Articles by Vignesh Ramachandran

  • Article

    ‘Get Outside Toolkit’ helps residents explore their cities

    November 24, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    ‘Get Outside Toolkit’ helps residents explore their cities

    Photo above: Swede Hollow Park in St. Paul, Minn. by Teresa Boardman on Flickr.

    It was a recent winter in St. Paul, Minn., when Jennifer Strahan was trying to find a place to take her then-4-year-old daughter to play. Strahan said it took her a half-hour to navigate websites and dive into PDFs to find the right information about which specific parks and recreation centers had indoor spaces and were open.

    That led Strahan to ask: Why isn’t there an app that lists parks and recreation options near you at any time?

    Enter the “Get Outside Toolkit,” an app framework that lets cities easily create a platform to inform residents about local parks, events and recreational opportunities. It was created by GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit that develops geospatial technology to support public interest groups and agencies. (GreenInfo Network has proven experience with mapping projects for public use: In California, the organization created the most detailed database in the nation that includes data for protected land in the state.)

    The toolkit received $47,700 in 2013 from the Knight Prototype Fund during the Knight News Challenge on Open Gov. Since then it has developed into a robust, digital platform. This summer, the city of St. Paul, one of 26 Knight communities, adopted the toolkit, so residents on the go can now find parks, amenities and recreational events in a simple online interface.

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    How Artsopolis helps close the gaps in arts coverage

    February 15, 2016 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    How Artsopolis helps close the gaps in arts coverage

    Above: Two Artsopolis grantee organizations (San Jose Taiko and Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose) in a collaborative performance. Photos courtesy of Artsopolis. 

    A Knight Foundation-supported technology platform is arming arts service organizations around the country with tools to publicize areas of the arts that aren’t always noticed by the public or covered by the media.

    Originally developed almost 15 years ago, Silicon Valley Creates’ Artsopolis platform provides a digital hub to promote events and activities in a city’s arts ecosystem. About 50 communities around the United States – and now one in Ecuador – are using Artsopolis technology to power websites that feature local events, artist profiles, arts education information, public art facts and classifieds to promote jobs and auditions within the arts. The sites might feature productions as big as the local symphony or “The Lion King,” alongside events from a small theater.

    “The Artsopolis platform really levels the playing field for the small groups to be able to have visibility in relation to the large organizations,” said Jeff Trabucco, director of Artsopolis.

    The Artsopolis platform complements another Knight-funded effort, Creative Exchange, an initiative of Springboard for the Arts and Urban Innovation Exchange that is a “national platform for storytelling and resource-sharing” among artists and the creative community.

    A majority of Artsopolis licensees are arts service organizations (typically an arts council, arts alliance or creative coalition), while some tourism bureaus and media organizations have also adopted the technology. The platform recently received $100,000 from Knight Foundation to boost its efforts in Knight communities, such as San Jose, and to deploy four new tools:

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    Silicon Valley Creates boost arts and culture in tech-dominated region

    November 8, 2013 by Vignesh Ramachandran


    Photo credit: Vignesh Ramachandran 

    The technology industry that sprawls across Silicon Valley often defines the region to the world. But community leaders want to make something else clear: Silicon Valley is also home to a vibrant arts and culture scene.

    Silicon Valley Creates – a new venture created by the merger of the Arts Council Silicon Valley and 1stACT Silicon Valley – wants to make people more aware of the region’s growing arts and culture ecosystem and encourage investment in the space. It’s a complex challenge in a largely suburban region sometimes overshadowed by northern neighbor San Francisco, a city perceived to have a more established arts and culture scene.

    But go back in time to October 2007, when Knight Foundation invested $3.5 million in 1stACT Silicon Valley, and it is clear there have been serious efforts to boost Silicon Valley’s artistic and cultural identity. 1stACT (arts, creativity and technology) was a catalyst organization that focused on community building and placemaking in San Jose and the Valley. The organization’s initiatives included a project to rejuvenate the South First Avenue (“SoFA”) district in downtown San Jose. Drive through SoFA these days and its transformation is seen in the trendy aesthetics and artsy vibe. In addition to urban design, 1stACT focused on cultural stewardship and cultural literacy, embedding its agenda, staff and board in partner organizations.

    “We’re in an evolutionary transition of creating the next civic identity and economy here,” said Judith Kleinberg, Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley program director. “We already have the information economy, and so now we’re trying to establish the urban hub and the political hub. This is a great place to live and work, but we also want people to enjoy it as an attractive destination for entertainment and leisure, one with an exciting, creative vibe.”

