provide a unique competitive position for the enterprise in the marketplace;
2. Business alignment: The differentiating factors of your innovation should be conceptualized around the key strategic focus of the enterprise and its goals;
3. Customers: Knowing the customers who will benefit from your innovation is paramount;
4. Execution: Identifying resources, processes, risks, partners and suppliers and the ecosystem in the market for succeeding in the innovation is equally important;
5. Business value: Assessing the value (monetary, market size, etc.) of the innovation and how the idea will bring that value into the organization is a critical underlying factor in selecting which idea to pursue.

Said another way, smart innovators frame their ideas to stress the ways in which a new concept is compatible with the existing market landscape, and their company's place in that marketplace.

This adherence to the "status quo" may sound completely antithetical to the concept of innovation. But an idea that requires too much change in an organization, or too much disruption to the marketplace, may never see the light of day.

A FINAL THOUGHT

While they tend to be lumped together, "invention" and "innovation" are not the same thing. There are distinctions between them, and those distinctions are important.

So how do you know if you are inventing or innovating? Consider this analogy:

If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes. Someone has to toss the pebble. That's the inventor. Someone has to recognize the ripple will eventually become a wave. That's the entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs don't stop at the water's edge. They watch the ripples and spot the next big wave before it happens. And it's the act of anticipating and riding that "next big wave" that drives the innovative nature in every entrepreneur.

This article is the seventh of 10 video segments in which digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty talks about his experience building an Internet startup, and is part of a larger initiative sponsored by docstoc.videos, which features advice from small business owners who offer their views on how to launch a new business or grow your existing one altogether.

February 28 2012

14:00

As TriangleWiki Gets Ready to Launch, LocalWiki Reflects on Its First Year

Hey friends!

Whew! A lot has happened since our last PBS Idea Lab blog update! Our first focus community, DentonWiki, has been doing great, and several of our other focus communities are close to launching.

triwikiday_editparty-300x225.jpg

Just recently, nearly 50 people came together in Raleigh, N.C., to join a massive in-person content-building sprint to build up the soon-to-be-launched TriangleWiki.org. Folks from all walks of life joined in -- two city council members and Raleigh's chief planning director even came by to help out. Read more about the event on our blog.

And our new software has been rapidly adopted by communities around the world. Since our last email, over 180 independent communities have installed our LocalWiki software, making us one of the most-installed Knight News Challenge projects ever!

Our first year, in review

We thought it'd be great to take some time to look back and reflect on our past year. We've put together this report highlighting some of what we've accomplished and where we're headed:

Check it out and share widely!

xo-
Philip & Mike

February 27 2012

22:09

New Knight News Challenge puts emphasis on pragmatists and builders

Now that the first new round of the Knight News Challenge is up and running there are a couple of things that seem to stand out, the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity.

The speed part is not a surprise, given the fact that the $5 million innovation contest now takes place three times a year, with a gestation period of a little more than three months. (The application period runs from now till St. Patrick’s day. Winners are announced in June.) No, the interesting thing in today’s announcement was the dead simplicity of it all: A finished application will round out to about 450 words. And you can send it via Tumblr. (And, as you can see above, they’re also back with MOAR Michael Maness on the Internets. Also, a bewildered chihuahua.)

It seems like less of a start-up pitch session and more like a call for bids for a general contractor. And that may not be a bad thing.

As we’ve written before, Knight has a clear interest in improving the funding process for these projects. It has as much to do with their desire to get a social — or monetary — return in the investments they are making, as well as their mission to help transform journalism. What Knight is doing now is trying to shake out the best way to do that, and concise and complimentary are the guide words. Here’s John Bracken on the Knight blog:

We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone — businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can apply.

That’s why I come back to the contractor idea (that, or too much HGTV). What Knight is saying, especially with the networks theme, is don’t design us a house, just make a better kitchen. We don’t need architects and entrepreneurs, we want plumbers and engineers. I may be reading too much into the word “build,” but the application seem to emphasize clarity, skill and a focused knowledge, rather than a grand vision for saving journalism.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entrepreneurs or visionaries, and by no stretch will the eventual winners not be big thinkers. But in streamlining their funding process, diversifying the funding mechanisms (grants, loans or investment capital are now on the table), and hanging the first challenge on the concept of networks, Knight is saying journalism needs people whose creative vision is critical and tempered with pragmatism. There’s no shortage of dreamers and thinkers wanting to tackle the big problems in journalism — and there probably never will be — but Knight appears to be designing a contest that can get builders working on the basics today.

Clock’s ticking. Make sure to read more about the application process before the March 17 deadline.

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab

February 10 2012

18:00

Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new KNC 2.0

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing a dissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more information will be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revised) Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/Hackers, NICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

February 09 2012

22:36

KNC 2.0: The Knight News Challenge revamps to quicken the pace of journalism innovation

Since last year we’ve known the Knight Foundation would be revamping their annual innovation contest to better meet the pace of change in technology and information. After completing its initial five-year run — which saw 12,000 applications and $27 million in funding to journalism and information projects — Knight said they would pull back and examine how they could continue to fund that kind of experimentation in the future.

