During the events of Hurricane Sandy, social networks were flooded with images of the storm-battered East Coast by residents instantly sharing their unique experiences. One popular image that was picked up by a number of news outlets was of Marines dutifully guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, despite the pouring rain and deteriorating conditions.
There was just one problem — the picture was taken months before Sandy became a blip on anyone’s radar.
It’s a familiar problem for most editors — leveraging content produced by readers while attempting to verify its authenticity, a task complicated by staff cuts and the speed of the news cycle.
The human rights organization Witness aims to make that process easier with a new app called InformaCam, which addresses the issue of authentication for editors working with user-generated digital media. The app was one of eight Knight News Challenge: Mobile winners in media innovation and will receive $320,000 from the Knight Foundation to partner with The Guardian Project to build the app.
“InformaCam is our way to respond to this question of media authentication and model some solutions we hope people will adopt,” said Sam Gregory, program director for Witness.
According to Witness technology manager Bryan Nuñez, the app will allow metadata to be inflated on an image or video captured by a user, giving editors an easy way to verify the origin of photos in numerous ways, including GPS coordinates, cell towers, and even the signatures of neighboring devices.
By working with the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC), InformaCam will help set industry-wide standards, and Nuñez said he hopes the app will make it easier for journalists and stringers to conform to verification standards for digitally produced media.
Another Knight News Challenge: Mobile winner, Wikimedia Foundation, received the largest chunk of the $2.4 million in prize money doled out to the winners — $600,000, which will go to improve access to Wikimedia’s massive database of information, available for free — no data or network charges — on the low-end mobile phones found most often in poor or developing countries.
“Knight Foundation’s funding will support us making the mobile version of Wikipedia easier to use, as well as enabling us to expand Wikipedia Zero, our project with mobile operators that lets their customers access Wikipedia for free,” said Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.
The objective of Wikimedia’s mobile program is to reduce barriers to accessing free knowledge, which in most developing countries is the cost of data usage and network speed.
“Wikipedia has helped define the way that people collaboratively create content,” said John Bracken, director for journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation. “Making the site available to more people across the world will help foster and spread that culture.”
The Knight Foundation’s mobile grants are one of three rounds of funding given out every year to help grow community-oriented projects. Many of the winners this year are products that serve developing countries, such as Digital Democracy, which won for an initiative called Remote Access, aimed at providing “off-the-grid” communities with a digital toolkit to enable documentation of environmental and human rights threats.
According to Gregor MacLennan, who is leading the Remote Access initiative for Digital Democracy, long-term change requires overcoming technological hurdles in order to empower individuals to report information in their community.
“Remote Access will make it easier for our partners to engage in evidence-based advocacy: telling stories and visualizing data in order to influence decision-makers, policy, and development plans,” MacLennan said.
Another Knight winner looking to help empower citizens is Textizen, which expands the government’s ability to gather citizen input by placing survey questions in public places, such as parks and bus stops.
“You know, having in-person meetings is a really great way to gather in-depth data, but a lot of people don’t have the flexibility or the time to get to those meetings,” said Textizen co-founder and chief operating officer Alex Yule on Philadelphia NPR-affiliate WHYY. “And so we hope that this will be a tool that will connect those people.”
Textizen launched as a Code for America project with pilot programs in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Boston, and the Knight Foundation award will allow it to expand to 500 communities. Working with the Philadelphia Planning Commission, the project grew citizen input from a small handful of people to more than 700, all responding to questions found on bus shelters and subways.
One winner that wants to enable better information sharing is WeFarm. A project of the Cafedirect Producers Foundation, WeFarm is a platform that enables farmers in developing countries without Internet access to seek advice and feedback through even the most basic mobile phone, and help answer relevant questions in real time.
“WeFarm is our vision to bring the Internet to people without Internet,” said Kenny Ewan, program manager of Cafedirect Producers Foundation. “To bring the power of peer-to-peer information, idea and knowledge sharing to the people who could really benefit most from it.”
RootIO is another Knight winner that aims to provide relevant information to people without access to the Internet by literally putting radio stations in the hands of individuals. The pilot software, currently being tested in Uganda, allows people in areas where radio is the primary media source to turn their basic mobile phones into DIY micro radio stations, ensuring broadcasts are relevant to the citizens they serve.
“(RootIO) gives small community stations access to some of the information and lubrication that the Internet allows,” said Chris Csikszentmihalyi, founder of RootIO and a professor at Art Center College of Design. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the ultimate goal is to take the peer-to-peer functionality of the Internet and allow people to share at the level of radio media.
In contrast to the sophisticated approaches of other winners, Abayima provides a simple, low-tech solution to a problem journalists face often — communicating in a crisis. Abayima’s goal with its Knight Foundation award is to develop an open-source tool kit that will provide journalists and individuals an easy way to “hack” their smartphones and store data on their SIM card, allowing it to be transferred in a crisis situation or when an oppressive regime is monitoring or controlling information networks.
“Think of it as an analog to paper,” said Jon Gosier, founder of Appfrica, the company developing Abayima. “The pen becomes the device, and the paper becomes the SIM card.”
Relevant information doesn’t have to be limited to data or breaking news. Sometimes, oral histories can be just as enlightening and relevant to a community. That’s why TKOH built a prototype app for mobile devices called Thread that makes it easy to collect, archive, and share family stories in a casual way. Preserving that shared experience of storytelling and making it accessible to everyone is vital to TKOH’s Kacie Kinzer.
“We use stories to understand ourselves, to understand others, and really develop a sense of community,” Kinzer said. “It’s sitting down and telling these stories that we practice empathy and develop a sense of connection and understanding of the diversity of human experience.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at email@example.com.