Knight News Challenge

Knight wants to help fix the Internet

Knight Foundation | The Verge | The Guardian

The first Knight News Challenge of the year asks: “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”

Knight, with help from the Ford Foundation and Mozilla, is offering $2.75 million for the winning ideas. The challenge aims “to attract a broad range of innovative ideas from journalism, policy, research and education.”

The challenge comes just after Verge Managing Editor Nilay Patel wrote a much-passed-around essay called “The Internet Is Fucked (But We Can Fix It).” Its thesis: “the internet is a utility, there is zero meaningful competition to provide that utility to Americans, all internet providers should be treated equally, and the FCC is doing a miserably ineffective job.”

Patel is skeptical that the market can address these problems on its own, because of lack of competition among Internet providers. He suggests pressure on the FCC to stop Comcast’s planned merger with Time Warner, for instance:

American politicians love to stand on the edges of important problems by insisting that the market will find a solution. And that’s mostly right; we don’t need the government meddling in places where smart companies can create their own answers. But you can’t depend on the market to do anything when the market doesn’t exist.

Last month Dan Gillmor called on major philanthropic foundations to help address what he called the “the forces of centralization” he says are “inexorably strangling democratized technology and communications.”

Please fund a bunch of research and development of open technologies and services. In other words, help re-create an infrastructure for tech liberty. Don’t pick winners. Pick possibilities and help as many as possible, building on current experiments and projects and finding new ones that sound promising. Understand that most will fail, and be fine with that.

Knight plans a panel during SXSW called “Remember When the Internet Was Free?” on Saturday, March 8, at 12:30 p.m. Read more


Knight News Challenge announces $2.2 million grant for projects that ‘unlock the power of health data’

Knight News Challenge

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced it would award $2.2 million to seven projects that “harness the power of data and information for the health of communities,” the foundation announced Tuesday. From a press release:

“By addressing the vital area of health each winner highlights the transformative impact that data, when used correctly, can have on communities,” said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation. “In this way, the projects tackle real-world problems while opening up opportunities for people to explore new ways to apply data — within the health sphere and beyond.”

The winning projects include Positive Deviance Journalism from Solutions Journalism Network, which, according to the press release, will collaborate with newsrooms “and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to scan data sets for examples of positive health results that can lead to important stories.” Tina Rosenberg of Solutions Journalism Network described to Justin Ellis how it plans to use the money. Read more


Knight pledges more than $3 million to winners of government transparency challenge

Knight News Challenge

Eight projects from the Knight Open Gov news challenge will divide the money, including the Oyez Project, which gets $600,000 to expand its collection of summaries and transcripts from Supreme Court cases to include information from federal appellate courts.

Oyez Project from Knight Foundation on Vimeo. Read more


Knight News Challenge winner will make historical election data easily accessible

The winners of the latest Knight News Challenge announced today include a collaboration between developers at The New York Times and The Washington Post to create a free, comprehensive database of past U.S. election results.

New York Times interactive news developer Derek Willis and Washington Post news apps developer Serdar Tumgoren are working together on the project, named Open Elections. Their employers are not officially involved, but are supportive of the idea.

How could journalists use this data once it’s available?

In an interview, Willis suggested merging the elections data with demographic data to examine how changing population patterns have affected voting trends. A journalist could show one candidate’s base of support shifting across multiple elections. The data could even provide simple context for a daily news story, such as quickly looking up the last time a Republican won a certain office.

“Serdar and I both work on elections in our day jobs, and year after year, election after election, we would have to put together previous election results. You want them for comparison’s sake — to show how things have changed in a state or a county,” Willis said. “I’ve done this three or four times now, and it’s always a pain. It’s always much more complicated than it needs to be. … There’s no centralized place to go.”

“You’re looking at multiple sources and formats, and trying to shoehorn those all into a single standardized format. It’s tricky. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time,” Willis continued. “It starts to dawn on you that this should be easier, we shouldn’t be repeating the same thing every two years.”

The end product will include a catalog of the available data, and data sets accessible through an API and through bulk downloads in common data formats.

“We want to make this useful to developers, but not just to developers,” Willis said. “If all you know is a spreadsheet, then you can get election data and work with it. Or if you are a developer and you want to start incorporating election results into an app that you’re building, then you can do that too.”

The project will start by recording election results from all states for all federal offices and most major statewide offices.

Willis said initially they will try to get data back through the 2000 election cycle, and then see what else is possible beyond that. The further back in time you look, he said, the more likely it is that records are not available digitally.

