Knight News Challenge awards $3.4 million for ideas to strengthen the Internet

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BOSTON – June 23, 2014 – Nineteen projects that strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation will receive $3.4 million as winners of the Knight News Challenge.  The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation made the announcement at the 2014 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference at the MIT Media Lab.

The winners provide a mix of solutions to promote an open Internet that is free and accessible to all. They address issues from privacy and censorship, to expanding the diversity of the tech workforce, to improving digital access and connecting communities with online content in easier, more useful ways. Three of the projects support the work of libraries as essential resources for community information access. Nine of the winners will receive investments of $200,000 to $500,000 each, while 10 early-stage ideas will receive $35,000 each through the Knight Prototype Fund, which helps innovators take media and information projects from idea to demo.

“The winning projects strengthen or defend the power of the Internet to inform communities and help innovation thrive; they help build a more inclusive, open Internet that represents diverse voices and ideas,” said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation. “Including prototypes in this round of winners further reinforces the need to build a stronger Internet and quickly test new ideas in this evolving space.”

Launched in February, the challenge is a collaboration between Knight, Ford Foundation and Mozilla Foundation. Ford Foundation contributed $250,000 to the challenge.

“I am impressed with the creativity and smart forward thinking of the winners, but equally grateful that this competition prompted such a robust discussion on strengthening the Internet at this critical moment,” said Jenny Toomey, director of the Internet Rights Unit at the Ford Foundation. “It is vital to our nation’s democracy that this transformative technology remains accessible to fully participate in society.”

“With threats to privacy, security and access to the Web intensifying, there is a real craving for a more open and trustworthy Web,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. “This competition inspired hundreds of technologists, thinkers and builders to contribute ideas that will strengthen the Internet for people everywhere.”

The Knight News Challenge asked innovators for ideas that strengthen the Internet for freedom of expression and innovation, recognizing its power as an essential resource for creativity, news, economic growth, education and human interaction.

The winning projects include:

Check Out the Internet from New York Public Library: bridging the digital divide by allowing New York residents with limited broadband access to borrow portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices for up to a year.

Code2040: ensuring the future of the Internet as a diverse, inclusive public resource by opening more pathways for underrepresented minorities to top jobs in technology and bolstering professional support networks to sustain their success. 

Getting It Right on Rights from Digital Public Library of America: creating a simplified and more coherent rights structure for content collections from libraries, museums, archives and other sources, along with best practices that institutions can use to safely make more content available to the public.

Global Censorship Measurement from the Open Technology Institute at New America: working in support of Measurement Lab, a collaboration and research platform that hosts a suite of tools for assessing the openness of the Internet.

Internet to Go from Chicago Public Library: offering Chicago residents Wi-Fi hotspots for up to three weeks at a time, in addition to one-on-one digital literacy and skills coaching and access to online tutorials. from Electronic Frontier Foundation: collecting information about online censorship incidents to explore concerns about censorship and preserve freedom of expression.

Ranking Digital Rights from New America Foundation: developing a system for benchmarking and ranking the world’s most powerful tech companies on how well they protect the free expression and privacy of users.

Text Secure from Open Whisper Systems: safeguarding mobile text communication though a simple, secure messaging application that requires no special knowledge from the user. 

Who Are the Gatekeepers? from Journalism Development Network: examining the gatekeepers of Eastern Europe’s digital infrastructure, by analyzing the ownership and connections of Internet service providers and cable and satellite operators.

Full project descriptions for these nine projects are at the bottom of the release.

The 10 Prototype Fund winners include:

Anti-censorship Alert System by Center for Rights (Boston; project lead: Tiffiny Cheng @fightfortheftr) allowing the public to see a blocked website by launching a series of tools, including an index and shareable website widgets, that enable the distribution and decentralization needed to provide local access to proxies and mirrored versions of the sites.

Breedrs by Swell Creative Group (Los Angeles; project lead: Phillip Holmes @phillipholmesis): creating a platform for parents so they can better understand the apps, games and technology that kids buy, use and learn with.

CertiDig by University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas; project lead: Michael Williams  @mikewms, @KUJournalism): providing a seamless, secure method for authenticating information and data sources online while maintaining the privacy of the identity of sender and receiver.

Checkdesk by Meedan(San Francisco; project lead: Tom Trewinnard @tom_el_rumi @meedan, @checkdesk): helping journalists quickly verify the accuracy of online media–whether it’s a video, photo or a tweet through a digital tool–in deadline situations.

