January 17, 2013

A mobile app that will help amateur journalists send photos to news organizations securely and with embedded verification data is among eight projects funded by the latest Knight News Challenge grants.

“Clearly the spread of citizen-generated, amateur-driven content is here to stay. But we still have not developed the mechanisms and tools for understanding that content, verifying that content, feeling comfortable about using that content,” Knight Foundation Director of Journalism and Media Innovation John Bracken told me.

The Knight-funded solution is an Android app called InformaCam — to be built by mobile security specialists at The Guardian Project and human rights advocates at Witness.

Witness, which was granted $320,000 by Knight, works with volunteers around the world who document evidence of abuse using smartphones. The organization realized it needed a better way of doing that — a photography app that would automatically embed metadata in photos to certify their accuracy, and transmit the photos securely to Witness or a designated news organization.

Secure transmission is especially important when the photographer is documenting something that authorities might want to suppress.

“That same data that helps the BBC confirm that this was filmed in a particular town in Syria by a particular person on a particular day, is of course the same information that can be valuable to a repressive government or someone who has worse intentions,” Witness program director Sam Gregory said in an interview.

In fact, Witness previously developed a photography app called Obscuracam that addressed that problem by stripping out all metadata and blurring human faces in images. But that also made the photos less useful. InformaCam will do the opposite — adding extra tamper-proof metadata from phone sensors, such as location, movement, even the outdoor temperature.

Journalists can access that metadata in their sources’ photos and use it to verify the content of the images. They would strip out the data before publishing the photos.

Of course, this whole system depends on having amateur photographers prepare in advance by installing and setting up the app. It won’t work for the sort of accidental witness who just unexpectedly captures a newsworthy photo through her phone’s normal camera.

So a significant part of this project also involves advancing InformaCam’s metadata format as a technology standard for others to adopt. They’re calling the standard “J3M,” short for JSON Evidentiary Mobile Media Metadata.

The ideal future, Gregory said, would be that all the built-in camera apps on smartphones someday incorporate J3M in a “citizen witness mode” the user can quickly turn on to embed verification data.

Other notable facts:

  • The app is only being built for Android right now, not iPhones. That’s a reflection of Android’s greater availability and affordability in the types of international markets where this app could be useful.
  • You can follow or even contribute to the InformaCam project via the project website, Witness blog or on Github.

Below is the full list of winners, as provided by The Knight Foundation, totaling $2.4 million in grant funding. Another notable winner was a project to open Wikipedia to access via text message and in more languages. Each of the winners will discuss their projects in a live video stream at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

The next Knight News Challenge, focusing on open-government tools, will launch in February, Bracken said.

Winners of Knight News Challenge – Mobile

Winner: Abayima
Award: $150,000
Project Lead: Jon Gosier, Philadelphia, Pa.
Twitter: @jongos, @abayima

Video: http://kng.ht/UjXMIB

The majority of mobile phone users around the world use simple feature phones which, unlike smartphones, do not have advanced storage or secondary communication options like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Abayima wants to build an open source application that people can use to store information to SIM cards  – effectively turning the cards into storage devices and their mobile phones into e-readers. This app is particularly useful for sharing news and information in countries where communication networks are unsafe to use due to surveillance or where authorities or other circumstances have shut off access to the Internet altogether.  The team has successfully piloted a program with Ugandan activists during the country’s 2011 elections, while all SMS traffic in the country was monitored for voices of dissent. With challenge funding, Abayima plans to build the kit as an open source, full service, easy-to-use platform which enables publishing to SIM cards.

Bio: Gosier is a software developer and technologist working at the intersection of open data and global development. In 2008 he founded Appfrica, a company focused on building Africa’s tech ecosystem. In 2011, in response to repeat attempts by oppressive governments to use electronic communication channels against citizens and activists, he established Abayima to help protect human rights and free speech around the globe.