It will be a long-term effort, beginning after the more-pressing matter of this November’s election is concluded. By early next year, there may be data posted from a handful of states, Willis said, then they will take feedback and continue building more data sets.

If you want to follow along or get involved, the code is shared on Github, there is a Google Group for questions and updates, and a Twitter account @openelex.

Winners of the next challenge, on mobile technology, will be announced in January followed by three more 2013 contests, the first of which will be on open government.

Knight News Challenge: Data Winners

Six winners, including Willis and Tumgoren, were awarded a total of $2.2 million in the latest Knight News Challenge, whose theme was “data.” The winners will be presenting their projects via a live stream at 4 p.m. ET today. Here is information on them, provided by Knight in a press release.

Project: New contributor tools for OpenStreetMap

Award: $575,000
Winners: Development Seed Inc. / Eric Gunderson, Washington, D.C.
Twitter: @developmentseed, @ericg, @mapbox

Summary: OpenStreetMap, a community mapping project, is quickly becoming a leading source for open street-level data, with foursquare, Wikimedia and other major projects signing on as users. However, there is a significant learning curve to joining the growing contributor community. With Knight News Challenge funds, Development Seed will build a suite of easy-to-use tools allowing anyone to contribute data such as building locations, street names and points of interest. The team will promote the tools worldwide and help contribute to the growth of OpenStreetMap.

Eric Gundersen is president and cofounder of Development Seed, where he helps run project strategy and helps coordinate product development. An expert on open data and open-source software, Gundersen has been featured in The New York Times, Nightline, NPR, Federal Computer Week and elsewhere. He frequently speaks on open data, Web-based mapping tools, knowledge management and open-source business models. Gundersen was also a winner of the Federal 100 award for his contributions to government technology in 2009. Gundersen earned his master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington and has bachelor’s degrees in economics and international relations.


Award: $450,000
Winner: Joe Germuska, Chicago; John Keefe, New York; Ryan Pitts, Spokane, Wash.
Twitter: @JoeGermuska; @jkeefe; @ryanpitts

Despite the high value of Census data, the U.S. Census Bureau’s tools for exploring the data are difficult to use. A group of news developers built for the 2010 Census to help journalists more easily access Census data. Following early positive feedback, the team will expand and simplify the tool, and add new data sets including the annual American Community Survey, which informs decisions on how more than $400 billion in government funding is distributed.

Joe Germuska is a senior news application developer for the Chicago Tribune. He leads development of special online projects that amplify the impact of Tribune investigations, as well as stand-alone projects such as the award-winning Tribune Schools site and the new Crime in Chicago project. He was also an advisor to the Knight News Challenge-funded PANDA project.

John Keefe is the senior editor for data news and journalism technology at WNYC, New York Public Radio. He is part of WNYC’s Data News Team, which helps infuse the station’s journalism with data reporting, maps, interactive applications and crowdsourcing projects. Keefe led WNYC’s news operation for nine years and grew its capacity for breaking news, election coverage and investigative reporting. His career also includes time as a police reporter at two Wisconsin newspapers, as science editor for Discovery Channel Online and as president of a small digital production company. He blogs at

Ryan Pitts is the senior editor for digital media at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. He works with a newsroom Web team that built the newspaper’s content-management system, works with reporters and editors on data projects, and continues to develop mapping, multimedia and revenue-generating tools for local journalism. Pitts worked as a reporter, print designer and editor at two Northwest newspapers before moving into online journalism full time in 2002. He was a board member for the Knight-funded PANDA Project, and is currently working with Knight-Mozilla OpenNews to help build Source, a site covering the journalism and coding community.

Project: Safecast Radiation & Air Quality

Award: $400,000
Winners: Safecast / Sean Bonner, Los Angeles
Twitter: @safecast

Summary: Safecast, a trusted provider of radiation data in post-quake Japan, is now expanding with challenge funding to create a real-time map of air quality in U.S. cities. A team of volunteers, scientists and developers quickly formed Safecast in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when demand for radiation monitoring devices and data far surpassed the supply. The project has collected more than 4 million records and become the leading provider of radiation data. With News Challenge funding, Safecast will measure air quality in Los Angeles and expand to other U.S. cities. Disclosure: Knight Foundation Trustee Joi Ito is an officer of the Momoko Ito Foundation, which is receiving the funds on behalf of Safecast.

Sean Bonner is a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, journalist and activist. He has been featured in Cool Hunting, GOOD, Wired, Playboy, Salon, Forbes, The Associated Press, and has been included in Yahoo’s Best of the Web. As cofounder and global director of Safecast (an open global sensor network monitoring radiation levels in Japan), Bonner spends a lot of time thinking about maps and data. He cofounded Coffee Common (a customer-education brand collaboration launched at TED 2011) and Crash Space (a Los Angeles hacker-space). He has been a regular contributor to BoingBoing and has written editorials for MAKE, Al Jazeera and others.