Inquisite by Whirl-i-gig (New York; project leads: Seth Kaufman, Maria Passarotti  @inquisitely): promoting collaboration among researchers on complex investigative projects across disciplines through an online hub. By combining an open sharing, visualization and publishing platform with mobile data gathering tools, researchers can use the hub to contribute media and data, and share projects.

Poking the Bear by Salak TeleSystems (Washington, D.C.; project lead: Bart Stidham @STSnet): creating a new family of tools that can detect and prove network neutrality violations even when it occurs within mobile network operator networks.

Report-a-Troll by Hollaback (New York; project lead: Emily May, @ihollaback) creating a platform where victims can safely report online harassment—including violent threats, stalking and racial epithets—and volunteers can respond.

Safe Travels Online by Tibet Action Institute (Boston; project lead: Nathan Freitas @n8fr8, @tibetaction): helping people avoid cyberattacks, malicious software and digital surveillance, by testing and improving resources that allow users to safely navigate the Internet. The resources were initially designed for high-risk communities in Asia subject to strict controls on freedom of expression and other human rights.

Swarmize by Guardian Media Group (London, UK; project lead: Matt McAlister @mattmcalister @swarmize): allowing journalists to conduct research with the help of readers by creating a platform to improve data collection, analysis and distribution of crowd research.

Threshold (San Francisco; project leads: Elizabeth Stark and Mike Sofaer @starkness, @mikesofaer): making it easier for open Internet projects to find funding by creating an open Internet-themed virtual currency as a way to build a community of interested supporters.

Knight News Challenge on strengthening the Internet was the first round of the Knight News Challenge in 2014. In January Knight announced seven winners of the 2013 Knight News Challenge: Health, which sought ideas to harness the power of data and information for the health of communities. Knight will announce the theme for the second round of 2014 soon.

The Knight News Challenge accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Since 2007 Knight Foundation has reviewed more than 10,000 News Challenge applications and provided more than $37 million in funding to 111 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 Safecast, which helps people measure air quality and became the leading provider of pollution data following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

For more, visit and follow #newschallenge on Twitter.

Full project descriptions for winners receiving investments of $200,000 to $500,000 each:

• Award: $500,000
• Organization: New York Public Library (New York)
• Project leads: Tony Marx, James English and Luke Swartout
• Twitter: @nypl

In a city where 27 percent of households don’t have access to broadband, The New York Public Library will expand its efforts to bridge the digital divide by allowing the public to borrow portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices for up to a year. Through its pilot project launching in September, the project seeks to reach 10,000 households, providing 24/7 quality access to people whose current access to the Internet is limited to 40-minute, once-a-day time slots, available on a first-come, first-serve basis in one of the library’s 92 branches. Providing continuous access will expand their ability to participate fully in the modern economy and allow them to continue to learn, work, explore and create after the library’s doors have closed.

Winner: CODE2040

• Award: $400,000
• Organization: CODE2040 (San Francisco)
• Project lead: Laura Weidman Powers
• Twitter: @CODE2040, @laurawp

A diverse community of people working on strengthening the Internet is an important part of ensuring its future as a public resource. While black and Latino students currently earn nearly 20 percent of computer science degrees, they make up only 9 percent of the technology industry and less than 1 percent of technology company founders. CODE2040 seeks to strengthen the Internet by opening more pathways for people of color to top jobs in technology and bolstering professional support networks to sustain their success. The core component of this initiative will be a new iteration of the CODE2040 Fellows Program. The program matches black and Latino software developers with internships at tech companies to which they would not usually have access and supports them with a robust leadership development curriculum. Lessons from the Fellows Program will also be applied to develop a curriculum for thousands of computer science students of color nationwide.

Winner: Getting It Right on Rights: Simplifying, Harmonizing and Maximizing the Openness of Rights in Digital Libraries Around the World

• Award: $300,000
• Organization: Digital Public Library of America (Boston)
• Project leads: Dan Cohen and Emily Gore
• Twitter: @dpla, @ncschistory, @dancohen

Huge collections of content from libraries, museums, archives and other sources are freely accessible on the Web through the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, Trove and other organizations. However, these collections lack consistency on people’s usage rights and are further weakened by inconsistent copyright law and aversion to risk by nonprofit institutions. Getting it Right on Rights will create a simplified and more coherent rights structure, along with best practices that institutions around the world can use to safely make more content available to the public. The project will include two international summits to convene experts in the field, from museum leaders to intellectual property lawyers and policymakers, the creation of a new digital rights standard and production of a best practices guide.

