Every day, the public hears more about technology and media entrepreneurs, from when they started in the garages and the dorm rooms, all the way up until when they go public, get acquired or go spectacularly bust. The way that the world mourned the passing of Steve Jobs last year and that young people now look to Mark Zuckerberg as a model for what’s possible offer some insight into that dynamic.
For those who want to follow in their footsteps, the most interesting elements of those stories will be the muddy details of who came up with the idea, who wrote the first lines of code, who funded them, how they were mentored and then how the startup executed upon their ideas.
Today, foundations and institutions alike are getting involved in the startup ecosystem, but with a different hook than the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in California or Y Combinator: They’re looking for smart, ambitious social entrepreneurs who want to start civic startups and increase the social capital of the world. From the Code for America Civic Accelerator to the Omidyar Foundation to Google.org to the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge, there’s more access to seed capital than ever before.
There are many reasons to watch what the Knight Foundation is doing, in particular, as it shifts how it funds digital journalism projects. The foundation’s grants are going toward supporting many elements of the broader open government movement, from civic media to government transparency projects to data journalism platforms.
Many of these projects — or elements and code from them — have a chance at becoming part of the plumbing of digital democracy in the 21st century, although we’re still on the first steps of the long road of that development.
This model for catalyzing civic innovation in the public interest is, in the broader sweep of history, still relatively new. (Then again, so is the medium you’re reading this post on.) One barrier that the Internet has helped lower is in the process of discovering and selecting good ideas to fund and letting bad ideas fall to the wayside. Another is changing how ideas are capitalized through microfunding approaches or how distributing opportunities for participation in helping products or services go to market now can happen though crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
When the Pebble smartwatch received $10 million through Kickstarter this year, it offered a notable data point into how this model could work. We’ll see how others follow.
These models could contribute to the development of small pieces of civic architecture around the world, loosely joining networks in civil society with mobile technology, lightweight programming languages and open data.
After years of watching how the winners of the Knight News Challenges have — or have not — contributed to this potential future, its architects are looking at big questions: How should resources be allocated in newsrooms? What should be measured? Are governments more transparent and accountable due to the use of public data by journalists? What data is available? What isn’t? What’s useful and relevant to the lives of citizens? How can data visualization, news applications and interactive maps inform and engage readers?
In the context of these questions, the fact that the next Knight News Challenge will focus on data will create important new opportunities to augment the practice of journalism and accelerate the pace of open government. John Bracken (@jsb), the Knight Foundation’s program director for journalism and media innovation, offered an explanation for this focus on the foundation’s blog:
“Knight News Challenge: Data is a call for making sense of this onslaught of information. ‘As data sits teetering between opportunity and crisis, we need people who can shift the scales and transform data into real assets,’ wrote Roger Ehrenberg earlier this year.
“Or, as danah boyd has put it, ‘Data is cheap, but making sense of it is not.’
“The CIA, the NBA’s Houston Rockets, startups like BrightTag and Personal (‘every detail of your life is data’) — they’re all trying to make sense out of data. We hope that this News Challenge will uncover similar innovators discovering ways for applying data towards informing citizens and communities.”
Regardless of what happens with this News Challenge, some of those big data questions stand a much better chance of being answered because of the Knight Foundation’s $2 million grant to Columbia University to research and distribute best practices for digital reporting, data visualizations and measuring impact.
Earlier this spring, I spoke with Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, about how this data journalism research at Columbia will close the data science “skills gap” in newsrooms. Bell is now entrusted with creating the architecture for learning that will teach the next generation of data journalists at Columbia University.
In search of the reasoning behind the grant, I talked to Michael Maness (@MichaelManess), vice president of journalism and media innovations at the Knight Foundation. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.
The last time I checked, you’re in charge of funding ideas that will make the world better through journalism and technology. Is that about right?
Michael Maness: That’s the hope. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’re accelerating innovation in the journalism and media space that continues to help inform and engage communities. We think that’s vital for democracy. What I do is work on those issues and fund ideas around that to not only make it easier for journalists to do their work, but citizens to engage in that same practice.
The Knight News Challenge has changed a bit over the last couple of years. How has the new process been going?
Michael Maness: I’ve been in the job a little bit more than a year. I came in at the tail end of 2011 and the News Challenge of 2011. We had some great winners, but we noticed that in the amount of time from when you applied in the News Challenge to when you were funded could be up to 10 months, by the time everything was done, and certainly eight months in terms of the process. So we reduced that to about 10 weeks. It’s intense for the judges to do that, but we wanted to move more quickly, recognizing the speed of disruption and the energy of innovation and how fast it’s moving.
We’ve also switched to a thematic theme. We’re going to do three [themes] this year. The point of it is to fund as fast as possible those ideas that we think are interesting and that we think will have a big impact.
This last round was around networks. The reason we focused on networks is the apparent rise of network power. The second reason is we get people, for example, that say, “This is the new Twitter for X” or “This is the new Facebook for journalists.” Our point is actually, you should be using and leveraging existing things for that.
We found when we looked back at the last five years of the News Challenge that people who came in with networks or built networks in accordance with what they’re doing had a higher and faster scaling rate. We want to start targeting areas to do that, too.
We hear a lot about entrepreneurs, young people and the technology itself, but schools and libraries seem really important to me. How will existing institutions be part of the future that you’re funding and building?
Michael Maness: One of the things that we’re doing is moving into more “prototyping” types of grants and then finding ways of scaling those out, helping get ideas into a proof-of-concept phase so users kick the tires and look for scaling afterward.
In terms of the institutions, one of the things that we’ve seen that’s been a bit of a frustration point is making sure that when we have innovations, [we’re] finding the best ways to parlay those into absorption in these kinds of institutions.
A really good standout for that, from a couple years ago as a News Challenge winner, is DocumentCloud, which has been adopted by a lot of the larger legacy media institutions. From a university standpoint, we know one of the things that is key is getting involvement with students as practitioners. They’re trying these things out and they’re doing the two kinds of modeling that we’re talking about. They’re using the newest tools in the curriculum.
That’s one of the reasons we made the grant [to Columbia.] They have a good track record. The other reason is that you have a real practitioner there with Emily Bell, doing all of her digital work from The Guardian and really knowing how to implement understandings and new ways of reporting. She’s been vital. We see her as someone who has lived in an actual newsroom, pulling in those digital projects and finding new ways for journalists to implement them.
The other aspect is that there are just a lot of unknowns in this space. As we move forward, using these new tools for data visualization, for database reporting, what are the things that work? What are the things that are hard to do? What are the ideas that make the most impact? What efficiencies can we find to help newsrooms do it? We didn’t really have a great body of knowledge around that, and that’s one of the things that’s really exciting about the project at Columbia.
How will you make sure the results of the research go beyond Columbia’s ivy-covered walls?
Michael Maness: That was a big thing that we talked about, too, because it’s not in us to do a lot of white papers around something like this. It doesn’t really disseminate. A lot of this grant is around making sure that there are convocations.
We talk a lot about the creation of content objects. If you’re studying data visualization, we should be making sure that we’re producing that as well. This will be something that’s ongoing and emerging. Definitely, a part of it is that some of these resources will go to hold gatherings, to send people out from Columbia to disseminate [research] and also to produce findings in a way that can be moved very easily around a digital ecosystem.
We want to make sure that you’re running into this work a lot. This is something that we’ve baked into the grant, and we’re going to be experimenting with, I think, as it moves forward. But I hear you, that if we did all of this — and it got captured behind ivy walls — it’s not beneficial to the industry.