A new class of Knight News Challenge winners focuses on mobile in the developing world

The common thread through several of the eight winners: turning underpowered phones into information engines.

By Joshua Benton

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest class of Knight News Challenge winners. The theme of this round was mobile, and thus it’s fitting that most of the projects are focused where mobile’s impact has been the most transformative: the developing world. (Easy access to your email in bed and the ability to play Tiny Wings on the go are nice, sure, but they don’t quite compare to the scale of the mobile revolution in poor, rural areas for which cell networks are the first networks.)

Past News Challenge winners have been interested ihttp://www.niemanlab.org/2013/01/a-new-class-of-knight-news-challenge-winners-focuses-on-mobile-in-the-developing-world/n these issues before, of course; FrontlineSMSNextDrop, andUshahidi come to mind. But even though most of today’s winning projects are still based in the United States, their targets are in places like Uganda, Peru, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Since smartphones don’t (yet) have the same market share in Angola and Bolivia as in Austin and Boston, many of the projects focus on bringing some of the information-navigation powers we associate with iPhones and the like to feature phones, like the old Nokias that blanket much of the world. Money for Wikipedia will support its Wikipedia Zero project, which through deals with mobile companies lets people have free access to the free encyclopedia. Abayima wants to use SIM cards as a storage mechanism. WeFarm wants to use SMS to allow farmers to seek answers to their questions about crops. RootIO wants to turn cheap phones into ad hoc radio stations.

This crop of winners (who will receive a combined $2.4 million) also continues the News Challenge’s gradual drift away from what might be defined as innovation within traditional journalism and toward finding other ways to meetthe information needs of communities. It’s unlikely that any of these projects, for instance, will be of great use to, say, a night cops reporter in Des Moines.

It’s not that such uses are unimaginable; a little creative thinking could twist some of these projects to be of interest to the enterprising journalist interested in building engagement with local citizens. But they’re not the target in the same way that they might have been in the earlier rounds of the News Challenge. One wonders whether “News” Challenge will always remain the appropriate name. (Knight already has a Community Information Challenge, aimed at connecting local foundations with local news and information efforts.)

Read more at Niemanlab.com


About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.