Knight FoundationOn Jan. 26, the Knight Foundation announced the winners of its annual contest, the Knight News Challenge on Data. The challenge, which was inaugurated in 2007 amid the disruption that the digital age brought to journalism and news generally, grants select winners a share of $3 million.

Knight News Challenge winners can receive substantial funding to carry out their projects, said Anusha Alikhan, Knight Foundation Communications Director in an email.

“For example, eight of the Knight News Challenge on Data winners received investments of $237,589 to $470,000,” she said. “Nine early-stage ideas received $35,000 each through the Knight Prototype Fund, which helps innovators take media and information projects from idea to demo.”

This year’s challenge was the most competitive to date, capping at 1,060 submissions.

“The project unlocks information about how data can be used for community problem solving,” said Nina Zenni, the foundation’s Media Innovative Associate. “It makes data easier to interact with.”

Among the 17 winners this January was mRelief’s Documents Empowerment Project, a project that helps low-income users prove eligibility for public benefits programs. The project was established in September 2014 by a Chicago-based, all-female software development team. It received $250,000 as a winner of the Knight News Challenge on Data.

mRelief began as a medium through which those eligible for public assistance – including food stamps, free public transit and family health care – could bypass long lines and receive fast information about whether they qualify for state and nation-wide welfare programs.

Through a series of questions, the web application determines a user’s eligibility, local resources and the next steps to take in procuring the provided public benefits. Since its founding, mRelief says that its tool has reduced eligibility determination time by 75 percent.

The project has also evolved to include a wide variety of programs, partnering with the Chicago Public Library and Catholic Charities and expanding to a larger user base.

Through a partnership with Purple Binder, an application that refers to low-income communities to local services like food pantries or homeless shelters, mRelief was able to extend its reach beyond those who qualify for welfare benefits. mRelief is now accessible in a number of Chicago-based community centers, having created an eligibility tool capable of multi-program screening.

The mRelief project previously received funding from Knight Foundation as part of its Knight Prototype Fund in May 2015.  During its prototype stage, the mRelief board participated in a Knight Foundation-sponsored human-centered design workshop, becoming familiar with a wider user base to understand its needs.

They found, for example, that 54 percent of Illinois residents are not smartphone users, and would therefore not benefit from a smartphone application. Hence the creation of the SMS-functionality, allowing non-smartphone users to type “hello” to a number and fill out a text-delivered questionnaire.

This modernization of public assistance allows underprivileged populations streamlined access to welfare benefits within the area — in this case, the greater Chicago area. How such data usage could expand to an international level, however, remains on the horizon.

The Knight News Challenge on Data supports ideas that make data work for individuals and communities. A growing number of applicants begets a growing number of entrepreneurial projects seeking to merge data usage for increased impact.

As Jonathan Sotsky, Knight Foundation Director of Strategy and Assessment, writes: “Data provides an opportunity for fundraisers to allocate resources to the most effective nonprofits and increase the impact of programs they support.”

If this were to happen on an international level, it might change the landscape of global philanthropy for the better.

Nora Harless

Sources: The Knight News Challenge on Data, The Knight Foundation, mRelief
Photo: StockMedia

Two separate grant agreements between Seychelles and the European Union were signed on December 10. The two agreements will provide as much as $6.4 million in order to help foster sustainable development and fight the effects of climate change in the archipelago nation.

The two agreements come on the heels of warnings from both the UN and the World Bank Group about the potential of climate change to exacerbate poverty in coastal communities. Seychelles’ economy—dependent chiefly upon tourism and tuna hauls—is particularly vulnerable to effects of climate change.

Recently, Seychelles has become something of a regional leader in the fight for sustainable development. Seychelles has already reached the majority of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and is now advocating the adoption of “blue economy” principles, which emphasize the protection of maritime resources and the economic potential of the Indian Ocean’s fishing, shipping, energy and tourism sectors.

Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister John-Paul Adam believes that the development of the blue economy could allow the Indian Ocean to become a hub of sustainable ocean management and resiliency in the face of a changing climate. Adam, speaking at the 38th annual ministerial meeting of the G77 plus China, said, “The blue economy provides a blank canvas to many developing countries to charter a completely new sustainable development pathway that is to their best interest.”

In a press statement at the same meeting, Adam called for cooperation amongst southern hemisphere nations in science and technology in order to bolster blue economy sectors. Seychelles is also doing its part in building regional cooperation, strengthening bilateral ties with Fiji in the fisheries sector.

Seychelles’ efforts to sustain development and mitigate the compounding effect of climate change on poverty exemplify the kind of regional leadership that will be necessary in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, the EU grants will need to be replicated by wealthy nations in order to provide developing nations with the financial resources necessary to not only continue developing, but to do so in a sustainable and climate-conscious way.

– Parker Carroll

Sources: Chatham House, Seychelles News Agency 1, Seychelles News Agency 2, Ventures Africa
Photo: Seychelles News Agency