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November 15 2010

14:06

The Pros and Cons of Using Kickstarter to Fundraise

We recently ended our first big fundraising drive for the LocalWiki project and wanted to take a moment to step back and reflect.

In particular, we'd like to talk about the funding platform we used, Kickstarter, and its advantages and disadvantages. While we already had a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop the LocalWiki software, we need to raise more money to go beyond just the software and help us do community outreach, coordination and education to ensure our project's success.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors." It works like this:
  1. You post a project description on Kickstarter. You make a pitch video. The video isn't a strict requirement, but almost all funded projects have a video. You come up with a set of "rewards" for different pledge levels on the site. You set a funding goal and a time frame for your project.
  2. Kickstarter staff look at your proposed project and provide feedback. Then they (hopefully) approve your project and it's posted on the site.
  3. Your project goes live.
  4. If you don't hit your funding goal in the specified time frame, no one's cards get charged and you don't receive any of the funds.

Sounds simple enough, right?

An almost remarkable percentage of Kickstarter projects reach their funding goal. How's this possible? There are a few reasons why Kickstarter appears to be such a successful fundraising platform.

1. Staff Filtering

As mentioned before, the Kickstarter staff review postings before they appear on the site. In our case, it took a few days of back-and-forth with Kickstarter staff for our project to get a green light.

In our case, Kickstarter staff were concerned with our initial reward selections. Kickstarter wants you to have a rich selection of rewards that provide a lot of value to pledgers. For instance, something that seems like it ought to be worth $50 should be priced as close to market value as possible in the reward selection. We almost gave up on using Kickstarter because the approval process appeared to be pushing us toward a reward selection that would really cut into our real, post-reward funds.

That raises another important point: Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed. Their filtering process helps Kickstarter ensure high quality (lots of successful projects!) and also lets them push project creators to maximize their chances of success (well priced rewards!). The main reason Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed, though, is because Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your funds.

So, in our case, we ended up paying Kickstarter $1,316. That's fairly significant, but it may be worth it.

2. The Kickstarter "Mold"

Launching a Kickstarter project means you're going to have to do certain things if you want to meet your funding goal:
  • Produce a video about why you want to raise money. This helps you focus your message into a couple minutes. This helps you fundraise.
  • Write about, and provide updates, why you want to raise money. Again, this forces you to focus your message.
  • Widely publicize your project. This is magnified by the next point ("All-or-nothing").
Your project will also be sitting alongside lots of other interesting projects, so just "hanging out" on Kickstarter may help your fundraising effort seem more legitimate. However, you may not get many pledges from traffic originating from Kickstarter.com -- this really depends on what type of project you have. In our case, probably 90 percent of our pledges came directly from folks browsing Davis Wiki.

Having to fit into this mold means you're going to have to do the kinds of things that organizations that fundraise successfully do. Which is great, because you might not have done all these things otherwise.

3. User Interface

When we decided to launch our outreach/education fundraiser we didn't have a lot of time to prepare a fancy fundraising site. We knew the Knight Foundation grant announcement would generate a fair amount of press and we wanted to capitalize on that excitement and energy. We had a couple days before we had to be in Boston for the announcement and most of our time was spent making our fundraising video. So having a pre-built, well designed fundraising site like Kickstarter really helped us.

Here's what you see when you click the usual Paypal "Donate" button on our site:


and here's what you see when you click "Pledge" on Kickstarter:


While we could have crafted our own pledge drive interface on top of a payment gateway, using Kickstarter saved us a lot of time.

4. All Or Nothing

Kickstarter pledge drives are "all or nothing," meaning that if the goal isn't met by the specified time then no one's credit cards are charged and the project doesn't get any of the pledged funds.
 

Surprisingly, the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter is its greatest asset in ensuring projects hit their funding goal. Once a project has reached a certain threshold of funding, the project creators (and pledgers!) feel an intense desire to "unlock" the money. In fact, word has it that something around 90 percent of projects that reach 25 percent of their funding goal are eventually fully unded.

