Knight Foundation to Fund Plug-and-Play Version of EveryBlock

The Knight Foundation is assembling a new team to further develop the code behind the hyperlocal, geo-coded EveryBlock project and to develop plug-and-play architecture to make it easier for news organizations to install the software.

Meanwhile, the foundation plans to create “test kitchens” to expand the implementation of other innovative projects created with Knight support.

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Gary Kebbel, director of the Knight Foundation’s journalism program, told me about these moves Monday after commenting at the Online News Association conference that the foundation is rethinking how it handles projects that, like EveryBlock, are sold to commercial firms. Kebbel told an audience Saturday that the foundation may require that such sales fund open-source software or community news.

The changes reflect how the Knight Foundation’s support for journalism innovation is evolving after its  experience with EveryBlock, which was created with a $1.1 million Knight News Challenge grant and was sold to MSNBC.com.

EveryBlock is a data-driven, hyperlocal news site for select U.S. cities that provides geo-coded information on crime, building permits, links to local news stories and more. This information is presented on a map of the city that can be zoomed down to the block level.

In keeping with the News Challenge requirements, the code behind EveryBlock was released in June. Yet Kebbel said he and his colleagues realize that most news organizations don’t have the staff and programming expertise to utilize the code.

Kebbel said the Knight Foundation doesn’t want to be in the business of developing open source projects that only a few can use. Big news organizations like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune have Django and Ruby on Rails developers who can work with the EveryBlock code. (EveryBlock was developed in the Django Web framework.) But most news organizations — especially smaller ones — do not.

“We don’t want to be doing something that just benefits big news organizations,” Kebbel said. “We want something that anyone can benefit from.”

The Knight Foundation is working with advisers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to form a team to further development of EveryBlock and make it much easier for news organizations to set up the software on their sites, Kebbel said. Knight will work with several news organizations around the country to install EveryBlock for them. Once this additional development is completed, the new code will be released.

The development will not be part of the News Challenge because the Knight Foundation wants to begin working on it this year, and News Challenge grants will not be awarded until next spring.

EveryBlock’s News Challenge grant (like all the others) required it to release its code. But some journalists, professors and Web developers have asked if merely releasing software is enough — why not create an open source community along the lines of the ones that support Drupal or Firefox?

It’s now apparent that Knight is prepared to do more than set up an open source community. “We need to do more than just insist that code be open source,” Kebbel said. The Knight Foundation wants to make it easier for that software to be utilized by people and organizations around the world.

In addition to funding further development of EveryBlock, Kebbel said Knight is rolling out something he called the “Test Kitchen” later this year or early next year to explore ways to make it easier for people and organizations to install and use the software created through its grants. “That’s an example of how the Knight Foundation’s thinking is changing,” Kebbel said.

The Test Kitchen idea is still in the planning stages, but Kebbel envisions it as a collaboration between community news organizations, universities and others who set up testing labs. The purpose would be to create a live testing environment to make these projects easier to install. Much like how Knight will be testing the new plug-and-play EveryBlock at select news organizations around the country, these labs would test easier-to-install versions of the open source software before it is released.

After MSNBC.com bought EveryBlock, Eric Newton, vice president of Knight Foundation’s journalism program, said he was pleased that the project proved so successful that a commercial company would want to buy it. Kebbel, too, characterized the sale of EveryBlock as a “validation from the marketplace.”

Kebbel told me Monday that a greater good would come from a successful project like EveryBlock being sold, with part of that sale being reinvested in future projects or further development of open-source software.

“It was win-win in the fact that it was a win for Adrian, MSNBC and the Knight News Challenge as a validation as of the challenge,” he said of the sale. “But we hope in the future to add one more win, which would be contributions to some sort of fund that helps further our interests in open source software and community news.”

In the future, people who sell their News Challenge projects for commercial use may be required to send something — a dollar amount, a percentage of the sale or even the full amount of the grant — back to Knight or another nonprofit foundation.

If Knight does seek to be repaid, Kebbel said, that money would not go to the foundation itself, but rather to the News Challenge to fund additional projects, further development of open-source software or installation of existing software.

He acknowledged that Knight must be careful not to structure the new requirements so that potential grantees seek venture capital instead of applying to the News Challenge.

The challenge for Knight, he said, is “how do we not hurt the grantees, and at the same time take advantage of what could be additional money for further charitable benefits?”

It’s too early to say what Knight will ultimately decide — Kebbel and others are discussing the issue with lawyers and experts in the field — and when it will be implemented, but there will be changes.

He characterized the development as part of the experimental nature of the News Challenge. “It’s a contest that seeks experiment, and the contest itself is an experiment,” he said. “We’re constantly thinking about how it should evolve.”

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