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Opening up government: A new round of Knight News Challenge winners aims to get citizens and governments better information

But the bigger news is that the News Challenge “may be finished” as Knight looks for better ways to identify fundable innovation ideas in journalism, media, and communities.

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest round of winners in the Knight News Challenge, its currently semiannual competition to identify fundable ideas that advance the interests of journalism and the information needs of communities. This round focused on the open government movement, and its eight winners all fit squarely into that box. More about them below.

But the big news is what Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen just said here in Cambridge at the opening morning of the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. He asked openly for ideas on what the future of the News Challenge should be, because, as he put it, “It may be finished. It may be that, as a device for doing something, it may be that we’ve gone as far as we can take it.”

The six-year-old News Challenge is probably the highest-profile effort to fund innovation in journalism and media. It has funded many dozens of projects over the years, and beyond that, its application process has forced thousands of people to turn fuzzy ideas into concrete proposals. Knight devotes $5 million a year to the News Challenge, which has evolved from a single annual open call to a series of smaller, faster, more focused contests, with a significant reboot leading into 2012.

With more than a half decade in the rearview, Ibargüen asked what had been accomplished: “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?…They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

To be clear, he gave no sign of stepping away from funding journalism innovation, which remains a core Knight mission. But he noted that the foundation had maximum flexibility in how to accomplish that goal: “We have a huge luxury: We can do whatever we want to do. We can use whatever process we want to use.”

Which was behind his question to the assembled crowd: “What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

There will be at least one more round of the News Challenge later this year (topic TBA), but beyond that, Knight’s thinking about where to take the broader idea. Ibargüen said he expected the foundation would make these decisions over the next four to five months. If you’ve got an idea, get in touch with Knight.

But that’s the future. How about the brand new round of winners? Civic Insight promises to create better databases of vacant properties so activists can better connect land to opportunities. OpenCounter wants to make it easier for small businesses to navigate local regulation. Outline.com aims to build public policy simulators, estimating the impact of legislative decisions on people’s circumstances. The Oyez Project will offer clear case summaries of the suits before American appellate courts. GitMachines wants to make it easier for governments to add servers quickly. (More from their applications here.)

As I wrote in January for the last round of announcements, the “News” in Knight News Challenge seems to be moving out of the spotlight in favor of a broader concept of connecting civic information to people who can use it. In the classical American 20th century news model, that was a role that typically involved journalists as intermediaries. Today, though, those communities of self-interest can organize in ways more efficient than a newspaper’s subscriber list. While a few of the projects funded could be of use to journalists — making data available to the general public also makes it available to reporters, who can then approach it with a different set of interests — they’re not the primary target. (That growing disconnect, I imagine, is something that will be addressed in whatever new form the News Challenge takes.)

Civic Insight

Award: $220,000
Organization: Civic Industries
Project leads: Alex Pandel, Eddie Tejeda and Amir Reavis-Bey
Twitter: @CivicInsight, @alexpandel, @maromba, @eddietejeda

Neighbors, cities, nonprofits and businesses all have an interest in seeing vacant properties become productive again. However, a lack of public access to information about these properties makes it difficult for groups to work together on solutions. By plugging directly into government databases, Civic Insight provides real-time information on vacant and underutilized properties, enabling more collaborative, data-driven community development. With Civic Insight, journalists and residents can search for a property on a map and learn about its ownership, inspection and permitting history, and subscribe to receive real-time notifications about changes. Civic Insight grew out of a successful pilot in New Orleans called BlightStatus, which was created during the team’s 2012 Code for America fellowship. It is now available for licensed use by cities nationwide. Knight Foundation’s support will help the team expand the software and test new use cases in more communities.

Team: Eddie Tejeda is a web developer and former Code for America fellow who brings 10 years of experience working on open-source civic projects such as Digress.it and Littlesis.org. Tejeda is engaged in the Open Gov movement in his home city of Oakland, where he co-founded OpenOakland and serves as a mayoral appointee to the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which oversees government transparency.

Alex Pandel is a designer, communicator and community organizer. Before her 2012 Code for America fellowship with the City of New Orleans, Pandel was engaged in public-interest advocacy work with CalPIRG, as well as designing print and web solutions for organizations like New York Magazine and The Future Project.

Amir Reavis-Bey is a software engineer with experience building client-server applications for investment bank equities trading. He also has web development experience helping non-profits to collaborate and share resources online to promote human rights activism. He spent 2012 partnering with the City of New Orleans as a Code for America fellow.

