Knight Blog

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

Sensor network helps get accurate data about radiation levels in Japan

July 9, 2012, 10:14 a.m., Posted by Sean Bonner


Knight Foundation supports Safecast, a global network of sensor devices that collects crowd-based submissions of data about the environment. Safecast’s Director of Global Operations, Sean Bonner, who was recently profiled for his efforts documenting radiation data in Japan, writes about the project's progress and what's next. Above: Safecast volunteer Richard Zajac.

When Safecast started, we set out to solve one single problem. People in Japan could not get accurate data about radiation contamination and we felt that our efforts could be well spent collecting and publishing that data for people. It was a lofty goal perhaps, but it seems straightforward enough that it was worth a shot.

The fast action and generous support from Knight Foundation gave us the ability and motivation to try and realize that goal.

Our task was not small to say the least. As there was very little interest in measuring radiation prior to March 11, 2011, there was almost no stock of available monitoring devices for us to use. We were able to get our hands on a limited number of devices and to solve the coverage problem we engineered a way to make them mobile thanks to a dedicated team at the Tokyo Hackerspace. We created the “bGeigie” which enabled us to cover a lot of ground in Japan and add sometimes upwards of 20,000 data points in a single day. To just continue along with this would have eventually solved our initial challenge, however we saw the opportunity to take things a bit further.

We realized that the data we were creating because it didn’t exist in Japan, also didn’t exist elsewhere around the world and there was a clear need to help document a global radiation baseline – so we set out to do that as well. It became clear that if we had the accurate and granular data we were creating from prior to March 11, we’d know a lot more about what had actually happened. Unfortunately all we know is the results so we’re left guessing what things were like before. Our hope is the global dataset we’re now building will be valuable for future researchers. Within the first 12 months of monitoring we collected and published over three million new data points.

Encouraging research on improving local news

July 5, 2012, 9:48 a.m., Posted by Eric Newton

Along with Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and others, I’ve argued that much of journalism and mass communication research is not as useful as it should be. So it seems only fair to note that some research is useful and much appreciated. Recently at the Harvard Faculty Club, at a meeting chaired by the Shorenstein Center’s Alex Jones, nearly a dozen deans and foundation leaders heard research of the interesting kind.

The deans were from schools participating in the Carnegie Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. A year ago, they had decided to explore the recommendations of the FCC report led by Steven WaldmanInformation Needs of Communities, modeled after the Knight Commission’s report of the same name, declared a crisis in “local accountability journalism” in the United States. The June meeting at Harvard was an update on research into the report’s suggested remedies.

Several professors agreed with Waldman’s point that foundations can ease the digital transition. They singled out community foundations as helpful new funders of local news and information. Knight Foundation has encouraged this trend through the Knight Community Information Challenge, which is matching some $24 million to help create more informed and engaged communities. Our insights are here. The projects have contributed to Oklahoma taking on chronic prison system problems, Dubuque increasing water conservation, Northeast Ohio improving public health services for the mentally ill and much more. The projects work best when they are collaborative.

Also encouraging was Arizona State professor Len Downie’s paper. Among its recommendations was an endorsement of the Waldman recommendation that the IRS update its rules for approving nonprofit media. Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, knows what nonprofit media can do from his experience with the News21 project. Since Knight currently are funding a project to look at the nonprofit media rules, which haven’t been updated since the 1970s, we were happy to hear of Downie’s support.

New report looks at ties between mobile games and civic engagement

July 3, 2012, 9:47 a.m., Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller



Innovative mobile games, especially those that take place at the local level and focus on issues like art or civics, are often relatively low profile. Thus, it’s hard to determine their impact on communities and the larger engagement field.

A new report seeks to address that problem by profiling nearly 40 games and revealing key opportunities and constraints that will be useful to both practitioners and academics. It outlines the emerging field of mobile and pervasive games across three dimensions: civic learning, performance/art and social change.

The Civic Tripod for Mobile and Games: Activism, Art and Learning,” argues that these three domains are currently fragmented, which makes the learnings hard to share. Its authors believe that this fragmentation of isolated examples undermines the ability to think big, design holistically and evaluate more broadly.

The authors hope that by curating a set of important mobile projects and connecting them across issue areas, they’ll be able to weave them together across their distinct fields of practice.  The different domains of civic learning, performance/art and social change “can and should speak jointly,” the report said.