Project: Pop Up Archive

Award: $300,000
Winners: Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton, Oakland, Calif.
Twitter: @popuparchive, @annewootton, @baileyspace

Today, media is created with greater ease, and by more people, than ever before. But multimedia content – including interviews, pictures and more – cannot survive online unless it is organized. Pop Up Archive takes media from the shelf to the Web – making content searchable, reusable and shareable, without requiring technical expertise or substantial resources from producers. A beta version was built around the needs of The Kitchen Sisters, Peabody award-winning journalists and independent producers who have collected stories of people’s lives for more than 30 years. Pop Up Archive will use News Challenge funds to further develop its platform and to do outreach to potential users.

Before arriving in California, Anne Wooton lived in France and managed a historic newspaper digitization project at Brown University. Wootton came to the University of California at Berkeley School of Information, where she received her master’s, with an interest in digital archives and the sociology of technology. She spent the summer 2011 working with The Kitchen Sisters and grant agencies to identify preservation and access opportunities for independent radio.

Bailey Smith has worked as an editor, journalist, Web master and information architect and has contributed to projects as a user experience researcher and designer for Code for America. She has also engaged intimately with media production as a transmedia consultant and as the producer of the radio documentary, Local Hire, an exploration of the rise and fall of film production in North Carolina. Smith has a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley School of Information in information management and systems. More at

Project: LocalData

Award: $300,000
Winners: Amplify Labs, Alicia Rouault, Prashant Singh and Matt Hampel, Detroit, Mich.
Twitter: @golocaldata

Summary: Whether tracking crime trends, cataloging real estate development or assessing parks and play spaces, communities gather millions of pieces of data each year. Such data are often collected haphazardly on paper forms or with hard-to-use digital tools, limiting their value. LocalData is a set of tools that helps community groups and city residents gather and organize information by designing simple surveys, seamlessly collecting it on paper or smartphone and exporting or visualizing it through an easy-to-use dashboard. Founded by Code for America fellows, the tools have already been tested in Detroit, where they helped document urban blight by tracking the condition of thousands of lots.

Alicia Rouault is an urban planner and interactive product manager. Before becoming a Code for America fellow, Rouault worked in economic development and urban planning on the development of a national urban manufacturing tool kit for cities. On the East Coast, Rouault worked as assistant editor of Urban Omnibus, in community development with the city of Newark’s Division of Planning and Economic Development, and with nonprofits Pratt Center for Community Development and Citizens Committee for New York City. Rouault has studied at University of Toronto, Pratt Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Matt Hampel is a Web developer and student of the changing landscape of civic information gathering. Hampel has worked with nonprofits, newspapers, universities and other organizations to build tools for the public good. Before joining Code for America, he worked as a technology project manager at the University of Michigan.

Prashant Singh is a Code for America Fellow on the Detroit team, where he creates technology for citizens and communities. Before that, he worked for Microsoft on television products for the Xbox, phones and set-top boxes. Singh likes to make, tinker and dirty his hands with software, bicycles, furniture and whatever else will fit in his apartment. Before working on consumer technology, Singh was a signal processing researcher. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Rice University.

Project: Open Elections

Award: $200,000
Winners: Derek Willis, The New York Times; Serdar Tumgoren, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Twitter: @derekwillis; @zstumgoren

Summary: Elections are fundamental to democracy, yet the ability to easily analyze the results are out of reach for most journalists and civic hackers. No freely available, comprehensive source of official election results exists. Open Elections will create the first, with a standardized, linked set of certified election results for U.S. federal and statewide offices. The database will allow the people who work with election data to be able to get what they need, whether that’s a CSV file for stories and data analysis or a JSON usable for Web applications and interactive graphics. The project also will allow for linking election data to other critical data sets. The hope is that one day, journalists and researchers will be able much more easily to analyze elections in ways that account for campaign spending, demographic changes and legislative track records.

Derek Willis is an interactive developer with The New York Times, working mainly on political and election-related applications. He maintains The Times’ congressional and campaign finance data and contributes to other projects. Willis has worked at The Washington Post, The Center for Public Integrity, Congressional Quarterly and The Palm Beach Post. He lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife and daughter. More at

Serdar Tumgoren is a newsroom developer at The Washington Post who builds political and election-related Web applications. He previously worked at Congressional Quarterly on campaign finance data. Prior to becoming a full-time data geek, he worked as a local government reporter in Connecticut, California and New Jersey. He lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

Read more

Knight News Challenge funds 6 projects focused on networks

The Knight News Challenge is giving more than $1.375 million to six projects that use networks in different ways to solve journalism problems.