GitMachines

Award: $500,000
Organization: GitMachines
Project leads: Greg Elin, Rodney Cobb, Ikjae Park, Terence Rose, Blaine Whited and John Lancaster
Twitter: @gregelin

Governments are often reluctant to adopt new software and technology because of security and compliance concerns. GitMachines allows developers doing civic innovation to easily build new technology governments can use faster, by offering a grab-and-go depot of accreditation-ready servers that support their projects. Unlike traditional servers that can take hours or days to set-up, GitMachines can be up and running in minutes and are pre-configured to meet government guidelines. This makes it easier for governments to adopt open source software, and will help government agencies adopt new technology more quickly in the future.

Team: Rodney Cobb is a mobile developer and data analyst working in Washington D.C. Through his previous work with Campus Compact, Cobb has worked on several projects combing civic engagement/service learning and virtual interaction. Cobb received a bachelor’s in political science from Clark-Atlanta University and his master’s in politics from New York University.

Greg Elin has spent 20 years developing easy-to-use information tools and helping organizations embrace disruptive technologies. In 2006, Elin created the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs. Previously, he was chief technology officer at United Cerebral Palsy before entering the civil service in 2010 as one of the first chief data officers in federal government. Elin has been leading the Federal Communications Commissions’ efforts to lower data collection burden and improve data sharing with modern web service APIs. He was a member of the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure exploring machine-readable data as a policy tool and citizen aid. Elin has a master’s in interactive telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School of Art.

John Lancaster has bachelor’s degree in computer science, a minor in studio art and is studying for his master’s of information systems technology. He has worked as a technology consultant the past four years at the Department of State where he builds mission critical websites that reach a global audience in over 60 languages, and manages the server infrastructure that supports the entire operation.

Ikjae Park is an expert in software development and system administration working for a government contractor and has developed enterprise JAVA applications at Salesforce.com, among others. He is passionate about development and making a simple workflow process for the community.

Terence Rose is a senor business Analyst with MIL Corp., currently leading the content development and user experience for high profile Department of Commerce projects. He previously worked as a technologist on contract for the Office of Head Start.

Blaine Whited is a programmer and systems administrator with a bachelor’s in computer science.

OpenCounter

Award: $450,000
Organization: OpenCounter
Project leads: Peter Koht, Joel Mahoney
Twitter: @opencounter, @yurialeks, @joelmahoney

While entrepreneurs may have market-moving ideas, very few can expertly navigate the local government permitting process that allows them to open and operate. Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop. A team of Code for America fellows developed and piloted OpenCounter in Santa Cruz, Calif. during 2012. Knight Foundation funds will support OpenCounter’s expansion to new communities, including several 2013 Code for America cities.

Team: Peter Koht, a self-described civics nerd, is an experienced economic development professional who most recently worked for the City of Santa Cruz. Koht worked on a number of issues at the city, including leading a regional broadband policy group, opening up city data and spearheading policy initiatives that lowered administrative barriers to job creation. Previous to his public sector role, he worked in technology and media.

Joel Mahoney is a civic technologist and serial entrepreneur. He was an inaugural fellow at Code for America, and served as a technical advisor to the organization. Before Code for America, Mahoney founded several startups, including an online travel site, a genetics visualization tool and an m-health platform for diabetics. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Open Gov for the Rest of Us

Award: $350,000
Organization: LISC Chicago
Project leads: Susana Vasquez, Dionne Baux, Demond Drummer, Elizabeth Rosas-Landa
Twitter: @liscchicago

Open Gov for the Rest of Us is seeking to engage neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side in the Open Government movement. The three-stage campaign will connect more residents to the Internet, promote the use of open government tools and develop neighborhood-driven requests for new data that address residents’ needs. Building on the success of LISC Chicago’s Smart Communities program and Data Friday series, the project aims to spread a culture of data and improved use of digital tools in low-income neighborhoods by directly involving their residents.

Team: Susana Vasquez is LISC Chicago’s executive director. Vasquez joined LISC in 2003 as a program officer and soon became director of the office’s most ambitious effort – the New Communities Program, a 10-year initiative to support comprehensive community development in 16 neighborhoods. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois and a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Dionne Baux, a LISC Chicago program officer who works on economic development and technology programs, has worked in city government and for nonprofits for more than seven years. Baux leads LISC’s Smart Communities program, which is designed to increase digital access and use by youth, families, businesses and other institutions. She has a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus in government, from Roosevelt University.

