Articles by

Sam Gill

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    Building stronger democracies starts with local communities. It is at the local level where we make the decisions that have the most immediate impact on our lives. Knight Foundation's Community and National Initiatives program focuses on supporting more informed and engaged communities through investments that attract and nurture talent, enhance opportunity and foster civic engagement.
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    In the wake of revelations that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly used Facebook data to influence the 2016 election, scrutiny of the social media giant continues. In the past month, Facebook has been hit with information requests from an alphabet soup of federal agencies ­— the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).But the issue is about more than Facebook and has implications beyond breaches and rights to privacy. We’re experiencing a sea change in our relationship to a relatively small set of companies. Just a few brands — Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon — occupy many of our waking hours.They are where most of us entertain ourselves. They are where we meet and converse with friends. They are how many of us shop. They are where political debate is happening. The reality is that it’s harder and harder to transact our social, commercial and political lives in any kind of “offline” fashion.This matters for our democracy. The way we inform ourselves about public affairs has moved from the morning paper and evening news to a constant stream of mobile alerts. Political debates have shifted from in-person affairs to pseudonymous shouting matches. Our expectations for government and other institutions have shifted to an internet standard — any service that doesn’t deliver with Amazon Prime or Netflix levels of instantaneity is frustrating and obsolete.
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    Knight Foundation has made significant investments in vibrant public spaces and places that can bring people in communities together. So it was hard not to take notice last summer when image and after image popped up on our Twitter feeds showing crowds of people—around the world—swarming public places at all hours. As we quickly learned, they were playing Pokémon GO, a location-based, augmented-reality game made by the Silicon Valley firm Niantic, Inc.The premise of the game is simple—find and catch as many Pokémon (cute, cartoonish creatures) as you can. But the technology underneath may presage an important new phase of our digital future.
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    Social change is messy and complicated, and it can take a long time to come to fruition, typically by way of a winding, sometimes meandering, path. Such a context requires patience, comfort with complexity, and the humility to recognize that bets are just that—guesses about what might work over time.Certainly, monitoring and evaluation have an important place in assessing the strength of investments over time as well as the yield (or unanticipated consequences) of past efforts. What is often missing, however, is sufficient clarity about the problem or challenge a bet is intended to address.At Knight Foundation, we are beginning to use the term learning organization to describe not simply the rote mechanics of surfacing insights from past and present work, but to also encompass the ability and judgment to identify addressable challenges, formulate smart bets, and then rigorously interrogate and scrutinize those bets and the contours of the problems they are meant to attack.
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    Beginning in late 2015, Knight Foundation began a journey to get a better handle on how the conditions surrounding our work could change. We started by asking: “How will people be informed and engaged in our democracy between now and 2026?”We were not trying to predict the future. Rather, we sought to develop plausible stories about what alternative futures might look like to facilitate discussion over critical questions on how to best fulfill our mission today and tomorrow.