Winner: RootIO
Award: $200,000
Project Lead: Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Jude Mukundane, Los Angeles, Calif.
Twitter: @csik

Radio continues to be a powerful tool for community information, and the RootIO project amplifies it by mixing its power with new mobile and Internet technologies. RootIO is an open-source tool kit that allows communities to create their own micro radio stations with an inexpensive smartphone and transmitter, and to share, promote, and collaborate on dynamic content. The project will be piloted in Uganda in partnership with the Uganda Radio Network, UNICEF Uganda and UNICEF Innovation Unit.

Bio: Csikszentmihalyi is a technologist, humanist, designer, and artist. His work is focused around designing information and communications technologies for communities to mitigate the negative aspects of globalism. He is currently helping to start a new program around design for social change at the Art Center College of Design, where he is a professor of media design. Prior to that, he co-founded and directed the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, dedicated to developing technologies that strengthen communities. He also founded the MIT Media Lab’s Computing Culture group, which worked to create unique media technologies for socio-cultural and political applications.

Mukundane is a software developer and technology enthusiast. His work mostly involves development of distributed applications communicating over IP networks. He is currently working with Uganda Telecom as head of VAS and Technology Innovations to devise innovative ways of harnessing telecommunication technologies for service delivery.

Winner: Digital Democracy
Award: $200,000
Project Lead: Emily Jacobi and Gregor MacLennan, New York, N.Y.
Twitter: @emjacobi & @digidem

In remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, where mining and oil drilling are impacting the environment, health and economies of indigenous communities, residents lack the tools to collect and report these events to the outside world. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that builds community technology capacity in marginalized communities, will create and combine existing open software to produce a tool kit communities can use to share their stories and make informed choices. The team will work with local partners in the Peruvian Amazon to deploy and test the tool kit and train residents in its use.

Bios: Jacobi is co-founder and executive director of Digital Democracy, a New York-based nonprofit that works globally to empower marginalized communities addressing human and environmental rights. Beginning her career as a youth journalist at 13, Jacobi reported from Havana, Cuba. She has since worked media and technology projects with marginalized communities around the globe, including migrant workers, women’s groups, refugee youth and indigenous people. Jacobi has written extensively on the use of technology for civic engagement, and has presented on the intersection of technology and human rights to the U.S. Congress, the State Department, the United Nations, and numerous universities and technology conferences.

MacLennan has worked on indigenous rights and environmental issues in the Peruvian Amazon for more than 10 years. Co-founder and advisor to the nonprofit indigenous rights group Shinai, he spent seven years living in Peru working with indigenous communities to defend their territory from incursions by illegal loggers and petroleum companies. MacLennan has extensive experience in participative territory mapping, facilitating communities to draw maps of their territory and use GPS and satellite technologies to turn hand maps into detailed geographic representations of indigenous land use. Prior to joining Digital Democracy to lead the Remote Access initiative, MacLennan worked for the US-based campaign organization Amazon Watch as Peru Program Coordinator.

Winner: Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF)
Project Leads: Kady Murphy, Claire Rhodes and Kenny Ewan, London, UK
Twitter:  @we_farm; @TheCPFoundation

Video: http://kng.ht/V9PbsX

Smallholder farmers in developing countries have limited access to support and best practices. The Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation, which designs projects to support small-scale farmers, will use mobile to address this need by building a platform allowing farmers to ask questions and share knowledge about any farming topic, have it translated by volunteers, answered by farmers in other communities and returned to them via basic SMS messages. Knight funds will enable the project, called WeFarm, to expand on successful pilots in Kenya, Peru and Tanzania, where farmers exchanged more than 4,600 SMS messages, an average of more than 70 per user, on topics such as frost control and animal husbandry.

Bios: Rhodes is the foundation’s general manager. She joined in 2009, attracted by the foundation’s goal to be an organization led by smallholder farmers for smallholder farmers.  Previously, Rhodes worked with a number of international organizations to promote the leadership of smallholder farmers and grassroots communities within rural development processes.  This has included seven years with the US-based nonprofit Ecoagriculture Partners, coordinating a program to enable smallholder farming communities across the world to share knowledge with each other, as well as consultancies with the United Nations Development Program, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and UK Department for International Development. Rhodes holds a Masters in Environmental Technology (2001).

