22 ideas win Knight News Challenge: Elections

“Your elected representatives at all levels are no better or worse than you deserve,” said Jack Knight in 1946. “It is depressing to hear citizens say they’re too busy for politics and then express disgust at the outcome of an election. Just who is supposed to make that fight for them?”

At Knight Foundation, we care about ensuring that citizens have access to the news and information they need to participate fully in democracy. One of the tools we have is the Knight News Challenge; over the last eight years we’ve invested $50 million in more than 130 projects that experiment with new ways of producing and sharing information as our traditional methods have been disrupted.

We see access to quality information as a public good. The importance is demonstrated each year when we as citizens go to the polls to elect our leaders. However, we have consistently seen growing disinterest in elections, especially at the local level. That’s why earlier this year we decided to make elections the theme of this current News Challenge, posing the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?

Today we’re awarding a total of $3.2 million to the 22 winners. We’ve gathered them in Austin, Texas, where the Annette Strauss Institute of Civic Life at the University of Texas is hosting the conference “Breaking Through: Increasing Civic Participation Before, During and After Elections (you can watch via live stream).  

As we reviewed applications, we identified two primary themes in the winning entries: projects that provide news and information about candidates and issues, and ideas designed to increase voter engagement. The winning projects are a mix of news organizations, nonprofits focused on transparency, civic tech startups—and a state government. Several of the projects are collaborations across organizations and sectors. Ten of the projects will build out full versions over the next year or two and will receive from $200,000 to $525,000; we will support the other 12 through the Knight Prototype Fund, which provides grants of $35,000 to take early-stage ideas from concept to demo. We’re looking forward to working with these projects, and to reconvening with them early next year and again after the November 2016 elections. We expect to share with you what we and the grantees learn.

Thanks to each of our partners for joining us in this effort: the Democracy Fund and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which contributed $250,000 each, and the Rita Allen Foundation, which contributed $150,000. And thanks to the reviewers who helped us during the selection process and to everyone who helped us refine the idea for the Knight News Challenge question.  

We hope that you’ll join us in watching these projects develop; we’ll be sharing their progress and lessons here.   

John Bracken is vice president for media innovation and Jennifer Preston is vice president for journalism at Knight Foundation. Follow them on Twitter @jsb and @JenniferPreston.

Photo credit: (cc) Carnage NYC on

The winning projects include:

News and Information

2016 Political Ad Tracker by Internet Archive | $200,000 | Project leads: Roger Macdonald, and Tracey Jaquith; San Francisco: Bringing accountability to the voting process by creating a public library of TV news and political advertising from key 2016 primary election states, paired with nonpartisan fact-checking and additional analysis from PolitiFact, the University of Pennsylvania’s, The Center for Public Integrity and others.

California Civic Data Coalition by California Civic Data Coalition, a partnership between The Los Angeles Times, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Stanford University | $250,000 | Project leads: Ben Welsh, Cheryl Phillips, Aaron Williams, Jennifer LaFleur; Los Angeles: Making it easier to track money in California politics with an open-source tool that will help journalists, academics and others mine campaign finance data.

Campaign Hound by Reese News Lab, University of North Carolina | $150,000 | Project leads: John Clark and Sara Peach; Chapel Hill, N.C.:  Helping to hold politicians more accountable through a searchable archive of campaign speech transcripts that provides customized alerts to keep voters informed about candidates and allows journalists and others to monitor political speeches remotely.

Inside the 990 Treasure Trove by The Center for Responsive Politics in partnership with GuideStar | $525,000 | Project lead: Robert Maguire; Washington, D.C.: Helping voters and journalists better understand who is funding campaigns by partnering with GuideStar to unearth more comprehensive data on the sources of so-called “dark money.”

Civic Participation and Engagement

Civic Engagement Toolkit for Local Election Officials by Center for Technology and Civic Life | $400,000 | Project leads: Whitney May, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Whitney Quesenbery; Chicago: Helping local governments more easily engage with communities by developing a civic engagement toolkit for election offices, including website templates, icons and illustrations that provide visual guides for information seekers, wait-time calculators and other tools.

Informed Voting From Start to Finish by E.thePeople | $200,000 | Project leads: Seth Flaxman, Kathryn Peters, Whitney Quesenbery and Alex Quinn; New York: Helping build a more informed electorate and making the voting process easier by combining the voter services of TurboVote, which helps people register to vote, request and absentee ballot and receive election reminders, with local guides and candidate information from E.thePeople.