Today we know a lot more about what that will look like. The biggest change is to the calendar: Instead of one big competition a year, there’ll be three in 2012. The new News Challenge is more topic-focused: Two of this year’s contests will seek projects on specific themes, with the third remaining a catchall. And Knight is going farther than ever before to widen the kinds of people who might apply: removing its requirement to open-source the project’s work and emphasizing it will take appeals from individuals, nonprofits, for-profits, and presumably any organizational structure on land or sea. (You can get an idea of the kind of, er, stylistic freedom they’re preaching in the 1992-fever-dream video above.)

The emphasis is on speed — competitions will last no more than 8-10 weeks each, rather than the October-to-June cycle of some previous iterations. The total amount of money at stake remains about the same as before: a total of $5 million in this first year of the new model, Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation told me.

In the first installment of the new-look News Challenge, which opens Feb. 27 and closes on St. Patrick’s Day, the focus is on networks, a topic that’s purposefully broad. As they explained in the blog post introducing the new challenge:

There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.

When I asked Maness what that means, he said applicants should focus on how existing systems can be used to deliver information in new ways. Instead of coming to Knight with a pitch for the next Facebook, talk about how your proposal could use it better. “We’re saying there are already robust tools on the internet. Let’s use those,” Maness said. (Sorry, aspiring Zuckerbergs.)

For Knight, the networks that matter aren’t just your Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests and LinkedIns. There’s also the network of Knight-funded projects, initiatives, and people. (A network that, full disclosure, includes this site, a Knight grantee.) Last year’s class of News Challenge winners included a number of projects that built on early News Challenge winners, and efforts like Knight’s “test kitchen” at Northwestern are aimed in part at assembling and recombining the pieces of other innovative efforts.

Other Knight grantees have long been a source of support and information for News Challenge winners, Maness said. But more broadly, those networks of existing technology and other platforms can be a stepping stone to success, and ultimately sustainability, he said. What Knight is saying, to a point, is your chances of making it increase if you aren’t starting from the ground floor, building something that might not have the momentum to survive once the funding runs out. “If something can grow and fend for itself it can have a broader impact,” Maness said.

By dropping the open-source requirement, Maness said the foundation can better help people on all ends of the spectrum, from early-stage projects to those that are already established. One example: a company that might need a nudge to get to the next level but don’t want to show their code just yet. But Maness said Knight still wants to encourage open-source development because that can help future projects and, on a philosophical level, is good for the web. “Ultimately our goal is social return on what we do, so [a project] has to be something that makes sense to what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

The overarching message seems to be a desire to cast as wide a net as possible to spur innovation in journalism and community information. By pulling back on past restrictions, while emphasizing things like impact and scalability, Knight is also trying to be a smarter, more agile organization that can ensure a return (even if its not a monetary one) on their investments. In that same way, they also want to leverage the institutions, people, and technology that are already available in the world of journalism — especially those Knight helped lay the groundwork for.

And they want to do it fast — faster than a year at a time. “Over the course of five years, what started as being radical at the time…the speed of the Internet and disruption happened so much faster,” Maness said. “We wanted to focus on making a contest that was faster and more nimble.”

January 09 2012

15:20

3 Keys to Naming Your Product

Two and a half years ago, I co-founded Stroome, a collaborative online video editing and publishing platform and 2010 Knight News Challenge winner. Considering the fact that "video" is one of the most searchable words on the web, our first startup challenge -- actually coming up with a name for our site -- proved to be extremely daunting.

Recently, I was asked by Jason Nazar, founder of Docstoc and a big supporter of the L.A. entrepreneurial community, if I had any tips for startups regarding choosing a name for their product.

A short, 3-minute video response can be found at the bottom of this post, but I thought I'd share some key takeaways with you here:

MAKE SURE THE DOMAIN NAME IS AVAILABLE

Let's face it: We live in a digital age. The fact that a record $35.3 billion was spent online this past holiday season is evidence of that. And in this digital age, the proverbial "open for business" sign that used to dangle in the front shop-window has been replaced with the search bar.

So the first thing to think about when naming your product is this: If the domain isn't available, you don't have squat (more on the concept of "domain squatting" in minute).

But finding an available '.com' is just the beginning. As the web becomes increasingly crowded, a myriad of domain extensions have emerged. A few of the more popular ones include: .tv, .me, .biz. And this doesn't even take into consideration domains for foreign territories.

With all these new extensions emerging, a natural question many entrepreneurs ask is: "Does a place exist that will check all the available domain extensions at the same time?" Actually, there are several.

If you just want to search the "big three" -- .com, .net, .org -- I suggest a site called Instant Domain Search. Just type in the name you want, and the website does the rest.

