Chris Barr on the importance of funding early stage media prototypes

technology / Article

Above: Chris Barr. Photo credit: Julian Montague.

Funds for making early-stage prototypes are scarce, and pursuing the few grants that exist can be intimidating.

According to Media Innovation Associate Chris Barr, that’s an issue Knight’s Prototype Fund addresses, by moving nontraditional grant-seekers into the foundation’s pipeline.

Barr has run the fund for a year. Below, he shares some of the lessons he’s learned, and why the fund is an increasingly important part of Knight’s journalism and media innovation strategy.

What has surprised you about running Knight’s Prototype Fund?

Chris Barr: The program is as much about asking questions as it is about building new projects. To me, the most interesting prototypes are those where a team has identified a problem or opportunity that they want to explore, without knowing the final destination. It is exciting to see a team study a problem and make important discoveries that lead to something that couldn’t have been imagined before the grant.

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What are some examples?

C.B: Data Toys, which allows people to play with information as a way to reveal the complex systems underlying the news. As designers, I think it was easy for that team to understand the philosophy of the Prototype Fund, which is all about trying things out, learning and iterating.

Through these grants we ask teams to connect their projects to the needs of real people. Also FOIA Machine, which seeks to streamline the process of submitting freedom of information requests, did a nice job taking their project to a point where it has gained an audience and early momentum. They had an early idea when they came to us and by connecting to the right stakeholders built 80 percent of a project that has the potential to help lots of journalists and others submit information requests. After finishing their Prototype Fund grant, they took the project to the Kickstarter community and raised over $50,000. Right now it’s undergoing three phases of development, the first of which will fix bugs that could prohibit user experience and add 100 testers. It will be publicly available for journalists and others to use by early 2014.

Are there common stumbling blocks you see among projects?

C.B: People often pursue their ideas without external validation. They may come up with a project plan that says here’s what we’re going to do over the next six months without having a feedback loop from the community that they are hoping to impact. This is why we now start the program with a human-centered design workshop. We encourage the teams to build and test iteratively while learning as much as possible about the people that will use the tool or approach that they are developing.

That was part of the reason you brought together Prototype Fund projects for workshops so recently right? Do you think it was a success?

C.B.: Yes, but now they have to go build their projects! It was hard for us to ask grantees to use a human-centered design approach without providing some resources. We believe that you can’t build things in a vacuum, so it was about giving people tools they can quickly use to make better projects. Additionally, the workshops give us an opportunity to bring people together, share ideas and make connections. Michael Maness [Knight's vice president for journalism and media innovation] calls it creating “engineered collisions.” As a foundation, we are lucky to be able to help grantees build on their peer networks and learn from each other.

How important is the Prototype Fund towards Knight’s overall journalism and media innovation strategy?

C.B.: It’s going to be increasingly important because we see it as an opportunity to test new ideas and assumptions to make sure we’re on the right path. It’s something we might encourage before structuring a larger grant for example. If we’re really focused on R&D for journalism, it’s an important way to experiment. It’s also a way for us to identify future leaders in the field.

You came to Knight with a background in academia, design and new media. Did that help prepare you for your role?

C.B.: I’ve studied both fine arts and media studies. After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, I worked at Villanova University building an open source tool for libraries called VuFind. I eventually moved from an interface design position to being the head of the technology team. While I don’t call myself a programmer, managing programmers helped me understand software architecture and development practices. I also gained an interest in open data projects when I was a design professor at West Virginia. I’ve always felt that making data and complex info digestible for people is important. Knight was looking for someone to help its grantees think through those sorts of problems so it was a great fit.

At the same time you were doing all that you also established a career as an artist. What are some of your memorable projects?

C.B.: My first notable project was “Chris Barr Is Available on Thursday,” where I’d let anyone on the Internet schedule an hour of my time while I was in college. I took flowers to a nursing home; I gave blood; I did crazy stuff like try to eat five dozen boiled eggs. Another project was “The Bureau of Workplace Interruptions,” which sought to create challenges to people’s relationships to time and efficiency. Right now I have pieces active in a show called “No Time for Love,” which documents people’s stories of regret. It started in Chapel Hill, N.C., and is up through Jan. 5, 2014, at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, Tenn. The cool thing about it is that I’m in a show with some of my heros, like Yoko Ono and Félix González-Torres.  

Any clues on what your next project might be? 

C.B.:  I don’t know. I respond well to prompts and deadlines. I love it when curators and folks come to me and say I’m dealing with this topic and then I get to mix it with my sensibilities. That’s not the way most artists work but it is the way a lot of designers work. What interests me as an artist are pursuits that take on the designer’s way of working.

Were you always interested in the intersection of media, art and tech?

C.B: When I was a kid I had two uncles who were DJs, one was on the radio. One night my mother was driving us home and one of my uncles sent us a shout-out on the radio and started playing “Eye of the Tiger.” That, and a love of music, got me into radio, eventually leading me to great experiences at my college station, WWVU. At some point my parents also brought home a computer and I got a bootleg copy of Photoshop, which sparked my interest in design. In high school I started an underground newspaper with some friends that was written anonymously. We even published it on the web in 1997! Somehow this all led me to an amazing job where I get to help fund passionate people to make incredible media and technology projects.

The next deadline to apply to Knight’s Prototype Fund is Oct. 25, 2013. For more information contact Chris Barr via e-mail or on Twitter, @heychrisbarr.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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