Articles by

John S. Bracken

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    The year 2007 marked a turn in the history of the internet: Twitter made its debut at SXSW, Facebook grew beyond college dorms, YouTube co-hosted its first Presidential debates, and Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Flush with optimism about technology’s potential, Knight Foundation in 2007 announced the winners of the first Knight News Challenge. Open to anyone, the challenge set out to explore new ways of using digital media to accomplish what newspapers did so well in the 20th century: Provide news and information that foster community in towns and cities.In 10 years, Knight reviewed more than 10,000 News Challenge applications and provided more than $50 million in funding to 190 projects. Winners include leading internet entrepreneurs, emerging media innovators and established newsrooms. But despite innovations, journalism’s business model is still faltering. And early optimism about technology’s power to transform the world for good has been tarnished by concerns about false information, bullying and the loss of the public square.
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    Over the last two years, Knight Foundation has funded 36 library innovation projects through two Knight News Challenges. As we closed our review of entries last spring in Miami, the library leaders in the room voiced a desire to learn more about what innovation means in a library context. It seemed like a good idea to us, too, so we took on the task. Today, we’re introducing some of the results of that work and our efforts to strengthen the capacity of public libraries to meet digital age demands.
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    Knight News Challenge on Elections video series.  Rick Perlstein noted elections are a means for understanding Americans’ “fears and dreams.” Herbert Gans has called elections “proxies for democracy,” as Election Day is that rare event in which “citizens play a major [role] in government.” At Knight, we care about how people access and use the information they need for living their lives in a democracy. In particular we’re interested in how new digital tools, and related behaviors, might be changing the ways in which Americans relate to their civic institutions; that’s what has driven our interest in open government, libraries -- and elections. I’m hoping that we all will learn about needs and opportunities to expand access to and use of information, as well as for rethinking the ways citizens in a democracy express their hopes. I’ve already begun to get questions about what fits within the challenge. If you’re thinking about ideas for better informing voters or improving what it means to be a voter--before, during or after an election--we want to hear your idea, before March 19.
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      Whenever we open a contest, I always feel a little bit like when I throw a party: I’m never sure if anyone will show up, and am always relieved when they do. We closed the Knight News Challenge: Data Thursday afternoon with 881 applications - 813 are openly visible on the NewsChallenge Tumblr, another 68 were submitted privately. Knight staff, with the help of about 15 field experts, started the review process this weekend. It is way too early for us to have ideas about who the winners might be, but early indications are that we have a good batch. “Submissions this time around are really high quality,” wrote one of the reviewers this morning. In my first quick perusal of the applicants, I noticed organizations like McClatchy, the Chicago Tribune, the United Way (St. Louis), Personal.com, Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, the AP, NPR, the Chronicle for Higher Education, the Guardian, Partners in Health and the cities of San Francisco and Chicago. I’ve seen entries from Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, Peru, Moldova, Georgia, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, England, Mexico, Canada, Romania, Hong Kong and Germany. Among the themes we’re noticing so far: display of and access to government data; making obscure data more transparent; helping people improve themselves or particular target populations; analysis of money in politics and money in government; tools to help journalists analyze information. Over the next week, we’ll read each of those entries a minimum of three times. After the 4th of July holiday, we’ll be hosting about 15 advisers to help us settle on a group of finalists. Knight staff will have the rest of July to interview those finalists, conduct due diligence, and come up with a set of proposals to recommend to the Knight trustees. Those recommendations will be decided upon at its September 10 meeting. We’ll announce the winners shortly thereafter.
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    Photo Credit: Flickr user Andrew Whitacer The next week is a big one for us here at Knight Foundation. Over the next few days, you may notice a couple of hundred of people moving towards the MIT Media Lab for The Story & The Algorithm, the 2012 Civic Media Conference. Knight Foundation and the Center for Civic Media at MIT collaborate on the conference. It’s an important occasion for us to gather friends, colleagues and new people - and to announce some news. Here is a list of conference participants on Twitter; we’ll be using #civicmedia and are also live streaming the conference. In concert with the its theme, we will precede the conference with a day of coding and an evening of storytelling. On Saturday, our partners at Mozilla will hold a hack day, featuring “an all-star cast of developers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and media thinkers.” Their goal, according to Dan Sinker, is to “move the convergence of data and story into newer places still.” You can see what they’re work working on.  On Sunday evening, we open the full conference with storytelling, brought to us by The Moth and PRX. Monday morning, Media Lab director (and Knight Foundation trustee) Joi Ito will kick off the conference. In addition to the rock stars who run the Center for Civic Media, we’ll see have discussions moderated by Emily Bell, Susan Crawford, Benjamen Walker and Christina Xu. On Monday afternoon, we’ll announce the winners of the first Knight News Challenge of the year, on Networks. We’ll be live-tweeting the winners using #newschallenge. Michael Maness, vice president of journalism and media innovation at Knight, will talk about new funding tools we’re implementing.   Tuesday includes a conversation about what has (and has not) worked with Open Government with Mark Headd of Code for America, Mike Norman from Wefunder and Chris Vein, Deputy CTO in the White House. A noon presentation will feature comic artist Michael Kupperman and a final panel focuses on “some of the more unexpected and provocative directions news and civic media may be taking in the future.”
