Reportback – Hacks/Hackers Seattle & Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Challenge

Mozilla is best known for Firefox, the open source darling loved by millions which showed us that a browser is more than just a way to load websites, it’s a way to customize your experience of the web itself. Under new direction from Mark Surman, Mozilla is growing new legs to go beyond Firefox. They recently launched #Drumbeat as an effort to do more than just build portals, they are now seeking to change the flesh and bones of the internet itself to make it more open, accessible, and free (see project examples from

It was recently announced that Mozilla received a hefty sum of money from the Knight Foundation to bring journalism along for the ride.

The three year Knight-Mozilla News Challenge dubbed #MoJo (for Mozilla + Journalism) is now in full throttle with five news partners on board (BBC, Al-Jazeera, Boston Globe, Zeit Online, and The Guardian) who will host five fellows with full salary to innovate from inside the newsroom. 10 more fellows will come along the way in the next coming years, but until then, the heat is on and challenge submissions are underway.

Mozilla asked me to link up with the Seattle chapter of Hacks/Hackers, an organization that shares a similar MoJo hybrid theory of bringing together journalists (hacks) + technologists (hackers) with the goal of changing news for the better. One week later we threw together a sold out Brainstorm 2011 that brought in journalists and technologists throughout the city who came to mash up ideas and enter the challenge.

Besides some awesome sketches and discussions on the limitations of online video (needs to be a living entity so others can collaboratively edit and submit their own footage of the same event from different angles) and the chaos of commenting (if only there were user managed filters and curation techniques that work across different websites), we packed in two presentations from locally based news innovators to bring forth some inspiration.

Matt Perry from the popular environmental news outlet Grist gave us insight into their internal hackathon that resulted in a visual deepwater horizon spill timeline, a historical tornado fatality chart, and other nifties. We all got a nice lesson on how to become a data journalist and were introduced to fabulous tools like Many Eyes and Open Heat Map that’ll grow you a cool mustache in just a couple of hours (not exclusive to just men).

Zach Norton from Vectorform showed us the HTML5 based (and thus ipod/pad friendly) timeline reader they made for discovering news from the Associated Press.

Two submissions that transpired from the event are:

1. Reflect

I made sure to personally invite Travis Kriplean, a University of Washington PhD computer science whiz and Lance Bennett protege who worked on the delightfully suave Living Voters Guide, which debuted last election season. As it turns out, he is nurturing another great project, one that’s even simpler yet essential. Reflect is a no-brainer extension to online commenting systems that encourages better listening. It does this by allowing readers to restate their interpretation of a comment through annotated bullet points that appear alongside the original statement. The author who posted the comment can then agree or disagree with how it’s being interpreted and further clarify their original intent. There are other features and philosophies behind the software which you can learn about on it’s homepage, as well as through a presentation Travis gave for the CSCW 2011 conference. You can also read his accompanying academic paper, and of course check out his challenge submission entry.

2. Opinionator

Presented by Marian Liu, entertainment reporter for The Seattle Times and MBA student at the University of Washington. Also in her group were Roy Leban, founder and CTO of Puzzazz, and freelance science reporter Sally James. Here’s their submission entry

Another simple, yet useful extension to existing commenting platforms, Opinionator would use Facebook Connect to pull in profile information on commenters and allow a reader to display comments from people who match certain demographic filter categories such as age, political affiliation, gender, etc. You would navigate through a tag cloud (they’re suggesting one in 3-D that looks kind of like this) which would be an interesting way to gather a consensus on reader engagement demographics.

Not only would this be an easy way to sift through the cruft and get to opinions that matter to you, but I would have fun comparing the attitudes of Celine Dion fans from those who prefer Cradle of Filth.

Quick Takeaway

If you want to enter the challenge, there’s still time to submit your ideas for the killer HTML5 news app, go to

Also, there’s a lot of interesting discussion on the listserv, you can join here, or follow previous discussions on the Google Groups thread.

We also started a great list of resources on news innovation software on this ether pad, which will be transferred soon to the Drumbeat wiki.

Bonus factoid – we learned at the event that Seattle based data hosting company Socrata is hosting all the open data provided by the Feds at


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.