The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced the winners of its first round of this year’s Knight News Challenge contest at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference held in Cambridge, Mass.

Networks is a theme you’ll see running through the winners. That’s because that was the focus of this year’s first round. What sort of networks? “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways,” Knight’s John Bracken wrote in a release when the round was first announced. “We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

In this round, Knight awarded six grants totaling $1.37 million. Knight announced earlier in the year that it was changing the rules of the News Challenge and offering three rounds instead of one competition per year. Because the contest is now three times per year, each cycle lasts 8 to 10 weeks, and winners receive a portion of a total of $5 million in funding.

Within the theme of networks, winners run the gamut from a platform that helps communities deal with disaster recovery, to a dashboard that helps editors and publishers understand how their content is flowing through social media.

Here’s the full rundown on the award grantees. The winners will be blogging about their projects here on Idea Lab, so you’ll be able to learn more about them as they post updates.

Peepol.tv
Award: $360,000
Winners: Felipe Heusser and Jeff Warren
Twitter: @fheusser

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Jeff Warren

Summary: Live streaming breaking news has proved its potential — but hasn’t yet reached it. Peepol.tv aims to change that by creating a streamlined platform for posting, finding and watching live streams from around the world. The Peepol.tv team will build a searchable map, aggregate streams from other sources, create topic curation and add features like music and social media interaction. The idea grew from a mini-media innovation challenge at last year’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference.

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Recovers.org
Award: $340,000
Winners: Caitria O’Neill, Alvin Lang and Morgan O’Neill
Twitter: @recovers_org

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Recovers.org helps towns organize disaster recovery with mobile and web-based technology.

Summary: When a tornado touched down in her Massachusetts yard, Caitria O’Neill and her neighbors struggled to match the sudden wave of resources with massive community needs. While large aid organizations can deliver significant resources, in each disaster untrained local volunteers must help structure unofficial resources long-term. O’Neill and her sister Morgan O’Neill teamed up with engineer Alvin Liang to create Recovers.org, and to build and deliver web tools and local hubs for disaster recovery efforts. Their online organizing platform, located at [townname.recovers.org], can be launched before or immediately after an event, to turn interest into aid. Already their platform has helped turn the post-disaster spike in interest into money, supplies and volunteers in five communities. Post-disaster launches are done pro-bono, but the team licenses the software to areas interested in preparing and enabling the community’s response. The platform is already being used ahead of a disaster for preparation and community organizing in five communities nationwide.

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Signalnoi.se
Award: undisclosed
Winners: Mohamed Nanabhay and Haroon Meer
Twitter: mohamed, haroonmeer

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Mohamed Nanabhay

Summary: With newsrooms stretched for resources, editors have to increasingly make difficult decisions about which stories get covered and promoted. Signalnoi.se aims to help, by tracking social engagement with the news — scanning social network activity to provide real-time information on what’s resonating with readers. Editors are able to track their own — and competitors’ — stories. Signalnoi.se will sort not just headlines but news topics — to spot trends and spikes in interest. Mohamed Nanabhay, former head of online at Al Jazeera English, saw the potential for providing richer editorial analytics to newsrooms while leading his organizations’ award-winning coverage of the Arab Spring. He co-founded Signalnoi.se with Haroon Meer to extract the signal from the noise and close the loop between what audiences are interested in and what editors focus resources on.

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Watchup
Award: undisclosed
Winners: Adriano Farano and Jonathan Lundell
Twitter: watchup, farano

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Summary: Watchup is an iPad application that will help people find high-quality news videos. While identifying relevant content is often time-consuming, Watchup speeds the process with a curated playlist that aggregates news reports from a variety of networks into a simple interface. The service plans to sustain itself by selling video advertising on the site. Watchup will partner with major media organizations in the United States.

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Behavio
Project: Behavio
Award: $355,000
Winners: Nadav Aharony, Alan Gardner and Cody Sumter
Twitter: behav_io, nadavaha, alan_gardner, codys

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Summary: Behavio wants to open access to, and help make sense of, the data routinely collected by mobile phones. The open-source Android platform turns phones into smart sensors of people’s real-world behavior and surroundings, sensing how people use their phones, how they communicate with others, in addition to environmental factors like sound, light and motion. As a result, Behavio can understand trends and behavior changes in individuals as well as entire communities, and help them understand and make use of this information. With News Challenge funding, Behavio will create a software development kit for programmers to build apps with smarter sensors, build a set of tools for journalists and others who want to see trends in community data, and launch a mobile application that allows individuals to explore data about their lives.

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Tor Project
Award: $320,000
Winner: Andrew Lewman and Karen Reilly of Tor Project
Twitter: torproject, akareilly

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Summary: With world press freedom in decline for the past decade, journalists and their sources are often threatened by governments, criminal organizations and others who monitor their mobile and online communication to see who is talking to the press. To help protect reporters and their sources, The Tor Project will use its vast network of volunteers to create a tool kit for journalists. The kit will include The Tor Project’s secure web browser and anonymous upload utility, along with new tools and training videos.

The next round of the 2012 Knight News Challenge is focused on data. The data round opened up on May 31, and Knight is accepting applications until June 20. Check back on Idea Lab for more about the finalists who will move onto the next stage of the contest.

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