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What Knight's Really Trying to Do with $9 Million to TED, NYU, and Code for America

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, February 26 2013

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Monday that it would invest $9 million into technology for greater civic engagement, a signal that the philanthropy is going to make a multi-year commitment to this space similar to the its initial five-year commitment of millions of dollars into "news innovation" through the Knight News Challenge.

The smallest grant from Knight announced Monday has caused the greatest stir. Knight is giving nearly $1 million to TED, the flashy, expensive conference that produces web videos of "ideas worth spreading."

Knight explained in a blog post that its funding will help TED relaunch its website as a "platform for civic engagement." Some money will also go to help TED evaluate the spread of its ideas.

The TED grant is the smallest bite of a modest piece of an enormous pie full of money the Knight Foundation plans to spend. Knight gives away about $120 million a year, and has so far invested about $25 million in technology for engagement. Along with the $1 million TED grant, Knight also announced on Monday $5 million for Code for America, which is now in its third year, to expand to 13 new communities. Knight is also distributing more than $3 million for a training program in technology-powered civic engagement at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service involving former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck, who is now a Wagner professor.

But the phrasing of this TED announcement is what turned heads.

"A million dollars to IKEA study the deliciousness of horse meat," Adam Serwer, at Mother Jones, countered as a proposal for Knight's next expenditure.

Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery headlined it "today in #facepalm."

"There's a pretty clear conflict of interest in giving TED funding to study itself," wrote Ian Bogost, the Ivan Allen College distinguished chair in media studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, in an email to me. "If studying the spread of TED 'ideas' is indeed worthwhile (debatable, but let's assume it is), then why not fund a third-party to do it."

But the grant includes far more than just giving TED money to think about itself.

Less than $50,000 of the money will be for TED to evaluate the spread of its ideas, Knight's national program director, Damian Thorman, told me today by phone. The "evaluation" provision is in there as a condition of the grant so TED will collect the data Knight's own evaluators will later use.

The real idea, he said, is to connect TED visitors with ways to take action.

"Not everybody, but there's some segment of the TED community that's saying, 'I hear a talk, I'm energized, I'm motivated, I want to do something but I don't know how to do that,'" Thorman said in a separate phone conversation.

There's more in a post on the foundation's blog:

TED, in response to its community, is already working on using technology to produce action from ideas. On Monday, Executive Producer of TED Media June Cohen gave TED attendees an early look at the next iteration of TED.com, that can include action items, proposed by the speaker, with a TED talk video. She said it would roll out in a few months.

But TED – and Knight’s – vision extends much farther. To map out the potential development path for TED.com, Knight sponsored a workshop on Sunday that brought together close to 20 people with expertise in online engagement from the business, tech, academic and non-profit sectors to brainstorm the guiding principles and key tactics for the development of TED.com as an action platform, and identify people willing to provide deeper expertise.

Thorman told me that the workshop — including representatives from big names like Google and Zappos.com — was useful for Knight because it gave them a chance to get connected to big names in business, technology and academia. Knight is also funding two "TED Fellows" devoted to civic engagement projects.

But Knight is picking a curious partner if it wants to have a transformative effect on American democracy. TED has shown an active interest in avoiding ideas that its curators deem to be too transformative.

Last year, TED came under fire for refusing to publish a talk delivered by Nick Hanauer, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had a case to make about income inequality. Hanauer was arguing for a progressive tax system, and was told his video was cut, in part, because it was too "political."

TechPresident editor Micah Sifry gave TED some flak for that. Alex Pareene at Salon went further still. TED is an elite event for an elite few, with a franchise system, "TEDx," in which outsiders can host their own distributed events using the brand. It's owned by a nonprofit, the Sapling Foundation, and professes a public-minded purpose: Present provocative and potentially world-changing ideas, then distribute them as far as possible so they might trigger positive change.

But by actively stifling the idea that income inequality was a serious problem, Anderson convinced Pareene that TED was more interested in cash flow for the brand — and a continuous influx of speakers and attendees with large hearts and wallets to match — than in triggering any deviation from the global status quo.

He wrote:

The people at Davos and in Aspen also think they’re saving the world, and the majority of them are also deeply involved in making it much worse for people who can’t afford to go to Davos and Aspen. It is no wonder at all that a talk on how their voluntary charity can better the lives of the unwashed is received with much more enthusiasm than one on how a better use for their money would be for them to have much less of it and everyone else a little more.

This backstory for TED, combined with a receding patience for ten-dollar words used to describe five-cent ideas in the overhyped realm of technology and design, can explain the eye-rolling from some quarters at TED's announcement.

This grant is a controversial aspect of a much larger commitment to technology for engagement — one that Thorman told me is likely to span a number of years.

"We go wherever the ideas are," Thorman told me, "and we work with a lot of for-profits because frankly, we're interested in learning the best technology. And the other critical piece of it, if we're going to be effective with civic technology, we've got to sustain this work, and the business community gives us some very good lessons in how to monetize these projects so they can go on."

Until technology projects for civic engagement become self-sustaining, Knight is going to throw money at them until some of them start to stick.

"In terms of using tech for reinventing democracy, reinventing problem-solving in the community, there's a market failure now," Thorman said.

"What we're saying is that we believe technology has the power to really accelerate and solve some of these challenges in democracy, and so what we're saying is that's where we start, with the belief, the potential. I say that the potential is undiscovered," he added.

That said, he suggested that there have been successes. He referred to Change By Us, a collaboration platform for community projects which Knight has continued to invest in and which has been well received in Philadelphia, one of several cities where it's been tried out, despite little public engagement in other cities. Now in its third year, Code for America has produced tools for tracking blighted properties in New Orleans and navigating Boston's public school system. It has also contributed to a culture change in Boston and Philadelphia, where both cities are taking more experimental, technology-assisted approaches to solving problems.

"We're still in the Wild West," Thorman said. "It's not a clearly defined space yet. It's emerging. It's emerging and through things like [our partnership with] NYU, we're trying to put some meat on the bones and really move it."

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