Demond Drummer is tech organizer for Teamwork Englewood, an organization formed in 2003 as part of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. Its goal is to strengthen the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Drummer joined Webitects, a web design firm, in summer 2009. Previously, he coordinated a youth leadership and civic engagement initiative in Chicago. A graduate of Morehouse College, he is completing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Elizabeth Rosas-Landa is the Smart Communities program manager at The Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. A Mexico City native, she received a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Insurgentes University and later joined the Marketing and Promotion Company in Mexico. In 2008, she moved to the United States to work with community organizations on technology issues. At The Resurrection Project, Rosas-Landa has implemented computer literacy programs for residents and businesses.

Outline.com

Award: unspecified, through Knight Enterprise Fund
Organization: Outline.com
Project leads: Nikita Bier, Jeremy Blalock, Erik Hazzard, Ray Kluender
Twitter: @OutlineUSA

Outline.com is developing an online public policy simulator that allows citizens and journalists to visualize the impact that particular policies might have on people and their communities. For instance, with Outline.com, a household can measure how a tax cut or an increase in education spending will affect their income. The project builds on the team’s award-winning app Politify, which simulated the impacts of the Obama and Romney economic plans during the 2012 campaign. The Outline.com simulator uses models developed by a team of economists, backed by open data on American households from the IRS, the Census Bureau and other sources. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has hired Outline.com to develop an official pilot. The team is a part of the accelerator TechStars Boston.

Team: Nikita Bier, CEO, recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honors and degrees in business administration and political economy. During his college years, he researched higher education finance, receiving recognition for his insights from the president of the university. While a student, he founded Politify.us, an award-winning election application that received national coverage. Before that, he worked in business development at 1000memories, a Greylock and YCombinator-backed startup.

Jeremy Blalock, CPO, led design and development for Politify.us. He is currently on leave from UC Berkeley, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Erik Hazzard, CTO, is an active member of the data visualization and mapping communities. He was formerly lead developer at Visual.ly. He is the author of OpenLayers 2.10 Beginner’s Guide. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in information science.

Ray Kluender graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin with majors in economics, mathematics and political science. His extensive research experience includes involvement in developing value-added models of teacher effectiveness for Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles public schools, election forecasting for Pollster.com and studying optimal health insurance design and government intervention in health care at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He will be starting his Ph.D. in economics at MIT this August.

Note: Outline.com is receiving funds through the Knight Enterprise Fund, an early stage venture fund that invests in for-profit ventures aligned with Knight’s mission of fostering informed and engaged communities. In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed.

Oyez Project

Award: $600,000
Organization: ITT Chicago – Kent School of Law
Project lead: Jerry Goldman
Twitter: @oyez

The activities of courts across the country are often hard to access and understand. For the past 20 years, the Oyez Project has worked to open the U.S. Supreme Court by offering clear case summaries, opinions and free access to audio recordings and transcripts. With Knight Foundation funding, Oyez will expand to state supreme and federal appellate courts, offering information to the public about the work of these vital but largely anonymous institutions. Beginning in the five largest states that serve over one-third of the American public, Oyez will work with courts to catalog materials and reformat them following open standards practices. In conjunction with local partners, Oyez will annotate the materials, adding data and concise summaries that make the content more accessible for a non-legal audience. Oyez will release this information under a Creative Commons license and make it available online and through a mobile application.

Team: Professor Jerry Goldman of the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has brought the U.S. Supreme Court closer to everyone through the Oyez Project. He has collaborated with experts in linguistics, psychology, computer science and political science with major financial support from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Google and a select group of national law firms to create an archive of 58 years of Supreme Court audio. In recent years, Oyez has put the Supreme Court in your pocket with mobile apps, iSCOTUSnow and PocketJustice.

Plan in a Box

Award: $620,000
Organization: OpenPlans
Project lead: Frank Hebbert, Ellen McDermott, Aaron Ogle, Andy Cochran, Mjumbe Poe
Twitter: @OpenPlans

Local planning decisions can shape everything about a community — from how residents get around, to how they interact with their neighbors and experience daily life. Yet information on projects — from new plans for downtown centers to bridge replacements — is often difficult to obtain. This project will be an open-source web-publishing tool that makes it easy to engage people in the planning process. With minimal effort, city employees will be able to create and maintain a useful website that provides information that citizens and journalists need while integrating with social media and allowing for public input.