    One of 1stACT’s notable success stories involved San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza, a cultural facility located in the Mayfair neighborhood, an area known for its large Mexican-American population. When the facility faced serious leadership and financial challenges, 1stACT staffer Tamara Alvarado helped figure out how to reinvent the facility and make use of its 55,000 square feet of programmable space, which includes a theater, gardens and classrooms.

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    Globaloria wins Tech Award for its game design learning platform

    November 18, 2013 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Globaloria wins Tech Award for its game design learning platform

    The Tech Awards 2013 laureate: Globaloria: Invent. Build. Share

    Knight Foundation grantee World Wide Workshop received a top honor in Silicon Valley at the Nov. 14 international Tech Awards, which honor global innovators who use technology to benefit humanity.

    Globaloria, a project of the New York-based World Wide Workshop, is a blended-learning platform with courses that teach youth how to design and code educational games by using industry tools such as Blogger, JavaScript, MediaWiki and Unity. Since 2006 Globaloria has worked to help kids develop these skills and a digital voice. Knight Foundation initially funded the program in West Virginia. Globaloria has educated more than 10,800 students, teachers and education leaders and is active in five states, reaching more than 3,500 children, educators and facilitators.

    In 2011, Knight Foundation awarded Globaloria $950,000 to bring the program to Silicon Valley students and to pilot it outside of schools, such as in Boys and Girls Clubs. Globaloria – which now operates in 12 locations throughout the Valley – was one of two laureates named in The Tech Awards’ Microsoft Education Award category, earning Globaloria a $25,000 prize.

    “It’s designed to be something that is really about advancing students’ … skills and knowledge they need to become [an] informed and engaged citizen—[and] making sure they have fun doing it,” Globaloria Vice President Amber Oliver said.

    Globaloria opens up the world of game design to students, while addressing civic issues. Some of the games students have designed and published online address topics such as bullying, the environment and teen pregnancy.

    Judith Kleinberg, Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley program director, said the program enables kids to become “digital citizens” who fully participate in their communities.

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    Disrupt Bay Area transportation at Saturday’s ‘Hack My Ride’ event

    June 5, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Disrupt Bay Area transportation at Saturday’s ‘Hack My Ride’ event

    In a region where technologists at companies such as Uber, Lyft, Tesla and Google are trying to disrupt transportation, a growing community of civic hackers is working on innovating Silicon Valley’s existing public transportation system.

    On Saturday, as part of National Day of Civic Hacking, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority – known as VTA – is hosting “Hack My Ride 2.0,” a hackathon that brings together both techies and non-techies to create tools and apps to enrich the public transit experience. The idea is to see how technology could be used to increase transit ridership and help people make the switch from driving to another form of transit, according to Cody Kraatz, VTA’s administrator of digital communications. VTA provides bus, light rail and paratransit services across Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, which is home to more than 1.8 million people.

    The June 6 event kicks of a three-month challenge to form teams and create a working software application that uses a VTA data set. Projects will be judged for quality, implementation and potential impact. Knight Foundation is supporting this year’s “Hack My Ride 2.0” initiative with $15,000. A total of $30,000 in prizes will be awarded, including a $10,000 grand prize.

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    San Jose Taiko’s experimental performances tap unique urban spaces

    April 4, 2016 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    San Jose Taiko’s experimental performances tap unique urban spaces

    Photo and videos by San Jose Taiko.

    San Jose’s highly acclaimed Japanese-American drumming group is trying something new: free experimental performances in urban spaces around the city.

    With $20,000 in support from Knight Foundation, San Jose Taiko has embarked on these small experiments that tap into Greater San Jose by using “space as inspiration” for performances, according to Franco Imperial, the group’s artistic director. This “Inspiration by Discovery” initiative is also supported by The James Irvine Foundation. The idea is to have free performances that take advantage of unique spaces or acoustics around San Jose, Imperial said.

    “Taiko” is a barrel-shaped Japanese drum but is used in San Jose to describe both the drum and the drumming ensemble. San Jose Taiko—founded in 1973--empowers its members with creative control: All compositions they perform are written or arranged by the group. The organization has 20 members and an apprentice, with ages ranging from 24 to 52.

    The first of these three experimental performances was held last summer: The drumming group twice took over the iconic Circle of Palms Plaza in downtown San Jose, which is located between the San Jose Museum of Art and the Fairmont Hotel. Video from a GoPro mounted on a drone captured a birds-eye view of the circular performances.

    Very little of the performance was rehearsed beforehand, Imperial said, which led to a casual, “anything-could-happen” atmosphere that appealed to much of the audience.

