The Knight Prototype Fund has announced eight new grant winners, ranging from a data platform to monitor street harassment to a tool to better assemble video of breaking news events. Debuting last summer, the prototype fund’s aim is to provide small, targeted bursts of funding — limited to $50,000 — in order for ideas with potential to be tested as quickly as possible. “We’re giving them an opportunity to build something that helps them figure out if their approach is viable,” said Chris Barr, a media innovation associate at Knight, which has awarded 15 prototype grants so far. (Knight gets around 20 applications a month, he said. Disclosure: Knight is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.)
The latest batch of award winners focus on tools for journalists and on opening up government data. “But it’s sort of a Bed Bath & Beyond model,” Barr said: “There’s a little from the Beyond category as well.”
The idea furthest out in the Beyond, according to Barr, is Data Toys, an idea from the New School that experiments with play as a method for learning new information. Traditional journalism is story-oriented, Data Toys argues, but in the age of big data, that might not always be the best way to explore all the information that’s available. “We spent a lot of time in the last two years learning how to get better at data visualization,” said Barr, “Data Toys is data physicalization.” The project aims to build “physical and digital models of complexity in the news that encourage open-ended play” and is working with Public Radio International and Radiolab.
Another winner is Hollaback!, an organization cofounded by Emily May in 2005. It was originally a blog that helped expose street harassment by posting stories, pictures, and videos from women who had experienced assaults. May remembers a moment in 2010 when there was a sudden increase in the reportage of street harassment in a South Brooklyn neighborhood. Before a group of men was uncovered, May says, most neighbors believed it was the work of a single serial harasser. “All of a sudden, people felt like their stories were being heard, so they felt a responsibility to report things,” May said, “so you saw a real, actual look at assault in public space for that snapshot period of time.”
Seeing the extent to which street harassment was being overlooked, and the empowerment women felt when the experiences of others were reported, she decided to develop a method of providing geotagged street harassment data directly to city government. Hollaback was awarded $40,000 by the Knight Prototype Fund to develop a 311 app, which May described as “a way for the user to really feel legitimacy, a way for government to get access to this data in a meaningful way, and for us to broker that relationship.”
Another award winner with a mind toward open government is Jerry Hall, founder of eCitizens. eCitizens will use its award to develop an alert that sends community members emails when the government is discussing or voting on an issue in their area of interest. Hall, eCitizens’ founder, is dedicated to making government documents more accessible to individuals: “It’s scrape, index, then email,” says Hall.
His focus right now is on helping citizens in San Diego who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of city government to access information that might help them meet their goals. But he notes that reporters could also benefit from a document alert. “They don’t have the time or the staff that is needed to do the research to find stories and refresh stories and build on stories because they’re overwhelmed.” He hopes the alert system will give journalists the heads-up they need to track important stories.
OpenGenderTracking is a tool created by two employees of the Boston-based technology firm Bocoup in partnership with MIT grad student Nate Matias. Their goal is to create a method by which content creators could evaluate gender bias in their work, in terms of “who’s writing, who’s being written about, and who’s being quoted,” said Matias. The $30,000 from the prototype fund was used to develop the code for the tracker and to execute two preliminary studies of The Boston Globe and blogger community Global Voices.
“In the past, women’s representation in the media was very much tied to the role of news organizations as gatekeepers of who gets to speak,” Matias said. “As things have transitioned online, it’s a much more chaotic ecosystem. It’s blogs and social media, it’s algorithms, and it’s audiences — in that way, audience behavior is shaping what news organizations choose to do.”
The AP has been awarded funding to develop Geomancer, a newsroom application that will make it easier for journalists at all stages of familiarity with data reporting to make use of the information that they have. Troy Thibodeaux, the AP’s editor for newsroom innovation, says when he’s helping journalists work with data, “the first thing I ask them to do is put it in context. Compared to what? That’s the essential question.” Thibodeaux says the goal of Geomancer is to make finding the answer to that question easier.
Two other grantees involve video: Rashomon is a tool out of Berkeley that will help piece together video clips of breaking news into a more usable and accurate chronological order. And LAMP, a web-based video editor dealing with copyrighted content, “allows students to remix and respond to copyrighted materials as part of a media literacy class.”
The Prototype Fund’s first round of grantees from last summer are just starting to wrap up, Barr said, “and what we’re finding more than anything is that some of these need further testing — they need to take these ideas and develop them further.” Barr said Knight is happy to consider additional funding for projects that need it — but that if the prototype fund is meant to test hypotheses, which means a healthy number won’t go any further.
“We don’t expect them all to be successful, but we do expect a learning opportunity,” he said.