Having projects be all-or-nothing was probably a decision made by Kickstarter to support projects that need to meet a concrete goal, such as printing the first major run of a new book. These are, by and large, the sort of projects Kickstarter excels at funding -- projects where, if a certain amount of money isn't raised, the project simply isn't possible, or isn't worth it.

But what about projects that deviate from this format? Projects that need to fundraise money but aren't goal-or-doesn't-matter? For more general fundraising projects, the all-or-nothing property has an interesting effect: It functions as a sort of "matching donation" multipler. In traditional fundraising, matching donations -- where an individual or organization pledges to donation $X but only if $X is raised independently -- are a common and successful way to drum up contributions. With Kickstarter, a donation of $50 with a $10K goal can be thought of as being "matched" by 199 other $50 contributions!

The all-or-nothing characteristic is a way to create a big "matching donation" pool and helps drive pledges even for projects that could make do with less than their goal amount.

Drawbacks

It's not all milk and honey, though. There are some hidden drawbacks and costs to using Kickstarter.
 

Fees

Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your pledges and Amazon will take an additional amount (around 2 percent) on top of that. If your margins are slim, this could be significant.

You should think about it like this: I'm paying Kickstarter 5 percent of my pledge goal if we make it. Is the Kickstarter service worth the 5 percent? In particular, you should think about 1) The pre-built platform you get with Kickstarter; 2) the publicity of being on Kickstarter; 3) the "mold" that Kickstarter forces you into and the value of that.

#1 is worth it if you don't have a lot of time or resources to build something yourself. We certainly didn't.

In some cases, #2 is really valuable. Obscure, quirky projects can get amazing press just by being a part of Kickstarter. But if you're doing something more like a traditional community-based fundraiser you probably won't get much from #2. For us, the publicity of being on Kickstarter didn't drive a lot of pledges, but it did give us some valuable exposure.

I think everyone can benefit from #3 unless you're a large organization with a track record of successful fundraisers. In that case you've already got methodology, fundraising materials, and probably a big existing donor base.

It's hard to take Kickstarter fundraising offline

We held a couple of offline events during our pledge drive (a bar night and a silent auction). Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to move offline funds back onto Kickstarter. You're not permitted to "pledge" toward your own project, which means you need to find a trustworthy third party to agree to pledge any offline funds. This also means the offline donors won't be noted on Kickstarter.

For local community-based fundraising efforts this can be problematic.

The all-or-nothing system is a bit confusing

Unfortunately, the all-or-nothing pledge system can be a bit confusing. Many folks we talked to thought they had already given us money before we hit our funding deadline.

Our fundraising period was 90 days -- the longest allowed by Kickstarter -- and so there were lots of people who'd simply forgotten they'd pledged by the time their cards were charged. Thankfully, Kickstarter is astonishingly good at collecting funds (they pester pledgers with an email every day for a week if their card is declined), and we only saw a few pledges that never came through.

Many successful projects are basically product sales

Despite the perception of Kickstarter as a fundraising site, a large number of high profile Kickstarter projects are, at their core, product sales. What do I mean by product sales?

Well, all Kickstarter projects have rewards. And unless you get remarkably lucky, you're going to have some cost associated with acquiring, shipping, and dealing with that reward. For folks in the non-profit world, we're all very familiar with the standard tax-deductability formula that's on donation receipts:

(Amount contributed) - (Value of goods or services given to donor) = Deductible amount

This isn't just some tax mumbo-jumbo -- it tells that the donor intended to give at least the deductible amount to the organization or project itself. But this formula doesn't tell us everything. After all, oftentimes we get goods or services donated to us and then, in turn, give them away. We're still bringing in money, either way. So the important missing part here is the cost to us of those goods or services, right?

(Amount contributed) - (Cost to us of goods or services given to donor) = Our profit

The first formula is still useful for differentiating these "I'm basically selling something" Kickstarter projects from "I'm doing something amazing, help us!" projects. So let's call the first formula the "Donation amount" and the second formula the "Profit amount."

How do projects measure up?

Methodology: I calculated Profit and Donation amount by using my best guess of production cost and resell value of the rewards (to an interested party). For instance, a T-shirt is counted as having little or no value (unless the project is all about T-shirts). This is roughly how the IRS counts things.

