Last Thursday, I returned to Moscow from the Future of News and Civic Media Conference in Cambridge, Mass. Organized by the MIT Center of Future Civic Media and the Knight Foundation, this is the annual meeting where all the Knight News Challenge Winners discuss the future of civic media and talk about the digital tools to build local communities. This year, nine new exciting projects joined this community of innovators, raising the total of Knight News Challenge projects to 45.

The conference was also a good chance for the past Knight News Challenge winners to talk about their progress on their projects. There was a row of special demo stands in the Stata Center lobby as the winners used carton boards, posters, pictures, postcards and various illustrations and graphs to explain their projects.

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As a natural matter of course, there was creativity in the air, and the conference provided a platform for new, on-the-fly projects to emerge.

On June 17, the opening day of the conference, Knight’s Gary Kebbel announced a competition: The Knight Foundation would award $6,000 in total prize money to the conference attendees who could come up the brightest new ideas over the course of the two days.

The conditions were as follows:

> All projects had to be collaborative, team-based work and teams could not include people who had collaborated before. It would be great if the new team members met each other at the conference for the first time but this was not necessary.

> Proposals should be either brand new ideas or projects that would strengthen or coordinate work between attendees’ existing projects.

> On Friday morning, project proposals would each give short talks pitching their projects. Prizes of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 would be given to the top three projects as voted by participants.

Surprise Competition

The collaboration competition was a surprise for the conference attendees as it had not been mentioned in the program or on the conference website. And the reactions were lively and funny. Throughout dinner on Thursday and afterwards, and even into the early morning of Friday, you could find duos, trios and larger groups of people gathered around the Stata Center, in the hotel lobby and at the bar counter debating out loud and talking in whispers, giving birth to new projects.

In the morning, the teams presented their projects in the Stata Center grand hall. And it was entertaining indeed. When the presentation was over, the conference attendees lined up in the lobby to vote on the project ideas using Selectricity, a Center for Future Civic Media voting technology using “preferential decision-making” to help small groups and organizations run elections.

Here is how the winners describe their projects:

TweetBill

The Project: TweetBill sends you notification via Twitter when a bill reaches the stage in the U.S. Congress where it’s useful for you to call your Congressperson! Sign up, tell us where you live, choose your issues, and you will get a tweet when your representative is slated to vote on a bill, along with the rep’s phone number. See the prototype we made last night

Team Members: Nick Allen, Pete Karl, Ryan Mark, Persephone Miel, Aron Pilhofer, Ryan Sholin, Lisa Williams.

Hacks and Hackers

The problem: Scattered through the worlds of journalism and technology live a growing number of professionals interested in developing technology applications that serve the mission of journalism. Technologists are doing more and more things that are journalistic; journalists are doing things that are more and more technological. These people don’t have a platform or network through which they can share information, learn from one another or solve each other’s problems. These people are scattered in organizations such as IRE, ONA, SND — and are in both academia and industry.

Proposal: Establish “Hacks and Hackers,” a network of people interested in web/digital application development and technology innovation supporting the mission and goals of journalism. This is NOT a new journalism organization (SPJ, ONA, IRE, ASNE, etc.). In fact we would call it a “DIS-organization.” The goals of this network are: (a) Create a community of people in different disciplines who are interested in these topics; (b) share useful information (e.g., a tutorial on how to install Drupal); © networking; (d) jobs; (e) professional development; (f) etc.

How this network will work: (a) We will establish an online network that will aggregate and link out to relevant information provided by members; (b) membership costs $0.00; © we will establish a system through which contributions to the network are rewarded — for instance, via some kind of points system that rewards members for, for instance, solving one another’s technical problem or creating a great tutorial; (d) we will seek to build bridges between journalism and academia, generating interest among computer scientists in the problems of journalism and media and among journalists in the opportunities presented by technology.

Team Members: Aron Pilhofer, Rich Gordon.

WordPress Distributed Translation Plug-In

Description: A WordPress plug-in which extracts and divides text and meta-text from blog posts into segments that are delivered to The Extraordinaries smartphone application so that bilingual users can volunteer 5 minutes while waiting in line at the supermarket to help translate news articles and blog posts. The plug-in would also reassemble the translated segments into a single blog post and, optionally, give credit to all involved translators.

Background: Global Voices is the largest volunteer translation community in the world, both in terms of volunteers and the number of working languages. On a daily basis the community translates independent media between Indonesian, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Malagasy, Dutch, Portuguese, Swahili, Serbian, Macedonian, Arabic, Farsi, Bangla, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Hebrew, Russian, Albanian, and more. Developing a mobile interface to social translation would allow Global Voices and other organizations to recruit volunteer translators who don’t have regular access to a desktop Internet connection.

The Extraordinaries delivers micro-volunteer opportunities to mobile phones and web browsers that can be done on-demand and on-the-spot. Currently available as an iPhone application through Apple’s iTunes store, The Extraordinaries enables organizations to connect with their supporters through these micro-volunteer opportunities, strengthening relationships while leveraging their “crowds” to complete real work such as image tagging, translation and research.

Team Members: David Sasaki, Jacob Colker

Congrats to the winners!