Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

2011 Knight News Challenge winners discuss successes, road bumps and challenges

April 17, 2012, 11:53 a.m., Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

The Tiziano Project, a 2011 Knight News Challenge winner, provides new media tools and training to community members in conflict, post-conflict and developing regions.

Nine months after being named winners, the people behind the 2011 Knight News Challenge projects gathered in Miami for a day of discussing their wins and road bumps in moving their ideas forward.

Several themes emerged - including deep discussions on how projects are developing or tapping into existing user communities to have an impact.

Some have already had success: The Public Laboratory, for example, which uses technology to make grassroots data gathering and research easy and affordable, has already recruited 600 “citizen scientists,” said Project Lead Shannon Dosemagen. They’ve used creative methods, like employing balloon mapping to capture aerial imagery of oil spill-affected areas along the Gulf Coast. The projects, which started out appealing to the mapping community, grew to include environmentalists, people interested in data visualization and more.

Others stumbled upon existing communities that ended up becoming audiences and providing useful information.

·           Spending Stories, which gives relevant and useful context to news stories about government finances, started out creating a tool for journalists, said the project’s Community Coordinator Lucy Chambers. “As it turns out - it’s mainly advocacy groups who have more time and specialist knowledge who use the software for research, who then reach out to journalists to help raise awareness. We've been working more proactively with advocacy groups to leverage this interest.”      

·           Waldo Jaquith recently launched the Virginia Decoded site, which offers a user-friendly presentation of his home state’s codes, including links to court decisions and information from legislative tracking services. Jaquith said he was surprised to see how much enthusiasm there was nationally from the legal scholarship community. “It was great to have people who’ve given so much thought to the structure and organization of legal data for many years come to me and say ‘here’s what I’ve learned.’ That’s going to save me an enormous amount of time. I expected to have to spend months researching this kind of information, but instead it’ll take a few weeks because people who’ve already been doing it want to share what they’ve learned.”

·           For others, community feedback has been critical in developing projects. Jonathan Stray, the lead for the Overview Project, a tool for finding stories in large document sets, said one of his challenges was zeroing in on the problem he wanted to solve: “We had a sense there had to be a better way to deal with very large document dumps. But we’ve been very fortunate to connect with our user community - and they have real problems. Our strategy has been that people approach us with a document dump and they want to get something out of it. Our design has very much been problem driven. We didn’t plan that, we stumbled into it.” (See how Overview visualizes big data sets to help find stories, in this video)

Two other major themes emerged from the discussions:

1. Long-term planning

Every project is thinking about how to ensure its long-term sustainability. Some are thinking about how to find successful ways to generate income, like through the monetization of its products. In other cases, financial constraints have impacted the scope of a project.

·           The Tiziano Project, which provides community members in conflict, post-conflict and underreported regions with the equipment, training and affiliations necessary to report their stories, is thinking about ways to either license or productize its content. It is also exploring ways to partner with corporations and news organizations and epand to mobile, SMS and MMS contributions, said Mara Abrams, the project's director of business development.

·           ScraperWiki, which scrapes data on the web and makes it more useful, is having a hard time finding ways to generate income, said Julian Todd: “We know the parameters of getting a developer platform to “liberate” data. Our challenge moving forward is to figure out how to make income from what we do so that it can be sustainable.”

·           The PANDA Project, meanwhile, found financial constraints impacted its development. Chris Groskopf, the lead developer of the project which helps news organizations better organize and search public information and data sets, said scaling the project back was necessary: “the big thing for us is that we originally planned our prototype, we were going to take all this data and really aggressively structure it. But we’ve had to cut out some features that involve multiple layering of data in order to keep it cheap. At first we thought we’ll just throw everything in there and let people search it however they want, but it’s just not possible.”

2. Growth of organization and projects:

Many of the projects are run by small staffs. As projects grow, leaders have had to figure out new organizational structures, how to hire staff, etc. Navigating growth has been both challenging and rewarding.

·           Christina Xu from The Awesome Foundation said the group has hired its first staff person and awarded its first grant award to the Detroit Journal. Xu’s primary goal was to focus on diversity: “I wanted to create a diverse group of trustees for the News Taskforce in Detroit. I knew it was important, but I was surprised at how important it was to the community of Detroit to get this right too.” For Xu, bringing in diversity is key to building the culture of the project and organization itself.

·           Other projects are trying to build stronger boards to help provide leadership, and fill key staffing positions, which can be challenging when trying to find people with very specific, and sometimes extremely technical skills. Frontline SMS, for example, is seeking to hire a project director to design mobile tools for journalists and the Overview project is also hiring two full-time developers.

Following the project demos, Knight’s Vice President for Journalism/Media Innovation, Michael Maness, identified barriers that often hurt new organizations. He cited organization and mission sprawl and the fact that creators - people who build and make things - often aren’t great business people. They need to hire staff with specific expertise once projects reach a certain scale. He considered those to be key challenges to a project’s long-term sustainability. He also suggested that instead of using the term “audience,” projects should focus on communities. Ultimately, the tools or platforms that come out of projects may be used for different purposes by different communities.

Knight’s Director/Business Consulting Ben Wirz gave a presentation on lean startup principles, offering ways for startups to think about growth and explained metrics that may make sense to focus on as they’re growing their projects. Wirz urged participants to think about their “value hypothesis,” that is to understand how their product or service will deliver value to people once they are using it.