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    Photo Credit: Flickr user Koen Vereeken The Knight News Challenge is being offered three times this year, in short, focused rounds to better mirror the pace of innovation. Winners of Round 1, which focused on networks, will be announced June 18. Here, Journalism and Media Innovation Program Director John Bracken gives a preview on the upcoming Round 2. We’re excited to announce that the next Knight News Challenge will focus on data. Starting May 31 through June 21, we’ll be looking for ideas that help unlock the power of data, by collecting, processing, visualizing or otherwise making it available, understandable and actionable. Applicants - whether for-profit startups or non-profit ventures - will have 21 days to submit their projects.   We had planned to make the second round a completely open call for innovative news ideas. But we received feedback from the advisers we gathered last month to review News Challenge applications that themes encourage sharper proposals and better ideas, and we decided to take their advice. So, why data? The world has always been complex, but we are now challenged with making sense of the rapidly increasing amounts of information that we are creating. According to IBM, nine-tenths of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. Cisco predicts that information generated by mobile devices will hit 130 exabytes in 2016 -  that’s the equivalent of 520,000 Libraries of Congress in one year. A report from McKinsey anticipates that the amount of data we generate will increase 40% annually. Facebook users alone add a billion pieces of content every 24 hours. Knight News Challenge: Data is a call for making sense of this onslaught of information. “As data sits teetering between opportunity and crisis, we need people who can shift the scales and transform data into real assets,” wrote Roger Ehrenberg earlier this year.
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    Note: To apply for the News Challenge, and read our FAQ, visit NewsChallenge.org. Today, and for the following 19 days, the Knight News Challenge is open for business. The theme of the challenge is Networks.  The most common question I’ve been asked since we announced the challenge is exactly what we mean by Networks. We’re trying not to define the term too narrowly, but I thought a look at David Sarnoff, the creator of the broadcast network in the U.S., might provide some insights into our motivations. (We’re launching the Networks challenge on the anniversary of Sarnoff’s birthday, coincidentally.) In the 1950 film Mid-Century: Half Way to Where?, Sarnoff foresaw the coming “pocket-sized radio instruments [that] will enable individuals to communicate with anyone anywhere.” According to Cisco, the number of those “pocket-sized instruments” will equal the number of people on the planet by the end of the year. David P. Reed later extended “Sarnoff’s Law” (a broadcast network’s value is proportional to the number of people it reaches) to make the case that networks can scale exponentially. Today’s communications networks are different from the broadcast tower and its one-to-many reach. The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways. Witness the roles of networks in the formation, coverage and discussion of recent events such as the rise of the Tea Party, flash mobs, the Arab Spring, last summer’s UK riots and the Occupy movement.  We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools - that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone - businesses, nonprofits, individuals - can apply. On the application form, we’re asking you seven questions - about you, your idea, the problem you want to attack and the network you want to leverage. We’re not asking for business plans or budgets - those questions will come later.  For now, we want to hear a concise description of what you want to do. To encourage your brevity, we’ve listed word limits for each question. We won’t reject your application if you go over the limit - you can write 203 words instead of 200 on why you think your idea will work.  But the ability to successfully convey thoughts with precision is a criteria we will use in reviewing the applications.   
