Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Tips for submitting an awesome News Challenge application

Feb. 20, 2013, 9:21 a.m., Posted by Chris Sopher

Last year I read 2,546 applications for the Knight News Challenges on networksdata and mobile. Which means I read every application we received.

At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, I read them on a plane and on a train, in my living room and at the office, while drinking coffee and while eating dinner and frequently while sitting outside somewhere under the warm Miami sun. I have seen the off-topic and the fantastic; the poorly written, the overwrought, the concise; the serious and the satirical (my personal favorite: an application to ask Richard Schiff for answers on the future of journalism).

And since the News Challenge on Open Gov is now open for submissions, I thought I’d share a bit about how we look at applications and what makes the awesome ones so awesome.

OUR PROCESS

Between now and  March 18, Knight staff, with the help of  a group of outside advisors we call “readers,” will look through entries, ask questions and make suggestions. The goal is to help you think through things you may not have included in your original post. You can edit your entry, and respond to all comments, the entire time the contest is open. On March 18 we begin the “feedback” phase. Every application will be read by at least three people: two readers and me. We each keep a list of the strongest applications that fit the theme of the contest and propose an innovative, achievable project. At the end of the feedback phase, on March 29, we get together with our readers and select the semifinalists (which we’ll share publicly).

BE CLEAR

The most common problem with submissions is a lack of clarity. A large percentage of entries give me almost no understanding of what the applicant actually wants to do. In many cases there’s a clear description of a problem, but very little information about the proposed solution. This leaves me asking, “but what is the idea?”

This is why we ask you to answer the first question (“what is your idea?”) in one sentence. Because we receive so many applications, we’re not likely to spend more than a minute with your entry on the first read. To decide whether to come back for a closer look, I need to understand what I’m coming back to.

A good metric for your one sentence is whether a stranger on the street could read it and then explain your idea accurately to someone else. For example, writing “A platform that transforms the way people get the news” might describe your project to you, but to me it could be anything: a mobile app; a website; a machine that makes breakfast while I read the newspaper.

Make sure to tell us what a human could do or use from your project.

Great examples:

Safecast, News Challenge: Data winner in 2012: “We are planning to build a global sensor network monitoring radiation and air quality, publishing all data freely and openly.”

Mapbox, News Challenge: Data winner in 2012: “Grow the OpenStreetMap community and extend the network with open source tools for editing, managing tasks, and serving fast data.”

This isn’t to say that we expect you to have every detail of your project figured out at this stage. We don’t. We encourage the teams we work with to test assumptions and pivot whenever it’s appropriate. What we’re looking for in the application is not a finalized plan and timetable, but your team’s ability to think through one.

IDENTIFY A PROBLEM REAL HUMANS ARE HAVING

When you tell us about the problem you’re seeking to address, make it concrete and relatable. Tell us about some people who are experiencing it. Big, complex societal issues are important but also hard to attack with a single project.

We get a lot of applications that say something like, “People aren’t participating in local government,” which is nonspecific and so immense a challenge that I’m immediately skeptical. What might be true (and solvable) is something like, “People who want to make suggestions to officials about local policy issues don’t have an effective, reliable way to do so.” Then, give us data—anecdotes from your experience on the ground, research, surveys, etc—that support that assertion. “A recent survey in Miami found that 65% of residents were aimlessly wandering the streets looking for a way to give elected officials policy input.”

Great example:

Textizen, News Challenge: Mobile winner in 2012: “Currently, in-person community meetings are expensive and time consuming to run, and logistically difficult for many to attend. By advertising in high-traffic public places and collecting SMS feedback with Textizen, government meets citizens where they are, so anyone with a minute and an opinion can participate...Over 110 city officials and community orgs have already written to say they want to use Textizen to reach a more representative citizenry.”

TELL US ABOUT YOUR USERS, AND WHY THIS WILL WORK FOR THEM

If I’ve read your one sentence summary and your description of the problem and I’m intrigued, you’re doing well. The next thing I’ll want to know is the set of people or set of activities for which you’re designing your project. “The general public” is always a bad answer. It’s simply way too many people to serve with a single thing.

It’s much more helpful to describe either 1) a persona or group of personas who you view as your target user, or 2) an activity system that cuts across types of people (the linked article uses carpooling as an example).

It’s also important to tell us why you believe your project will serve the unmet needs of that group of people or activity system. If you identify a group of people who are mostly reading news in short snippets on their phones, and then propose to publish a print magazine, I’m going to be confused unless you tell me why: “We’ve found that those readers have unique crevices in their day that can only be served by print...”

Great example:

RootIO, News Challenge: Mobile winner in 2012: “More than 80% of African households are reported to have access to a working radio, and community radio is experiencing dramatic growth (about 1300% during the early 2000s) yet very few community stations benefit from network effects; broadcast has important community dynamics not available to phones alone, and radio bypasses many cost and literacy issues of other media; community radio works well with unique language groups — bridging radio with mobile and cloud telephony can substantially augment this critical community medium, both in terms of program interaction and information quality.”

TELL US WHY YOU CAN BUILD IT

Over six years of funding ideas from the News Challenge, we’ve found that a consistent indicator of success is whether a team has the necessary skills onboard when it starts the project. With rare exception, we won’t fund a proposal to build a mobile app, for example, unless there’s someone on your team who’s done that before or you have a close, established partner who’s done that before. Similarly, we won’t fund a proposal to build a tool for journalists or reinvent the government procurement process if no one on your team understands those spaces.

The focus of the News Challenge is on innovative projects that can push the field forward. So we’re looking for teams that can execute on their ideas. If you’re engaging partners to help with particular parts of the project, tell us. If you need to hire outside contractors for some of the project (for example, to help develop your Android app), tell us how you’ll do that. If there are question marks you’re still working on, tell us how you’re thinking through them.

Share the past projects (with links!) your team members have worked on. Post wireframes and system sketches and back-of-the-napkin drawings you did in the airport back when you first came up with your idea. What we’re looking for is confidence that you can think through the steps of a complicated project, from smudgy napkin to transforming a field.

Questions, ideas, thoughts? Hit me up @cksopher or cksopher@knightfoundation.org. We’re looking forward to reading your applications!

By Chris Sopher, journalism program associate at Knight Foundation

Related: “News Challenge on Open Gov: Submit now not later” by John Bracken  "News Challenge launches with an OpenIDEO twist" by Chris Barr

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