Murphy is the foundation’s fundraising coordinator. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a master’s in Spanish and Business Studies before moving into international development fundraising. She has worked for African street children’s charity Retrak and humanitarian agency CARE International UK before joining CPF in 2011. When she isn’t writing funding proposals, she volunteers with Crossworld, a charity for refugees in South London and is trying to get to grips with Swahili noun classes.

Ewan is the foundation’s program manager, which includes managing this project. He obtained a degree in architecture in his native Scotland, before moving to Peru to work with ProWorld Service Corps, an international development NGO, as regional director for Latin America, working with isolated, indigenous communities across the region, and supporting local people to design and implement sustainable and practical development projects. These ranged from constructing schools and fish farms to facilitating enterprise development and training for grassroots youth and women’s groups. Ewan returned to the UK in 2009 to take up his role as program manager as part of the CPF start-up team.

Winner: Textizen
Award: $350,000
Project Leads: Michelle Lee, Serena Wales, Alex Yule, San Francisco, Calif. and Philadelphia, Pa.
Twitter: @textizen @mishmosh @gangleton @yuletide

Video: http://kng.ht/UjYjKt

Textizen is building software to transform the citizen feedback loop. Across the country, a growing number of civic leaders are looking for new ways to connect with constituents. Neighborhood meetings are costly to run, and attendance isn’t always representative. By placing questions in physical places and inviting residents to respond from their mobile phones, Textizen creates new ways for meaningful civic participation. Started as a Code for America pilot project in Philadelphia, Textizen identified early best practices by experimenting with several types of campaigns. One, for example, asked for feedback on public transit changes by posing a text-to-vote question at a bus stop. Building on these pilots, the team will license the software to cities seeking to create new open, engaging channels for civic participation.

Bios: Lee is the chief executive officer of Textizen. She brings eight years of experience in user-centered design and research, most recently at Google where she created Google Forms and worked on Google Maps. Previously, she designed online trust and safety tools for eBay, cars for baby boomers, and studied human-computer interaction at Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems Program.

Wales is the technology officer for Textizen. As a 2012 Code for America fellow, Wales worked with the City of New Orleans to build Blightstatus, giving residents accurate and up-to-date information about their neighborhood. Previously, Serena worked at Purpose, Inc., building online campaign tools and web applications for nonprofits and corporations, and developed interactive projects for the High Museum of Art and the Davis Museum. Serena graduated from Wellesley College in 2009 with degrees in Media Arts & Sciences and History.

Yule is the chief operating officer for Textizen. Previously, Yule built interactive web mapping experiences on the Mapping Center team at Esri, an industry leader in Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Alex graduated cum laude from Middlebury College with a degree in Geography. An avid writer and photographer, his technical skills include application planning and design, web development, data analysis, and visualization.

Winner: TKOH
Award: $330,000
Project Leads: Kacie Kinzer, Tom Gerhardt, Caroline Oh, New York, N.Y.
Twitter: @kaciekinzer, @tomgerhardt, @carolineyoh

Current tools for recording oral history, such as video cameras and professional audio equipment, can be difficult to use and hamper the social nature of a conversation. This project, called Thread, will ease the process by building a simple application that enables users of all experience levels to create rich audio/visual stories that can be archived and shared easily with groups of people, ranging from immediate family members to the extended user community, depending on the user’s preference. By making it easy to record and share stories amongst generations and communities, Thread, will make it possible to preserve the stories of target groups, including rural ranchers in New Mexico whose lives reflect a disappearing culture of endurance and gifted storytelling, before the app launches more broadly.

Bios: Oh, project co-founder, aims to create meaningful narratives through delightful interactions and design. She is a design fellow for the Center for Urban Pedagogy and an educator for the Global Action Project, for which her work focuses on empowering local communities. Caroline has acted as lead designer of award-winning installations and apps for the studio Potion.

Gerhardt, project co-founder, has worked as a software engineer developing interactive tools and experiences for clients including the National History Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Currently, Tom is a co-founder of Studio Neat, a consumer product company that has launched numerous successful products including hardware and software tools for mobile devices, and recently co-wrote a book on independent capitalism and design entrepreneurship in the 21st century. Tom is an adjunct professor at ITP, where he teaches hardware and software design and usability. Tom holds a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP).