Disclosure: John Palfrey, president of the Digital Public Library of America’s board of directors, is chair of Knight’s board of trustees.

• Award: $350,000
• Organization: Open Technology Institute at a (Washington, D.C.)
• Project leads: Ben Scott, Thomas Gideon and Alan Davidson
• Twitter: @OTI, @cmdln, @abdavidson

Private telecommunications companies control the majority of Internet traffic and can potentially exert significant control over what Internet users see and how they see it. However, little is known about how they exercise this control. New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute works in support of Measurement Lab, a collaboration and research platform that hosts a suite of tools for assessing the openness of the Internet through metrics such as connection speed and blocked sites. They will work to make the software and data more accessible and provide journalists and policymakers with information about Internet openness.

Winner: Internet to Go

• Award: $400,000
• Organization: Chicago Public Library via Chicago Public Library Foundation
• Project leads: Brian Bannon, Michelle Frisque and Andrew Medlar
• Twitter: @bbannon, @mfrisque, @ammlib, @chipublib

To increase engagement with the Internet in communities with extremely low Internet use, Chicago Public Library will test Wi-Fi hotspot lending from six neighborhood libraries in combination with robust digital skills coaching. Laptops and tablets will also be available. Devices will be loaned for three weeks, and digital and information literacy services will be made available to patrons at checkout. Internet to Go will allow the library—already the city’s largest provider of free Internet access—to test the idea, refine it and ultimately expand the project.

Disclosure: Knight Program Director John Bracken’s spouse, Andrea Sáenz, is first deputy commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. Bracken recused himself from consideration of this project.

• Award: $250,000
• Organization: Electronic Frontier Foundation (San Francisco)
• Project leads: Jillian York
• Twitter: @EFF, @jilliancyork

As private Internet companies handle a growing amount of online communication, society faces a new set of challenges about censorship and free speech: When should governments and companies be able to remove content from a private Internet service? What policies should companies follow when dealing with copyright or censorship requests? The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the country’s leading advocates for an open Internet, will further develop Co-founded by Jillian York and Ramzi Jaber, the project collects information about online censorship incidents. The Electronic Frontier Foundation will make use of this data to explore concerns about censorship and map a better way forward for freedom of expression online.

• Award: $300,000
• Organization: New America Foundation (Washington, D.C.)
• Project leads: Rebecca MacKinnon
• Twitter: @rmack, @netizenproject, @NewAmerica

While private companies have the potential to exert a growing amount of control over the public’s use of the Internet, little is known about how that control is exercised or how companies’ practices compare. To bring this issue to light, the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation is developing a system for benchmarking and ranking the world’s most powerful tech companies on how well they protect the free expression and privacy of users. The ranking and its underlying data will help journalists and investors encourage companies to improve their practices.

Winner: TextSecure

• Award: $416,000
• Organization: Open Whisper Systems (San Francisco)
• Project leads: Moxie Marlinspike
• Twitter: @whispersystems, @moxie

While millions of people communicate every day over text messages sent between mobile devices, this is usually not a secure way to transmit information. Additionally, existing solutions for safeguarding mobile text communication require time and effort. TextSecure tackles this problem through a simple secure messaging application that requires no special knowledge from the user. Its Android application has hundreds of thousands of active users. With Knight Foundation funding, the team will continue development of the application and make it available on additional mobile devices.

• Award: $200,000
• Organization: Journalism Development Network (Bucharest, Romania)
• Project leads: Paul Radu and Manuela Preoteasa
• Twitter: @OCCRP, @EurActivRomania

Cable and Internet providers control much of the public’s communication, but in many countries there is little public knowledge about those companies. This project will examine the gatekeepers of Eastern Europe’s digital infrastructure, by analyzing the ownership and connections of Internet service providers, and cable and satellite operators. The project will ask a series of questions: Who controls access to TV stations, the Internet, online news outlets and other forms of information? How transparent are these groups? Are they connected to political parties, public officials or organized crime? The project will then visualize and map the information and conduct an advocacy campaign to bring it to the attention of relevant organizations.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit


Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, Knight Foundation, 305-908-2677, [email protected]