Two of the winners announced Monday address issues on opposite ends of the journalism process:

  • The Tor Project will work on tools to help people in dangerous and politically repressive parts of the world publish and communicate safely with sources.
  • will enable news sites to track which stories and topics are gaining traction on their websites and their competitors’.

Monday’s announcement marks the completion of the first News Challenge contest since it shifted from an annual contest to three times a year.

Under the old system, nine to 10 months passed between the time that a project was submitted and Knight cut a check. In this cycle, that has been cut to 90 days, said John Bracken, director of the Knight Foundation’s journalism and media innovation grants.

Most of the awardees will have their checks by the end of the week, he said. “That feels right,” he said.

Bracken said the foundation is becoming more comfortable with funding projects that will change direction or refine their focus as they pursue their work. “I will be more worried if projects don’t come back to me in six months” to pivot, he said.

Two of the projects are being funded through the Knight Enterprise Fund, which funds for-profit ventures. “In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed,” Knight said in a news release. The $1.375 million figure only accounts for the four projects for which funding levels were disclosed.

Bracken said the Tor Project’s proposal made so much sense to him, he almost felt bad that he hadn’t thought of it already. The Tor Project is behind the Tor Browser, which allows users to use the Web anonymously by separating their identity from their browsing.

That’s valuable in countries that block websites, track users and manipulate Web content. “We’ve been used heavily in China and the Arab Spring to get information out safely,” said Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project.

With Knight’s money, Tor will improve a tool, called Tails, that enables people to safely and anonymously use public computers. Many people around the world rely on Internet cafes to upload videos because they don’t have high-speed Web access at home, but their use of those computers can be tracked.

By sticking a USB drive into the computer, someone can temporarily load an operating system with word processing, audio and video editing software. When they’re done, they pull out the USB drive and walk away without a trace of what they’ve done.

Tor will use a portion of the Knight grant to provide live support to people in sensitive reporting situations. Someone in Baghdad, for instance, would be able to chat, email or call (at various levels of security) to get help on how to sidestep a county’s Internet controls to publish a story., another grantee, aims to solve a problem at the other end of the publishing process: figuring out what stories interest people so that news sites can decide what to cover and promote. It’s part of a growing niche of analytics tools that try to help editors make decisions. will track content on a news site and its competitors, displaying data about which stories have the greatest activity on Twitter and Facebook activity. It pays special attention to stories that are surging in popularity, tracking them more closely if it detects an uptick.

The dashboard shows a list of stories, their popularity on Twitter and Facebook and whether a story is on the home page. Users can track popularity over a variety of time periods.

“We want to bring social clarity to newsrooms,” said Mohamed Nanabhay, who along with Haroon Meer co-founded the project. “We think there’s a lot of information out there that audiences are providing, that newsrooms don’t see.”

Nanabhay described two ways that journalists could use the tool. The first is to stay on top of what your competitors are doing in real-time. If you see a story that’s taking off and “you think it has editorial merit … you can do it and try to ride the wave of traffic and provide a service to your audience.”

Or perhaps a news site already has published a story that’s relevant to a popular story on a competing site. would help editors see that, and they could then decide to push their story on social media and promote it on the home page.

The service also enables editors to drill down into their own content and other websites to see which stories broke out.

Nanabhay emphasized that should be used to inform editorial decisions rather than dictate them. When he was at Al Jazeera English (he recently left his job as head of its online operations), he worried about the temptation to chase page views by publishing stories on whatever was popular at the moment.

“That’s something we don’t want,” he said. “It’s one tool that informs editorial judgment. It’s not there to replace an editor or choose stories for him.”

The service is in private beta now; Nanabhay said hasn’t disclosed how much the service will cost.

The other four projects:

  • ($360,000) Enables map-based searches of live mobile video streams of breaking news around the world, using services such as Ustream and TweetCaster.
  • ($340,000) Helps disaster-striken communities quickly launch websites to organize volunteers, solicit donations and organize recovery.
  • Watchup (amount undisclosed) An iPad app that aggregates video news reports into a simple interface.
  • Behavio ($355,000) Uses data collected by phones to track people’s behavior, surroundings and the ways they use their phones. Knight is funding software development and the creation of a toolkit so journalists use these sensors to see trends in community data.

Knight is still accepting applications for the second round, focused on data. The focus of the third one has yet to be announced.

