Four key trends changing digital journalism and society

Commonalities between the Knight Foundation's News Challenge winners hint at journalism's networked future.

See something or say something: Los AngelesIt’s not just a focus on data that connects the most recent class of Knight News Challenge winners. They all are part of a distributed civic media community that works on open source code, collects and improves data, and collaborates across media organizations.

These projects are “part of an infrastructure that helps journalists better understand and serve their communities through data,” commented Chris Sopher, Knight Foundation Journalism Program Associate, in an interview last week. To apply a coding metaphor, the Knight Foundation is funding the creation of patches for the source code of society. This isn’t a new focus: in 2011, Knight chose to help build the newsroom stack, from editorial search engines to data cleaning tools.

Following are four themes that jumped out when I looked across the winners of the latest Knight News Challenge round.

Networked accountability

An intercontinental project that bridged citizen science, open data, open source hardware, civic hacking and the Internet of things to monitor, share and map radiation data? Safecast is in its own category. Adapting the system to focus on air quality in Los Angeles — a city that’s known for its smog — will be an excellent stress test for seeing if this distributed approach to networked accountability can scale.

If it does — and hacked Chumbys, LED signs, Twitter bots, smartphone apps and local media reports start featuring the results — open data is going to be baked into how residents of Los Angeles understand their own atmosphere. If this project delivers on some of its promise, the value of this approach will be clearer.

If this project delivers on all of its potential, the air itself might improve. For that to happen, the people who are looking at the realities of air pollution will need to advocate for policy makers to improve it. In the future, the success or failure of this project will inform similar efforts that seek to enlist communities in data collection, including whether governments embrace “citizensourcing” beyond natural disasters and crises. The idea of citizens as sensors continues to have legs.

Peer-to-peer collaboration, across newsrooms

As long as I’ve been reading newspapers, watching television news and following the industry, competition has always been part of the dynamic: be first to the scene, first to get the scoop, first to call the election. As the Internet has taken on a larger role in delivering the news, there have been new opportunities for competition in digital journalism: first to tweet, post or upload video, often followed by rewards from online traffic.

One (welcome) reality that jumps out in this series of Knight grants is that there are journalists from newsrooms that compete for stories who are collaborating on these projects independently. New York Times and Washington Post developers are teaming up to create an open election database. Data journalists from WNYC, the Chicago Tribune and the Spokesman-Review are collaborating on building a better interface for Census data. The same peer networks that helped build the Internet are forming around building out civic infrastructure. It’s an inspiring trend to watch.

The value of an open geo commons

The amount of consternation regarding Apple’s new mapping app for iOS 6 doesn’t seem to be dying down. It shouldn’t: David Pogue called the Apple Map app “an appalling first release,” and maybe “the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed.” It’s going to take a while for Apple Maps to improve — maybe even years, based upon how long it took for Google to improve maps. In the meantime, iPhone users can go to maps.google.com on Safari, along with the other third-party alternatives that Apple CEO Tim Cook recommended in his letter of apology.

In the wake of “#MAppleGate,” there’s suddenly a lot more attention being paid to the importance and value of mapping data, including how difficult it is to do maps right. And that’s where OpenStreetMap comes in. That’s also why the Knight Foundation is putting more than $500,000 behind tools from Development Seed: it will help to sustain and improve an open geo data commons that media organizations large and small can tap into to inform communities using maps.

“There are two ways the geo data space is going to evolve: 1) in closed silos of proprietary owned data or 2) in the open,” said Eric Gundersen, co-founder and CEO of Development Seed in a recent interview. “Our community does not need a fleet of cars driving millions of miles. We need good infrastructure to make it easy for people to map their surroundings and good community tools to help us garden the data and improve quality. As geo data becomes core to mobile, maps are a canvas to visualizing the ‘where’.”

As with Wikipedia, there will be people who doubt whether an open source digital map revolution enabled by MapBox, Development Seed’s open source mapping suite will come to pass. Then again, how many people believed a decade ago that Wikipedia would grow into the knowledge repository it is today?

“We are trying to radically lower the barrier of entry to map making for organizations and activists,” Gundersen told me last April. Given that they’re up against Google in mapmaking, the relatively tiny DC startup is banking on OpenStreetMap looking more like Wikipedia than Google Knol in a few years.

“Open” is in

Open data is a common thread that connects the winners — but the openness doesn’t stop there. Open maps. Open source. Open government. Open journalism. That this theme has emerged as a strong pulse isn’t a tremendous surprise, given a global movement to apply technology to open government. Moreover, no one should take this to mean that immense amounts of business, society, technology, media and government aren’t still closed. Clearly, that’s not the situation. But there’s a strong case to be made that open is the way of the day.

Data won’t save the world, on its own. However, when data is applied for the public good and put to work, there are a growing number of examples that raise optimism about data’s role in the future of journalism.

Photo Credit: Eric Fisher

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  • Jackanderson505

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