If you want to search all the extensions, give Check Domains a shot. Not only will it instantly tell you all the domains that are available, when you're done it even takes you to GoDaddy.com, a popular registry site that lets you purchase those extensions you've selected.

Because you never know which domain extension is going to be the next one to take off, my advice is to purchase as many domain extensions as possible. I know .cc (the domain for the Coco Islands) may seem completely unnecessary today, but the last thing you want to do is be held hostage by some domain squatter who had the foresight to buy your domain before you did.

YOU DON'T BE EXACT; YOU CAN ALLUDE TO YOUR PRODUCT

As your business grows, chances are your product line will expand as well. You want to make sure your name grows with it, too. It's okay to leave something to the imagination of your customers. In the "name game," being allusive can be a powerful attribute.

Take the word, "Amazon," for example. For Jeff Bezos, books always were just the beginning. From the very outset, the forward-thinking entrepreneur saw his company expanding well beyond the written word.

Don't kid yourself. The selection of the name "Amazon" was hardly happenstance. Bezos deliberately chose a word that alluded to the business he saw downstream, rather than the actual entrepreneurial waters he set out to navigate in 1995.

Inspired by the seemingly endless South American river with its countless tributaries, the notion of a continuous flow of consumer goods feeding into a massive marketplace perfectly aligned with Bezos' vision to create the world's largest e-commerce site.

Today, when we think of Amazon the first thought that pops into our mind is retail, not a river in South America. Apparently, the Googleplex agrees. Just search the word "Amazon" (preferably after you're done reading this blog).

The first mention of a river or rain forest doesn't appear until page three.

CREATE A NEW WORD THAT CAN DEFINE YOUR COMPANY

Google ... Yahoo ... Facebook ... Twitter ... These words may have existed before they found their way into the pantheon of contemporary popular culture. ("Googol" is the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros; a "yahoo" is a rude, noisy or violent person; "Facebook" is the nickname for the student directory at Phillips Exeter Academy, where Mark Zuckerberg went to high school; "twitter" is a short burst of inconsequential information.)

But the brilliance of the entrepreneurs behind the companies that bear those names is that those words are now so far removed from the original meaning associated with them that they are effectively new words altogether.

Yet just coming up with a catchy name isn't really the trick. The real magic is coming up with a word that's connected with your product in such a way that it becomes both a noun and a verb -- at the same time.

Let me give you an example from my own experience--

When we were coming up with the name for Stroome, we wanted a name that would work as both a noun and a verb. Much in the same way people now say, "Google it," we wanted people to say, "Stroome me," when they had some great content they wanted to share. Of course, we didn't have the word "Stroome" yet. But the Dutch did -- "Strømme."

It means "to move freely," which is exactly what we want our site to facilitate -- the movement of ideas, points of view and content freely between people. We played with the spelling a bit, but the name was perfect.

A FINAL THOUGHT

Without question, naming your product is important. But it's also a great opportunity. The right name can distinguish you from the competition, as well as differentiate your product from seemingly similar offerings.

So when naming your product here are three things to remember. First, make sure the name you chose is available across as many domains extensions as possible. And if the domains aren't available, don't get discouraged. Instead, get creative. Second, come up with a name that alludes to who you are, but doesn't specifically say what you do. And finally, if you do have to come up with a entirely new word, don't be afraid to really think outside the box.

Who knows, you might not just be naming your product. You may just end up defining an entire new product category.

This article is the fourth of 10 video segments in which digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty talks about his experience building an Internet startup, and is part of a larger initiative sponsored by docstoc.videos, which features advice from small business owners who offer their views on how to launch a new business or grow your existing one altogether.

July 19 2011

17:30

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

It’s easy to use the word invest a lot when talking about how the Knight Foundation funds journalism and information-needs-of-communities projects. Less than a month ago, we were talking about how Knight invests in media innovation with the recent round of the Knight News Challenge winners.

Turns out Knight now actually is in the business of investing in media companies — specifically with the Knight Enterprise Fund, a $10-million chunk of the foundation’s endowment set aside for early investment in companies that promise media innovation.

In some ways, the Enterprise Fund seems like a spin-off of the News Challenge, but aimed specifically at supporting for-profit companies that are compatible with Knight’s mission. The Enterprise Fund, which was officially approved in December, will be investing $25,000 to $500,000 in individual companies — roughly the same scale as what most News Challenge winners received. And the News Challenge allowed for-profit companies to apply for grants. But the Enterprise Fund comes with the potential benefit of a return on investment — which, if all goes well, could have the cyclical effect of boosting more Knight projects.

By investing in for-profits, Knight hopes to create a pipeline to new kinds of projects.

“God willing, we get a huge winner here and it would expand. If we’re lucky enough for that to occur, we would expand the endowment, which would allow us to make more contributions,” said Juan Martinez, vice president and chief financial officer for the Knight Foundation.

