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June 22, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Knight News Challenge 2011: Sixteen winners, from mapping to data viz, from water shortages to interactive documentaries

On Sept. 28, 2006, when the Knight Foundation launched the Knight News Challenge — its five-year attempt to harness the best ideas in journalism innovation through an annual contest — the global economy had not yet entered a tailspin. Newspapers were cutting back in their newsrooms, but not yet at the scale we’d see a year or two later. Facebook had been opened to all adults just two days earlier. And many news executives had not yet fully internalized the impact that the Internet would have on the way they do — or did — business.

Now — five years, $27 million, and 12,000 applications later — the News Challenge comes to a close with today’s announcement of the 16 winners of this year’s final round of the competition. The projects aren’t all going away — Knight’s funding will continue for several more years for some — but the News Challenge brought a unique annual framework to focus on new ideas.

The journalism world is a very different place than it was in 2006, more both endangered and vibrant. The entrepreneurial spirit that the News Challenge tried to bring to journalism is far further along, and more players — nonprofits, tech companies, venture capitalists, lean startups, and even those old warhorses in the traditional media — are more willing to try new strategies, throw out old workflows, and build new products and tools.

True, that’s more the result of economic reality than anything Knight’s done. But as the News Challenge at least formally drifts away, it’s worth thinking for a moment of the good it’s brought to the field. And not just to the 76 projects funded — also to the 12,000 or so who didn’t get funded, but for whom the competition was an excuse to lay out an idea, to put together a business plan, or to figure out what they might need to build something new and valuable.

What’s next for Knight?

So what will follow the Knight News Challenge? We asked John Bracken, Knight’s director of digital media, a few days ago:

It’ll continue in forms yet to be articulated. We’ll say a little bit more about it next week, but we won’t have a final map, probably, for a couple months. But yeah, we’ll continue. Both external to Knight — the ways in which people have taken to the News Challenge and the experimentation that it’s helped drive — and internal to Knight — the way in which this has helped focus our efforts and built our ties to technologists and media innovators — has been a success, and it’s something we’re going to continue to build upon. It won’t be going away.

The “next week” John refers to is today, when the News Challenge winners descend on MIT and (we presume) Knight will give us a little more information about its innovation funding plans. (Outside the News Challenge, of course, Knight funds lots of journalism projects — including this website.)

If you’re looking for clues, though, you might want to check out the interim review of the News Challenge Knight posted on its site on Friday. That review focuses on the competition’s first two years, but it outlines some of the challenges Knight and its grantees have had turning an idea into a successful implementation of that idea. Some of the highlights:

— Citizen journalism projects sometimes “overestimated the reporting skills of individuals and underestimated the challenges of keeping people engaged”

— News game development required “heavy content development requirements, which winners often found to be overwhelming”

— The length of the News Challenge process — applications due in the fall, winner announced the following June — “is inconsistent with the rapid pace of innovation and affects applicants’ ability to respond to market opportunities”

— The contest’s requirements to open-source tools can add big burdens of work to a project, and Knight should “be mindful of the time and resources it takes”

— People with great ideas may still not be great business people or project managers; many winners “experienced difficulties in accurately budgeting for project costs”

Knight has already adjusted on some fronts, like hiring a biz-dev guy to work with grantees. But it seems to me like these ideas might be pushing Knight closer to an incubator model, where the funder (Knight) is more directly involved in the development of the project. Or toward a more agile process for getting money to innovators. (Update: Ibargüen just said one option is having a competition once a quarter instead of once a year.) Or toward building on the news innovation labs at universities that launched earlier this year.

But that’s mostly me reading tea leaves — we’ll likely find out the real scoop from Knight soon.

Finally, if you want a thorough look at the News Challenge from an outsider’s perspective, I’d encourage you to look at these two pieces by the Lab’s Seth Lewis, who wrote his dissertation on the competition and has some interesting thoughts on both how the News Challenge evolved and how it has impacted Knight itself.

This year’s winners

The 16 winners of Cycle 5 of the Knight News Challenge are listed below. Sixteen is up a bit from last year (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 in 2010). This year’s funds included for the first time $1 million from Google. We’ll be profiling each of the winners over the next few days, just as we did in 2009 and 2010. The descriptive text for each winner is from Knight; on some I’ve added an extra comment or two (in italics).

Project: The Public Laboratory
Winner: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Cambridge, Mass.
Award: $500,000
Project lead: Jeffrey Warren
Twitter: @publiclaboratory

To make technology work for communities, The Public Laboratory will create a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The Lab is an expansion of Grassroots Mapping – a project originated at the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT. During the project, residents used helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high-resolution “satellite” maps gauging the extent of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill – at a time when there was little public information on the subject. Expanding the tool kit beyond aerial mapping, Public Laboratory will work with communities, both online and offline, to produce information about their surroundings.