Revive My Vote by Marshall-Wythe Law Foundation | $230,000 | Project leads: Mark Listes and Rebecca Green; Richmond, Va.: Helping Virginians with prior felony convictions restore their voting rights by organizing local law students to help remotely process rights restoration applications and lessening wait times for those who have applied; an outreach platform will also be developed to motivate and inform prospective applicants.

Sharp Insight by Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program | $250,000 | Project lead: Duerward Beale; Philadelphia: Engaging black men in elections by recruiting barbers in predominantly African-American communities to disseminate nonpartisan information and resources on voting.

The Next Generation Beyond Exit Polls by the Associated Press | $250,000 | Project leads: Sally Buzbee, David Pace and Emily Swanson; Washington, D.C.: Providing less-expensive, more accurate alternatives to exit polling by working with survey firms to develop new ways to gauge voter preferences in real time.

Vote-by-Smartphone by Long Distance Voter | $325,000 | Project lead: Debra Cleaver; San Francisco: Making it easier to vote by mail by using mobile technology to allow voters to request absentee ballots with their smartphone.

Full project descriptions for these 10 projects are below.

The 12 Prototype Fund winners receiving $35,000 each include:

News and Information

Judge Your Judges by WNYC | Project leads: Kat Aaron, @kataaron, and John Keefe, @WNYC, @jkeefe; New York: Enabling people to make more knowledgeable decisions about judicial elections through a tool that will provide key information, insights and context about candidates, their views and the court system.

Lenses by NYC Media Lab | Project leads: Amy Chen, Justin Hendrix, Kareem Amin, R. Luke DuBois, and Mark Hansen, @nycmedialab; New York: Enabling journalists and other storytellers to transform and visualize data to build interactive election stories through an open-source, mobile-friendly tool. by Free Law Project | Project leads: Michael Lissner, @mlissner, and Brian Carver, @brianwc; Berkeley, Calif.: Helping to make judicial elections more transparent by creating online profiles of judges that show campaign contributions, judicial opinions and biographies.

Prompt Data Query by Center for Responsive Politics | Project lead: Sarah Bryner, @aksarahb; Washington, D.C.: Bringing more transparency and accountability to elections, through an automated, interactive tool that will give users access to real-time campaign finance data.

Silent Targeting, Loud Democracy by University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.) Project lead: Young Mie Kim, @DiMAP_UW. Promoting transparency in elections by prototyping an investigative service that tracks political ads that use online microtargeting to reveal how political action committees, parties and candidates target individual voters based on their personal information.  

Tabs on Tallahassee by the Orlando Sentinel | Project leads: Charles Minshew, @CharlesMinshew, and Andrew Gibson, @AndrewGibson27; Orlando, Fla.: Fostering government transparency by creating a searchable database of the voting records of Florida lawmakers for newsrooms across the state.

Up for Debate Ohio! by the Jefferson Center | Project lead: Kyle Bozentko, @JeffersonCtr;  Akron, Ohio: Increasing political knowledge in Ohio through community deliberation, online engagement and the media to provide citizens the opportunity to discuss issues and campaigns thoughtfully and civilly.

Voter’s Edge by MapLight | Project lead: Michael Canning, @votersedge; Berkeley, Calif.: Providing in-depth voter information that is easily accessible, neutral and factual on one platform; the mobile-optimized guide provides voter information on federal, state and local elections, including endorsements, candidate biographies, ballot measure summaries, top funder lists, videos, news, and more.

Civic Participation and Engagement

Accessible Voting for Everyone by University of Florida | Project lead: Juan Gilbert, @DrJuanGilbert, @FloridaEngineer; Gainesville, Fla.: Making voting easy and accessible to all through an open source electronic voting system that allows citizens, including those with disabilities, to cast ballots by actions such as tapping a touchscreen or speaking into a microphone.

Erase the Line by D.C. Board of Elections | Project lead: Margarita Mikhaylova, @dcboee with Eric Olson; Washington, D.C: Helping election officials improve the voting process by creating a digital platform that will document wait-time information at polling places across the nation.

Rhode Island Civic Fellowship by Rhode Island Secretary of State | Project leads: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Steve Gerencser, and Rob Rock @RISecState; Providence, R.I.: Encouraging more millennials to vote through a statewide civic fellowship program designed to inspire, recruit and train them to get involved in shaping voting and elections in their communities.