Kinzer, project co-founder, works to create rich and playful technologically mediated experiences that change our relationships with everyday contexts and each other. Her project, the Tweenbots, is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Kinzer has taught as an adjunct professor for the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, and as a teaching artist at the MoMA. As a producer and interaction designer at Potion Design, Kinzer helped create interactive projects for clients including the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian, and Bell Labs. Kinzer is currently a doctoral student at NYU where her work focuses on narrative and informal learning.

Winner: Wikimedia Foundation
Award: $600,000
Project Lead: Kul Takanao Wadhwa, San Francisco, Calif.
Twitter: @wikimedia, @wikipedia

As mobile technology is increasingly the primary opportunity for billions of people around the world to access the Internet, the Wikimedia Foundation is working to remove the two biggest hurdles to access free knowledge: cost and accessibility. News Challenge funding will help create software to bring Wikipedia to lower-end, more basic phones – the kinds the majority of people use to access data outside of the West. Specifically, efforts will be focused in three areas: developing features to improve the mobile experience regardless of how feature-rich the device is – including new ways to access Wikipedia via text; increasing the number of languages that can access Wikipedia on mobile; and improving the way feature phones access the platform.

Bio: Takanao Wadhwa, head of mobile and business development, joined the Wikimedia Foundation when it launched in 2007. He leads the foundation’s efforts to increase access to Wikipedia, with a focus on developing countries.

Award: $320,000
Project Lead: Sam Gregory and Bryan Nunez (at WITNESS) and Nathan Freitas and Harlo Holmes (at Guardian Project), New York, N.Y.
Twitter: @SamGregory, @Tech_wit, @N8FR8, @Harlo

In situations of conflict or civil unrest, where ordinary people are using their mobile phones to create and share media, news organizations and others have trouble authenticating the origins of photos, videos or audio.  In collaboration with The Guardian Project, the international human rights organization WITNESS seeks to solve this problem by launching the InformaCam app. The mobile app allows users to incorporate key metadata in their video (who, what, where, corroborating identifiers), watermark it as coming from a particular camera, and share it in an encrypted format with someone the user trusts. News outlets, human rights organizations and everyday people could use the app in a variety of ways – for a breaking news story using first-hand video from a citizen journalist, sharing evidence of war crimes from a conflict zone, or to verify the images of a fender bender that someone could take to small claims court. Alongside this, WITNESS is advocating for incorporation of a “citizen witness” functionality based on InformaCam into other platforms and apps.

Bios: Freitas is a long-time mobile technology innovator and global human rights activist and trainer. Through his work in support of the Tibetan independence movement over the last 13 years, Nathan came to understand the promise and peril of applying new technology to activists in high-risk situations, and in response founded the Guardian Project in 2009. Freitas also teaches “Social Activism using Mobile Technology” at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program. He is currently on a six-month research trip in India, Nepal, Thailand and Burma, tracking adoption of low cost smartphones and 3G networks throughout the region.

Gregory is the program director for WITNESS. He is an internationally recognized human rights advocate, trainer and video producer who helps people use the power of the moving image and participatory technologies to create human rights change. As program director he focuses on empowering millions of people to use video effectively, safely and ethically. In 2010, he was a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Resident on the future of video-based advocacy, and in 2012 he was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He teaches on human rights and participatory media as an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Holmes is a media scholar, software programmer, and activist.  As research fellow with The Guardian Project, she primarily investigates topics in digital media steganography, metadata, and the standards surrounding technology in the social sciences.  She harnesses her multifaceted background in service of responding to the growing technological needs of human rights workers, journalists, and other do-gooders around the world. Holmes is currently based in New York City.

Nunez is the technology manager at WITNESS where he oversees the development of projects like the Hub, the first website dedicated to citizen human rights media, and the Secure Smart Cam, a suite of camera-phone apps for human rights activists. Prior to WITNESS, he was a technology strategist and consultant on a variety of projects ranging from online banking to interactive television. He is an alumnus of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and has a BA in anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

More News

Back to News