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    I'm excited to tell you about the 16 projects Knight Foundation has selected as winners of the fifth Knight News Challenge . (The Center for Future Civic Media is streaming the announcement live.) Several of the early-arriving winners met for dinner with Knight Foundation staff last night. I was excited to see them discover connections and potential overlaps among their projects that I had not previously noticed. In the list below, you'll find some leading web innovators, two of the most recognized news brands in the country, a couple of prior News Challenge winners and several unfamilar names. A couple of the themes that I have seen in this group of 16: The rise of the hacker/data journalist. When the News Challenge started, the notion of the programming journalist was a bit of a novelty. Now the hacker-journalist is an established position-- as the vibrancy of projects like Hacks/Hackers attests. A broad interpretation of "news." At dinner last night, two of the winners told me that they were surprised to even make it to the contest's second round; they were not sure they belonged in a news contest. One of the goals of the News Challenge is to find ways of informing and engaging communities in innovative ways, which means we were excited to see applications from people and organizations that wouldn't traditionally be considered part of the news and journalism community. The need to make better sense of the stream. News consumers and journalists alike need help making sense of the streams of data now available to us. Human aggregation and vetting of the type NPR's Andy Carvin has been modeling is one route. Two of the projects below will build tools to help us better understand who is speaking about breaking news events. A couple of other observations: When we launched the contest last fall we, for the first time, asked for applications in four categories: mobile, sustainability, authenticity and technology in community. In evaluating the projects, we looked for the best ones, independent of category. We saw a lot of ideas in mobile; not as many ideas related to business models advanced deep in the contesst. Of the 16 projects before you, only one relates to potential business models for news. This is the fifth year of an original five year commitment our trustees made in 2006. We don't have news to announce on the next phase of the News Challenge today, other than to say that we expect it to continue, and we expect to do it better and faster. We'll have more details in the fall, but we know we need to make the contest more agile and responsive to changes in the field. We also think that we, like so many others in the tech innovation field, need to do a better job of identifying women entrepreneurs. (We shared a synopsis of what we learned through the first two years of the News Challenge earlier this week.) I want to thank Google, which last fall donated $2 million towards our media innovation grantmaking-- $1 million of which has been applied to the $4.7 million in grants that we are announcing today I want to acknowledge the efforts of the 42 people who contributed their expertise to our review of the applications. (I listed the reviewers in an earlier post.) In particular, we were lucky to have Maria Thomas and Catherine Bracy involved through every step of the process. Here are the 16 projects Knight Foundation selected from the more than 1600 applications we received in December. 2011 Knight News Challenge Winners Project: iWitness Winner: Adaptive Path, San Francisco, Calif. Award: $360,000 Project Lead: Jesse James Garrett Web: www.adaptivepath.com Twitter: @AdaptivePath To bridge the gap between traditional and citizen media, iWitness will create a web-based tool that aggregates user-generated content from social media during big news events. Whether a parade or protest, election or earthquake, iWitness will display photos, videos and messages in an easy-to-browse interface. Created by a premier web design firm, iWitness will make it easier to cross-reference first-person accounts with journalistic reporting, opening up new avenues for storytelling, fact-checking and connecting people to events in their communities. Project: Overview Winner: The Associated Press, New York, N.Y. Award: $475,000 Project Lead: Jonathan Stray Web: www.overview.ap.org Twitter: @overviewproject Overview is a tool to help journalists find stories in large amounts of data by cleaning, visualizing and interactively exploring large document and data sets. Whether from government transparency initiatives, leaks or freedom of information requests, journalists are drowning in more documents than they can ever hope to read. There are good tools for searching within large document sets for names and key words, but that doesn't help find stories journalists are not looking for. Overview will display relationships among topics, people, places and dates to help journalists to answer the question, “What’s in there?” The goal is an interactive system where computers do the visualization, while a human guides the exploration – plus documentation and training to make this capability available to anyone who needs it. Project: The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce Winner: The Awesome Foundation, Boston, Mass. Award: $244,000 Project Lead: Christina Xu Web: www.awesomefoundation.org Twitter: @higherawesome To experiment with a new funding model for local journalism, The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce will bring together 10 to 15 community leaders and media innovators in Detroit and two other cities to provide $1,000 microgrants to innovative journalism and civic media projects. By encouraging pilot projects, prototypes, events and social entrepreneurial ventures, the News Taskforce will encourage a wide swathe of the community to experiment with creative solutions to their information needs. Project: PANDA Winner: Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Ill. Award: $150,000 Project Lead: Brian Boyer Web: http://blog.apps.chicagotribune.com/ Twitter: @pandaproject To help news organizations better use public information, the PANDA Project, in partnership with Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), the Chicago Tribune and The Spokane Spokesman-Review, will build a set of open-source, web-based tools that make it easier for journalists to use and analyze data. While national news organizations often have the staff and know-how to handle federal data, smaller news organizations are at a disadvantage. City and state data are messier, and newsroom staff often lack the tools to use it. PANDA will work with tools like Google Refine to find relationships among data sets and improve data sets for use by others. PANDA will be simple to deploy, allowing newsrooms without software developers on staff to integrate it into their work. Project: DocumentCloud Reader Annotations Winner: Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), Columbia, Mo. Award: $320,000 Project Lead: Aron Pilhofer Web: www.documentcloud.org Twitter: @documentcloud A 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, DocumentCloud helps journalists analyze, annotate and publish original source documents. Hundreds of newsrooms are already using the tool. With this grant, DocumentCloud will develop a new feature allowing newsrooms to invite public participation in annotating and commenting on source documents. The tool will help newsrooms involve their readers in the news and improve DocumentCloud as a journalistic tool and investigative reporting resource. Project: FrontlineSMS Winner: The Kiwanja Foundation, Palo Alto, Calif. Award: $250,000 Project Lead: Sean McDonald Web link: www.frontlinesms.com Twitter: @frontlinesms FrontlineSMS: Media will create a new platform that allows journalists to more effectively use text messaging to inform and engage rural communities. The Frontline SMS platform already enables users in underserved areas to organize interactions with large numbers of people via text messages, a laptop and a mobile phone – without the need for the Internet. This grant will enable FrontlineSMS to expand its software platform and work with community radio stations and other rural journalists. Project: Zeega Winner: Media and Place Productions, Cambridge, Mass. Award: $420,000 Project Lead: Kara Oehler Web: www.zeega.org Twitter: @karaoehler To help tell rich multimedia stories, Zeega will improve its open-source HTML5 platform for creating collaborative and interactive documentaries. By using Zeega, anyone can create immersive, participatory multimedia projects that seamlessly combine original content with photos, videos, text, audio and maps from across the Web. With this grant, Zeega will expand their experimental prototype to work on Web, tablet and mobile devices and pilot a series of collaborative and interactive documentary projects with news organizations, journalists and communities across the globe. Project: The State Decoded Winner: The Miller Center Foundation, Charlottesville, Va. Award: $165,000 Project Lead: Waldo Jaquith Web link: www.statedecoded.com Twitter: @waldojaquith The State Decoded will be a platform that displays state codes, court decisions and information from legislative tracking services to make government more understandable to the average citizen. While many state codes are already online, they lack context and clarity. With an improved layout, embeddable definitions of legal terms, Google News and Twitter integration, and an open API for state codes, this project aims to make important laws the centerpiece of media coverage. Project: Poderopedia Winner: El Mostrador, Santiago, Chile Award: $200,000 Project Lead: Miguel Paz Web: http://poderopedia.com Twitter: @poderopedia To promote greater transparency in Chile, Poderopedia (Powerpedia) will be an editorial and crowdsourced database that highlights the links among the country’s elite. Using data visualization, the site will investigate and illustrate the connections among people, companies and institutions, shedding light on any conflicts of interests. Crowdsourced information will be vetted by professional journalists before it is posted. Entries will include an editorial overview, a relationship map and links to the sources of information. Project: Nextdrop Winner: NextDrop, Berkeley, Calif., and Hubli-Dharwad, India Award: $375,000 Project Lead: Anu Sridharan Web : www.nextdrop.org Twitter: @NextDrop To develop a new way of disseminating critical community information, NextDrop will launch a service, in conjunction with local utilities, that notifies residents of Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. NextDrop will work with water utility employees who operate the valves that control the infrequent flow of water. The service will notify neighborhood residents via text when the water is turned on. This system will be replicable in any community as a way to distribute all types of community information. Project: Spending Stories Winner: Open Knowledge Foundation, Cambridge, England Award: $250,000 Project Lead: Martin Keegan Web: http://okfn.org Twitter: @okfn News stories about government finances are common, but readers often find it challenging to place the numbers in perspective. Spending Stories will contextualize such news pieces by tying them to the data on which they are based. For example, a story on City Hall spending could be annotated with details on budget trends and related stories from other news outlets. The effort will be driven by a combination of machine-automated analysis and verification by users interested in public spending. Project: The Public Laboratory Winner: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Cambridge, Mass. Award: $500,000 Project Lead: Jeffrey Warren Web: www.publiclaboratory.org Twitter: @publiclaboratory To make technology work for communities, The Public Laboratory will create a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The Lab is an expansion of Grassroots Mapping – a project originated at the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT. During