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Nov. 20, 2012, 11 a.m.

Kon*Fab wants to break the filter bubble by finding location-based news

The news discovery app is one of several new projects receiving money from Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund.

Katy Newton likens it to walking through a coffee shop: You can look around the room and see people reading articles in a newspaper or a magazine — and, within a certain range of politeness, strike up a conversation around the news.

She’s talking about Kon*Fab, a new project funded by the Knight Foundation, which aims in some small way to inject serendipity, conversation, and physical space into news. As designed by Newton and Sean Connelley, the Kon*Fab app would use geolocation and online discussions to unearth stories a reader might not be familiar with.

Or, as the app’s Twitter bio puts it: “It’s like Grindr (w/o the canoodling) meets Oprah’s Book Club meets the Sunday morning paper with coffee.”

Kon*Fab is one of a handful of new projects being funded by Knight through the Prototype Fund, which provides people with $50,000 or less to test new ideas that could have an impact on journalism.

Along with Kon*Fab, three other projects were announced as part of the Mozilla Festival:

  • FOIA Machine: A tool that will help people figure out freedom of information laws and how to properly format information requests.
  • Ground Truth: A service that aims to better connect journalists and researchers with community sources by using SMS and mobile devices.
  • UNICEF Data Severity Index: A system to help governments filter and prioritize disaster data.

Newton, formerly with the Los Angeles Times and the Oakland Tribune, developed the idea for Kon*Fab while a Knight Fellow at Stanford last year and had submitted it to one of this year’s Knight News Challenges. She said the idea isn’t just better news discovery; it’s also to encourage discussion around the news tied to place. While there’s plenty of conversation on Facebook and Twitter, she said the idea is to bring that back to a real world (i.e., not digital) setting. “There’s just something missing online when you read a story,” she said.

The app is one of many attempts at breaking out of Eli Pariser’s filter bubble, the one encouraged when our news flows through our social networks — which are likely filled with people a lot like us. “The problem with that, for me, is that even though I like to think I have a largely diverse group of friends, I probably don’t,” Newton says. “So I’m probably getting a lot of the same content.”

Though Kon*Fab uses the Twitter API to pull stories to the user, content is organized around proximity and location, not a well-curated list of followers. Let’s say you’re back in the coffee shop — if you opened up Kon*Fab, the app will present you with a selection of stories based on what people around you are reading and tweeting. If that guy sitting by the wall drinking tea is reading the latest about the David Petreaus story and tweets a link, Kon*Fab will let you know. In that way, Kon*Fab will be able to surface both topical news and local news, she said.

Newton is building the app with Connelley, a developer (who also happens to be her husband) for San Francisco design studio Stamen. Though they’ve already created a basic version of the app, their next step is refining its location-based abilities. Right now, Kon*Fab is only able to pull in tweets at a city-wide level; the next step is to be able to zoom in to a neighborhood, block, or park. The money from the prototype fund will help that specific goal. “What I wanted to do was have enough money to build the next prototype and see where I want to take this,” she said.

But Newton and Connelley have bigger ideas for Kon*Fab beyond being a simple news reader. (Some additional background about their work in this video.) They want to take the notion of conversation a little further by making the app the focal point for real-world discussions around the news. Because Kon*Fab uses location to pull in news, Newton said they want to find a way to use the app as a way to bring people together in physical spaces to engage with each other and the stories they are sharing. But at the moment that feature is a little further down the line. “I’m just itching to build and start learning by building,” she said.

Disclaimer: Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

POSTED     Nov. 20, 2012, 11 a.m.
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