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Sept. 20, 2012, 10:30 a.m.

Knight announces a data-centric class of News Challenge winners

The new class focuses on a set of tools for journalism and community information.

Today at the Online News Association’s annual conference in San Francisco, the Knight Foundation will present its newest class of Knight News Challenge winners. This cycle — the second of three this year under Knight’s new harder-better-faster-stronger contest regime — was focused on data, and the six winners are unusually tool-heavy — and heavy on the information needs of communities, Knight’s inclusive framing for a lot of civic-minded data and information that isn’t necessarily transmitted through what traditionalists might consider journalistic enterprises. Ambient community data — in one case, literally from the air around us — can be collected and used in ways that don’t fit into traditional story models. The more notably journalistic grants are aimed at capacity building — like the construction of common databases of election and census data that could be used by journalists (or anyone) anywhere.

This shift to tools has been gradual — this year’s winners look quite different from, say, the first year’s winners, which were more likely to include community journalism projects themselves. I think it’s a smart move. There’s a new infrastructure of digital tools slowly being built that, collectively, will make journalism and journalism-like work easier to do. Many of those ideas come from people in news organizations, but their potential value spreads far beyond one outlet’s boundaries — perhaps making it harder for that outlet to invest the time and money in building and maintaining it. So it makes sense for an outside force to deal with that commons-based issue. (Obligatory disclosure: Knight has also been a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

The winners will be presented at ONA on Saturday. (As an aside, the Nieman Lab staff will be at ONA this afternoon too, once our flight from Boston lands. We love to meet our readers, so come say hello.) Here are the winners, with Knight’s writeup:


Award: $300,000
Winners: Amplify Labs, Alicia Rouault, Prashant Singh and Matt Hampel, Detroit
Twitter: @golocaldata

Whether tracking crime trends, cataloging real estate development or assessing parks and play spaces, communities gather millions of pieces of data each year. Such data are often collected haphazardly on paper forms or with hard-to-use digital tools, limiting their value. LocalData is a set of tools that helps community groups and city residents gather and organize information by designing simple surveys, seamlessly collecting it on paper or smartphone and exporting or visualizing it through an easy-to-use dashboard. Founded by Code for America fellows, the tools have already been tested in Detroit, where they helped document urban blight by tracking the condition of thousands of lots.

New contributor tools for OpenStreetMap

Award: $575,000
Winners: Development Seed Inc./Eric Gunderson, Washington, D.C.
Twitter: @developmentseed, @ericg, @openstreetmap, @mapbox

OpenStreetMap, a community mapping project, is quickly becoming a leading source for open street-level data, with foursquare, Wikimedia and other major projects signing on as users. However, there is a significant learning curve to joining the growing contributor community. With Knight News Challenge funds, Development Seed will build a suite of easy-to-use tools allowing anyone to contribute data such as building locations, street names and points of interest. The team will promote the tools worldwide and help contribute to the growth of OpenStreetMap.

Award: $450,000
Winner: Joe Germuska, Chicago; John Keefe, New York; Ryan Pitts, Spokane
Twitter: @JoeGermuska, @jkeefe, @ryanpitts

Despite the high value of Census data, the U.S. Census Bureau’s tools for exploring the data are difficult to use. A group of news developers built for the 2010 Census to help journalists more easily access Census data. Following early positive feedback, the team will expand and simplify the tool, and add new data sets including the annual American Community Survey, which informs decisions on how more than $400 billion in government funding is distributed.

Pop Up Archive

Award: $300,000
Winners: Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton, Oakland
Twitter: @popuparchive, @annewootton, @baileyspace

Today, media is created with greater ease, and by more people, than ever before. But multimedia content — including interviews, pictures and more — cannot survive online unless it is organized. Pop Up Archive takes media from the shelf to the web — making content searchable, reusable and shareable, without requiring technical expertise or substantial resources from producers. A beta version was built around the needs of The Kitchen Sisters, Peabody award-winning journalists and independent producers who have collected stories of people’s lives for more than 30 years. Pop Up Archive will use News Challenge funds to further develop its platform and to do outreach to potential users.

Open Elections

Award: $200,000
Winners: Derek Willis, The New York Times; Serdar Tumgoren, The Washington Post
Twitter: @derekwillis, @zstumgoren

Elections are fundamental to democracy, yet the ability to easily analyze the results are out of reach for most journalists and civic hackers. No freely available, comprehensive source of official election results exists. Open Elections will create the first, with a standardized, linked set of certified election results for U.S. federal and statewide offices. The database will allow the people who work with election data to be able to get what they need, whether that’s a CSV file for stories and data analysis or a JSON usable for Web applications and interactive graphics. The project also will allow for linking election data to other critical data sets. The hope is that one day, journalists and researchers will be able much more easily to analyze elections in ways that account for campaign spending, demographic changes and legislative track records.

Safecast Radiation & Air Quality

Award: $400,000
Winners: Safecast/Sean Bonner, Los Angeles
Twitter: @safecast

Safecast, a trusted provider of radiation data in post-quake Japan, is now expanding with challenge funding to create a real-time map of air quality in U.S. cities. A team of volunteers, scientists and developers quickly formed Safecast in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when demand for radiation monitoring devices and data far surpassed the supply. The project has collected more than 4 million records and become the leading provider of radiation data. With News Challenge funding, Safecast will measure air quality in Los Angeles and expand to other U.S. cities.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Sept. 20, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2012
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