I also subtracted estimated Kickstarter and Amazon fees from total profit. I also factored in over-pledging and "no reward" choices.

The following are projects I've heard about recently, either because they got widespread press or because they touched my social circle in some way:

  • Vuvuzelas for BP: Raised $6,846 with a pledge goal of $2,000. Estimated Profit: $5,437. Estimated Donations: $6,846. Profit percentage: 79%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • NIMBY - Industrial Art and DIY Space: Raised $17,897 with a pledge goal of $17,255. Estimated Profit: $16,161. Estimated Donation: $17,823. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • Hollaback!: Raised $13,560 with a pledge goal of $12,500. Estimated Profit: $12,241. Estimated Donation: $13,466. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 99%.
  • Decentralize the web with Diaspora: Raised $200,641 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $135,905. Estimated Donation: $180,051. Profit percentage: 67%. Donation percentage: 90%.
  • Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America: Raised $12,568 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $11,397. Estimated Donation: $10,848. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 86%.
  • Punk Mathematics: Raised $28,701 with a pledge goal of $2,400. Estimated Profit: $20,224. Estimated Donation: $17,225. Profit percentage: 70%. Donation percentage: 60%.
  • Power Laces: Raised $25,024 with a pledge goal of $25,000. Estimated Profit: $12,429. Estimated Donation: $12,904. Profit percentage: 50%. Donation percentage: 51%.
  • Designing Obama: Raised $84,613 with a pledge goal of $65,000. Estimated Profit: $24,717. Estimated Donation: $30,010. Profit percentage: 29%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Coming and Crying: Real stories about sex from the other side of the bed: Raised $17,242 with a pledge goal of $3,000. Estimated Profit: $10,773. Estimated Donation: $6,144. Profit percentage: 62%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Glif - iPhone 4 Tripod Mount & Stand: Raised $137,417 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $98,950. Estimated Donation: $15,467. Profit ratio: 72%. Donation ratio: 11%.
  • Lockpicks by Open Locksport: Raised $87,407 with a pledge goal of $6,000. Estimated Profit: $64,043. Estimated Donation: $4,922. Profit percentage: 73%. Donation percentage: 6%.

This is hardly a proper random sample, and all of these projects were successfully funded. Many projects on Kickstarter never reach their funding goal. Unfortunately, it's difficult to search Kickstarter for unsuccessful projects for more data points.

Additionally, there are other costs associated with shipping rewards and time spent drumming up pledges, processing shipments, etc. Theses costs weren't included, but some costs (like time) are very real.

Conclusion

So, is Kickstarter good for running fundraising drives? Well, let's take a look at this graph:

That big spike is the Diaspora project, which had a few extraordinary factors working in its favor -- perfect timing, massive public backlash against Facebook, and a huge NYT piece. Ignoring that spike, it's clear that the projects which have the highest Kickstarter totals are those that are actually getting the least amount in donation-like pledges.

So while Kickstarter has many high-profile, successful pledge drives under their belt, the campaigns that raise the most cash tend to not look much like traditional donation drives.

All-in-all, we're happy we used Kickstarter. It helped us raise significantly more than we would have otherwise. It has drawbacks, though, particularly for non-profit organizations wanting to run somewhat traditional fundraising drives.

October 05 2010

16:04

LocalWiki to Create Collaborative, Community-Owned Local Media

So much of the unique knowledge and experiences we acquire through years of living in a community gets spread only by word of mouth, or worse it just stays "locked up" in our heads. But this is great stuff, valuable expert knowledge that can benefit everyone. After all, when it comes to the communities where we live, we are all experts!

What if everyone could share and collaborate on what they know about their local community? What would local media look like if everyone in the community was creating it?

The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Here's the Knight foundation video about our project:

Knight News Challenge: Local Wiki from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Background

In 2004 we started the Davis Wiki, an experimental project to collect and share interesting information about the town of Davis, California. The site is editable by anyone and it soon became the world's largest and most vibrant community wiki.

