How Can Organizations Tame Big Data Overload? Knight Is On the Case

At the expense of resorting to a clumsy analogy, we'd like to compare data to cough medicine.

Let's say you're sick with a cold. You go to your local pharmacy, wander into the cold medicine aisle and immediately stop in your tracks. The sheer number of choices — they now apparently have medicine for "severe" colds — leaves you bewildered and paralyzed with indecision.

We like to think of data the same way. Organizations have a limitless amount of data at their fingertips. It's everywhere. Yet how can they be sure they're collecting the proper data and using it most effectively? How can they stave off bewilderment and decision-making paralysis? And once the decision is made, how can individuals and communities be assured that it was the best decision available to them?

It's a challenge that's near and dear to the hearts of the Knight Foundation and its work in the journalism space. Perhaps more than any other nonprofit sector, journalists, by the nature of their profession, are uniquely susceptible to the perils of data overload. Public records, polls, legislative databases, digitized archives, police reports — the list goes on and on.

And so their Knight News Challenge on Data program works to ensure that organizations efficiently leverage data here in the deadline-driven real world. Out of 1,065 applicants, it recently selected a cohort of 17 winners who will each receive a share of $3.2 million to fund their respective projects.

The winners are a mix of small nonprofit startups, collaborative efforts, and larger institutions. Eight winners will build out full versions of their projects and receive from around $240,000 to $470,000 a piece. Knight will support the remaining nine early-stage projects through its Prototype Fund, with $35,000 each and the goal of testing assumptions and building demos over the next six months. (Click here for more insight on the Knight Prototype Fund.)

From our vantage point, each project has one common ingredient — they create a process that collates data and offers a discrete user action that serves a public benefit.

Here are three examples:

  • Documents Empowerment Project by mRelief ($250,000): "Helping low-income Americans prove their eligibility for public benefit programs by scaling a benefit program document database and discovery platform."
  • Law, Order and Algorithms: Making Sense of 100 Million Highway Patrol Stops by Stanford University ($310,000): "Increasing transparency and accountability in law enforcement by compiling, analyzing, and releasing a data set of more than 100 million highway patrol stops throughout the country."
  • All the Places Personal Data Goes by Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University ($440,000): "Making it easier to find out how your personal data is being shared between companies by creating a crowdsourced resource that documents and visualizes these data sharing arrangements."

Of course, optimizing data management is only one of Knight's strategies to modernize the field of journalism. It's into other things, too, like boosting accessibility and information sharing around emerging mobile news technologies as well as ensuring that classic in-depth journalism still has a place in the digital present and future. And Knight's media innovation work is supporting also sorts of experimentation in how information is created, used, and shared.