The Iowa Electorate by The Des Moines Register | Project lead: Amalie Nash, @AmalieNash;  Des Moines, Iowa: Engaging young voters in the Iowa caucuses by sponsoring a series of public events and initiatives that use social media to draw millennial attention to issues and candidates.

The Knight News Challenge on Elections was the first round of the Knight News Challenge in 2015. In January Knight announced 22 winners of the 2014 Knight News Challenge on Libraries, which sought ideas to leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities. The second round of the Knight News Challenge in 2015 will launch this September, focusing on the theme of data.

The Knight News Challenge accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Since 2007 Knight Foundation has provided more than $50 million in funding to 133 projects.

In addition to funding, winners receive support from Knight’s network of influential peers and advisers to help advance their ideas.

Past News Challenge winners have created innovative solutions aimed at building more informed communities and a stronger democracy. They include: DocumentCloud, which analyzes and annotates public documents, turning them into data; Tools for OpenStreetMap, which makes it easier to contribute to the editable map of the world; and Code2040,which creates programs that increase the representation of black and Latino people in the innovation economy.

For more, visit and follow  #newschallenge on Twitter.

Full project descriptions for winners receiving investments of $200,000 to $525,000 each:

Winner: 2016 Political Ad Tracker (San Francisco)

Award: $200,000 Organization: Internet Archive Project lead: Roger Macdonald, Tracey Jaquith Twitter:  @internetarchive, r_macdonald, @tracey_pooh

Voters are exposed to large amounts of campaign advertising, especially in key swing states. Though these ads are designed to influence and sway votes, little information is provided about their background and accuracy. To hold candidates accountable and bring more transparency to the voting process, the Internet Archive, with the world’s largest open archive of TV news, will create a public library of TV news and political ads from key 2016 primary election regions. The library will be paired with nonpartisan fact-checking and other analysis from PolitiFact, the University of Pennsylvania’s, The Center for Public Integrity and others. Ads will be tracked along with facts about their accuracy, source, frequency and context. These widely distributed library resources will provide voters with trustworthy information and encourage greater participation in the political process.

Award: $250,000 Organization: California Civic Data Coalition, a partnership of Stanford University, The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Los Angeles Times. Project leads: Ben Welsh, Cheryl Phillips, Aaron Williams, Jennifer LaFleur Twitter: @palewire, @cephillips, @aboutaaron, @j_la28

Campaign finance data in statehouses across America is hard to organize, access and understand. Making it easier to find and use this raw, machine-readable data can help to hold politicians accountable and enable deeper analysis of the influence of money in politics. The California Civic Data Coalition will engage data journalists from The Los Angeles Times, Stanford University, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Center for Investigative Reporting to lead an open-source effort to refine this raw data into an easy-to-use product. The work will serve as a model for other states and join an ongoing effort to consolidate money-in-politics data from statehouses across America.

Winner: Campaign Hound (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

Award: $150,000 Organization: Reese News Lab, University of North Carolina Project lead: John Clark and Sara Peach Twitter: @johnclark, @sarapeach

Few citizens have direct contact with their candidates and elected officials. As such, the media and other sources are what keep them informed about politicians both on the campaign trail and once they are in office. To give citizens more information and help journalists improve their political coverage, the Reese News Lab will create a searchable archive of campaign speech transcripts that provides users with customized keyword alerts. It will use crowdsourcing and computer natural language processing to gather recordings of speeches and generate transcripts, enabling subscribers to search for exact words spoken by politicians. Users can also monitor political speeches remotely, providing easy access.  In addition, it will alert subscribers when custom keywords are spoken on the campaign trail. The archive will be piloted in North Carolina.

Award: $400,000 Organization: Center for Technology and Civic Life Project lead: Whitney May, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Whitney Quesenbery Twitter: @HelloCTCL, @tianaej, @whitneymaybe, @civicdesign, @whitneyq

Local governments produce information that is important to voters. However, there are few communications avenues for people to access this information and engage with their local governments to help shape policy and decision-making. To tackle this issue, the Center for Technology and Civic Life will develop a civic engagement toolkit, designed in concert with local election officials. The kit will include a set of tools for election offices such as an election website template, visual icons and illustrations, resource allocation calculators, and other tools. It will help local officials identify how to best use communication tools, and measure the reach and impact of the information they are sharing.