Today the residents of Davis use it for everything from learning about local news and local history, to helping return lost pets to their owners. It's become the largest, most used media source in the city. On any given week, nearly half of residents use the Davis wiki; Nearly everyone uses it on a monthly basis. And 1 in 7 residents contribute material to the Davis Wiki.

The Davis Wiki is maintained, at almost every level, by the community at large. Here's a short video clip about the Davis Wiki:

What About Local Blogs?

In 2007, when the Knight News Challenge began, local blogs were the hot new thing. The Knight Foundation was awarding grants to a variety of great local blog projects.

In 2010, blogs are a widespread, tested model for disseminating information about local happenings. A local blog -- a time-based series of updates on a particular topic -- is in many ways an extension of the time-based model of newspapers. While a local blog may sit on an easily accessible website with lots of comments and frequent updates, it is fundamentally a stream of new facts and new bits of information, day after day.

This bit-by-bit, time-based approach to providing information clearly has its origins in the printing and circulation process of newspapers. And our communities benefit from having strong, thriving local blogs and newspapers. But with the instant, always-on access afforded by the Internet we can build a new form of local media that is constantly updated, provides the full context around local issues, and is maintained by the entire community.

Local Media, By Everyone

Another limitation of blogs is that they are written by at most a handful of people. With a local blog, a few people write and everyone else reads (and maybe leaves comments).

Here's how that looks: local_blog.png

People can interact and share through comments and Twitter, etc., but this doesn't allow the community to command the full publishing power of the resource. And as new facts (often provided by commenters or via Twitter) arrive, the editorial team has to update their post (if we're lucky!) to reflect what's new. Or perhaps publish another post, leading to more information fragmentation.

With our local wiki projects, the entire community will not only read, but also contribute to and maintain the resource:

local_wiki.png

A High-Quality Online Hub For Every Community

How do you find out more information about a particular topic in your community? With only local blogs and newspapers to depend on, you'll quickly find yourself sorting through a scattered web of posts and news tidbits going back years. Wouldn't it be great to have an information hub with the full context behind these important local topics?

This is the final recommendation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy report:

infoneeds1.jpg

It's also a central objective of the LocalWiki project. We hope that our local wiki projects will offer a workable, sustainable model for building and maintaining amazing local information hubs.

We're just getting started on the LocalWiki project and we couldn't be more excited! If you'd like to get more information, or help out with the project, fill out the "Help out & get more info" box at localwiki.org.

We also need your help finding pilot communities for the project! If you know of a great place -- or great people! -- for us to work with, please fill out the pilot recommendation form.

June 16 2010

19:30

Knight Announces News Challenge Winners for 2010

knight placard.jpg

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- I am at MIT for the announcement of the latest round of News Challenge winners. First up is the president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Alberto Ibarguen. (Note: The Twitter widget on Idea Lab is now a feed taken from the conference's hashtag: #fncm.)

Alberto Ibarguen, Knight Foundation CEO: We didn't have a clue as to how to deal with the changes in the media business, so we started the News Challenge. We've had thousands of applicants. It was designed to be open, and was meant for news and information to be shared in a community using a digital platform. We got sidetracked looking for technical innovation but righted the ship by looking at information that engages communities.

We're actively engaging community foundations. Have of the community of foundations in the U.S. have applied to a separate contest we have for them to meet the needs of communities. It's also open ended, and we match funding they get. The Knight fellows program at Stanford, where we have no power, has also shifted onto an entrepreneurial, digital-based solutions. We also gave a grant to NPR to train all of their personnel on digital, and are about to do a second round with them, trying to bring NPR into the digital age.

We are about to enter our fifth year for the contest, but we will remain committed to innovation in the field after that.

*****

Here's the full list of Knight News Challenge winners for 2010, the fourth year of the contest that awards grants to people who are helping to reinvent community news. The winners will be blogging here on Idea Lab over the next year or more, so you'll get to know them even better.

CityTracking
Award: $400,000
Winner: Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen Design
Web URL: http://stamen.com; http://crimespotting.org
Twitter: @stamen
Location: San Francisco
Summary: To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.

