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May 9, 2014, 11:34 a.m.

Under consideration: Some interesting entries in the latest Knight News Challenge

These submissions are trying to answer the question: “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”

Fifty-six semifinalists in the Knight News Challenge have been hard at work refining their entries and preparing for the next round of cuts. (They’ll be narrowed to a group of finalists next week; the winners will be announced at the Knight-MIT Civic Media Conference on June 23.) There were 704 initial entrants to the challenge, which will offer $2.75 million to the winners. The current iteration of the News Challenge is focused on answering this question: “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”

The OpenIDEO platform Knight switched to a few cycles back enables a lot of public input into and evaluation of News Challenge applicants. You can see both the semifinalists and other entries that didn’t make the cut online.

After looking through all the entries, here are a few that stuck out to us. These aren’t our predictions for who’ll win, and they aren’t even necessarily the ones we like best — consider this less an exercise in Vegas oddsmaking than an attempt to highlight some of the interesting ideas in the pool with ties to journalism. (No offense — and good luck! — to those we didn’t pick.)


Checkdesk is a Middle East-focused application that provides news organizations a one-stop platform to verify user-generated content using a variety of methods. “What we propose is not a silver bullet for verifying digital media, but a more structured, easy-to-use and expandable toolkit that makes it easier for you, the journalist, to use the best techniques already out there,” wrote Tom Trewinnard, the research and communications manager of Meedan, the nonprofit behind Checkdesk. Six news organizations across five Middle East countries are already using Checkdesk, and Meedan hopes to use Knight funding to expand access to the platform and make it available on mobile.


Fed up with the limits of Google Maps, the excessive costs of commercial GIS software, and the difficulty of learning open source mapping applications, James Baughn decided to build his own program that takes advantage of public information and allows users to easily create high quality maps. Baughn, who oversees the websites of The Southeast Missourian and other affiliated sites, wrote in his application that his goals are to create an effective script for downloading and processing data from maps, create a consumer-facing website, and open source the system so others can customize it.


Though he imagines MapWhatever could be used for a variety of purposes, there is no doubt that it could be used in newsrooms as well, Baughn wrote in his application. “Newspapers wanting to produce map-based infographics (for print or online) could generate a vector base map, import it into Adobe Illustrator or similar applications, and then fine-tune as necessary,” he wrote.


Many news websites are not accessible to users with disabilities, argues Emily Stewart, who created NewsA11y as a means to connect members of the disabled community and news organizations to overcome these barriers. In her Knight application, Stewart wrote that NewsA11y has three goals: to allow users to point out barriers on news sites, to provide a space where individuals can collaborate on ways to overcome those barriers, and to act as a network where news organizations can look to hire coders or testers to help develop sites on case-by-case basis that better serve users with disabilities.

Stewart built a prototype of NewsA11y as part of her graduate school work at the University of Missouri, and she said she would use the funding from Knight to “transition NewsA11y from a working prototype to a real product. I would have the resources to build a robust application with a passionate user base that connects two groups of people. NewsA11y would motivate news sites to become more accessible and provide a place for rapid testing.”


Sorting through a large set of documents can often be a nightmare for journalists, but Overview believes it can make that process easier. The platform has been under development since it won a 2011 Knight News Challenge grant — project lead Jonathan Stray is a Nieman Lab contributor — and Overview is already being used in newsrooms as a way to organize and navigate reams of documents being used for investigations. Now, Overview wants to continue to develop the product and build it out into free and paid tiers. (Overview also offers consulting services.)

Still, Overview has recognized that the journalism field won’t be big enough to support the program, so it’s hoping to expand its user base beyond traditional reporters. “It will take sustained effort to reach a critical mass of paying users,” Stray wrote in its application. “Although we have increasing visibility within journalism, journalism alone is unlikely to provide enough revenue to support our organization. We need to broaden our user base into the non-profit sector generally, which means we need to learn what these new users need, build it for them, support their use, and market our product.”


First developed by the late Aaron Swartz, SecureDrop is an open-sourced application that allows whistleblowers to securely submit content to news organizations. The product is already in use in several newsrooms, including ProPublica and The New Yorker, and the team behind SecureDrop hopes to use Knight funding to improve the tool’s encryption to make it safer for sources to share information.

securedropSecureDrop hopes to redesign the platform to simplify the API to allow newsrooms to simplify how information is submitted and allow for different utilities depending on the level of confidentiality needed for a particular source or type of information. It also plans to implement end-to-end encryption and other security measures.

“While the current version of SecureDrop leverages US legal protections to provide unprecedented protection for sources and journalists, the current version still potentially leaves international journalists at risk if governments are willing to raid newsrooms and seize servers, or hack into the servers themselves in an attempt to find sources,” wrote Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, the group that manages SecureDrop.

POSTED     May 9, 2014, 11:34 a.m.
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