Priya Kumar: How Knight Foundation empowers innovators

KNC Summer 2014 participants (Allon Bar, research coordinator and human rights specialist with Ranking Digital Rights, and Program Associate Priya Kumar, right) work on a storytelling exercise during Knight News Challenge: Summer. Photo by Michael Bolden.

With the help of its 2014 Knight News Challenge award, Ranking Digital Rights is about to get its first look at how well—or not—technology companies are respecting users’ rights to free expression and privacy. I work as a program associate with the project, but I might not have gotten here if it weren’t for a few nudges from Knight Foundation.

Knight’s work does big things – advancing the future of journalism, promoting civic innovation, and cultivating artistic development – to name just a few. But above all, Knight empowers people. Here’s one example of how a few simple actions Knight’s made a profound difference in my professional life.

Nearly two years ago, a graduate school classmate invited me to a “Pitchfest,” a mini Knight News Challenge-style event she organized for the students in her environmental journalism class. Teams of students pitched their ideas for new apps and tools to a panel of expert judges. One of the judges happened to be John Bracken, then Knight’s director of media innovation (and now vice president of that program).

John and I chatted after the event, and he encouraged me to stay in touch. Earlier this year, we reconnected via Twitter, and he invited me to serve as a reader for this year’s first Knight News Challenge, which focused on strengthening the Internet for free expression and innovation.

I pursued graduate study at the University of Michigan School of Information because I wanted a deeper understanding of how data, and the ease with which we can collect and distribute it, affects our lives. The privacy implications of our increasingly networked lives fascinated me. Immediately before beginning an internship last summer with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I read Rebecca MacKinnon’s book, “Consent of the Networked.” The book argues that as people grow increasingly dependent on corporate-owned spaces and technologies for all aspects of their lives, including civic and political activities, people need a mechanism to ensure that tech companies protect and respect human rights.

Reading the book and writing about global censorship and surveillance for the Berkman Center impassioned me to pursue a career in digital rights. Given this interest, I eagerly accepted John’s offer to be a News Challenge reader. I reviewed about 90 submissions (not including Ranking Digital Rights) and wrote about the experience for Knight Blog. As luck would have it, I met Rebecca, who leads Ranking Digital Rights, at this June’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, which Knight invited me to attend.

We talked about Ranking Digital Rights, which will rank 40 to 50 Internet and telecommunications companies in 2015 and expand to include software, device and networking equipment manufacturers in 2016. The project seeks to:

  • Encourage companies to develop, deliver and manage products and services in a manner consistent with international human rights norms;
  • Inform companies, individual users, civil society, academics, investors, governments and the public about the relationship between the technology industry and human rights;
  • Identify what specific legal and political factors prevent or hinder companies from respecting users’ and customers’ human rights.

In graduate school, when people would ask what I wanted to do after graduation, I said I wanted to be a bridge between different disciplines and perspectives. Ranking Digital Rights has given me an opportunity to do just that. Armed with my master’s degree and a desire to expand public awareness around what company actions mean for everyday Internet users, I applied for and received a job as this startup project’s third full-time team member. Since I started work in August, I’ve helped launch a pilot study testing out the ranking methodology, mapped how the research process fits within the technical constraints of a research database, and am developing a data visualization strategy to present our ranking’s results.

At a gathering of Knight News Challenge winners in Kansas City this summer, many conversations highlighted that working with Knight means more than receiving a check in the mail. Working with Knight means joining a community of enthusiastic, dedicated, intelligent people who want an active role in shaping the world we live in. Knight funding helped enable Ranking Digital Rights to launch its pilot study and create my job, but Knight’s people have helped me move from observer to participant in the digital rights arena.