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The technology and journalism fields have long been dominated by men, especially in the upper management of big companies. But the J-Lab and McCormick Foundation want to shine the light on new ideas from women who work at mainstream media outlets but want to start something up on the side.

That’s why they started giving out grants in their New Media Women Entrepreneurs (NMWE) competition, with three winning ideas getting $10,000 in seed money:

> Echo, a locative media project that encourages people to call in their stories about places in Atlanta

> Latina Voices, a website for Latinas to discuss social issues

> Northwest Navy News, a site that will facilitate connections between military families in Washington state

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-Lab, told me that women are still struggling in the journalism industry, even though there are less barriers to entry in new media.

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Jan Schaffer

“The tools for entry [to new media] are not as much of a barrier,” she told me. “You need airwaves to broadcast, but you can build a website online, and do something on your own in the new media world. If you look at what BlogHer has accomplished in three years, it’s phenomenal. The entry points are less insurmountable.”

Two women who feel like they have no barriers to entry are Karyn Lu and Lila King, two CNN.com staffers in Atlanta, who got funding for the locative media project, Echo. Their plan is to put signs up around Atlanta encouraging people to share their stories about places via cell phone messages — and let people hear each other’s stories via cell phones, the the web or podcasts, turing the voicemails into custom audio walking tours.

“We’ll have the stories and locations where they occured, but we hope to have walking tours on the website that you can download and customize for your iPod and then take them out for a walk,” said Lu. “It would be great for us to partner with local Atlanta organizations that promote walking and biking like the Atlanta Bicycle Campaign. And then we could co-host events with them and get people outside that way.”

While the NMWE site lists all the facts and figures about how women struggle in the journalism industry (e.g. women make up two-thirds of journalism school students, but make up only one-third of the workforce), Lu and King told me they hadn’t felt any limits in their own careers in new media. The following is a video they posted to explain their project:


Introducing the Echo team from J-Lab on Vimeo.

I spoke to Lu, 28, and King, 31, on the phone recently about the motivation behind Echo, their evolving business plan and how audio is an overlooked medium. The following is an edited version of our discussion.

What’s your background and why did you decide to do this project?

Karyn Lu: I have an undergradute degree in English literature from Wellesley College and a master’s degree in digital media from Georgia Tech, which is a great combination for this project. I did do one other public art project for the city of Atlanta in the summer of 2005. It was also a place-based storytelling experiment, and was one of the projects that, when I was talking to Lila, sparked our interest in working together. It was funded by the city of Atlanta for a three-month run in Freedom Park, which is Atlanta’s largest public green space, and it was called StoryScape.

I was working on it with two other friends from graduate school, and we put up signs all over Freedom Park with phone numbers and location IDs, and we asked people in the park to stop and call in and leave us stories about the park and why it was important to them. It was a great experiment. We put those stories into a database so that when people called in they could hear other stories left by neighbors and fellow Atlantans. We had them up on a website, with a small Flash-based interactive map with signs that people could click on and listen to stories that people had left on that sign.

Lila King: One of the things I’m most proud of in my pre-CNN life is that a friend and I built a proto-podcasting streaming radio site before there was podcasting. We were dissatisfied with the radio where we lived, in Atlanta, so we thought ‘this isn’t rocket science, we can do this.’ So we bought some recorders and interviewed our friends and anyone who would talk with us, and started producing radio pieces for the web.

In doing that, it made me develop an appreciation for the power of storytelling simply through sound, with nothing but a person’s voice narrating their own personal story. There’s something about sound, even coming from a computer speaker or the radio, where you can just close your eyes and imagine the person who’s talking is right beside you. It’s not interpreted through a screen. Because I like storytelling through sound, that’s what brought me to Echo.

I’m really excited that this first pass of the project will be exclusively through sound, because it’s a medium that’s overlooked.

Lu: I have to agree with Lila on that. When I was working on StoryScape and listening to the stories on my phone, I wasn’t looking at a tiny screen, I was standing there looking and smelling the air and listening to the stories and their words were almost bringing back ghosts of events that had happened right there.

Tell me about the genesis of the idea for Echo, and what’s your motivation for doing it?

Lu: It came out of a lot of conversations that Lila and I had at work and outside of work. We are kindred spirits in a way, we’re both tinkerers, and we both taught ourselves how to design and code. It’s satisfying for us to make something ourselves, and have creative control of our projects. Every time we talked, we came away inspired, and thought we should work together on something.

You both taught yourselves how to code?

Lu: Yes, not that we’re great at it. It’s the basics, HTML, CSS and basic design. It’s something we’ve done for a number of years.