Knight already supports a large stable of projects — not just News Challenge winners but grants to organizations like NPR, the Online News Association, and journalism programs at universities (including, it should be noted, us here at the Nieman Journalism Lab). By investing in for-profit endeavors, they can create a pipeline to new projects and systems that could be of use to people through Knight’s network, Martinez said. The Enterprise Fund also could mean an injection of fresh blood into the sometimes insular media innovation community.

“This allows the program staff to get a view for what new companies are out there and what new innovations are being created,” Martinez said. “I think in the long run this will help us understand those kind of market drivers better.”

It will also allow them to shepherd News Challenge projects into the next stage of their development. The sale of EveryBlock to MSNBC in 2009 is an example of how News Challenge projects sometimes transition from grant-funded to the for-profit world. With the Enterprise Fund, Knight will be able to continue to support these projects and potentially see a return on the foundation’s long-term investment. “Venture capitalist provide networks and expertise needed for those companies to expand,” Martinez said. “So as they transition out of the Knight News Challenge and into a VC space, this is a platform to help expose that process for them.”

An example is BookBrewer, one of the first companies Knight has invested in, which began life as 2008 News Challenge winner Printcasting. (Knight also is investing in Snag Films, a documentary film platform, and OwnLocal, which creates advertising, deals, and shopping systems for news organizations.) The initial idea of Printcasting was to create a platform for low-cost, on-demand publishing. Remade as BookBrewer, their focus has shifted from print and PDFs to ebooks to try and tap into the growing demand for content on tablets and smartphones.

But entering the investment game is not without some risks for Knight, which is why they are not working alone, said Ben Wirz, Knight’s director of business consulting. “We’re not leading these investments ourselves,” he said. “We look for early-stage companies that are mission-aligned, do due diligence, and the business side is done by angels and venture capitalists.”

Martinez said Knight knows they don’t exist in a vacuum, that there is a world of experimentation and entrepreneurship in media and technology that could be beneficial to the people the foundation is trying to help. If they can act as a conduit, hooking up for-profit and nonprofit to help support and sustain journalism, that’s what matters most, he asid. “Ultimately what Knight cares about is impact, that our dollars go towards promoting informed and engaged communities,” he said.

July 05 2011

21:47

In an era of technology-fueled transparency: data journalism, and the newsroom stack

O'Reilly radar :: MIT's recent Civic Media Conference and the latest batch of Knight News Challenge winners made one reality crystal clear: as a new era of technology-fueled transparency, innovation and open government dawns, it won't depend on any single CIO or federal program. It will be driven by a distributed community of media, nonprofits, academics and civic advocates focused on better outcomes, more informed communities and the new news, whatever form it is delivered in.

Continue to read Alex Howard, radar.oreilly.com

18:30

With its newest round of Knight funding, DocCloud will figure out how to scale reader annotations

Two years ago, DocumentCloud received $719,500 from the Knight News Challenge to build a tool that news organizations could use to upload, share, and then collaboratively read and analyze documents. Since then, the project has not only made good on its promise to “turn documents into data,” introducing its tool into the workflows of investigative reporters in newsrooms across the country, but it’s also found a way to ensure the tool’s sustainment, at least into the near future: In early June, DocCloud’s staff announced that the project would merge operations with, appropriately enough, Investigative Reporters and Editors. And more good news for DocCloud came later in June, when Knight made it a rare double-winner in its News Challenge, granting the project $320,000 to develop an additional feature: reader annotations.

The idea for an annotation mechanism actually originated, indirectly, with the Online News Association, says Amanda Hickman, DocCloud’s program director. She and the team had been thinking about how to include readers more broadly in the process of collaborative document-parsing; at last year’s ONA conference, Hickman began talking with the Public Insight Network‘s Andrew Haeg about how DocCloud might integrate what it already had — an interface that allows a small group of registered users to upload documents and make annotations — with what Public Insight has been up to: finding, and then tracking, a large group of potential story sources. Their conversations, Hickman told me in an email, resulted in “a very whittled down tool for identifying specific experts and asking them to review specific documents, pre-publication.”

That tool is currently in place in the DocCloud system — with the important caveat that, to use it, you have to be invited by a newsroom to do so. From the news organization’s perspective, “there’s a practical limit to who you can invite,” Hickman points out, and “there’s a certain degree of trust involved,” since a public document means, also, public annotations. “It’s a tool that makes sense,” she notes, “if you’re dealing with a few people who aren’t part of your newsroom who need to look over a document.”

It’s a tool that makes less sense, though, if you want broader public input in a given document — which, increasingly, news orgs do. So the reader annotations project faces a tricky task: taking the interplay between expertise and trust that has worked so well in the invite-only annotations system…and building it, somehow, to scale.

And that’s where the Knight funding comes in. With it, DocCloud will figure out how, exactly, to build out the tool’s existing efficiencies to facilitate, and encourage, broader public participation. The goal is pretty much the same as it was when Hickman and Haeg first chatted: to marry DocCloud’s existing annotations infrastructure with the Public Insight approach that helps newsrooms to connect with more sources, more diverse sources, and untapped sources of expertise.

