Knight Foundation Funds Innovation, Improves Communities

August 7, 2015

2:00 pm

Over the years the Knight Foundation has granted millions of dollars with the goal of creating informed and engaged communities. In the past three, they launched a new grant fund that specifically focuses on prototyping to help media makers and techies to take an idea from concept to demo.

They set out to figure out “how we could get people in the media industry, civic spaces, and nonprofits to work in a mode that is more at the speed of the internet,” said Knight Foundation Director of Media Innovation Chris Barr. “It’s about quickly building out prototypes of new ideas (6 month sprints), focus in on one or two key assumptions, and put them in front of people. They will try to figure out if they are on the right path,what existing roadblocks are found, and what might be the path forward.”

Each grantee receives $35K and a six month window to test their concepts and iterate new versions before fully developing their idea. In essence, the fund fully embraces the minimal viable product (MVP) approach, especially if the end result helps inform and create community engagement.

“We have funded over 150 projects, ranging from lots of media and journalism tools, in the civic tech space, and things coming out of the different news challenges,” said Barr. “We are really hoping to light a fire under a lot of folks to create new ideas.”

The Knight Foundation Prototype Fund is currently accepting new applications until August 17.

Knight Foundation Recipient: Tabs on Tallahassee

To get a better understanding of the application process and training involved, I spoke with Pulitzer Prize Winner, Orlando Sentinel Multimedia Artist, and past colleague, Charles Minshew about their recent grant award. They recently received a $35K grant as part of the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund, in particular the Knight News Challenge focusing on elections. The project they are working on is called Tabs on Tallahasse.

“We’re using the funding to create a powerful API and database to store information about the actions of Florida’s legislature,” said Minshew. “Our goal is to create a website that is easy enough for any Floridian to find information about legislation and their elected officials. We also are using this opportunity to build tools that will help reporters across Florida better track legislation and information about the legislature for use in their daily stories.”

“Andrew Gibson and I, who are co-leads on our project Tabs on Tallahassee, pulled a group of editors, columnists, political reporters, web producers and social media producers in the newsroom together to come up with an idea that would answer the Knight News Challenge question ‘How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?’” said Minshew.

“We discussed ideas for a few weeks and realized that readers often asked how their representatives in Tallahassee vote on legislation. They could find easy solutions for legislators at the federal level, but how could we help open up information on the state level? Right now, much of the information on legislation and legislator voting records is hard to easily obtain from the state legislature website. In fact, much of it is in PDFs. So, we’ve decided to scrape the website for the information and create an API that newsrooms across the state can use for free. We’ll also build a public facing site – Tabs on Tallahassee – where people can find a combination of legislative information and news from the Orlando Sentinel.”

The team’s approach and goals mirrors Barr’s advice on how an organization should approach applying for one of the various grants. More than anything, applicants should have a testable assumption. It’s also a bonus if they are transparent and offer the end result to the public, but know this can’t always be the case. “We are interested in having people try things that are new. Whether people are adopting a particular product or technology, there is something we can learn from it, and the process of evaluating it,” said Barr.

Further, Barr said they received more than 850 applicants last year, so it’s important to cut out jargon and clearly state their needs.

Iteration, Training, and Knowledge

Knight Foundation grantees receive more than funding, but also are set on a track for success through support, training, and an engaged community. It’s clear that the same goals they focus on are implemented in how they support those who receive funding.

“Last month, the Knight Foundation held a workshop on human-centered design for Prototype Fund recipients in Miami. For two days, instructors from the LUMA Institute taught us techniques for rapidly prototyping products while keeping users at the center of the design,” said Minshew. “I left thinking about the different people we’re building Tabs on Tallahassee for – voters, reporters and any member of the public interested in the actions of Florida’s legislature – instead of thinking solely about the design and code behind the tool.”

The past grantees also provide valued support, feeding into the idea of an engaged and informed community.

“I also had the opportunity to meet with people who just finished up six months of work on their own prototypes and see the products that groups have been working on,” said Minshew. “The people there were from various backgrounds – libraries, local elections offices, newspapers, public radio, start-up companies and more.”

Post training, the Tabs team will now start reaching out to the public, other reporters and groups, and begin their research into what they need most out of the project. They plan on conducting surveys and user testing to gather this information. Their new site will also offer updates and ways to provide feedback.

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Elliot is an award winning journalist deeply ingrained in the startup world and is often digging into emerging technology and data. When not writing, he's likely either running or training for a triathlon. You can contact him by email at elliot(@) or follow him on Twitter @thejournalizer.

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