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Knight News Challenge winners at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference

For the next three days, MIT is hosting the 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. The event showcases the recipients of Knight’s annual News Challenge, and this year, it’s the opportunity for a slate of announcements and introductions. It’s one of Joi Ito’s first public events as the head of MIT’s Media Lab (he tells us that, since he’s not formally started the job yet, he’s a volunteer). Knight today announced the relaunch of the MIT Center for Civic Media and my hire as director of that Center. Chris Csikszentmihayli is stepping down from his leadership of the Center. Alberto Ibarguen, the president of the Knight Foundation, encourages people to read John Palfrey’s report evaluating the first years of the Center for Future Civic Media, which takes a hard look at the project and offers some exciting challenges for future directions. Alberto acknowledges the challenge of studying and building tools and projects focused on communities in the context of a university focused on pure research and recognizes Chris Csikszentmihayli’s role in bridging that gap.

This is the final year of the Knight News Challenge five year experiment. For the first time, there’s sponsorship beyond the Knight Foundation – Google has contributed $2 million towards the challenge and is applying half of it towards this year’s contest winners. Alberto explains that Google has been looking for ways to get into the field, and that they’re thrilled to have Google’s support and partnership in pushing these ideas forward.

Knight’s support of the News Challenge comes from at least three values. Alberto reminds us that the Knight brothers were fully dedicated to a search for truth. While no one at the foundation believes in pure objectivity, that search for journalistic truth informs the work Knight does across all projects. Working closely with Tim Berners-Lee, Alberto reminds us that access to media – and particularly digital media – remains an unsolved problem. “If you don’t have access, you’re a second class citizen socially and economically.” Ultimately, the goal is not just to build tools, but to build informed and engaged communities.

The News Challenge will continue, though perhaps in new forms. The long timeline that currently faces News Challenge entrants is too long for some of the most innovative projects. The future of the contest will involve four cycles per year, allowing for faster decisionmaking. Alberto is rethinking the open source requirements for the projects, because that’s proven to be a very difficult constraint for projects. And Knight has discovered that many groups have difficulty building the teams they need to carry out projects, particularly in finding technical talent. In the future, grants may come with training and technical support.

Alberto introduces the 16 grants with a ten second video for each project. But the next two hours are spend on ignite-style talks for all winners. I’ll try to blog each of those in turn. (And full disclosure – I was on the team that evaluated these projects, so I share some credit/blame for the projects selected… :-)

Josh Benton of Nieman Lab has done at least as good a job as I can of explaining these projects – please see his excellent post.

Brian Boyer of PANDA, a project launched by the Chicago Tribune, tells us that Excel sucks, databases are weird, and that we need a better toolkit for dealing with data. You can use the tool to search and compare data, and the project urges anyone with data to put it online and share it. ($150,000 in funding.)

Waldo Jaqith’s “The State Decoded” is trying to make state codes understandable to humans. State codes have basically been scanned and posted online, and there’s been no work done to make them understandable. There are few bulk downloads, the design is awful, and we could do ever so much better. The project has started with Virginia’s state code, and the project will now parse and import codes from throughout the US, integrate laws with court decisions and generally make this aspect of open government less lame. ($165,000 in funding.)

Jon Vidar of the Tiziano Project works on new media in post-conflict areas. In his work as an archeologist, he’s taken thousands of pictures documenting Kurdish culture. This led to the Tiziano project, which combined images and stories from media professionals and amateurs to offer a rich picture of life in other countries. Knight’s funding will allow other organizations to produce “360s”, collections of media that document regions around the world. ($200,000 in funding.)

Miguel Paz of Poderpedia (Power Pedia) is worried about the concentration of power in a very few hands in his native Chile. He shows us a picture of the Chilean President, sharing a helicopter with a powerful businessman who works on government… we walk quickly through the halls of power in Chile, looking at institutions like the Universidad Catholica, which educated 16 of 22 of the government’s ministers. Poderpedia will document these sorts of ties, using crowdsourced information vetted by professional journalists. ($200,000 in funding)

Christina Xu from the Awesome Foundation (disclosure: I’ve just joined their board) shows us some awesome things – a hammock that seats 20, a set of inks that are grown, not manufactured, and a boat that tows remediating plants through polluted waters. What do these projects have in common? They’re awesome. And the Awesome Foundation funds small projects with $1000, donated by a network of contributors. Started in Boston, the Foundation has now spread throughout the developed world. The Institute On Higher Awesome Studies is now trying to take this model – which has had great success thus far – and try it in places often considered “less awesome”, starting with Detroit. In Detroit, the project will build an incubator to bring new trustees into the process and make a new set of grants. ($244,000 in funding.)

