On your marks, get set…INNOVATE!

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hufse/15529699/in/photostream/

Anybody paying attention to the world of journalism innovation knows about the Knight News Challenge, which just passed its 2011 application deadline. Each year brings a flurry of amazing talent, as hundreds of cash starved brainiacs try to pitch the next big idea for the new media revolution.

The Challenge is in its fifth year of pushing the motto “You Invent it, We Fund It” and is throwing down up to $5 million for ideas that fall into the four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, and Community.

Applicants get to choose whether to make their submission public or private, with 683 people brave enough to put theirs out in the open for all to see, including us. Many of them piqued my interest, but here’s the three that I am especially rooting for.

1. Muckrock – A Centralized Freedom of Information Publishing Tool.

Creator Michael Morisy describes this as a “legal wikileaks” using the Freedom of Information laws, where anyone can request, track, and publish government documents or data sets. The site is already up and seems to be doing well, seeing that Morisy has already found himself in a bit of trouble with the authorities in Massachusetts. I am a big fan of better transparency in government and like the idea of democratizing the process, especially by leveraging legal rights that are already in place. With all the Wikileaks drama unfolding, it’s important we prop up a politically acceptable alternative that can’t be shut down or deemed a terrorist organization. My biggest concern is the potential for abuse from those who want to bog down government, which Morisy should address. Unfortunately there isn’t an “FAQ” or even an “about” section on the site, which is a major setback for those who want to learn more and put this tool to use.

2. Metafact – An Open Source Machine Readable Fact Checking System.

This is an idea that has been stirring around in my own head for quite some time, and I’m thrilled that Mother Jones is doing work to materialize it. This one is a hefty technical spoonful to swallow, but in theory it is a valuable idea. The goal is to streamline the fact checking process by allowing journalists to mark up their stories to associate statements of fact with sources that back them up. Users can then have easier access to source material, and better yet, annotate the article themselves with their own supporting or contradictory sources. I am a strong believer that we need a better managed system for annotating and fact checking news material, so we can move beyond the politics of “he said, she said” and start debating policy solutions based on known truths.

It’s interesting to compare Metafact’s proposal with that of Truthsquad, which was submitted by NewsTrust. While both proposals offer great potential value, I see Metafact as a better option because it is seeking to create a standardized technology that can be adopted by platforms like Truthsquad to help them do their work more efficiently. Of course, the pursuit of technological standards can be a bitter fight, and I would hate to see this idea flop because it is too difficult to universally adopt. If they get funding, they will be developing it to work with Drupal, which is still widely used, but seems to be falling behind WordPress, so they would have to build something that works with both content management systems.

3. “Crowdsourced Budget Transparency Platform Trial for Seattle and Washington State

Clearly this is a working title, but the idea would be a great experiment. I am a bit biased because it would be launched here in Seattle, and to my surprise, it was the only public submission that came from Washington State besides ours. This one was submitted by Jeff Reifman, who runs a Facebook application service called NewsCloud that has been recently supported by the Knight Foundation. NewsCloud worked with Knight and the Boston Globe to build the Your Boston Facebook application which recently made a beta launch.

Reifman hopes to expand upon NewsCloud to create a platform that allows citizens to “use social media to assess city and state budgets, show affinity for programs they care about, highlight wasteful spending, identify fraud and create more transparency and citizen involvement in general.” I share the reasoning for his proposal as government budgets seem to grow more and more hideous, and many of us complain, though few of us truly understand them. It would be extremely useful to have a way to break it down and crowdsource the pieces that matter most so that we have a better idea of where our tax dollars are going. Part of his goal is to not only shed light on wastefulness, but to highlight usefulness.

As a supporter of the open web, I have serious concerns about moving this process to Facebook, as they already own so much of our lives.  Of course I understand that so many people use it, and it makes it is easy for everyone to participate, so I sympathize on that regard. Either way, I hope we get a chance to test it out and maybe resolve some of the bickering, or in the very least, have it become more informed.

(note: see Reifman’s comment below for clarification that they do not plan to build a Facebook app, but rather use Facebook Connect to access their own web app.)

4. Bonus Runner up! Emancipay

This idea was proposed by Doc Searls at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. This is a big can of worms to open, but basically they are trying to experiment with a new system to fund journalism and build a better relationship between news providers and consumers. If they can pull it off we will all be extremely grateful.

Here’s a complete list of all the previous winners, some that I’m keeping a close eye on are Spot.us (community funded stories), Media Bugs (a tool to report and track news inaccuracies), and Document Cloud (an online repository for reporters to share source documents).

It’s been very refreshing to see all the elbow grease that people have contributed to this contest. Best of luck to everyone, and be sure to vote and comment on our Online Media Guide submission.


About Jacob Caggiano
JACOB CAGGIANO is the Council’s Communication Strategist. It’s his job to pitch ideas and get audiences to latch on. He also dedicates long hours behind the scenes working with the website, the Washington News Lab, and other experiments designed to change the way we interact with news and information. Connect with Jacob in the Washington News Council Community.


  1. Jeff Reifman says:

    Jacob, thanks for mentioning us – btw – we use Facebook Connect e.g. http://theneedle.us … we’re not recommending the budget crowdsourcing system as a FB App … just for auth/profile & full name sharing & social media integration

    • Jeff, thanks for the clarification, I revised the article to include that info.

      I just discovered The Needle while researching your work with NewsCloud. It’s been added to our Online Media Guide database, which is a project of mine I’d like to share more about with you.

      The Needle has already changed quite a bit since I last saw it a few days ago, keep up the good work!

  2. Hey Jacob,

    Thanks so much for the high praise! We do have an about-page-in-progress, but we’ve been so swamped recently we haven’t quite polished it for public consumption. Will try to this weekend!

    In the meantime, check it out here at http://muckrock.com/about

    Thanks again for rooting for us!