  • Article

    [email protected] tackles lack of affordable housing in Silicon Valley

    August 7, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Silicon Valley Suburbia (cc) by Travis Wise on

    The cost of living in Silicon Valley continues to skyrocket: The median sales price has soared above $800,000 while the median rent is almost $2,900 in Santa Clara County, according to Zillow. New membership organization [email protected] is focusing on promoting more affordable housing in a region booming from a technology-driven economy.

    Launched this summer, [email protected] already has a number of organizational members on board, including Knight Foundation, Google and LinkedIn. The goal is to try and change the conversation around area housing so people understand its importance, says Executive Director Leslye Corsiglia.

    High land prices in the Bay Area are part of the region’s housing crunch, so Corsiglia hopes to push for increasing density and for subsidies.

    “We need to be able to bring in funds that can essentially write down those rents so that people can afford to live here,” she said.

  • Article

    Data Docs tool marries data with video storytelling

    September 3, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    YouTube: Data Docs - Bringing Data Literacy To The Masses With Interactive Videos And Live Data

    Do you have an idea for how we might make data work for individuals and communities? The Knight News Challenge on Data will open Sept. 8 seeking the best ideas around that question. The challenge, open to anyone from anywhere, will close at 5:30 p.m. ET Sept. 30. Visit beginning Sept. 8 to apply or to give feedback on proposals. Follow #newschallenge on Twitter for updates. Winners will share in $3 million. 

    When Al Jazeera America published a video last year about the influence of money in politics, the user experience was interactive. Viewers could provide their addresses to personalize the video so it would display campaign spending by politicians in their area.

    The goal: Audiences might care more deeply about the issue when they see how it impacts them. The interactive video ended up being nominated for a Webby Award.

  • Article

    Microgrants empower community to make small changes that have big impact in San Jose, Calif.

    December 21, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Bilingual "Dichos" books paid for by a Somos Mayfair microgrant provide students with suggested activities. Photo courtesy Somos Mayfair.

    A nonprofit in San Jose is handing out grants to local residents for projects that benefit the city’s Mayfair neighborhood. The program is modeled after awards made by the Awesome Foundation, which has chapters across the country that make no-strings-attached grants.

    Somos Mayfair works to address problems of the working poor and immigrants in Mayfair – a community predominately made up of people from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia. Knight Foundation supports Somos Mayfair in its efforts to provide $1,000 to $2,000 microgrants for creative ideas that help the community.

    “We believe [the] community, they know their problems best, and given the tools, they also know their solutions,” said Jessica Paz-Cedillos, Somos Mayfair’s director of resource development.

    Somos Mayfair has been advocating for participatory budgeting where the public helps decide how to spend government dollars, and the microgrants align with that goal by empowering the community, Paz-Cedillos said. Two projects have been funded and completed this fall.

    The first grant went to a group of mothers who are volunteers at local elementary schools in Mayfair; they purchased three sets of bilingual books – called “Dichos” – that tell stories that are culturally relevant to the Latino community. The volunteers wanted the books because they regularly read to children at the schools. The second grant funded a local screening of a movie about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez and how the Latino population became involved in the 1950s labor movement.

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    Radiotopia sets record for publishing and radio funding on Kickstarter

    November 14, 2014 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    This post has been updated.

    The “Radiotopia” collective set a record of more than $600,000 when it closed its Kickstarter campaign Friday, Nov. 14,  ranking as the most-funded Kickstarter project in the publishing and radio and podcast categories.

    A project of award-winning nonprofit public media company PRX, Radiotopia brings together story-driven shows that can all share “editorial, business and emotional resources.”  Launched in February, the collective includes shows with topics ranging from design to the people we meet to stories of ordinary life. Last year, Knight Foundation provided a $200,000 grant to Radiotopia for its first year. To keep the momentum going, the collective raised $620,412 on Kickstarter – crushing its $250,000 goal.

    While captivating story-driven content is helping drive this success, there’s also a reemergence of awareness of the audio podcast.

    Though audio storytelling has been around for centuries, the iPod popularized the digital podcast in the 2000s. Enter 2014, and the podcast has made a comeback: the “Serial” murder mystery podcast has become a viral sensation this fall; and “StartUp,” a podcast about starting a podcasting company, is renewing conversations around the business of audio storytelling.

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    Prototype Fund winner aims to break ‘cycle of poverty’ with social services information platform

    February 12, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Prototype Fund winner aims to break ‘cycle of poverty’ with social services information platform

    CTO Eric Lukoff and CEO Rey Faustino. Photo by Vignesh Ramachandran.

    Rey Faustino wishes there had been something like One Degree when he was a kid.