Award: $200,000 Organization: E.thePeople Project leads: Seth Flaxman, Kathryn Peters, Whitney Quesenbery and Alex Quinn Twitter: @etppl, @civicdesign, @whitneyq, @sethflaxman, @katyetc, @turbovote

Lack of information about the voting process, candidates and issues, especially in local elections, can limit voter participation and prevent people from making informed choices at the polls. Informed Voting From Start to Finish will combine the voter services and timely reminders of TurboVote with local guides from e.thePeople, to provide comprehensive voting support, including registration assistance, election reminders, poll locators, explanations of contests and ballot questions, and candidate information.

Winner: Inside the 990 Treasure Trove (Washington, D.C.)

Award: $525,000 Organization: The Center for Responsive Politics in partnership with GuideStar Project lead: Robert Maguire Twitter: @RobertMaguire_

The Center for Responsive Politics wants to help journalists and the public better understand who is funding campaigns and the sources of so-called “dark money,” the funds that certain nonprofits can spend to back candidates and issues without having to reveal where the donations are coming from. In fact, the amount of dark money in campaigns has grown exponentially – from $6 million in 2004 to $309 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center has developed a system for tracking and processing information on these donations from difficult-to-access IRS 990 forms, and matching this information with Federal Elections Commission data. With new funding, the center will partner with GuideStar to retrieve greater volumes of this information more quickly and comprehensively, and create a database that any journalist can access.

Winner: Revive My Vote (Richmond, Va.)

Award: $230,000 Organization: Marshall-Wythe Law Foundation Project lead: Mark Listes and Rebecca Green Twitter:  @ReviveMyVote

Virginians with felony convictions face real obstacles in restoring their right to vote. Those who have already applied to restore voting rights face a severe backlog of applications. In addition, reaching out to those who have not yet applied is very difficult since Virginia maintains no comprehensive contact list of eligible citizens. Revive My Vote seeks to address both obstacles. To reduce the backlog, the group will organize and train local law students to remotely process these applications, speeding the process. In addition, the project will create a digital platform where successful applicants will inspire prospective applicants with success stories and information about rights restoration will be disseminated.

Winner: Sharp Insight (Philadelphia)

Award: $250,000 Organization: Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program Project lead: Duerward Beale Twitter: @YOACAPphilly

While barbershops have long been trusted spaces in the African-American community, this project seeks to build on that stature by recruiting barbers as voting advocates. The Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program and its partners will recruit Philadelphia barbers, educate them on rights restoration and other voting issues, and ask them to help disseminate voting information. The program will provide barbers with incentives for getting their male customers to take surveys, read nonpartisan election information and continually discuss the importance of civic participation. The barbers who enroll will have their names listed on a radio partner’s website, with a special radio promotion going to the shop that disseminates the most information.

Winner: The Next Generation Beyond Exit Polls (Washington, D.C.)

Award: $250,000 Organization: The Associated Press Project lead: Sally Buzbee, David Pace, Emily Swanson Twitter: @AP, @AP_Politics, @SallyBuzbee, @EL_Swan, @dhpace

For years, the media, academics and the public have relied almost exclusively on exit polls to explain voter behavior and declare winners on national election nights. But with the growing number of early voters – and well-publicized recent errors in candidate estimates – many have questioned their accuracy. The Associated Press, in partnership with two national polling firms, is looking to develop less expensive methods to more accurately measure voter views. Two recent experiments have used online, probability-based panels to gauge voter sentiments in real time. The AP is looking to publicize the results, refine its methods and ultimately share new tools with other newsrooms.

Winner: Vote-by-Smartphone (San Francisco)

Award: $325,000 Organization: Long Distance Voter Project lead: Debra Cleaver Twitter: @debracleaver and @absenteeballots

Long Distance Voter wants to increase voter turnout by making it possible to sign up for an absentee ballot using smartphones. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 25 percent of all ballots were cast by mail in 2014. Three states, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, have transitioned to a standard vote-by-mail system, with all three experiencing higher turnout and lower election administration costs. Voters in other states currently need to print and mail their forms in order to submit absentee ballots, which is difficult for many in an increasingly digital age. Long Distance Voter will use DocuSign’s electronic signature technology to enable citizens to complete, sign and mail their absentee ballots directly from their smartphones.

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