Jon Gosier is the creator of Swift River, a project that’s grown out of community mapping platform Ushahidi (disclosure: I’m on their board, too.) Swift River focuses on the problems of verification in the world of civic media. The system builds profiles of trust to evaluate future data that’s published, using a model of “subjective veracity”. “You construct your own construct of truth and we match online data to it. ($250,000 in funding.)

Sean McDonald of FrontlineSMS explains that we have to take mobile phones seriously if we want to consider information needs in the developing world. Frontline uses little more than cheap phones, a USB modem and a computer program to deliver information over mobile nextowkrs. Rien que la Vérité, a TV program in DRC, uses Frontline to collect comments and feedback on their programming. Kubatana, a Zimbabwean human rights organization, uses Kubatana to poll their community about key issues. The Knight News challenge works focuses on helping news organizations communicate with their audiences, especially at community radio stations.

Matin Keegan of the Open Knowledge Foundation introduces Open Spending. It’s a platform that allows you to submit government budgets and expenditure and visualize how government spending interfaces with household finances – what do your taxes actually support? How can we think of those amounts in understandable terms? Open Spending also links these data sets and visualizations to news stories, both heuristically and using crowdsourcing. ($250,000 in funding)

Ryan Thornburg of UNC Chapel Hill is building Openblock Rural, based on Openblock, software designed to unlock civic information. The goal is to provide a tool that helps small town newspapers generate revenue, while testing whether open government data systems can work in rural communities. There’s lots of hard work we need to get from paper files to structured data, so there’s lots to overcome both in creating this data, sharing it and creating a business model around it. ($275,000 in funding.)

Francis Irving of ScraperWiki tells us the story of a hacker in Scotland and a beat blogger in Edinburgh. The two decided to tackle a complex database of building permit data. It’s hard to scrape, but with ScraperWiki, they created an API to the data, as well as an Excel dump of the data. That turned into a map, and into a lead on a story about a paintball facility being planned for a residential neighborhood. ScraperWiki encourages you to do data journalism with other people, and the Knight funding is going to allow for the development of new features and convenings of geeks and journalists. ($250,000 in funding.)

Aaron Pilhofer, an interactive editor at the New York Times, has been building Document Cloud for two years. It now is used in 240 newsrooms and has more than a million documents in it. You can put documents into the cloud, make them searchable using OCR, do entity extraction using OpenCalais, and do some simple visualization. In this next tranche of funding ($320,000), they’re going to support user annotation, making it a tool for crowdsourced analysis and publishing.

Jesse James Garrett is a user experience designer for Adaptive Path. He asks us what makes great reporting? Information, perspective, and the ability to transport us to the time and place where a news event occurred. These first person accounts are a key part of great reporting. Mobile technology has allowed hundreds of millions of people to make these first-person reports. But it’s very hard to surface the relevant content from the people who were actually there. iWitness is designed to surface these reports from citizen media and help you feel like you were a witness to the event. ($360,000 in funding.)

Anu Sridharan of NextDrop wants us to think differently about news – it’s not just the morning LA Times or NPR – it’s Gchat updates, SMS, tweets. The mobile phone is the revolutionary device here, and the 1 billion people who have mobiles but no internet, are a critical constituency for news. NextDrop uses the mobile phone and IVR to crowdsource information about water availability, and to share it with users of the system. ($375,000 in funding)

Kara Oehler of Zeega tells us she wants everyone to be able to create online works of documentary. This idea started from Mapping Main Street, a project to document Main Streets around the country. People could participate in the process by taking photos, posting them on various social media sites with tags, and have them appear on the site. Zeega is a platform designed to make it easier to build these sort of rich online documentaries. ($420,000 in funding.)

Jonathan Stray of the AP tells us about three technologies journalism hasn’t coped well with:
Cheap translation, through machine translation and volunteer efforts. Will international news continue through foreign correspondents or in translation?
Computer question answering. Stray doesn’t think IBM’s Jeopardy-winning computer wasn’t a stunt. Watson is able to digest huge amounts of unstructured text, much like a journalist does. Stray wants one for the newsroom and wants us to have one too.
Community Visualization, like John Kelley’s map of the Iranian blogosphere.
We’re heading towards a public information ecosystem – Stray tells us that it’s bigger than journalism… and evidently bigger than his news challenge project, Overview, which received $475,000 in funding.

Jeffrey Warren, a veteran of the Center for Future Civic Media, tells us about the project he launched at the Center to use helium balloons to take aerial imagery of sites like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The maps are 50-100x better than other imagery that’s available. Public Laboratory, funded with $500,000 from Knight, is about more than expanding that project – it’s about building resources, toolkits and communities that make public science more broadly accessible. In the immediate future, we’re going to see grassroots maps that shoot in infrared, which can tell us about crop growth or biological recovery from oil spills.