The International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) recently interviewed South Africa’s Justin Arenstein about the African News Innovation Challenge, a project launched by the African Media Initiative to fund innovation in data journalism, newsroom experimentation, digital adaption and media tech start-ups. Maria Young talks to Arenstein about what has happened so far.
In the two months since the African News Innovation Challenge was launched, what kinds of submissions have come in? (Please include the number of submissions received, and a brief overview of the kinds of entries you’re seeing.)
We’ve received just over 200 applications during the initial phase of the competition, and have received 42 additional requests for partnership where we’ve helped match-make between African media and non-African technologists.
Entries have included everything from ways to protect journalistic sources and whistleblowers, to ideas for building social media networks into live TV coverage, plus ways to use camera-equipped drones or more ordinary mobile phones to beam news from places that previously beyond the reach of journalists. Over half of the submissions have included mobile platforms, and the vast majority have focused on content production — with citizen reporting and crowdsourced content as major memes.
The more recent entries, in the past few days, appear to be some of the more ambitious, or more networked projects. We’re also starting to see the first proposals for business systems and workplace solutions. Like with similar contests elsewhere in the world, we expect a deluge of entries in the last week before the July 10 deadline.
Can you give an example(s) of the kinds of projects you think are most likely to be successful and to move forward?
Yes. I think that projects that show they are not merely replicating what has already been done elsewhere will rise to the top. I think the jury will look for ideas that have the potential to disrupt or shake-up outmoded media models, or that harness new technology to transform the way that the media produces content and engages with audiences. I think the jury will also consider proposals based on ‘proven technologies’ if the way these projects are implemented offer tangible improvements to how we gather news, tell stories, engage with audiences, or sustain media organisations.
One key ingredient that judges will look for in every idea is whether projects have the potential to scale continentally, or to be replicated elsewhere. They will be looking for amplified impacts. What won’t work is proposals that simply want to build a website or pay staff salaries, — and proposals where people haven’t done their homework or exaggerate budgets, impacts, or skills.
As the submission deadline rapidly approaches, what do you hope the African News Innovation Challenge will lead to? (By this, I mean something along the lines of innovations that will improve delivery, content, access, that will help media organizations across the African continent leapfrog the Internet and go right to mobile platforms, etc.)
We have two ‘meta’ objectives really. The first is to kickstart a culture of ongoing digital innovation in African media. We hope the News Challenge will help pull tech pioneers and civic coders into the media space, and are creating networks of HacksHackers chapters plus other structures to help support continual innovation and co-creation so that the News Challenge isn’t just an annual ‘hit & run’ affair.
The second thing that we’re trying to do is create communities of use around emergent technology. Everyone talks about mobile, or about data journalism. But, unless the early adopters start sharing their successes and failures with each other, they’ll constantly be reinventing the wheel. We need to ensure that every advance allows everyone else to leapfrog to the next stage, so that there we can improve efficiencies and our ability to scale successes.
We’re already seeing some early successes on both these fronts, with people who previous never spoke to each other now collaborating not just for the African News Challenge, but also to tackle other opportunities. We’re also seeing ideas that have real potential to rapidly improve the quality and relevance of news for ordinary Africans, as well as to help strengthen media business models.
Why is a competition like this needed in Africa, where there are already so many innovative projects underway?
Beyond all the hype, Africa has grasped the potential that mobile offers for leapfrogging people straight into the digital age, with lots of innovation around services like banking, health, entertainment, and even agriculture. Most of this intellectual and infrastructure investment has been on building platforms and services.
But, there has been very little focus on embedding content — especially hyperpersonal or hyperlocal content — into the mobile ecosystem. So, we think that the News Challenge is an important catalyst for getting pioneers to think about ways for citizens to get realtime, accurate, and meaningful information as easily and seamlessly as possible – and to then give them the digital tools to do something about that information, from speaking out on topical news issues, to engaging in civic governance.
What’s the next step for the challenge? (Assume you all will be selecting finalists to be announced in August, and then giving them support and mentoring to…. Finalise and Develop their projects? And then winners will be announced when?)
After submissions close on July 10, we’ll begin screening and shortlisting the finalists, who will be announced a month later on August 10. All the finalists will then attend a weeklong TechCamp, in Zanzibar, where they will spend one-on-one time with industry experts and technologists to “battle test” their ideas.
We want to challenge people to revisit their proposals, to refine, strengthen and even, if necessary, rethink their projects. After the bootcamp, finalists will resubmit their expanded proposals with implementation plans and budgets, and we’ll go into the final judging phase. The winners will be announced at the continent’s largest gathering of media owners and executives, at the African Media Leaders Forum, in November. The winner will receive ongoing mentoring and technical support, including possible hosting in incubators or accelerators where appropriate.
When might we expect to see the final projects ready for public use?
That would be difficult to say before we know who the winner are but, based on the entries we’ve seen so far, there are some smaller projects that could realistically already be launching two or three months after receiving their grants.