An added twist, though: Whatever system the DocCloud team builds will likely need to interface with outlets’ existing comments infrastructures. Which is both practical and problematic. “We’re not here to reinvent anyone’s moderation system,” Hickman noted in a phone call, “so we’ll have to sort out how to let newsrooms moderate reader annotations,” she says — in basically the same way they already moderate comments. They’ll have to build flexibility, in other words, into a single system to accommodate different outlets’ different approaches to reader commentary.

And they’ll also have to figure out a UI that leverages both the (hoped for) abundance of contributions and the (definite) need for operational efficiency. Visual and otherwise. “If one or two reporters annotate a document, they can make their own decision about how cluttered or uncluttered a page should be,” Hickman points out; with reader annotations, on the other hand, “there’s going to have to be some way to access an uncluttered page if you just want to read the document.”

And that necessity will only expand as the tool’s document set does — especially since a document whose content is meaningful in one way, at one point in time, might take on an entirely different relevance later on, in a different context. So DocCloud will be tasked in part with “figuring out how you present a document that’s annotated in a different context,” Hickman notes. “It’s a really interesting puzzle.”

16:11

The New News Paradigm: 'Pivot or Perish'

At the recent MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking to 16 of the most promising thinkers in the area of digital news. Culled together from myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, some had already established themselves as pioneers in the digital space.Others had come from legacy newsrooms. A few had found their voices in the field.

But regardless of their backgrounds, they all were united by a drive to innovate, inform and empower. In short, these 16 new news entrepreneurs had come to Cambridge, Mass., with a plan: Reinvent the news business.

But if I had just one takeaway I wanted to impart in my talk to the newly knighted 2011 News Challenge winners, it was this: Those carefully crafted plans are about to change.

uturn.jpg

Being Open to Change

There's an old axiom in entrepreneurship, and it goes something like this: Pivot or perish.

"Pivoting" -- the ability (and perhaps more importantly, the willingness) to change your course of action when you realize the ground beneath you is shifting -- isn't just the essence of entrepreneurship, it's the only way you'll survive.

Trust me, we've been at it for just a little over a year now with Stroome, and in that time we've had to pivot plenty.

Now let me be clear -- having a plan for the future is just as important as a good, solid pivot. Looking two, three, even five years down the road is critical, not just because it places your idea in a larger context, but because it forces you to realize that no one really knows what the future has in store. In the end, the best we can do is play the hand that's dealt us. And this is precisely where the concept of pivoting comes in.

When we set out last June to build the next iteration of Stroome, a collaborative online video editing platform to simplify the production of news and video, we sat down and diligently drew up a list of goals. The exact number was just short of a dozen or so, but the three key ones included: increase adoption in journalism schools, forge strategic allegiances, remain open to unforeseen uses.

It didn't take long before those goals started to come to fruition. Within four months of receiving our grant, Stroome was being used by a class of aspiring digital journalists at Columbia College Chicago to comment on the importance of voter registration during the highly anticipated mayoral election. In April, we partnered with USC Stevens Institution, relaunching the site at the third annual TEDxUSC conference.

And who could have possibly foreseen that we'd have found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian revolution? But that's exactly what happened this past January when protesters began using Stroome to get their video out of the country when the government shut down Twitter and Facebook.

More than a 'to-do' list

Remarkably, in less than a year we had accomplished nearly every goal we had set for ourselves. But our goals had became more than just a list of "to-dos'' to be ticked off one-by-one. Instead, they became "listening posts." And by listening to our users, we were able to gain valuable insight into what is truly important to them.

In most instances, their revelations were consistent with our expectations. Yet at times, what we heard was completely incongruous with what we thought we should be building. And when that happened, we had to evaluate which comments to implement, which to set aside for the time being, and which to dismiss altogether. Said another way, we had to pivot.

Because while we may have had many goals, at the end of the day we only had one objective: Create the most intuitive user experience possible. But without those pivots, that objective would never have been achieved.

And as I looked out across the room and into the faces of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, I could see an unmistakable determination, an undaunted doggedness, an unrelenting sense of resolve. There was no mistaking it: Reinvention of an industry many have written off as outdated, archaic and obsolete is a goal well within their grasp.

They're just going to have to pivot to get there.

If you're interested, Los Angeles angel investor Mark Suster has written a great post on the importance of pivoting. Read it here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum.

July 01 2011

17:00

Solving data overload with design: News Challenge winner iWitness aggregates media by time and place

Jesse James Garrett

If consumers struggle to keep up with breaking news and current events, it’s certainly not for lack of data. Jesse James Garrett thinks the problem with news is one of design.

“As the data sources become more and more massive, the role of user experience in shaping technology that helps people make sense of those data sources is a vital part of delivering on the mission of journalism,” Garrett said.

Though he went to journalism school, Garrett is a professional web designer. He is president of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design firm he co-founded almost 10 years ago, and best known for coining the term AJAX to describe a new way of building websites.

