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April 04 2011


LocalWiki Codes, Talks, Searches for Pilot Community

Here's a summary of what we've been up to for the past month or so at LocalWiki: coding, coding, coding, coding, talking, coding, talking, talking, coding, coding, coding. Occasionally we take breaks for sleep and nutritional intake purposes. Want more detail? Read on!

Code, code, code, code & milestone

We've been hard at work on the software side of the project. In the past month, we've:

  • begun serious work on our collaborative mapping system;
  • made the basic functions of our page editor work better;
  • and come up with a way to allow for plug-ins and dynamic content inside pages.

We're aiming to have something that our first pilot community can use to begin building content by May 1. It won't be pretty or complete. Our goal is to allow our first pilot to start experimenting and providing feedback while using the software to start building something great in their community. This milestone will also be a good point for interested developers to jump in, as we'll have something a little more polished and cohesive than we do now.

Talk, talk, talk

This month, we had a panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, titled "Too Small, Too Open: Correcting Wikipedia's Local Failure." It went really well, despite being at 9:30 am on a Saturday! I was joined by Phoebe Ayers of the Wikimedia Foundation and Michael Trice of the University of Leeds Centre for Digital Citizenship.

In February, we were part of a roundtable at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, to discuss the unveiling of a paper they wrote with the Knight Foundation about local community information hubs. Their report praises the model we are developing. "Davis Wiki site offers almost everything the authors of the Informing Communities report hoped for when they drew up the seven key ingredients for any local online hub," the authors wrote.

A few weeks before that, we gave a talk at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Knight Digital Media Center on the Davis Wiki and a bit about our work on the LocalWiki project.

Choosing our first pilot community

Assuming all goes according to plan, we'll choose our first pilot community to work with in six weeks. But we need your help. We're looking for some particular characteristics for our first pilot community:

  • willingness to work with incomplete software;
  • ability to work fairly autonomously, at least at first;
  • preferably, a community where the media landscape is not already crowded;
  • patience and commitment -- it will take time and effort;
  • and enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder!

Know of some great people in a place that fits what we're looking for? If so, please recommend a pilot community. We'll be in contact with potential candidates for our first pilot in five weeks or so. Expect an Idea Lab update around that time.

February 17 2011


LocalWiki Tries "Open-From-The-Start" Development Process

It's time for another project update. We've been hard at work on the core of the software that will power LocalWiki. We've also been spending time running around meeting people passionate about local media and planning out many things to come.

Basic groundwork laid


Many of you know about the Davis Wiki, but what you may not know is that we developed the custom software that powers it ourselves. Back in 2004, there was just nothing else that could do everything you see on the Davis Wiki while being easy enough for most people to use. Developing the custom software was well worth the effort, but the more we learned along the way, the more we wished we could change some of the choices we had made early on and build on a better foundation.

When we got the opportunity to embark on the LocalWiki project, we knew this was our chance to take another look at the core of wiki software and rebuild it using today's technology and the lessons we learned from years of experience and analyzing our other wiki engines' code. At the most basic level, one of the things we learned was that providing even simple wiki features like editing and versioning pages was difficult and cumbersome. What's worse, if done wrong these things make it downright painful for developers to add more complex features. For instance, while there may have been lots of code to help save and track versions of pages, that code couldn't be used to help someone save and track versions of map points.

By laying a solid foundation for the LocalWiki software, we'll not only make it easier for others to create basic wiki-like systems but that code will also allow us to go farther with our vision of making the best software for local communities to collaborate on information. In the past couple of months we've written an extensive versioning system for the Django framework that will allow us to simplify later development; explored and refined ways to show changes between different objects, especially rendered HTML pages; began the work on our graphic editor interface; and did lots and lots of research on different technologies.

Opening up our development process

We want the LocalWiki project to have an open-from-the-start development process. As such, while the code isn't ready for casual contributors quite yet, we are fully opening our development process. While we have experience working in the open-source world, one thing we're new at is working full-time alongside other folks. We'll probably make some mistakes, but we want to get this right.

Are you an experienced developer who wants to get involved? Please sign up for our developer mailing list. We'll be sending out a super-geeky developer update in the next day or two.

A (tiny) space to call our own


A little over a week ago, we moved into a little hole-in-the-wall office space. After working out of a coworking space for the first two months, we felt we could be more productive without the distractions that come with sharing a space with so many (admittedly, incredibly nice and professional) people. The space in San Francisco's Mission District is tiny and barely fits two desks, but it's quiet, it's convenient, and we can stay here late into the night working. After spending a weekend furnishing it, the new space has made a huge difference in our comfort, communication, and ability to work for hours on end without interruptions. It also turns out to be cheaper than the coworking setup, which is a nice bonus.

What about the Kickstarter funds?

Several months ago, we faced a serious issue: The Knight Foundation committed funding to the software development aspects of the LocalWiki project, but essential outreach and education aspects were unfunded. With your help, we raised an absolutely essential fund through Kickstarter.com to support outreach and education in pilot communities.

Our plan for the Kickstarter fund is to hold on to it until we begin the outreach and education phase of the project, which will happen shortly after the first pilot community is selected.

October 06 2010


Trust, mobile, and money: New focal points (and hints for applicants) for the new Knight News Challenge

For the first time, this year’s Knight News Challenge will be requesting entries in three specific categories: mobile, revenue models, and reputation/credibility. The contest judges won’t be seeking a certain quota of finalists in each category: “It’s much more of a signal to the population at large: These are the areas that need your attention,” Knight consultant Jennifer 8. Lee said on Monday, at a San Francisco information session sponsored by Hacks/Hackers.