the project, residents used helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high-resolution “satellite” maps gauging the extent of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – at a time when there was little public information on the subject. Expanding the tool kit beyond aerial mapping, Public Laboratory will work with communities, both online and offline, to produce information about their surroundings. Project: ScraperWiki Winner: ScraperWiki, Liverpool, England Award: $280,000 Project Lead: Francis Irving Web: http://scraperwiki.com Twitter: @scraperwiki ScraperWiki.com provides a way to make it easier to collect information from across the web from diverse sources. The site helps anyone freely create “scrapers” to collect, store and publish public data, and make it freely available for anyone to use. As such, the site provides journalists with updated, aggregated data that allows them to produce richer stories and data visualizations. This grant will add a “data on demand” feature where journalists can request data sets and be notified of changes in data that might be newsworthy, and data embargos that will keep information private until a story breaks. To accelerate the adoption of the platform, the U.K.-based site will host “journalism data camps” in 12 U.S. states. Project: Tiziano 360 Winner: The Tiziano Project, Los Angeles, Calif. Award: $200,000 Project Lead: Jon Vidar Web: http://360.tizianoproject.org Twitter: @tizianoproject Using visually dynamic, multimedia storytelling, the Tiziano Project provides communities with the equipment, training and web platform needed to report on stories that affect their residents’ lives. Tiziano will build an improved platform based on the award-winning projecthttp://360.tizianoproject.org/kurdistan/. Using HTML5, the platform will display the work of professional and community journalists and will enable news organizations, community groups and individuals to easily manage digital content for mobile and tablet devices. The project will also build an interactive map to serve as a hub for projects developing similar sites in their communities and enable direct communication between these communities and their audiences. Project: OpenBlock Rural Winner: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C. Award: $275,000 Project Lead: Ryan Thornburg Web: http://jomc.unc.edu Twitter: @rtburg Rural news organizations often struggle to move into the digital age because they lack the staff to make public data digestible. OpenBlock Rural will work with local governments and community newspapers in North Carolina to collect, aggregate and publish government data, including crime and real estate reports, restaurant inspections and school ratings. In addition, the project aims to improve small local papers’ technical expertise and provide a new way to generate revenue. Project: SwiftRiver Winner: Ushahidi, Orlando, Fla. Award: $250,000 Project Lead: David Kobia Web: www.ushahidi.com Twitter: @ushahidi As news events unfold, mobile phones and the Internet are flooded with information. Through the SwiftRiver platform, Ushahidi will attempt to verify this information by parsing it and evaluating sources. Working across email, Twitter, web feeds and text messages, the platform will use a combination of techniques to identify trends and evaluate the information based on the creator’s reputation. The project builds on Ushahidi’s past efforts to verify the crowdsourced information collected in global crisis scenarios like the Kenyan election crisis in 2008 and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.
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    When Knight Foundation launched the News Challenge in September 2006, the media landscape looked a lot different than it does today.  The iPhone was merely a rumor-- Motorola's Razr was the  top selling phone. Twitter was still a project of ODEO and, for many of us, RSS was the future of distribution on the Internet. Netflix, which had 5.6 million customers compared to 24 million now, had yet to launch the Netflix Prize. Since then we've experienced a constant stream of new ideas, practices and behaviors. Though the scene changes rapidly, lessons still matter. In some ways, they're more important than ever if they can help us get a sense of the bigger picture. Funding innovation requires openness to experimentation and a commitment to learn and adapt. In this spirit, we asked LFA Group, an evaluation and consulting firm, to take a closer look at the first two cohorts of  News Challenge winners (2007 and 2008) to better understand their impact and influence. (As Mayur mentioned recently, the review is part of an ongoing assessment of the News Challenge; we are tracking the continuing progress of 2009, 2010 and soon to be announced 2011 winners. The findings from this also will be shared on a regular basis.) The interim assessment comprises a cross-cutting overview as well as a series of thematic cluster reports exploring projects in terms of the outcomes they have achieved in their targeted communities, their influence on the field of journalism and media, as well as their contribution to learning. We hope the lessons contained in our assessments of the News Challenge will spark conversation not merely about our work, but about innovation in general.       We’ve displayed some of the highlights of the report in the infographic on the left hand side (click to enlarge) the image and in a SlideShare presentation that we built in partnership with the design firm Kiss Me I’m Polish. We hope that you’ll explore all the reports; we’re eager to know what you think and what insights you’re taking away. On Wednesday we'll announce the fifth round of News Challenge winners at the MIT/Knight Civic Media Conference. We'll refrain from talking about this year's winners here-- but we will predict that they will prove to be an exciting mix of innovators, entrepreneurs and journalists. You can track the announcement at the conference livestream, and over Twitter via @knightfdn and #newschallenge.