Project: Overview
Winner: The Associated Press, New York, N.Y.
Award: $475,000
Project lead: Jonathan Stray
Twitter: @overviewproject

Overview is a tool to help journalists find stories in large amounts of data by cleaning, visualizing and interactively exploring large document and data sets. Whether from government transparency initiatives, leaks or freedom of information requests, journalists are drowning in more documents than they can ever hope to read. There are good tools for searching within large document sets for names and key words, but that doesn’t help find stories journalists are not looking for. Overview will display relationships among topics, people, places and dates to help journalists to answer the question, “What’s in there?” The goal is an interactive system where computers do the visualization, while a human guides the exploration – plus documentation and training to make this capability available to anyone who needs it.

[You may know Jonathan as a Nieman Lab writer. If you’ve been following his blog, you’ve already seen an early sketch of what Overview will try to build.]

Project: Zeega
Winner: Media and Place Productions, Cambridge, Mass.
Award: $420,000
Project lead: Kara Oehler
Twitter: @karaoehler

To help tell rich multimedia stories, Zeega will improve its open-source HTML5 platform for creating collaborative and interactive documentaries. By using Zeega, anyone can create immersive, participatory multimedia projects that seamlessly combine original content with photos, videos, text, audio and maps from across the Web. With this grant, Zeega will expand their experimental prototype to work on Web, tablet and mobile devices and pilot a series of collaborative and interactive documentary projects with news organizations, journalists and communities across the globe.

[Zeega also has its roots a few blocks from our offices, with connections to Berkman, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and elsewhere. Zeega grew out of their earlier Mapping Main Street project.]

Project: NextDrop
Winner: NextDrop, Berkeley, Calif., and Hubli-Dharwad, India
Award: $375,000
Project lead: Anu Sridharan
Twitter: @NextDrop

To develop a new way of disseminating critical community information, NextDrop will launch a service, in conjunction with local utilities, that notifies residents of Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. NextDrop will work with water utility employees who operate the valves that control the infrequent flow of water. The service will notify neighborhood residents via text when the water is turned on. This system will be replicable in any community as a way to distribute all types of community information.

Project: iWitness
Winner: Adaptive Path, San Francisco, Calif.
Award: $360,000
Project lead: Jesse James Garrett
Twitter: @AdaptivePath

To bridge the gap between traditional and citizen media, iWitness will create a web-based tool that aggregates user-generated content from social media during big news events. Whether a parade or protest, election or earthquake, iWitness will display photos, videos and messages in an easy-to-browse interface. Created by a premier web design firm, iWitness will make it easier to cross-reference first-person accounts with journalistic reporting, opening up new avenues for storytelling, fact-checking and connecting people to events in their communities.

[Adaptive Path is a web development/design with really deep roots in the early days of the web. Founded in 2001, it has been home to many of the early stars of the web, guys like Jeff Veen (now at Typekit), Peter Merholz (the guy who coined the word “blog”), and Jesse James Garrett, who’s perhaps best known for inventing the term Ajax.]

Project: DocumentCloud Reader Annotations
Winner: Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), Columbia, Mo.
Award: $320,000
Project lead: Aron Pilhofer
Twitter: @documentcloud

A 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, DocumentCloud helps journalists analyze, annotate and publish original source documents. Hundreds of newsrooms are already using the tool. With this grant, DocumentCloud will develop a new feature allowing newsrooms to invite public participation in annotating and commenting on source documents. The tool will help newsrooms involve their readers in the news and improve DocumentCloud as a journalistic tool and investigative reporting resource.

[We’ve written a lot about DocumentCloud; here’s our Encyclo entry about the project.]

Project: ScraperWiki
Winner: ScraperWiki, Liverpool, England
Award: $280,000
Project lead: Francis Irving
Twitter: @scraperwiki provides a way to make it easier to collect information from across the web from diverse sources. The site helps anyone freely create “scrapers” to collect, store and publish public data, and make it freely available for anyone to use. As such, the site provides journalists with updated, aggregated data that allows them to produce richer stories and data visualizations. This grant will add a “data on demand” feature where journalists can request data sets and be notified of changes in data that might be newsworthy, and data embargos that will keep information private until a story breaks. To accelerate the adoption of the platform, the U.K.-based site will host “journalism data camps” in 12 U.S. states.

Project: OpenBlock Rural
Winner: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Award: $275,000
Project lead: Ryan Thornburg
Twitter: @rtburg

Rural news organizations often struggle to move into the digital age because they lack the staff to make public data digestible. OpenBlock Rural will work with local governments and community newspapers in North Carolina to collect, aggregate and publish government data, including crime and real estate reports, restaurant inspections and school ratings. In addition, the project aims to improve small local papers’ technical expertise and provide a new way to generate revenue.

[OpenBlock Rural builds on OpenBlock — a previous Knight grantee — which itself builds on EveryBlock, an original Knight News Challenge winner.]

Project: FrontlineSMS
Winner: The Kiwanja Foundation, Palo Alto, Calif.
Award: $250,000
Project lead: Sean McDonald
Twitter: @frontlinesms

FrontlineSMS: Media will create a new platform that allows journalists to more effectively use text messaging to inform and engage rural communities. The Frontline SMS platform already enables users in underserved areas to organize interactions with large numbers of people via text messages, a laptop and a mobile phone – without the need for the Internet. This grant will enable FrontlineSMS to expand its software platform and work with community radio stations and other rural journalists.