Disclosure: Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, was a reader for the News Challenge; she is not taking part in any Poynter editorial decisions regarding the contest. Read more


51 entries move on to next round of Knight News Challenge

Knight News Challenge
The judging for the first of the thrice-annual News Challenge contests is going quickly. This one focuses on networks. Judges have whittled the list of entrants from 1,078 to 51. The contest page says: “Included in this 51 are the five applications that generated the most chatter on Tumblr: AmautaCont3nt, the Unconsumption Project, and PreScouter.

Other projects by people I recognize: Read more


Knight News Challenge to hold three contests a year to keep up with pace of innovation
The Knight News Challenge will continue beyond its initial five-year run, shifting to a shorter cycle of three contests per year rather than one. “The innovation cycle is so short that ideas can get old in the annual contest,” Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, told Rachel McAthy of after he addressed the World Editors Forum in Vienna. Each contest may focus on a different area, such as mobile, he said. Google, which contributed $1 million to the 2011 winners, will continue to support the contest. || Related: From crowdfunding to data-driven journalism, four ways the Knight News Challenge is shaping the future ( || Earlier: Knight News Challenge gives $1.5 million to projects that filter, examine data ( Read more


Knight News Challenge winners announced

Romenesko Misc.

Sixteen projects that push the future of news and information will receive a total of $4.7 million in funding. The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners are:

* Adaptive Path (San Francisco) for iWitness; $360,000; Jesse James Garrett, project lead
* The Associated Press (New York) for Overview; $475,000; Jonathan Stray
* The Awesome Foundation (Boston) for The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce; $244,000; Tim Hwang
* Chicago Tribune for PANDA; $150,000; Brian Boyer
* Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) (Columbia, Mo.) for DocumentCloud Reader Annotations; $320,000; Aron Pilhofer
* The Kiwanja Foundation (Palo Alto) for FrontlineSMS; $250,000; Sean McDonald
* Media and Place Productions (Cambridge, Mass.) for Zeega; $420,000; Kara Oehler
* The Miller Center Foundation (Charlottesville, Va) for The State Decoded; $165,000; Waldo Jaquith
* El Mostrador (Santiago, Chile) for Poderopedia; $200,000; Miguel Paz
* NextDrop (Berkeley) and Hubli-Dharwad (India) for Nextdrop; $375,000; Anu Sridharan
* Open Knowledge Foundation (Cambridge, England) for Spending Stories; $250,000; Martin Keegan
* The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Cambridge, Mass.) for The Public Laboratory; $500,000; Jeffrey Warren
* ScraperWiki (Liverpool, England) for ScraperWiki; $280,000; Francis Irving
* The Tiziano Project (Los Angeles) for Tiziano 360; $200,000; Jon Vidar
* University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) for OpenBlock Rural; $275,000; Ryan Thornburg
* Ushahidi (Orlando) for SwiftRiver; $250,000; David Kobia

Steve Myers reports the Knight Foundation is directing almost a third of its $4.7 million in grants this year to help journalists and the public organize and analyze data and documents. || Jeff Sonderman describes four ways the News Challenge is shaping the future. Read more


Knight News Challenge gives $1.5 million to projects that filter, examine data

The Knight Foundation is directing almost a third of its $4.7 million in News Challenge grants this year to help journalists and the public organize and analyze data and documents.

In different ways, several of these projects seek to solve the persistent challenges of journalists working on investigative and daily stories: how to make sense of vast amounts of data and find the stories within.

“Journalists are now drowning in documents and data,” said Jonathan Stray, interactive technology editor for The Associated Press. “The tools we have to deal with this are actually pretty primitive.”

Stray’s project, Overview, will develop advanced, open-source tools to help journalists tackle these real-world problems. Overview will use data visualizations to help journalists explore data, discover relationships among them and zoom in for a closer look.

Other projects will enable public commenting of documents stored online; build simple, Web-based tools to clean and organize data; and figure out how to bring data-driven, hyperlocal news to rural communities.

The five winning projects aimed at data and documents are:

  • Overview: The Associated Press will receive $475,000 to develop visualization tools to help journalists explore data.
  • PANDA: This project headed by two developers from the Chicago Tribune and one at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., will use $150,000 to create simple, Web-based tools to help journalists analyze data and organize it centrally for a newsroom.
  • DocumentCloud Reader Annotations: Knight will give IRE, which now runs the DocumentCloud document hosting service, $320,000 to enable the public to add notes to documents.
  • OpenBlock Rural: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will receive $275,000 to help rural news organizations adopt a data-oriented approach to presenting public records, in the model of EveryBlock.
  • ScraperWiki: A $280,000 grant will build out a “data on demand” service to this existing website so that journalists can request data and stay apprised of potentially newsworthy changes.