King: I don’t consider myself to be a supreme software developer, but there’s enormous ease and possibility on the web. You can learn a little bit and do so much with it. That’s so enticing. Over the years, we’ve often talked about what else we might do. It’s so easy to go from having an idea to making it happen on the web, that doesn’t necessarily map to other media.

Lu: We would always share other projects that other people were doing that were great, and say, ‘Isn’t this great? We could totally do this.’ It came out of different conversations like that. I had mentioned my StoryScape project and she mentioned her radio project and the two melded perfectly together in the way mine collected stories in the public and Lila produced audio pieces.

I see that you’re still brainstorming ideas for it. How formed is the idea at this point? How much do you think it will change?

King: I think the core of the idea is that we enable place-based storytelling about Atlanta, and encourage people to walk and get on their bikes and experience the city outside of cars. We have a kernel of an idea of how we imagine it could happen. I feel really strongly that this is going to evolve considerably over time. Part of our development process is setting up brainstorming dinners among our friends who have different backgrounds and expertise. And every time we talk to someone new, they have a new light to shed on how we might direct the project and what we might do specifically. We’re all ears.

Lu: We have a couple main guiding principles that we’re working with, like getting people outside and walking and cycling more. And we’re committed to working on an open source platform like Drupal. And we’re committed to using audio to start with instead of video or text. And we want to present personal and historical stories side by side. But there are so many great ideas out there, and we’re open to all that. When we have the system up and running, the users will probably surprise us by the way they use it.

Tell me more about the entrepreneurial part of the project. What’s the business model behind it?

[Both laugh]

King: We shouldn’t laugh about it, but to be perfectly blunt, we haven’t talked a lot about a business model behind the project. The motivation is more about motivating our community and adding something to the community. We’re truly only at the beginning. If there’s a business model, great, but…

Lu: I think it’s something that will have to evolve.

[In their proposal to NMWE, Lu and King mention partnerships with local institutions such as the Atlanta Bicyle Campaign, the Clean Air Campaign, and universities that could secure them more funding.]

What will you spend the $10,000 grant on? For your time or for development?

Lu: Most of our budget will go to hiring a designer and developer to help us get our site and our mobile storytelling infrastructure up and running. There will be some costs for printing and mounting the signs, and equipment and hardware and things like that.

Are there deadlines for when you have to have something up and running?

King: Yes, there are guidelines with the grant, we’re supposed to have a prototype up and running within 10 months. So we aim to have our beta site up and running by then. That’s the end deadline for this grant.

What’s the reaction of people at CNN to your project?

King: I don’t know if I want to speak on behalf of other people at CNN, but as far as my friends go and aquaintances, every reaction has been positive, and a lot of people said, ‘How can I help?’ And that’s why we decided to have a series of brainstorming dinners with them. My husband kindly agreed to cook dinner for us. [laughs] So we’ll sit around and talk about what we’re doing.

Lu: It’s one of those things where every time we tell someone else about it, they come up with another fantasic idea for us.

I’ve heard a lot about locative media, both from Medill’s projects and from projects on Idea Lab. Do you think that the community is demanding them, or is it the kind of thing that they like when they see it?

Lu: When I did the StoryScape project I was doing it for a class called Experimental Media. So that says something about how new this is. Communities have always had lots of stories tied to spots, and I don’t think people are demanding it. But based on the reaction we’ve had so far and in the interviews we’ve done in the pilot phase, people get very excited about the project when they realize how powerful the stories can be.

King: I think in Atlanta there is definitely a demand for improved infrastructure for walking and biking. This project is our answer to that demand. It’s one of many, I’m sure.

Lu: It’s our goal to pleasantly surprise the people who live in this city, so they stumble on something that will make their lives a little richer…Space is a physical location that exists without any meaning, but when something personally or culturally significant happens there, then it’s transformed into a place. I think place-based storytelling plays into that.

King: I’m really excited to build something based on mobile phones that nearly everyone has, and isn’t based on a screen or a smartphone that has a visual capability. I like the idea that using the phone opens it up to everyone, plus you can look around the place while you listen to it.

Do you feel like women aren’t represented well in new media? In blogging, there was a time where people said that female bloggers weren’t getting enough recognition, and then BlogHer came along. How do you see the industry right now?

King: I think BlogHer is an amazing organization, but I don’t really perceive in my limited world of new media that there is limited opportunity or exposure for women. I’m proud to receive this grant and take a women-led project out into the world. I don’t feel like as a woman I’m limited in any way.

Lu: I completely agree with that.

*****

What do you think? Can locative media projects like Echo help people get out and walk and bike more in urban places? What’s your view on women in new media? Do the have the same opportunities as men? Share your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.