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Jan. 17, 2013, 10 a.m.

A new class of Knight News Challenge winners focuses on mobile in the developing world

The common thread through several of the eight winners: turning underpowered phones into information engines.

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest class of Knight News Challenge winners. The theme of this round was mobile, and thus it’s fitting that most of the projects are focused where mobile’s impact has been the most transformative: the developing world. (Easy access to your email in bed and the ability to play Tiny Wings on the go are nice, sure, but they don’t quite compare to the scale of the mobile revolution in poor, rural areas for which cell networks are the first networks.)

Past News Challenge winners have been interested in these issues before, of course; FrontlineSMS, NextDrop, and Ushahidi come to mind. But even though most of today’s winning projects are still based in the United States, their targets are in places like Uganda, Peru, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Since smartphones don’t (yet) have the same market share in Angola and Bolivia as in Austin and Boston, many of the projects focus on bringing some of the information-navigation powers we associate with iPhones and the like to feature phones, like the old Nokias that blanket much of the world. Money for Wikipedia will support its Wikipedia Zero project, which through deals with mobile companies lets people have free access to the free encyclopedia. Abayima wants to use SIM cards as a storage mechanism. WeFarm wants to use SMS to allow farmers to seek answers to their questions about crops. RootIO wants to turn cheap phones into ad hoc radio stations.

This crop of winners (who will receive a combined $2.4 million) also continues the News Challenge’s gradual drift away from what might be defined as innovation within traditional journalism and toward finding other ways to meet the information needs of communities. It’s unlikely that any of these projects, for instance, will be of great use to, say, a night cops reporter in Des Moines.

It’s not that such uses are unimaginable; a little creative thinking could twist some of these projects to be of interest to the enterprising journalist interested in building engagement with local citizens. But they’re not the target in the same way that they might have been in the earlier rounds of the News Challenge. One wonders whether “News” Challenge will always remain the appropriate name. (Knight already has a Community Information Challenge, aimed at connecting local foundations with local news and information efforts.)

Knight’s press release also confirmed the (rough) start date of the next News Challenge round: A competition themed around open government will open in February. Another round, subject TBA, will follow later in the fall. You can watch the winners present their projects on Knight’s webstream Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern from the campus of Arizona State University. (Also, full disclosure: Knight Foundation is a funder of Nieman Lab, although not through the News Challenge.)

Here’s a breakdown of the winners.

Abayima — $150,000
Jon Gosier, Philadelphia
@jongos, @abayima

The majority of mobile phone users around the world use simple feature phones which, unlike smartphones, do not have advanced storage or secondary communication options like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Abayima wants to build an open source application that people can use to store information to SIM cards — effectively turning the cards into storage devices and their mobile phones into e-readers. This app is particularly useful for sharing news and information in countries where communication networks are unsafe to use due to surveillance or where authorities or other circumstances have shut off access to the Internet altogether. The team has successfully piloted a program with Ugandan activists during the country’s 2011 elections, while all SMS traffic in the country was monitored for voices of dissent. With challenge funding, Abayima plans to build the kit as an open source, full service, easy-to-use platform which enables publishing to SIM cards.

RootIO — $200,000
Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Jude Mukundane, Los Angeles

Radio continues to be a powerful tool for community information, and the RootIO project amplifies it by mixing its power with new mobile and Internet technologies. RootIO is an open-source tool kit that allows communities to create their own micro radio stations with an inexpensive smartphone and transmitter, and to share, promote, and collaborate on dynamic content. The project will be piloted in Uganda in partnership with the Uganda Radio Network, UNICEF Uganda and UNICEF Innovation Unit.

Digital Democracy — $200,000
Emily Jacobi and Gregor MacLennan, New York
@emjacobi, @digidem

In remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, where mining and oil drilling are impacting the environment, health and economies of indigenous communities, residents lack the tools to collect and report these events to the outside world. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that builds community technology capacity in marginalized communities, will create and combine existing open software to produce a tool kit communities can use to share their stories and make informed choices. The team will work with local partners in the Peruvian Amazon to deploy and test the tool kit and train residents in its use.

Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF) — $260,000
Kady Murphy, Claire Rhodes and Kenny Ewan, London
@we_farm, @TheCPFoundation

Smallholder farmers in developing countries have limited access to support and best practices. The Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation, which designs projects to support small-scale farmers, will use mobile to address this need by building a platform allowing farmers to ask questions and share knowledge about any farming topic, have it translated by volunteers, answered by farmers in other communities and returned to them via basic SMS messages. Knight funds will enable the project, called WeFarm, to expand on successful pilots in Kenya, Peru and Tanzania, where farmers exchanged more than 4,600 SMS messages, an average of more than 70 per user, on topics such as frost control and animal husbandry.

Textizen — $350,000
Michelle Lee, Serena Wales, Alex Yule, San Francisco and Philadelphia
@textizen, @mishmosh, @gangleton, @yuletide

Textizen is building software to transform the citizen feedback loop. Across the country, a growing number of civic leaders are looking for new ways to connect with constituents. Neighborhood meetings are costly to run, and attendance isn’t always representative. By placing questions in physical places and inviting residents to respond from their mobile phones, Textizen creates new ways for meaningful civic participation. Started as a Code for America pilot project in Philadelphia, Textizen identified early best practices by experimenting with several types of campaigns. One, for example, asked for feedback on public transit changes by posing a text-to-vote question at a bus stop. Building on these pilots, the team will license the software to cities seeking to create new open, engaging channels for civic participation.

TKOH — $330,000
Kacie Kinzer, Tom Gerhardt, Caroline Oh, New York
@kaciekinzer, @tomgerhardt, @carolineyoh

Current tools for recording oral history, such as video cameras and professional audio equipment, can be difficult to use and hamper the social nature of a conversation. This project will ease the process by building a simple application that enables users of all experience levels to create rich audio/visual stories that can be archived and shared easily with groups of people, ranging from immediate family members to the extended user community, depending on the user’s preference. By making it easy to record and share stories amongst generations and communities, TKOH’s tool will make it possible to preserve the stories of target groups, including rural ranchers in New Mexico whose lives reflect a disappearing culture of endurance and gifted storytelling, before the app launches more broadly.

Wikimedia Foundation — $600,000
Kul Takanao Wadhwa, San Francisco
@wikimedia, @wikipedia

As mobile technology is increasingly the primary opportunity for billions of people around the world to access the Internet, the Wikimedia Foundation is working to remove the two biggest hurdles to access free knowledge: cost and accessibility. News Challenge funding will help create software to bring Wikipedia to lower-end, more basic phones — the kinds the majority of people use to access data outside of the West. Specifically, efforts will be focused in three areas: developing features to improve the mobile experience regardless of how feature-rich the device is – including new ways to access Wikipedia via text; increasing the number of languages that can access Wikipedia on mobile; and improving the way feature phones access the platform.

WITNESS — $320,000
Sam Gregory and Bryan Nunez (at WITNESS) and Nathan Freitas and Harlo Holmes (at Guardian Project)
@SamGregory, @Tech_wit, @N8FR8, @Harlo

In situations of conflict or civil unrest, where ordinary people are using their mobile phones to create and share media, news organizations and others have trouble authenticating the origins of photos, videos or audio. In collaboration with The Guardian Project, the international human rights organization WITNESS seeks to solve this problem by launching the InformaCam app. The mobile app allows users to incorporate key metadata in their video (who, what, where, corroborating identifiers), watermark it as coming from a particular camera, and share it in an encrypted format with someone the user trusts. News outlets, human rights organizations and everyday people could use the app in a variety of ways — for a breaking news story using first-hand video from a citizen journalist, sharing evidence of war crimes from a conflict zone, or to verify the images of a fender bender that someone could take to small claims court. Alongside this, WITNESS is advocating for incorporation of a “citizen witness” functionality based on InformaCam into other platforms and apps.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 17, 2013, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2013
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