Garrett’s first attempt to rescue journalism from bad design is iWitness, an aggregation tool that will mine Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for user-generated material unique to a particular time and place — the kind of tool that might prove particularly useful during political protests or natural disasters. iWitness is only an idea at this point, but now it’s funded by a two-year, $360,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge.

“Give us a time and a place and we’ll find everything, from the services that we’re able to support, that was posted by somebody who was there — in that place, at that time,” Garrett said. Centrality is one of iWitness’ key selling points. Nothing out there at the moment automatically pulls content from across social-service sites at the same time.

“The sites themselves don’t really provide easy mechanisms for sifting their data by location. They’re collecting all this data, but they don’t really present it to users in a way that makes it easy for them to work,” Garrett said. For all the petabytes of data out there, there’s even more metadata — data about the data — just waiting to be put in context.

So if you were able to follow the streams of photos and video and tweets coming out of Tahrir Square right now, for example, that would give you an immediate, and intimate, insight into the political upheaval in Egypt. It takes a lot of manual labor,” Garrett said. Even Andy Carvin sleeps.

Andy Carvin, of course, adds another layer — human-powered curation — to the mix, and that’s not what iWitness is for. It’s not Storify, Garrett said.

“I feel like Storify’s core strength is as a curation tool, to allow people to pull together and create a narrative from social media. What we’re doing is really raw aggregation,” he said. You could use iWitness to gather source material for a story, the way you might use Kayak as a starting point for planning a trip.

Garrett will distribute the code as open-source, not because the Knight Foundation requires it but because he thinks it’s the most effective way to win widespread adoption. He plans to build a working demo but leave it up to others to build public-facing websites. News organizations also could adopt and expand the software for internal use.

The project will borrow some of the programmers and designers at Adaptive Path and should get underway this fall. The involvement of a respected design firm, not a news organization, is interesting — and not a traditional choice for the News Challenge. iWitness will probably be beautiful. And that could be what gets people to use it.

June 30 2011

16:00

With News Challenge funding, The Tiziano Project will expand training and tools for community journalism

We’ve reached a point where debates over citizen journalism have been washed over by a torrent of online video, blogs, and other media created by people who, while they may not identify themselves as journalists, are nevertheless documenting what’s happening in their communities. Sometimes that’s a political uprising, other times it’s a devastating tornado. Often, the documentations get picked up by mainstream sources — or, based on the power of the stories they tell, go viral all on their own.

What that’s done is give equal weight to the impact of video and multimedia produced by individuals to that of the content created by professional journalists. The key difference now is quality, not in the sense of refined storytelling, but in the sense of the equipment and tools used to produce multimedia narratives.

In its pilot effort documenting the lives of residents in Kurdistan, The Tiziano Project — named for an Italian journalist “who liked to go where he shouldn’t” — attempted to close that gap through offering better tools and training to regular folks. Now, with the help of a $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, the project will try to refine its technology and expand its scope.

Jon Vidar, executive director of The Tiziano Project, said the project will develop a suite of tools that will help community journalists produce and showcase their work — effectively a content management system designed specifically for multimedia storytelling. Vidar and his team will be building that system off the template of their 360 Kurdistan project, which featured personal accounts of Iraqis coupled with work from professional photojournalists. Vidar expects they’ll move quickly, using the one-year grant to build a beta in 6 months, then test and tweak the project for the rest of the year.

“The grant itself is a technology-only development grant for us to take the 360 platform we built in Iraq and use the funding to make it scalable and usable by other organizations,” Vidar told me. Part of that also includes designing a new interface that will include an interactive map to display an array of 360 projects from various communities. (To get an idea of what those projects look like, check out the interface The Tiziano Project created for the Kurdistan project, which combines still photography with audio as well as video segments.)

In many ways, Vidar said, the original 360 project was a proof-of-concept, showing that with sufficient tools and support, people can tell compelling, visually arresting stories about their community, the kind that may otherwise go unnoticed. Taken together, those stories have a great impact and can change perceptions about a group of people and where they live, Vidar said.

But those stories don’t happen automatically. “Back in 2006, 2007, when we were starting up, “community journalism” was a buzzword, like hyperlocal is today,” Vidar said. “A lot of those programs failed. They went into communities and handed out Flip video cameras and thought they were going to get amazing, high-quality video content.”

One of the big hurdles in the Kurdistan project was funding, which was provided through a $25,000 grant from the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. That helped to provide the basics, Vidar said: a team of photographers to offer guidance and a Flash developer to build out the site.

Part of their focus now will be developing a front end for the project, something that works across multiple platforms, from desktop to mobile and tablets. The original project was built in Flash, but Vidar said they’re now looking at using HTML5 to build a flexible site. That too can provide complications, though, and Vidar and his team want to make sure they’re using the right technology for the job. If you’re dealing with photography and video, the design and usability experience is key to getting people to engage with your work, Vidar said. “We don’t want to take the quality of the experience down just to make it cross compatible.”