    The San Francisco Bay Area-based founder of One Degree – a nonprofit working to help low-income families access nonprofit and social services – grew up as a low-income undocumented Filipino immigrant in Southern California.

    “My family struggled to find resources that we needed – things like health resources, immigration services, even things like after-school programs and summer programs,” Faustino said. “We just didn’t know who to talk to or who to trust or what we were eligible for.”

    Faustino, who has worked in the nonprofit sector for the last decade, decided to tackle this problem head on. While attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he studied public policy and wrote the initial business plan for what would become One Degree.

  • Article

    San Jose Public Library aims to connect community to job resources

    July 5, 2016 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    San Jose Public Library aims to connect community to job resources
    A new initiative seeks to bring some of the most interesting things happening in Silicon Valley into one of the most public spaces in our communities: the public library. The goal is to bring the ideas of innovation centers and accelerator programs for the community into the city’s library system. “Public libraries are an entry place for people who are looking to get connected,” said San Jose Public Library Director Jill Bourne. “They have a need that they need to fill. They’re looking for information and referral often.” With support from Knight, the San Jose Public Library WORKS program is connecting the community with resources to help in job searching and employment training. The program helps refer people to the right organizations that might help in the career process. The San Jose Public Library system includes a large named library and 23 branches in neighborhoods across the city. Right now, community members can walk into any of these branch libraries to get access to a website and plug into the resources of available programs and calendars. “We’re often able to reach communities that may not have any other access point, or other access points seem intimidating to them, because maybe they have a language gap or a literacy gap or they can’t travel across town to a program,” Bourne said. “The library is ultimately accessible, and they feel very comfortable there.” The idea is for the San Jose Public Library system to be an entry point: the library might connect someone to an online training track to get an accredited high school diploma or toward getting training skills to apply for certain jobs. People can access these resources at any branch library or online at home, and the services are also available in Spanish and Vietnamese.
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    Prototype Fund winner Max Ogden building data-sharing ecosystem

    March 26, 2015 by Vignesh Ramachandran

     Prototype Fund winner Max Ogden building data-sharing ecosystem

    Imagine two government agencies that have the same data set on potholes. Right now, those agencies could have different versions of the data and might update them separately, with no way to easily compare or analyze the two sets of information. 

    Knight Prototype Fund winner Max Ogden wants to lower that barrier to sharing data and is well on his way to building a new infrastructure – meaning that someday there could be better data that might help government more efficiently address potholes, plow streets or serve residents in other ways.

    Ogden received $50,000 from Knight Foundation in 2013 to build Dat, a tool that will allow multiple people to collaborate on the same data set.

    “It’s basically the result of the lack of any of these kind of collaboration tools. That was a big problem that I identified in a lot of civic, public data systems.”

  • Article

    Microgrants help make San Jose more awesome $1,000 at a time

    July 13, 2016 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Microgrants help make San Jose more awesome $1,000 at a time
    Photo by Michael Bolden on Flickr. A collection of small $1,000 ideas can go a long way toward improving community in San Jose, California. At least that’s the motivation behind the Awesome Foundation’s San Jose chapter, which launched in June 2015 thanks to Knight support and plans to mark the occasion with an anniversary party this fall. The Awesome Foundation is a global community with more than 80 active chapters around the world that support community projects through $1,000 microgrants. Knight Foundation has provided $6,000 in startup funding for the San Jose chapter and has also supported the Miami chapter. Since its launch last summer, the San Jose chapter has funded projects that span from helping create a community room inside a library, to supporting a free robotics program for underprivileged children, to helping put lights on the bikes of San Jose riders. “I see the potential for [microgrants] making really big change,” said Jonathan Schuppert, dean of the Awesome Foundation San Jose chapter. “I think a lot of people … they have great ideas but they just lack the resources to be able to actually implement them.” Awesome Foundation chapters generally have at least 10 local people get together and contribute $100 each so that the chapter can award a $1,000 grant. The chapter trustees review microgrant applications and decide which projects to fund. (San Jose chapter trustees include Knight Foundation San Program Associate Mark Haney.) Often the $1,000 funding is the final catalyst someone needs to make a project happen, Schuppert said. “Hopefully with that success comes other successful projects and other ideas, and inspires other people to then do things,” he added.
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    Three key lessons from Knight Cities Challenge winners in San Jose, Calif.

    October 28, 2016 by Vignesh Ramachandran

    Three key lessons from Knight Cities Challenge winners in San Jose, Calif.

    Photo by Travis Wise on flickr.

    There is just one week left to submit applications for the current round of the Knight Cities Challenge. The challenge closes for applications at noon ET on Nov. 3.