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Knight Moves Beyond Experimentation with Open Gov News Challenge Winners

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, June 25 2013

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded more than $3.2 million to eight Open Government projects has part of the Knight News Challenge, including tools that would make courts more accessible and the procurement process more user friendly.

Six additional projects received funding through the Knight Prototype Fund, which awards up to $50,000 for projects to go from an idea to a demo stage.

The News Challenge on Open Gov asked innovators to offer solutions that would make public information more relevant and useful, would help journalists do their job or empower citizens to contribute to "community progress," according to a Knight press release. "Each of the winning projects offers a solution to a real-world need."

In a brief interview, Michael Maness, VP of Media Innovation at Knight, noted that this year's news challenge for the first time used the OpenIdeo platform to help bring to the surface the real problems facing people in and with government. The platform was open to anyone, and Knight supplemented that aspect of the news challenge with open government workshops that included developers, mayors, administrators and journalists who often then also took advantage of the platform, he said. Maness said that Knight planned to use OpenIdeo for subsequent news challenges.

Use of the platform helped to address "the real unmet needs that are out there," he said, and helped create a "continuous community" that also helped people working on parallel projects addressing disparate parts of the same problem to find each other, exchange information and work together,

With the eventual winners, Maness said the focus was on projects that had already deployed tools in a real-world context, often in one specific city such as Santa Cruz or New Orleans, and had demonstrated a trajectory of growth and use, and are now looking to expand on a state level or beyond.

"The origins of the challenge were about getting people to think about experimentation with Internet technology," he said. The News Challenge has evolved, he said, from innovators focused on acts of experimentation to a focus on prototypes built against a defined user base that are improved through feedback. "So we've moved from a space needing experimentation and trying to get people to embrace it to a more systemic innovative approach."

OpenPlans received $620,000 for its Plan in a Box project, aimed at encouraging members of the public to participate in local planning processes. The project envisions an open-source web-publishing tool that allows citizens to easily access information on plans for downtown centers or bridge replacements, for example. City employees could easily maintain the platform to provide the information to citizens and journalists, incorporating social media components and public feedback. The OpenPlans team working on the projects consists of Frank Hebbert, Ellen McDermott, Aaron Ogle, Andy Cochran and Mjumbe Poe.

The ITT Chicago - Kent School of Law received $600,000 to expand its Oyez project making the Supreme Court more accessible to state supreme and federal appellate courts. With the funding, beginning with the five largest states serving over one-third of the American public, Oyez plans to work with courts to catalogue documents and reformat them based on open standards practices. Oyez will also work with local partners to annotate materials by adding data and summaries aimed at a non-legal audience. Oyez will release this information under a Creative Commons License, and make it available through the web and a mobile application. For the Supreme Court, the Oyez project offers clear case summaries, opinions and free access to audio recordings and transcripts. Leading the project is Professor Jerry Goldman of the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

GitMachines received $500,000 to make a depot of accreditation-ready servers available to developers of civic innovation projects, as governments are often wary of adopting new technology and software because of security and compliance concerns. "Unlike traditional servers that can take hours or days to set-up, GitMachines can be up and running in minutes and are pre-configured to meet government guidelines," according to the press release. "This makes it easier for governments to adopt open source software, and will help government agencies adopt new technology more quickly in the future." The GitMachines team consists of Greg Elin, Rodney Cobb, Ikjae Park, Terence Rose, Blaine Whited and John Lancaster.

The Department of Better Technology received $460,000 to expand the tool to states and cities. Presidential Innovation Fellows Clay Johnson and Adam Becker had built the platform to allow governments to more easily post requests for proposals for a test on the federal level. They also plan to build a library of statements of work that agencies can adapt based on their needs. With the platform, Johnson and Becker hope to bring more competition into government bidding, leading to reduced costs and ensuring that the most qualified bidder gets the contract.

OpenCounter received $450,000 to help entrepreneurs navigate the local government permitting process by collecting and sorting data on existing regulations and provide running totals of the cost and time involved to start a venture. A team of Code for America fellows first developed and piloted the platform in Santa Cruz in 2012. Knight Foundation Funds will continue to support the project as it expands, including several 2013 Code for America Cities. Leading the expansion are Peter Koht, most recently Economic Development Coordinator for Santa Cruz, and civic technologist Joel Mahoney.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago received $350,000 for an Open Gov for the Rest of Us project aimed at engaging neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side with Open Government initiatives. The three-stage project will involve connecting more residents to the Internet, promoting the use of open government tools and helping the neighborhoods residents work together on requests for new data that addresses residents' needs. The project builds on successes with LISC's Smart Communities program and Data Friday series. Working on the project are Susana Vasquez, Dionne Baux, Demond Drummer and Elizabeth Rosas-Landa.

Civic Industries received $220,000 for a Civic Insight platform offering real-time information on vacant and underutilized properties to allow with the goal of more collaborative, data-driven community development. Using the platform, journalists and citizens would be able to search for a property on a map and access information about its ownership, inspection and permitting history, and get real-time notifications about changes. The platform grew out of the BlightStatus pilot program in New Orleans, a 2012 Code for America project. The platform is available for licensed use by other cities, and the Knight funding will help with the expansion of software and the test of new use cases in more communities. The team members on the project are Alex Pandel, Eddie Tejeda and Amir Reavis-Bey. received an unspecified amount of funding through the Knight Enterprise Fund to develop an online public policy simulator to help citizens and journalists visualize the impact that particular policies might have on people and their environment, with an emphasis on how a particular household might face a change in income through a tax cut or an increase in education spending The project builds on the team's Politify application, which simulated the impacts of Obama's and Romney's economic plans during the presidential campaign. The simulator uses models that were developed by a team of economists, in addition to drawing on IRS data on American households, census data, and other sources. Massachusetts has hired to develop an official pilot. The team, consisting of Nikita Bier, Jeremy Blalock, Erik Hazzard and Ray Kluender, is part of the accelerator TechStars Boston.

The Prototype Fund recipients include Data Docs, a project to incorporate features like live charts and location-based personalization into web video, the Open Source Election Results Reporting Service, a project to implement new data standards with an open API to provide for near real-time election data access and reporting, the Civic Data Standards Study, a project to investigate the successes and shortcomings of recent government and civic data standards efforts so that it is easier to compare and examine data sets from a variety of sources, Get Outside - A Toolkit for Sharing Parks Data and Maps, a project to develop an open source template that parks departments can use to create a "What's Nearby" map, OnBoard, a project to encourage young people to participate on city boards by making public services opportunities easier to find in a database and a website, and Dat, a project to promote the open data movement by developing better tools for cooperation.