What the 360s could provide is a new avenue for local journalism, something that is a hybrid between pure amateur cellphone video and packages developed by professionals.

“There’s three types of content producers now,” Vidar said. “The professional journalist; the citizen producer — the everyday guy uploading to YouTube; and then there’s the intermediate. They’re not professional journalists, but active commentators, people who use [video] in an in-depth way. We want to elevate the people who are taking cellphone video and posting it to YouTube — elevate them to the next level.”

15:29

At MIT Knight Confab, Public Activism Looms Large

The smell of public activism wafted across this year's Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the "Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic" campaign; NPR's Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own -- and his mother's -- activism.

zuckerman.jpg

If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT's Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard's Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital Tools for Civic Purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from "Landmen," negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE's Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic "spectacles of dissent" in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with "a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other," recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves "coming out" as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR's Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent -- though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year's Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year's big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don't start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and -- for data -- Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

14:00

FrontlineSMS, a News Challenge winner, connects people in places where the web is out of reach

Sean Martin McDonald, FrontlineSMS

There are more than 5 billion mobile phone connections on earth, by some estimates, far more than the number of people who have access to clean water. In much of the developing world, however, Internet access is either scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Knight News Challenge winner FrontlineSMS is open-source software that tries to plug the resulting information gap. The platform, which has until now focused on the communications needs of NGOs, has already found success in medicine, agriculture, and election monitoring. Now, with help from KNC’s three-year, $250,000 grant, FrontlineSMS plans to expand its focus to include journalists.

FrontlineSMS is a free download for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It requires a computer and a cell phone — a cheap one will do — but, importantly, no Internet connection. “It enables people to have complex digital communications with people who may live beyond the reach of the Internet,” said Sean Martin McDonald, the director of operations, Americas, for FrontlineSMS.

The software allows for mass communication over SMS, akin to an email blast, and it supports complex, two-way communication. So a health care worker in India, for example, coud text an appointment reminder to a patient and request a response to find out whether the doctor showed up. The software can capture and store these responses programmatically, which is essential in situations that find you seeking input from dozens or hundreds or thousands of people.

A real-world example is Rien que la Vérité, a fictionalized, documentary-style television series about current events in Kinshasa. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, McDonald said, and viewers are polled via SMS about where to take the conversation next. Community radio stations, too, use the FrontlineSMS software to interact with listeners and solicit public opinion. Sure, American Idol does the same thing, but SMS is connecting people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk.

The Knight grant will enable the organization to build upon its FrontlineSMS:Radio spinoff and develop tools specifically tailored for journalists. The idea is still hazy at this stage: Before solidifying any plans, McDonald wants to survey the needs of people who work in countries where journalism is hard to carry out. A significant chunk of the grant project, he said, will be devoted to research.

“The amount of interest and demand that we get from journalism organizations is pretty intense. There’s a lot of need out there. We’re hoping definitely to work with Knight and their network and be able to get useful software into the hands of some people,” McDonald said.

FrontlineSMS developers are also improving support for MMS, which allows citizens people to share audio, video, and photos over standard cellular connections. The lingering problem: While there are plenty of reporting apps out there, there are none that work without an Internet connection.

Another challenge: The mission of FrontlineSMS can be tricky to carry out in countries with regimes that feel threatened by informed citizens and inquisitive reporters. “We’re not necessarily bringing an anti-censorship angle to this — although I think everybody’s anti-censorship,” McDonald said. “Our focus is really on helping bridge information gaps. There are lots and lots of things with SMS that can expose people to danger if they’re taking up positions that are contrary to government, so that’s not really the operational focus of what we’re doing.”

McDonald said the FrontlineSMS software has already been downloaded 15,000 times in more than 60 countries. It’s in the midst of a total redesign that should be be finished in the “not-too-distant future,” he said. Because the software is available on GitHub, anyone can download the code and improve it right now.

June 27 2011

17:30

Deeper into data: U.K.-based ScraperWiki plans new tools and U.S. expansion with News Challenge

Looking over the scope of the Knight News Challenge, from its beginning to the winners announced this year, it’s clear data is king. From this year’s data-mining projects alone — whether inside the confines of the newsroom, posting public records in rural areas, or delivering vital information on clean water — we can safely say that the Knight Foundation sees data as a big part of the future for journalism and communities.

But Francis Irving says we’ve only scratched the surface on how data is delivered, displayed and consumed. “It’s an unexplored area,” said Irving, CEO of ScraperWiki. “We’re right at the beginning of this.”

As you may have guessed from the name, ScraperWiki is a tool to help people collect and publish data through a simple online interface that also serves as a repository for code. (Equal dose scraper and wiki.)

As a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, ScraperWiki plans to use their three-year, $280,000 grant to expand both their product and their reach. With a home base in Liverpool, ScraperWiki also hopes to cross the Atlantic and replicate their work helping journalists and ordinary citizens uncover data. “We want to lower the barrier for someone to do general purpose programming,” he said.