Other News Challenge winners focus on better ways to collect and use data, such as Spending Stories, which will contextualize news stories about financial issues by tying them to the underlying information, and Public Laboratory, which will teach people how to map and gather information about their communities using innovative, low-cost methods.

Using data visualization to discover what’s important

Access to data often isn’t the biggest problem for journalists these days, Stray said. The real challenge is being able to make sense of it all – whether you’re looking at thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of government documents relating to a freedom of information request, or Sarah Palin’s emails, or the U.S. military’s Iraq War logs.

It’s hard to know what’s important. Keyword searches, for instance, are useful only if you know what words to look for. “We have no idea what we’re missing when we have to deal with documents and data sets,” Stray said.

The project site explains:

“Overview addresses this problem by producing interactive, explorable maps of the contents of very large numbers of documents. These aren’t maps of geography, but of the relations between the topics, people, places, dates, and concepts mentioned — semantic maps.”

An example of this kind of work is a visualization Stray and a colleague created that analyzed important words in the 392,000 Iraq “war logs” leaked by WikiLeaks to get a sense of what information they held.

Creating end-user tools for the newsroom

While Overview aims for the high end of data analysis, the goal of PANDA is to solve everyday problems for journalists. (The full name, “PANDA A Newsroom Data Appliance,” is a recursive acronym, which apparently causes programmers to ROFL.)

The project aims to make data-based journalism accessible to journalists who aren’t skilled in programming, particularly those at small companies that don’t have data specialists.

“PANDA’s about the belief that every journalist should be a data journalist,” said Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune. “You shouldn’t have to be a programmer to use it … You shouldn’t have to ask IT to turn it on.”

Boyer, his colleague Joe Germuska and Ryan Pitts at The Spokesman-Review will build open-source, Web-based tools to help journalists clean, analyze and store data.

That’s half of their goal. The other half is to solve the “newsroom knowledge management problem.” Journalists often work with data in isolation, on their own computers. When the story is over, the spreadsheet or database sits on their hard drives.

By placing data sets in a single online location for each newsroom, PANDA will extend the usefulness of those data sets and help journalists collaborate. Often, Boyer said, a journalist won’t even know that a colleague has a relevant data set.

A simple example of this is an existing system at the Tribune that spurred the project. The system allows people to search for names across a variety of data sets that have been collected over time. It helps reporters run the traps when they come across a name and need to find more about the person.

Journalists will use PANDA because it “makes their lives easier, and along the way they’ll be creating their newsroom data center,” Boyer said.

A separate grant to ScraperWiki also seeks to open up access to data to non-programmers. This site has two components: It enables programmers to build “scrapers” that pull data from websites, collaborate on existing scrapers, and store them for others to use; and it allows non-programmers to request that particular data from a website. The grant will be used to build out the latter portion of the site and tailor it to journalists who need help with a data set.

Crowdsourced document annotation

In the two years since DocumentCloud won a News Challenge grant, it has grown into a multi-featured service that enables news organizations to publish, analyze and annotate primary source documents.

From the beginning, the people at DocumentCloud have wanted to enable the public to annotate documents, according to Aron Pilhofer, one of the three leaders of the project and interactive news editor at The New York Times. It would help when, say, the state of Alaska releases 24,000 emails sent and received by the former governor, or the United Kingdom releases 459,000 pages of expense reports for members of parliament.

The new grant will let the team build this feature, which is harder than it would seem. For instance, they have to figure out how to let many people annotate a document without it being a mess for others viewing it.

DocumentCloud also needs to figure out how to make the annotations most useful to the news organization that posts them.

“You want it to be actionable; you want it to become data so the owner of the document can know what is going on at a high level … but can zoom in on individual pieces of the document.”

One possibility, Pilhofer said, is to create a heat map so journalists can see that a particular part of the document is attracting a lot of attention.

DocumentCloud also will give news organizations the ability to hook these notes into their existing commenting systems and enable them to moderate them if they wish.

Pilhofer said the user annotation functionality could establish DocumentCloud as a tool that enables news organizations to collaborate on a single instance of a hosted document. (The team is already working on a method to have a document be uploaded once and posted to many websites.)

With both of these features in place, several news organizations could post a single document (the president’s proposed federal budget, for instance), add their annotations, and let users could toggle between the notes by each news organization. This could also free news orgs from racing to scan and upload documents, as they did with Sarah Palin’s emails.