Bio: Eric Rodenbeck is the founder and creative director of Stamen, a leading mapping and data visualization design studio based in San Francisco. Recent Stamen projects for the London 2012 Olympics, MSNBC and the City of San Francisco push the boundaries of online cartography and design. In addition, the studio's contribution to open source mapping projects are helping to make possible a bottom-up revolution in how maps and data visualization are made and consumed. Rodenbeck led the interactive storytelling and data-driven narrative effort at Quokka Sports, illustrated and designed at Wired magazine and Wired Books, and was a co-founder of the design collective Umwow. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Rodenbeck received a bachelor's in the history and philosophy of technology from The New School for Social Research in 1994. In 2008, he was named one of Esquire magazine's "Best and Brightest" new designers and thinkers, and one of ID Magazine's top 40 designers to watch. He is on the board of directors of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

*****

The Cartoonist
Award: $378,000
Winner: Ian Bogost and Michael Mateas
Web URL: http://www.gatech.edu
Twitter: @ibogost
Location: Atlanta
Summary: To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games -- the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don't have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.

Bio: Ian Bogost, a videogame designer, critic and researcher, is associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner at Persuasive Games. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on political and art games. Bogost is the author of "Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism," "Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames," the co-author of "Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System" and the forthcoming "Newsgames: Journalism at Play." Bogost's videogames cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Michael Mateas is an authority on artificial intelligence for games and interactive entertainment. His research group at the University of California, Santa Cruz, The Expressive Intelligence Studio, is one of the largest technical game research groups in the world. He holds the MacArthur Endowed Chair and helped create the first game design program in the University of California system. With Andrew Stern, he created the award-winning Façade, the first artificial intelligence-based interactive drama.

*****

Local Wiki
Award: $350,000
Winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov
Web URL: http://daviswiki.org
Twitter: @philipn; @mivanov
Location: San Francisco
Summary: Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn -- and share -- their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.

Bio: Philip Neustrom is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. For the past several years he has worked on a variety of nonprofit efforts to engage everyday citizens. He oversaw the development of the popular VideoTheVote.org, the world's largest coordinated video documentation project, and was the lead developer at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a nonprofit focused on empowering traditionally underrepresented constituencies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.

Mike Ivanov is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. He, along with Philip Neustrom, was awarded the Excellence in Community Involvement Award by the City of Davis for his work on the DavisWiki, an honor usually reserved for traditional local media formats such as radio and television. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.

*****

windycitizen profile.jpg

WindyCitizen's Real Time Ads
Award: $250,000
Winner: Brad Flora, WindyCitizen.com
Web URL: http://nowspots.com
Twitter: @bradflora
Location: Chicago
Summary: As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as "real-time ads." These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change -- showing the latest message or post from the advertiser's Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.

Bio: Brad Flora is a journalist and entrepreneur in Chicago. He is the founder and president of WindyCitizen.com, which gives Chicagoans a place to share, rate and discuss their favorite local stories, events and deals. His work has appeared in Slate magazine and Chicago-area newspapers. He was a 2008 Carnegie-Knight News 21 Fellow and is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

*****

GoMap Riga
Award: $250,000
Winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus, GoMap Riga
Web URL: www.gomap.org; www.KristofsBlaus.com
Twitter: @kristofsblaus; @MarcisRubenis
Location: Riga, Latvia
Summary: To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.

Bio: Marcis Rubenis is a social entrepreneur in Riga, Latvia. In 2006, he initiated the first non-governmental organization (NGO) network in Riga, to foster greater transparency, sustainability and public participation in large-scale development plans in the capital. Rubenis is a multiple business competition award winner, including garnering second place in the biggest international student team business competition in Europe in 2006. Rubenis is also the founder of the crowdsourcing organization, "House of Ideas," and the co-founder of the event format, idejuTalka (ideaCamp), which uses crowdsourcing to fuel grassroots solutions for business and society. Rubenis studies economics at the University of Latvia and is researching how crowdsourcing, open source and similar models of social organization can benefit real world communities and businesses.

