Knight News Challenge: What's next for civic startups & open gov

March 28, 2013 by Brian Busch

knight1If you haven't heard of the Knight News Challenge before, chances are you would have in the next couple of years.  The annual competition, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, an investor of ours, draws hundreds of applicants from around the world.  The online portal is like a Ted conference focused just on civic engagement and open government (globally!).  Taking a look through is heartening when you consider all the challenges facing a democracy, from budget struggles here in the US to corruption in India.

We're participating! Check out our submission, and please give us your thoughts and share with anyone interested. We've discussed in previous posts the importance of making sure that open data is shared in a way that it can really be put to use, not locked away in scans and PDFs. However, getting data into a machine-readable, useable format requires resources which may be out of the reach of the agencies releasing the data. Our submission seeks to address the financial barriers that stands between millions of pages of public information (available only as scans and PDFs) and the machine-readable data sets that are necessary to actually use that information. We aim to set up a crowdfunding platform that would allow government agencies, civic organizations, open gov hackers, and anyone else to propose the datasets that they feel should be digitized.  Then foundations, individuals, and others can chip in towards the cost based on the value they see in having that data in machine readable form.  For example, you could contribute $5 to someone who will cut down on your wait at the DMV by turning your last license application into digital data.

IndieGoGo and KickStarter are the big names in crowdfunding, but it remains a hot topic: Y Combinator, the famed incubator, has two crowdfunding platforms in the recent Winter cohort - Watsi and Microryza (more here).  Both aim to turn the power of many small donations on social problems: healthcare in developing countries and scientific research, respectively.  Unlocking civic data seems like a logical next step. If you doubt the scope of the problem, even the Library of Congress is looking for alternatives to digitize public records.

Please stop by the News Challenge site.  While you're there, note what's going on in the comments: not merely feedback and props, but genuine collaboration. Already, we've been in touch with several other participants about ways we can work together.  Take for example Marc Joffe, who's working on a tool to digitize the financials from every city and county (all standard formats, released in PDF...).  His tool could be a great add-on to a crowdfunding site by bringing more data sets through on an ongoing basis.  Or Jerry Hall working on eCitizens, which aims to centralize massive amounts of municipal information.  He sees clearly the benefit of machine-readable data over scans and PDFs in terms of the benefits eCitizens can offer to all of us and thus reached out.

These are just two examples, and conversations are ongoing.  But at a high level, it's an exciting time and an exciting process that we're thrilled to be a part of.

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