Several years ago, when Pilhofer worked at the Center for Public Integrity, someone leaked a working draft of a followup to the Patriot Act. The Center posted the document to its website as a PDF; the site went down under the crush of people trying to get it.

“We simply wanted to get the document out to as many organizations as possible,” Pilhofer told me via email, “and we couldn’t do that.”

With the tools DocumentCloud is working on, the Center could host the document with expert annotations. Pilhofer wrote:

“We could have had thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions of readers eyeballing the document and sharing back to us the nuggets they find within the document. In this distributed model I was talking about, you could imagine the Center and dozens of news organizations worldwide posting the document and letting readers annotate it, and having those annotations shared in something like real time.”

Creating rural hyperlocal news with public records

If news organizations in small cities need end-user tools like PANDA to help them with data sets, imagine what kind of help small community papers need. The goal of OpenBlock Rural is to bring data-driven, location-based public records to these organizations.

Ryan Thornburg, assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the project will try to get rural news organizations to use OpenBlock to display public records in a meaningful way.

The rural setting presents unique challenges for data-driven hyperlocal content. Records are often kept on paper, so they’ll have to be scanned. News organizations may have rudimentary systems for storing and tracking information. And it’s hard to know the best way to map this information, considering the low density of population and activities.

A key challenge will be developing a user interface “that fits into the existing workflow of community newspaper editors,” Thornburg said. “They shouldn’t have to know technology to use this tool.”

Building a journalism “technology stack”

A theme of several of the winners is that they build on other projects, both News Challenge winners and others. Overview will use DocumentCloud as its document storage system – which itself grew out of The New York Times’ “document viewer.”

The PANDA developers will rely on Google Refine, a tool for standardizing data sets. OpenBlock Rural will rely, of course, on OpenBlock, the open-source project that is building on the code developed for EveryBlock.

And in a general sense, Overview builds on research that aids complex analysis in other fields such as finance, intelligence and law enforcement.

“What we really need is not a lot of isolated tools, but a technology stack to do high-end journalism with open tools,” Stray said. “One of the goals of the project is to start a movement of research technology and high-end computer science technology into day-to-day journalism.” Read more

1 Comment

From crowdfunding to data-driven journalism, four ways the Knight News Challenge is shaping the future

As the Knight News Challenge prepares to announce its fifth group of winners today, we looked back at the previous four years, in which 63 projects received nearly $22 million.

The Knight Foundation has spread that money around, including academic research, software tools, urban hyperlocal reporting and basic information needs in developing countries.

In reviewing the winners, we identified four areas of now-rapid innovation in which News Challenge projects have pushed new approaches for journalism: Crowdfunding, the hacker-journalist, data as news and citizen journalism.

“Our goal is to be important; our goal is to have impact and to make a difference,” Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president for the Knight Foundation, told me.

Of course, when you make dozens of bets on startups, some won’t pay off. Sometimes ideas aren’t as good as they sounded.

And sometimes good ideas — like conveying information through interactive games — are just harder to execute than anticipated. The News Challenge funded five gamification-of-news projects with almost $1 million. There was some success, but a lot of struggle, Newton said.

Even in the difficult cases, Knight and the participants learned valuable lessons, he said. And projects that did work as planned taught other lessons and blazed important trails to where journalism is headed.

Crowdfunded journalism

One of journalism’s most urgent needs is finding new business models and funding methods.

Newspaper advertising revenue has been nearly halved since the News Challenge was announced in 2006. Online advertising has grown, but most news sites are still disappointed by ineffective display ads and low CPMs.

The News Challenge has not funded much in this space — only a few of the first 63 projects focused on ways to fund reporting. However, the projects it did fund may be among its most effective.

In 2008 the News Challenge funded Spot.Us with $340,000 to build a marketplace for people to pool small donations to fund freelance reporting projects.

Spot.Us lets users choose which reporting projects to finance.

“Spot.Us is more important than a lot of people realize, because the innovation is so profound [that] it’s going to take awhile for it to permeate into the system,” Newton said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

In 2011 the site is still going strong. It claims more than 10,000 contributors and more than 100 publishing partners, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Wired magazine. Spot.Us funds many types of stories, from community news to civil rights and environmental enterprise.

Spot.Us has been followed by other services, like Kickstarter and, adopting the crowdfunding approach. And last year Knight funded a new project based on the Spot.Us platform: PRX Story Exchange, which employs crowdfunding to produce news for public radio stations.

An example of real-time ads from

Another notable business-side News Challenge project is “real-time ads” from WindyCitizen. Funded with $250,000 in 2010, WindyCitizen is developing software to create and sell dynamic ads that show the latest message from an advertiser’s blog or Facebook or Twitter profile. That service has been branded NowSpots, and the ads will soon be featured on the Chicago Tribune’s homepage.