Kristofs Blaus is a European entrepreneur managing various innovative businesses in the Baltics. Since 2007, he has successfully worked with teaching-aid software for mobile phones, advanced marketing solutions, payment systems and delivering advanced IT services. Blaus, the winner of various business competitions in Latvia, is founder and CEO of Education Mobile Ltd., Technology Mobile Ltd. and Politics Mobile Ltd., and founder of the Society Technologies Foundation. He has lectured and presented to young entrepreneurs, teachers, young leaders and business students across the Baltic region.

*****

Order in the Court 2.0
Award: $250,000
Winner: John Davidow, WBUR
Web URL: www.wbur.org
Twitter: @johndavidow
Location: Boston
Summary: To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and '80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.

Bio: John Davidow was named WBUR's executive editor of new media in July of 2009, where he has overseen the growth of the award-winning wbur.org. Davidow joined WBUR as news director/managing editor in 2003 after spending more than two decades as a journalist in Boston. Davidow's work has been recognized with regional awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Associated Press and UPI. He has also recieved a number of regional Emmy Awards. Davidow graduated cum laude from Tufts University with a bachelor's in economics.

*****

Front Porch Forum
Award: $220,000
Winner: Michael Wood-Lewis, Front Porch Forum
Web URL: http://frontporchforum.com
Twitter: @MichaelFPF
Location: Burlington, Vt.
Summary: To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.

Bio: Michael Wood-Lewis has been pulling neighbors together into community since his Indiana childhood spent organizing ball games and visiting neighbors on his evening paper route. Decades later, he founded Front Porch Forum, which hosts a pilot network of 140 online neighborhood forums that blankets 25 northwest Vermont towns. More than 18,000 households subscribe to Front Porch Forum. The resulting news sharing and community building is attracting recognition from PBS MediaShift, the Vermont legislature, the Rural Telecom Congress and the Case and Orton Family Foundations. Previously, he led an innovative trade association of New England utilities. Earlier, he guided a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of U.S. municipal leaders in developing environmental technologies, building on his experience as an inventor of high-tech recycling equipment. He earned a master's in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as an MBA.

*****

One-Eight
Award: $202,000
Winner: Teru Kuwayama
Web URL: www.novembereleven.org; www.lightstalkers.org/teru
Twitter: @terukuwayama
Location: Chicago
Summary: Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal -- steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.

Bio: Teru Kuwayama is a photographer who has spent most of the past decade reporting on conflict and humanitarian crisis. He has reported in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Iraq - traveling both independently and as an embedded reporter with military forces. His photographs have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic. Kuwayama is the co-founder of Lightstalkers.org, a web-based network of media, military, aid and development personnel serving more than 40,000 members. He is currently a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Kuwayama received a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany.

*****

Stroome
Award: $200,000
Winner: Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty, Stroome
Web URL: http://stroome.com
Twitter: @nonnydlp; @stroome
Location: Los Angeles
Summary: To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues -- all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video -- often captured by mobile phones or webcams -- is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.

Bio: Recently named an "Innovator to Watch" by the University of Southern California's (USC) Stevens Institute for Innovation, Tom Grasty is an entrepreneurial digital and media strategist with a diverse, 15-year background across the entertainment, advertising, public relations and Internet industries. Most recently, Grasty was head of creative development at Blaze Television, where he was responsible for the company's digital media operations. Grasty has a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a master's from USC's pioneering program in online communities.

Nonny de la Peña is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. At USC, she is pushing boundaries for entrepreneurial and technologically innovative journalistic endeavors. A graduate of Harvard University, she is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with 20 years of journalism experience, including as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine and as a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Premiere magazine and others. Her films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the globe, garnering praise from critics like the New York Times' A.O. Scott, who called her work "a brave and necessary act of truth-telling."

*****

CitySeed
Award: $90,000
Winner: Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell, Arizona State University
Web URL: www.painteddesertmedia.com; http://codyshotwell.com
Twitter: @codyshotwell; @rethahill
Location: Phoenix
Summary: To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the "seed" of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to "geotag" the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.