Up to now, Lee said the Knight Foundation’s attitude towards the contest has been “we don’t know what news innovation is — you tell us.” But over the past four years, trends have emerged among the contest entries that mirror the broader development of the news business. 2010 was the year of mapping and data visualization projects, Lee said. In 2011, Knight sees innovations in credibility determination, mobile technology, and revenue model generation as key areas of development.

Credibility in the news business used to be based on the brand reputation of large media outlets. But in a world in which anyone can report, and in which, in Lee’s words, rumors can explode and die within a day on Twitter, there’s a need for new ways to measure and establish credibility. For example, Lee said, “How do you know that this person is more serious reporting out of Tehran, or Iran, than that person?” In the world of online media, rumors can gain momentum more quickly and easily than in the traditional media ecosystem. What kinds of tools and filters could be used to combat hoaxes and determine the trustworthiness of online information? That third category is “the one that’s the most vague — and purposefully so,” Lee said.

The mobile and revenue models categories are more straightforward. Last year, the Chicago news site Windy Citizen won $250,000 to develop a software interface to creates “real-time ads” which constantly update with the most recent information from a business’ Twitter feed or Facebook page. Lee said this was a good example of a revenue model project.

The Knight News Challenge is also increasingly open to awarding funding to for-profit companies who want to build open-source projects. Last cycle, one of the grantees was Stamen Design, a top data visualization firm whose founder and employees had a proven commitment to making open source tools in their free time. Knight provided them with $400,000 to dedicate staff hours to projects that they would previously have done on weekends. There are many different ways of making Knight funding viable for for-profit companies, Lee said, so long as the companies can carefully document how the foundation funding is being applied to open-source work. “You can create the open-sourcey version of your project. That part becomes open source, and the other one doesnt,” Lee said. In order to open funding to for-profit companies, “Knight has been really, really creative with the IRS,” Lee said. The foundation has been adapting statutes originally designed to encourage affordable housing development and applying them to open source news projects.

Last year, out of 2,300 initial applications, the Knight Foundation ultimately made 12 grants totaling about $3 million. Lee and two successful News Challenge grantees explained what factors make a project a strong contender—and what pitfalls lead to an early rejection.

— Your project should already have a working prototype. When the creators of Davis Wiki (which the Lab has been following for a while) applied for grant funding to expand their project, they weren’t just pitching a concept. They could point judges to a thriving local website which collects community insight and serves as an open forum for residents to deal with everything from scam artists to lost kittens.

As LocalWiki’s Philip Neustrom explained, one in seven people in Davis, Calif., have contributed material to Davis Wiki, and in a week “basically half” of the city’s residents visit the site. This June, Davis Wiki made The New York Times when residents used the site to assemble information about a local scam artist, the “Crying Girl.”

Neustrom and Mike Ivanov co-founded Davis Wiki in 2004. So by the time they were applying for a 2010 KNC grant, they already had a mature, well-developed site to demonstrate the viability of what they were planning to do.

— Your project should be sustainable. Knight doesn’t want the projects they fund to wither away as soon as the grant money runs out. In the case of LocalWiki, what may be the best proof of their sustainability was actually made after they won Knight funding. Their recent Kickstarter campaign, which closed last month, raised $26,324 for outreach and education work, and 98 percent of that came from Davis community members, Neustrom said. Davis residents helped raise money by organizing a dance party, a silent auction, and fundraising nights at a bar — evidence that future LocalWiki sites will be able to build grassroots support.

— Your project should be catalytic. As a project reviewer, Lee said she looks for ideas that will catalyze development in a larger area. That means not just having a proven concept, but having one that’s scalable and that brings innovation to an area that needs attention.

Out of 2,300 applicants last year, only 500 were asked to provide a full proposal, and 50 of those became finalists. In the final round, Lee said, there was a lot of consensus between the judges about what projects were ultimately promising. The judges were allowed to apportion their votes between different projects, and 28 of the 50 got no votes, Lee said. Among the common problems with proposals:

— Don’t ask Knight to fund content. Lee said the KNC receives many proposals for, say, money to start a hyperlocal blog in North Carolina. But while the idea of a hyperlocal blog was innovative five or six years ago, Lee said, “at this point, it’s no longer cutting edge. The point of the Knight News Challenge is to encourage innovation, creativity.”

— Don’t apply with projects that don’t fit Knight’s mission. As with any contest, some projects try to shoehorn themselves into an inappropriate category for the sake of funding. A grant to do a project using SMS to provide health information in Africa, for example, would be “too specific to be interesting to the Knight News Challenge,” Lee said.

— Don’t be vague. For example: applying to create “a news aggregator.”

— Avoid generic citizen journalism projects. Say a group wanted to take Flip cams and give them to inner city kids as an experiment in citizen journalism. “We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore,” Lee said. “It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.”

— Have the credibility to make the project work. An applicant may have a good idea for an innovative project, but he or she also has to have the experience and credibility to actually pull it off. One tip-off that credibility is lacking? If he or she asks for an amount of grant funding that’s disproportional to the realistic needs of the project.

[Disclosure: Both Knight Foundation and Lee have been financial supporters of the Lab.]

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