This is a promising innovation because it opens up a small business advertising market that has been tough for news sites to crack. Small businesses often don’t have the capacity to design ads, and some don’t even have websites where they can direct consumers. But many of them, especially retailers and restaurants, are adopting social media.

The rise of the hacker-journalist

Knight invested in academic centers and training programs that helped give rise to a new job category, the hacker journalist. It’s not a job title so much as an approach to journalism — knowing how to see and tell stories but also know how to solve problems, visualize information and build tools.

Knight’s grant of $639,000 in 2007 created a program at Northwestern University to find people with programming experience and train them in journalism. It produced graduates like Brian Boyer, now in charge of the Chicago Tribune’s news applications team.

That hybrid is now in vogue, with Columbia University announcing a dual-degree program in journalism and computer science last year and NYU offering a new concentration in “computational and digital journalism.”

Another 2007 News Challenge grant helped found the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Its focus is to bring together students of journalism, computer science, design and business so they can learn to launch new products.

“Technologists and journalists had to at least be able to talk to each other if journalists were going to have anything to say about the future of their own profession,” Newton said. “It evolved from being able to talk tech to being fluently bilingual.”

Data-driven local journalism

EveryBlock was one of the first journalism projects to demonstrate that data, organized and filtered, could be a foundation for a local news site.

An EveryBlock page from a Chicago ZIP code.

Knight gave the project $1.1 million in 2007 to aggregate location-based data on crimes, building permits, restaurant inspections, news stories, photos, Yelp reviews and more. With all this data available in one place, people in 16 of the largest U.S. cities can see all the information near them and discuss it with their neighbors.

“EveryBlock was a really important early project in that it demonstrated that the digital age is creating a new definition of who a journalist is, what news is,” Newton said. “We’ve really come a long way from the days when newspaper reporters would head down to city hall and hand-write down the police log, then walk back to the newspaper and type it in on a typewriter … Now that very same thing can be Web-scraped.”

EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty told me that data already was being used in journalism before 2007, but “providing news at the level of city block, nobody had done that before us.”

The site, which purchased in 2009, has evolved beyond an information aggregator into a platform for community discussion, Holovaty said. The slogan used to be, “It’s a news feed for your block,” which suggested a one-way flow of information, he noted. The new slogan is, “We help you make your block a better place.”

The News Challenge funded some other notable local data projects in the years that followed. In 2009, Knight funded a suite of data-visualization tools to help news organizations present local data in interactive ways. The resulting contains Drupal data-visualization modules for anyone to use.

And in 2010, a News Challenge grant for $400,000 went to CityTracking, a project to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally.

Designing systems for citizen journalism

By my count the News Challenge has spent more than $2.8 million on at least nine projects whose main focus was to enable people to report news or data in their communities. They covered major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, small towns, even Russia and rural India.

Front Porch Forum

Front Porch Forum, a 2010 News Challenge winner, connects residents of hundreds of Vermont towns to share and discuss news. in Davis, Calif., makes it easy for people to learn and share community knowledge.

The News Challenge’s citizen journalism projects have been less successful than others by a traditional measure: their ability to scale. But that’s actually an important lesson, Newton said.

“There’s a reason Front Porch Forum is in Vermont, there’s a reason Village Soup is in Maine, there’s a reason DavisWiki is in Davis,” Newton said.

“The thing about citizen media is, it’s all about the citizens — it’s all about the right thing in the right place at the right time, in the right combination for that particular community,” he said. “One size does not fit all.”

The future of the News Challenge

The 2011 awards being announced today are the last of the five-year program that the Knight Foundation board committed to back in 2006. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the News Challenge.

“We won’t officially announce the next iteration of the News Challenge anytime soon … [but] we are thinking critically about how to continue to do this and do it better,” said John Bracken, Knight’s director of digital media. “It will not be the last year of this challenge.”

Even during the past couple of years the challenge has evolved. This year, for the first time, entries were limited to four categories: mobile, authenticity, sustainability and community. That’s a sign that the judges are thinking more in advance about which areas need the most investment.

Judges are paying more attention to pitches that are already tested, looking not just for good ideas, but good ideas from people who can get them done.

News Challenge organizers also are seeking non-journalism applicants. Last year, for example, the deadline was extended so Knight could reach out to business and technology sectors.

“It’s been an excellent project,” Newton said, “and as things move forward I think you’ll see it evolving and improving.” Read more

1 Comment

Get the latest media news delivered to your inbox.

Select the newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:
Page 1 of 212