Irving told me a number of reporters and programmers in the U.K. have teamed up to use ScraperWiki to find stories and give new life to old data. James Ball, an investigative reporter for The Guardian, used ScraperWiki to write a story on the influence and spending of lobbyist on members of Parliament. ScraperWiki was also used by U.K. officials to create a search site for services provided by the government.

One of the reasons for ScraperWiki’s success, Irving said, is the meetups they throw to bring journalists and programmers face to face. Part of their expansion plans under the News Challenge grant is launching similar, Hacks/Hackers-style events here in the U.S., which will also serve as an introduction to ScraperWiki. Irving said the meetups are less about serving up punch and pie, but instead a way of fostering the kind of talk that happens when you bring different perspectives to talk about a shared interest.

“The value is in gathering, structuring, and building things people haven’t thought of yet,” he said.

More broadly, they plan to build out a new set of features for ScraperWiki, including an embargo tool that would allow journalists to create structured datasets that would be released on publication of a story; an on-demand tool for a seamless process for finding and releasing records; and alerts which could signal journalists on changes related to databases they follow.

And that gets to Irving’s larger hopes for uses of data, either in storytelling or surfacing vital information for the public’s use. Data journalism, he said, can serve a great purpose, but has to expand beyond simply accessing and assessing government records for stories. That’s why Irving is interested in the new generation of news apps that step outside of the article or investigative series, that take a different approach to visualization and display.

Irving said they’re happy to have a partner like Knight who has knowledge and connections in the world of journalism, which will be a help when ScraperWiki comes to these shores. The key ingredient, he said, is partnering the creative expertise of programmers, who can see new angles for code, and journalists, who can curate what’s important to the community.

“There’s going to be lots of things happening when you combine professional journalists with computer programs and they can supercharge each other,” he said.

16:00

More Awesome: News Challenge grantee Awesome Foundation wants to fund journalism at the micro level

There’s something inherently meta about the Awesome Foundation winning a grant from the Knight Foundation in order to…give grants. Also, something kinda awesome.

The Awesome Foundation: News Task Force, a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, wants to seed hundreds of projects to encourage new ventures in news and information for communities.

In essence, they’ll be acting as a mini-Knight Foundation, offering up support for journalism entrepreneurship and reinvention, one micro-grant at a time. Using the two-year, $244,000 grant, the Awesome Foundation’s new Institute on Higher Awesome Studies will specifically fund local journalism programs, events, apps, and prototypes.

But the news task force will be an experiment in how best to funding new media projects, as much as an exercise in supporting innovation. New funding models are on Knight’s collective mind these days, with the Knight News Challenge wrapping up and the foundation planning its next steps.

“We can help a foundation like Knight give money away in smaller increments to we can see what’s working and not working,” said Christina Xu, who will be overseeing the news task force project.

Tim Hwang, the founder of the Awesome Foundation, told me their structure, as much as there is one, is designed to build community and find the most effective uses for grants. “The Awesome Foundation proper is not a foundation at all,” Hwang said. “It’s an agreement between groups of 10 people to give money to cool projects.”

The Awesome Foundation model, small grants awarded in a quick fashion, is a departure from how nonprofit institutional support traditionally works in journalism, with multi-year, multi-zero checks. While that method certainly has its merits, the Awesome model, Hwang said, produces quicker results and can show whether a project is feasible. Ideally what the task force will do is combine the best of both worlds, making an Awesome Knight Foundation of sorts.

“One of the things we’re interested in, this project is an interesting experiment in bridging the gap from emerging platforms and foundations,” Hwang said.

Until now the Awesome Foundation’s work has primarily been more general purpose, focusing on geography, with chapters in cities around the U.S. and the world. Xu said following last year’s earthquakes in Haiti, the foundation wanted to find ways to broaden their kind of philanthropy. That took shape in the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, which, while still being awesome, would try to direct funds to more serious causes. Xu said the News Challenge goals for community information were a good fit with the types of proposals the Awesome Foundation receives.

The task force will first set up shop in Detroit and, following Awesome Foundation protocol, they’ll hire a “Dean of Awesome” who will act as a local administrator. The dean, with help from Knight, will identify 10-15 members of the community coming from media, government, technology or civic groups, who will serve as trustees, the group ultimately responsible for awarding grants. Xu said the project could be expanded in a similar model to cities like New Orleans and Miami. Aside from the cost of a stipend for the local administrator the bulk of the money from Knight would be used for grants.

The most obvious difference between the foundations Awesome and Knight is scale, which is something the news task force will try to use to its advantage as it provides grants. Xu and Hwang said the size of grants and the scope of work will attract an audience that may have gone under Knight’s radar. But the other benefit of scale could be the creation of a farm system for journalism and information ideas. After landing a task force microgrant, finessing a proposal or building a beta, the next possible step could be a larger grant from the Knight Foundation, Xu said.

“In the future, [microgrant winners] could be a great pool to be funded, something the Knight News Challenge might want to fund later on,” she said.

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