[FrontlineSMS’ web site has a number of interesting case studies of how their existing software is used by NGOs and others.]

Project: SwiftRiver
Winner: Ushahidi, Orlando, Fla.
Award: $250,000
Project lead: David Kobia
Twitter: @ushahidi

As news events unfold, mobile phones and the Internet are flooded with information. Through the SwiftRiver platform, Ushahidi will attempt to verify this information by parsing it and evaluating sources. Working across email, Twitter, web feeds and text messages, the platform will use a combination of techniques to identify trends and evaluate the information based on the creator’s reputation. The project builds on Ushahidi’s past efforts to verify the crowdsourced information collected in global crisis scenarios like the Kenyan election crisis in 2008 and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

[See our past coverage of Ushahidi in Encyclo. Ushahidi also won a KNC grant in 2009.]

Project: Spending Stories
Winner: Open Knowledge Foundation, Cambridge, England
Award: $250,000
Project lead: Martin Keegan
Twitter: @okfn

News stories about government finances are common, but readers often find it challenging to place the numbers in perspective. Spending Stories will contextualize such news pieces by tying them to the data on which they are based. For example, a story on City Hall spending could be annotated with details on budget trends and related stories from other news outlets. The effort will be driven by a combination of machine-automated analysis and verification by users interested in public spending.

Project: The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce
Winner: The Awesome Foundation, Boston, Mass.
Award: $244,000
Project lead: Tim Hwang
Twitter: @higherawesome

To experiment with a new funding model for local journalism, The Awesome Foundation: News Taskforce will bring together 10 to 15 community leaders and media innovators in Detroit and two other cities to provide $1,000 microgrants to innovative journalism and civic media projects. By encouraging pilot projects, prototypes, events and social entrepreneurial ventures, the News Taskforce will encourage a wide swathe of the community to experiment with creative solutions to their information needs.

[The Awesome Foundation got its start here in Cambridge; among its founders are a bunch of Harvard and MIT people with affiliations with the Berkman Center, ROFLcon, NPR Digital Services, and more. First winner of an Awesome Foundation grant: a project to build a giant hammock.]

Project: Poderopedia
Winner: El Mostrador, Santiago, Chile
Award: $200,000
Project lead: Miguel Paz
Twitter: @poderopedia

To promote greater transparency in Chile, Poderopedia (Powerpedia) will be an editorial and crowdsourced database that highlights the links among the country’s elite. Using data visualization, the site will investigate and illustrate the connections among people, companies and institutions, shedding light on any conflicts of interests. Crowdsourced information will be vetted by professional journalists before it is posted. Entries will include an editorial overview, a relationship map and links to the sources of information.

[Poderopedia echoes some of the ideas in Councilpedia, which won a Knight News Challenge grant for Gotham Gazette in 2009.]

Project: Tiziano 360
Winner: The Tiziano Project, Los Angeles, Calif.
Award: $200,000
Project lead: Jon Vidar
Twitter: @tizianoproject

Using visually dynamic, multimedia storytelling, the Tiziano Project provides communities with the equipment, training and web platform needed to report on stories that affect their residents’ lives. Tiziano will build an improved platform based on the award-winning project 360 Kurdistan. Using HTML5, the platform will display the work of professional and community journalists and will enable news organizations, community groups and individuals to easily manage digital content for mobile and tablet devices. The project will also build an interactive map to serve as a hub for projects developing similar sites in their communities and enable direct communication between these communities and their audiences.

[We wrote about the Tiziano Project back in November.]

Project: The State Decoded
Winner: The Miller Center Foundation, Charlottesville, Va.
Award: $165,000
Project lead: Waldo Jaquith
Twitter: @waldojaquith

The State Decoded will be a platform that displays state codes, court decisions and information from legislative tracking services to make government more understandable to the average citizen. While many state codes are already online, they lack context and clarity. With an improved layout, embeddable definitions of legal terms, Google News and Twitter integration, and an open API for state codes, this project aims to make important laws the centerpiece of media coverage.

[Jaquith has a history in Virginia media and on the web, from zines to his site to a stint at VQR.]

Project: PANDA
Winner: Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Ill.
Award: $150,000
Project lead: Brian Boyer
Twitter: @pandaproject

To help news organizations better use public information, the PANDA Project, in partnership with Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), the Chicago Tribune and The Spokane Spokesman-Review, will build a set of open-source, web-based tools that make it easier for journalists to use and analyze data. While national news organizations often have the staff and know-how to handle federal data, smaller news organizations are at a disadvantage. City and state data are messier, and newsroom staff often lack the tools to use it. PANDA will work with tools like Google Refine to find relationships among data sets and improve data sets for use by others. PANDA will be simple to deploy, allowing newsrooms without software developers on staff to integrate it into their work.

[You probably know Brian if you hang out on the nerdier corners of the journalism Twitterverse. He’s one of the beneficiaries of the Knight Foundation Scholarships at Medill aimed at turning programmers into hacker journalists; those scholarships were funded in the first year of the News Challenge.]

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab, although not through the Knight News Challenge.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     June 22, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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