Team: Aaron Ogle is an OpenPlans software developer. Prior to OpenPlans, he was a fellow at Code for America where he partnered with the City of Philadelphia to build solutions to help foster civic engagement. He specializes in JavaScript and GIS development and has contributed to such applications as reroute.it, septa.mobi, changeby.us, walkshed.org and phillystormwater.org.

Andy Cochran, creative director, provides design vision for OpenPlans’ projects, building user interfaces for tools that enable people to be better informed and stay engaged in local issues. Cochran has a bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and he has over a decade of experience in print and web design.

Ellen McDermott leads OpenPlans’ outreach to community organizations and cities, to help them be effective in using digital and in-person engagement tools. She also manages operations for OpenPlans. Previously, McDermott was the director of finance and administration for Honeybee Robotics, a technology supplier to the NASA Mars programs. She is a graduate of Amherst College and King’s College London.

Frank Hebbert leads the software team at OpenPlans. Outside of work, he volunteers with Planning Corps, a network of planners providing assistance to non-profit and community groups. Hebbert holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT.

Mjumbe Poe is a software developer for OpenPlans. Previously, Poe was a fellow at Code for America, and before that a research programmer at the University of Pennsylvania working on modeling and simulation tools for the social sciences.

Procure.io

Award: $460,000
Organization: Department of Better Technology
Project leads: Clay Johnson and Adam Becker
Twitter: @cjoh @AdamJacobBecker

The government procurement process can be both highly complicated and time-consuming — making it difficult for small businesses to discover and bid on contracts and for journalists and transparency advocates to see where public money is going. As White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Clay Johnson and Adam Becker built a simple tool for governments to easily post requests for proposals, or RFPs. Based on its early success at the federal level, the team is planning to expand the software to help states and cities. In addition, they will build a library of statements of work that any agency can adapt to their needs. The goal is to bring more competition into government bidding, as a way to both reduce costs and ensure that the most qualified team gets the job.

Team: Clay Johnson may be best known as the author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Johnson was also one of the founders of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. Since 2008, Johnson has worked on opening government, as the director of Sunlight Labs until 2010, and as a director of Expert Labs until 2012. He was named the Google/O’Reilly Open Source Organizer of the Year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed 100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011. In 2012, he was appointed as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the RFP-EZ project, a federal experiment in procurement innovation.

Adam Becker is a software developer and entrepreneur. He co-founded and served as chief technology officer of GovHub, a civic-oriented startup that was the first to provide users a comprehensive, geographically calculated list of their government officials. In 2012, he was appointed alongside Johnson as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the development of RFP-EZ.

                                   
What to read next
library-shelves-of-academic-journals-cc
John Wihbey    
When journalists factcheck politicians (or don’t), how to flag bad behavior on social media, and getting past slactivism: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.
  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Because reporters are always writing about today’s most important facts, they are distracting voters and making them forget yesterday’s most important facts. This is the main reason why surveys by the news media,,, and interviews by comedians with people standing in line to vote, have repeatedly shown that most voters are too ignorant to vote. Which is why the pre-recession journalism was repeatedly ignored by politicans and regulators. However, this problem could be largely overcome if reporters were willing to produce an annual one week review of events and conditions like a teacher would for a summer class of students who failed their regular classes. But reporters, and experts at the Knight Foundation will never consider this reform because they enjoy communicating like an entertainer. All of you are behaving like the doctors of the nineteenth century who refused to start washing their hands in spite of the evidence for a new theory about germs. Their vanity killed a lot of people. Just like the egotists in the journalism profession.

  • Paul Quigley

    Much incremental development in information distribution and verification will be funded privately in a way that matches market needs, or just emerges naturally as technology and software evolves.

    To actually influence the future, Knight will need to invest in game-changing ideas that will be neglected by the natural technology and market evolution.

    Perhaps the change could be planted within the people formerly known as the audience. Imagine an electorate as introspective and self-challenging as Ibarguen himself proved to be when calling into question all the funding to date for these challenges. (Most would say everything is rosy, and truck on for another year.) Imagine a polity that seeks out good information notwithstanding it contradicting their assumptions and stands back from the partisan fights and neurological shortcuts that make up our current “news” discourse.

    How would you get there?

  • shifu978

    tinyurl.com/l3cselt.

  • vitorbaptista

    Hello! The videos for “Procure.io” and “Open Gov for the Rest of Us” are the same. Was it a mistake?

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Good catch! I’ve fixed it.