Bio: Retha Hill is the director of the New Media Innovation Lab and professor of practice at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The innovative laboratory conducts research and development for the media industry. She joined the Cronkite School in fall 2007. Previously, Hill was vice president for content development for BET Interactive, where she was the executive in charge of content strategy, convergence and integration with the BET Network. She worked for The Washington Post Company in a variety of capacities, including as a reporter and a founding editor of Washingtonpost.com. Hill also is the owner of Painted Desert Media, LLC, a Phoenix-based media consulting company.

Cody Shotwell has lived in downtown Phoenix since 2008. A fresh graduate of the Masters of Mass Communication program at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Seattle-area native keeps his fingers on the pulse of the journalism community through his day job as web coordinator at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

*****

PRX StoryMarket
Award: $75,000
Winner: Jake Shapiro, PRX
Web URL: www.prx.org
Twitter: @jakeshapiro
Location: Boston
Summary: Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

Bio: Jake Shapiro is CEO of PRX, The Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace connecting stations, producers and the public. Since its launch in 2003, PRX has been a leading innovator in public media, pioneering new digital distribution models and social media applications. In 2008, PRX received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Prior to joining PRX, Shapiro was associate director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where he remains on the Fellows Advisory Board. Shapiro is also an independent musician and has recorded and performed on guitar and cello with numerous groups, most frequently with original rock band Two Ton Shoe.

*****

Tilemapping
Award: $74,000
Winner: Eric Gundersen, Development Seed
Web URL: www.developmentseed.org
Twitter: @ericg
Location: Washington, D.C.
Summary: To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.

Bio: Eric Gundersen is the president and co-founder of Development Seed. Over the past seven years, Gundersen has developed communications strategies and tools for some of the largest international development organizations in the world, in addition to working with U.S.-based public health and education organizations. He is especially interested in improving information flows within large organizations and visualizing information in actionable ways.

Gundersen, a 2009 winner of the Federal 100 award for his contributions to government technology, earned his master's in international development from American University in Washington, D.C., and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations. He co-founded Development Seed while researching technology access and microfinance in Peru. Before starting Development Seed, Gundersen was a journalist in Washington, D.C. writing on the environment and national security.

*****

What do you think about the winning grantees? Which are you most excited about? What do you think is missing among the winners? Share your thoughts in the comments.

18:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

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

The Cartoonist

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

The amount: $378,000

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

Local Wiki

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

The amount: $350,000

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

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

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

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

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

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

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

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

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

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

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

Stroome

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

The amount: $200,000

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

CitySeed

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

The amount: $90,000

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

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

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

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

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

November 06 2009

14:54

Welcome to Davis, Calif.: Six lessons from the world’s best local wiki

Ah, Davis: home of 60,000 people, 30,000 students, 188 sunny days a year, a 16 percent bike commute mode share and the busiest local wiki in the world.

If I were Omaha World-Herald Publisher Terry Kroeger, I’d be booking my post-holiday flight immediately.

As Gina reported here last week, Omaha’s employee-owned metro daily just bought WikiCity, an Omaha-based Web startup that wamts to provide mini-Wikipedias for every city in the country. Creating a cheap platform for evergreen, user-generated local Web content has been tried, um, once or twice before. But with some notable exceptions, corporations have turned out to be really, really bad at this.

Philip Neustrom hasn’t.

Today, the quirky 500-page wiki Neustrom launched with fellow UC Davis math student Mike Ivanov in 2004 has 14,000 pages and drew 13,000 edits by 3,300 users last month, averaging 10,000 unique visitors daily. More importantly, it’s the best way in town to find a lost cat, compare apartment rental prices or get a list of every business open past 10 p.m. Operating budget, not counting its founders’ part-time volunteer labor: about $2,000 a year.

What’s the secret? Neustrom, who now wrangles code for the Citizen Engagement Lab in the Bay Area, was nice enough to tell us.

Wikis need content to breed content. Or, as evergreen-content guru Matt Thompson put it last week, a wiki written primarily by robots will appeal primarily to robots.

