ICFJ Creates New Paths for Spreading Innovation

May 122014

We generally think of technology transfers going in one direction: from the developed North to the developing South.

When we designed our new Knight International Journalism Fellowships, which foster a culture of news innovation—we anticipated customizing and spreading U.S. technology around the world.

And we are. Our Knight Fellows, some of the most talented global media entrepreneurs, are taking tools such as Document Cloud, Google Fusion Tables and Data Wrapper and embedding them in newsrooms. They have seeded local chapters throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East of the U.S. group Hacks/Hackers. Hack/Hackers brings together journalists and software engineers to develop new apps or solve digital media bottlenecks.

But something more important happened. Our fellows developed their own innovative tools and services—and through ICFJ’s network are spreading them throughout the developing world as well.

Brazilian Knight Fellow Gustavo Faleiros developed InfoAmazonia to track environmental problems in the nine-country Amazon region. The website uses satellite and other public data to map environmental degradation, making it easy for journalists to detect problems such as deforestation.

Now Oxpeckers, a southern African organization, uses his technology to track poachers in protected wildlife regions. Reporting based on that site has already stopped an Asian poaching ring and led to important agreements against poaching between African and Asian countries that import ivory, rhino horns and other spoils of the crime.

A Kenyan group is creating another map, Land Quest, to track oil and water interests and where profits from these investments are going.

And an Indonesian environmental journalism group adapted Faleiros’ technology to create Ekuatorial, a site that maps ocean pollution, forest fires and other problems in the fourth largest country in the world.

From Brazil to South Africa to Kenya to Indonesia. Amazing.

Another example: Knight Fellow Shu Choudhary’s mobile news service in India brings reports by trained citizen journalists to poor and isolated tribal communities. The service can take credit for more than 100 major changes resulting from these stories, from unpaid teachers getting their salaries restored to arrests of wife-abusers to a national investigation of human rights atrocities by the police.

Choudhary developed the project with technological help from Microsoft Research and MIT. The Microsoft developers have built upon Choudhary’s success to create IVR Junction. IVR Junction expands on Shu’s original idea by linking stories to social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. This helps disseminate these stories to an influential diaspora, which can then agitate for better policies.

This technology is now being used elsewhere in India, and in Mali and Somalia. And ICFJ’s Nigeria health journalism fellows will also use IVR Junction in a citizen journalism project. For his work, Shu beat out Edward Snowden to win the Index on Censorship's 2014 Digital Activism Award.

Another example of South-to-South collaboration: Our former Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra (now director of our Knight Fellowships program) launched a project using crowd-sourcing to map threats and attacks against journalists in Mexico. He also developed a widely-used online handbook in Spanish on digital security for journalists.

With funding from Freedom House, Sierra traveled to Iraq to provide digital security training to journalists in another dangerous country for reporters. When he showed them the Mexico map, Iraqi journalists asked Sierra to help them develop one for Iraq. He did so, on the spot. And in a new program funded by the Swedish International Development Agency, Sierra and ICFJ will help Iraqi journalists develop a database of threats against freedom of expression and expand the map to visually display the data.

In Eastern Europe, ICFJ and its partners have developed investigative reporting tools as part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Co-founder Paul Radu, a Knight Award winner, began developing the Investigative Dashboard while he was an ICFJ Knight Fellow. The Dashboard allows journalists with limited data skills to easily mine databases. ICFJ also developed the Secure Reporter platform so that journalists can share information across borders without fear of retribution.

We translated these tools into Spanish and now they are in use in ICFJ’s new eight-country Latin American investigative reporting project.

Knight Fellow Justin Arenstein, another Knight Award winner, has also started the Code for Africa movement. Developed in Kenya and expanded to South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, this movement embeds technologists into newsrooms to train journalists how to mine and visualize data for stories as well as design new apps. Among the services developed in Kenya was GotToVote. The technologists built a website using government data that told Kenyans how and where to register to vote. It boosted voter registration in the 2013 presidential elections. And it has also been used successfully in Zimbabwe and Malawi as well.

For us, it is tremendously exciting to see the spread of great tools, organizations and services in the name of quality journalism. This is just the beginning.