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In this blog series we have been exploring the various ways in which organizations are utilizing crowdsourcing and open competitions to encourage innovation and discover new solutions to the world's problems.
I recently spoke to Gary Kebbel, the Journalism Program Director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, about Knight's recent experiments in using online challenges to find pioneering new ideas for transforming news reporting and information distribution. The Knight News Challenge is a $25 million, 5 year contest open to people of all ages, all around the world.
Michael: Describe your "open application" process and how it has affected the quality and innovation of the ideas that have been submitted.
Gary: We believe the open process can help strengthen an application. Here’s how: an applicant submits via the open process so that others can read, comment on and rate that application. The comments could provide valuable ideas about how to improve the application. We allow the original applicant to resubmit the application, incorporating the ideas from the commentors, if he or she chooses. (We state in the terms of services that comments are only made to benefit the applicant and the commentor does not create intellectual property claims on the application by making a comment.) If that application is selected to complete a full proposal, the same process is followed. The comments can be used to strengthen the proposal and the proposal also may be resubmitted. In this way, we think we get the best of both worlds: the applicant’s idea, tested in the public area, and we hope, therefore improved.
Michael: Of all of the different tactics you could have employed, why did you choose public participation?
Gary: The Knight News Challenge is an open, world-wide contest because in the current state of media upheaval, it’s presumptuous to say that we understand what’s happening well enough to know how to remedy it. Not only does Knight Foundation not know the answers, we don’t know all the questions we should be asking. The benefit of an open, world-wide contest is that we can tap into the ideas and experiences of everyone and end up funding projects we never would have thought of. Also, in a world where hundreds of millions of people are communicating via social networks, it would be a mistake not to tap into those networks to find new ideas to improve digital communication.
Michael: What has been the biggest challenge to getting this program up and running?
Gary: It was not difficult to start the contest, but problems arose because the contest pushed Knight Foundation into new areas of intellectual property rights, particularly around open-source software and documentation via Creative Commons. The numbers and types of licenses are constantly changing and updating, and this needs to become a new area of expertise. Additionally, the contest led us to give grants to individuals around the world, so we needed to learn about Patriot Act requirements or limitations. As we fund projects that might end up being sold in the marketplace, we also needed to think about Program Related Investments, as well as grants. We now are thinking about creating a “pay-it-forward” fund for the support of community news projects or open-source software development that could benefit if a grantee sells his or her project. This fund would receive small proceeds from such a sale.
Michael: How are you ensuring you’re getting new ideas and participation from diverse groups with fresh thinking?
Gary: Knight Foundation, with its roots in journalism, is able to publicize the Knight News Challenge and other contests to the journalism community. Our task has been how to expand beyond that. This year we targeted technology and developer communities by partnering with Sunlight Labs and the Mozilla Foundation to reach into their membership and their networks with information about the Knight News Challenge. We will expand partnerships with the developer community next year. We also work through international organizations like the International Center for Journalists, the World Association of Newspapers and the Inter-American Press Association to publicize the contest to many countries in about 10 languages.
Michael: Why not just have experts help develop ideas and directly fund them?
Gary: If we funded experts, it implies that we know the marketplace and the gaps in that marketplace well enough that we can choose a problem to solve and know the right person or group to work on that problem. But again, Knight Foundation is interested in addressing more than just what it might be able to discern as a problem to be addressed. Such a process limits us to our knowledge and our experiences, and does not take advantage of the ideas of people we’ve not yet met. Solving for problems that we can see can limit us to our experiences. Therefore we’ve widened our scope of work to include ideas from people around the world.
Michael: What have you done to make your competition stand out above the rest?
Gary: We have tried to make applying for the Knight News Challenge a process that takes less than 10 minutes and is easy enough for a child to do. (We’ve had an 8-year-old apply.) The contest is divided into several phases, so that we don’t ask for any information until we need it, and we therefore don’t ask it unless people have advanced to the next stage. In other words, you don’t have to submit a detailed budget when you’re first applying. If we like your idea, we then ask you to do the additional work to submit a detailed proposal. If that proposal advances, then we finally ask you to submit a budget. So I think the word is out that the contest is really easy and user-friendly. The application only asks, what is your idea; what’s the need for that project; and why are you the best person or group to do it.
Michael: How do you measure and evaluate the impact of the process and the projects funded?
Gary: Knight Foundation has a director of evaluation and strategic assessment whose entire job is focused on this question. So, I’ll just give one small example. One significant measure of impact is the use and distribution of these new projects throughout the news and information ecosystem, as well as throughout the world. One project, for example, is by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee in cooperation with Media Standards Trust to create metadata that follows a story or photo and tells about its sourcing, quality and authenticity. This is being used by the Associated Press, by AOL and by a group of newspapers, among others. Another project, called Document Cloud, which is a way for news organizations to publicize and share documents used in their news or investigative reports has about 100 partners even before it has fully launched. The news and information industry is using Knight News Challenge-funded tools to both change and improve the way it works.
Michael: What is one thing you would do differently?
Gary: I would like to bring the top finalists to an interview panel, where reviewers could question them in person and learn more about them, their passion and their abilities. I would also like to create a “people’s choice award” where the public gets to select a project that Knight Foundation would fund.
Michael: How do you determine the amount of the prize that will lead to significant involvement and good ideas?
Gary: We first leave it to the applicant to determine what it would cost to make their idea happen. Eventually, when we get to the stage of vetting potential winners, we review the budget with them and make suggestions for cuts or additions. I think a more difficult question is how should any foundation determine at the end of the grant period if the grantee guessed right in what it would cost and how long it would take to create the project. For instance, what if a two-year project could not sustain itself, but if it were a four-year project it might be able to? How do we know which of those projects we should make a second bet on and give more funding?
Michael: What resources are you providing participants beyond the grant?
Gary: One of the biggest things we do for the grantees is bring them all together each year, with all the previous winners and with other Knight Foundation digital information grantees and with people in other organizations who are doing similar work. We do this at a conference at MIT. We want the grantees to create networks of people doing similar work who can help them think through problems or collaborate on new projects. We hope that when we bring the winners together we will end up with a new project that none of them or we individually would have thought of. Additionally, we provide some legal background work for grantees through the Berkman Media Law Center. For those who don’t have office staffs, we help them work with other organizations that can help them with create and maintain a budget, pay invoices or hire contractors.
Gary Kebbel is the journalism program director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, where he directs the foundation’s digital media experiments. He heads Knight Foundation’s $25 million Knight News Challenge, which funds innovative media experiments. On July 1, he will become the dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.