“Why are you going to Africa?”

I’ve heard this question a lot in the past few days. So, let me try to explain.

sunset Masai Mara

Sunset over the savannah in Masai Mara, a famous park reserve in Kenya. Gorgeous.

Angela Sevin via Compfight

The short answer: I’m going to Nairobi, Kenya, to conduct research (“fieldwork”) on three case studies at the intersection of journalism and open source / hacking / computer programming.

The longer answer: This work figures into the ongoing research that I’m doing with Nikki Usher on the rise of programmers and programming in the world of news and information — a book project we call “Hacking the News.” (Hey, we even have a working logo, designed by one of my research assistants, Jeff Hargarten.)

These three cases that I plan to study are positioned at this nexus of news and code in different ways:

(1) Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness”) is a non-profit tech organization that famously has developed a free and open-source platform for crowdsourcing crisis information across media channels and visualized in different ways — perhaps most notably via “crowdmaps” like these. (Incidentally, Ushahidi was an early Knight News Challenge grantee, so I interviewed founder Ory Okolloh during the course of my dissertation work.) The Ushahidi platform has gained all kinds of attention (Clay Shirky talks about it prominently), but for my purposes it’s interesting because it has elements of participatory news, user-generated content, and a civic information mission to go with a good dose of open-source and technological activism — so, a useful study of media + code. Ushahidi’s team is spread throughout the globe, but its heart and soul is in Kenya, including its headquarters at …

(2) the iHub, which describes itself as “Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community [and] an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.” That about sums it up, and should explain why I’m interested in observing and participating in this space — particularly in meeting with hackers (et al.) who are developing projects with a news/media focus. Why are they interested in news/media/journalism?

(3) Last, but certainly not least, I’m excited to learn more about the newly launched Code4Kenya initiative, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the African Media Initiative. This program embeds developer “fellows” in media organizations, including newsrooms. What’s interesting about this case is how it blends an emphasis on open data and coding technologies with the context of media and journalism. As one fellow (see them all) puts it on his LinkedIn profile: “I am embedded inside a host organisation and knighted with the ground shifting task of changing hack journalism. Incorporating developing applications that will increase public data awareness and disseminating to the citizens as well as improving data journalism skills and approach.” These fellows are being coordinated through a startup incubator called 88mph, which should be an interesting site for study all its own!

From the website for 88mph, a startup accelerator (a la Y Combinator) that "makes investments in early stage mobile-web companies targeting the African market; focusing purely on ideas with potential to scale across Africa."

 

Oh, and in addition to all this, there’s a new Nairobi chapter of Hacks/Hackers. Hacks/Hackers — i.e., “hacks” for journalists, “hackers” for technologists” — is a grassroots global network that obviously, in its very name, captures the intersection of journalism and hacking, and so it has been an important case that I’ve been studying during the past year.

They say that Nairobi is becoming the Silicon Valley of east Africa, and I’m excited to see why. So, 11 days, 3 cases to study, and 1 amazing trip ahead!

(I should add: This research — like previous fieldwork in London at Mozilla Festival and in newsrooms and at hackathons in New York, Chicago and elsewhere — is being funded by a generous grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota. Thank you, UMN!)

Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new Knight News Challenge 2.0

[In case you missed it: cross-posted at Nieman Journalism Lab]

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing adissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more informationwill be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revisedKnight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/HackersNICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.