“Starting anything is hard,” said Neustrom, now 25. “The issue is predominantly an issue of outreach, of coordinating people and making sure people understand that they can’t just put something up there and add 50 pages and walk away, and then come back in a month and hope that it’s taken off.”

Instead, Neustrom, Ivanov convinced some of their friends to spend four summer months writing snippets about things that only exist in Davis, like drunken biking through late-night fog, oversized playground equipment and the smell from the cow farm on the edge of town.

“We were just trying to do something that we liked,” Neustrom said. “We certainly weren’t trying to do anything that was very useful.”

Business information is the holy grail. Pages about your local toad tunnel are dandy, Neustrom said, and quirky content kept the site from feeling generic to early users. But the feature that made DavisWiki take off was what the traditional media calls “consumer reporting.”

“After we’d sort of seeded it with 500 pages or something like that, we opened it up to the public,” Neustrom said. “First, it was pretty slow going. Nothing really happened.”

Then, sometime in late 2005, pages on things like lunch specials and Davis’s nicest bathrooms started filling up. Local business coverage has been “a big driving force” ever since, Neustrom said. Today, he said, retail businesses in town often keep their own information on DavisWiki up to date.

A wiki’s strengths kick in after one year. The web craves news like kids crave sugar. Blogs and tweets are gobbled fast and burn quick. But wikis are the whole grains of the web: One year after news breaks, someone will want to find and link to it again — and a wiki is likely to be the only place it’s still hanging around.

“All of the existing online resources for sort of cataloging anything about the town were sort of time-based,” Neustrom said. “After about a year and a half, these things would sort of disappear, even if they’d been around for 100 years, like the local newspaper…So we became the resource of record.”

Start with a subculture, then build out to a general audience. DavisWiki has always aspired to cover its whole town, but it’s always served students best.

That’s all right, Neustrom thinks. If he’d tried to please everybody who showed up, no one would have come back.

“When building something like this, you can’t just aim for this wide spectrum at first,” Neustrom said. Some companies try to launch wikis by writing programs that “crawl through a database, that spit out statistics and create 13 million pages and put that out there and hope that it’s going to stick. You can’t do that. It’s just not going to work.”

Neustrom, who spent 2004 sharing a house with musicians, found his base among the artsy, but he thinks any subculture would do. “You could have, like, a physics grad student start a community for their town, and it’s a bunch of physics nerds,” he said. “And that could spiral out and out.”

Keep your content open source, no matter what. Don’t do it for marketing reasons or out of the kindness of your heart. Do it because it’s the only way to guarantee to your users that if you fold, all their hard work won’t die with you.

Good wikis inspire rabid devotion — if they don’t, they never become good wikis. Neustrom and Ivanov keep their budget online and think of the project as a user co-op. Their users did, too. “There are people on there who literally spend four hours a day looking at DavisWiki,” Neustrom said. “People had free [computer lab] pages every quarter, so they would use their excess printing to print out 400 fliers and staple them to every room on campus.”

People don’t do that for sites they think are “neat,” Neustrom said. They do it for sites they own.

Don’t get hung up on mimicking Wikipedia. Sure, it may be the most useful object ever created by human beings. But as Marshall Poe showed in his terrific biography of Wikipedia’s youth, its rules — universal editorship, neutral point of view, no original research — were forged out of year-long flamewars among the early Wikipedians. Neustrom and his friends didn’t think NPOV was suited to an inherently Davis-centric site, so they ditched it.

Wikipedia’s widely used software, MediaWiki, isn’t perfect either. DavisWiki uses a modified Sycamore platform but it, too, has flaws.

“People want to be able to search for all elementary schools within a certain radius of a certain point, or all of the restaurants that serve vegan food,” Neustrom said. “MediaWiki suffers the same issue [as Sycamore] — it was written before the advent of modern web framework.”

Neustrom is yearning for a modern wiki platform. That’s why he’s been messing around with Django this year. It’s also why he’s incorporating Wikispot, the nonprofit he set up to reproduce DavisWiki for other towns and topics, as a 501(c)3.

Looking for a tax write-off, Terry?

Photo by Arlen used under a Creative Commons license.

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