Columbia Journalism School


The Brown Institute for Media Innovation has awarded eight "Magic Grants"

June 20, 2013

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation has awarded a total of eight “Magic Grants” to teams of students, faculty and post-docs from Columbia and Stanford Universities.  Offered annually, Magic Grants are made possible by a $30 million endowment gift from longtime Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown who established the Brown Institute as a partnership between Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University's School of Engineering.

The winning projects include the Declassification Engine, a suite of machine learning tools to study redaction patterns in declassified documents from a partnership between faculty and students in the Departments of History, Statistics and Computer Science at Columbia University; Bushwig, a multimedia documentary studying “identity curation” in the drag community of Bushwick, Brooklyn; Gistraker, a natural language processor to detect media bias; and Ensemble, a Web platform for collaborative storytelling.

“This year, we gave special priority to projects that led with a story,” said Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute at Columbia and professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. “Often journalists and storytellers take a back seat when it comes to technology. This year, we looked for stories that didn’t fit comfortably in existing publication frameworks, but instead required new kinds of tools.”

At Columbia, Prof. Hansen convened a review team of computer science and journalism faculty as well as New York-based technology writers and data journalists. Four grants were awarded: two received $150,000, with half of the funding coming from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the other two grantees will receive up to $100,000.

Following are the Magic Grant recipients awarded by Columbia:

CityBeat: A collaboration between The New York World housed in Columbia Journalism School, and the Social Media Information Lab at Rutgers University, this project will look for newsworthy events in the patterns of real-time, geotagged social media feeds. (Half of this project’s budget will come from the Tow Center.)

The Declassification Engine: A partnership between faculty and students in the Departments of History, Statistics and Computer Science at Columbia University, this project will probe the limits of official secrecy by applying natural language processing software to archives of declassified documents to examine whether it is possible to predict the contents of redacted text; attribute authorship to anonymous documents; and model the geographic and temporal patterns of diplomatic communications. (Half of this project’s budget will come from the Tow Center.)

NewsHub: A team of graduate students and recent graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism and the School of Engineering and Applied Science will create a system for tracking censorship in authoritarian regimes post-publication, i.e., when a story is revised or deleted after publication. The team will create real-time assessments and monthly reports of journalistic improprieties around the globe.

Bushwig: A Columbia School of Journalism documentary film student and a PhD candidate in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information will tell the story of a drag renaissance taking place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that is enlisting and extending social media platforms for the “identity curation” that happens in the drag community.

In addition to Magic Grants, the endowment gift from Helen Gurley Brown funds four fellowships a year, two at Columbia and two at Stanford.  The Columbia 2013-14 Brown Fellows are:

Katherine Fink, a PhD student in Communications, studies the day-to-day ”sourcing practices” of journalists and the ways in which their choices for searching, evaluating and engaging with sources affect whose stories are told, and how. During her fellowship, she will focus on new sourcing strategies that involve search engines, specialized databases and social media.

Nikolas Iubel, a dual Journalism M.S. and Computer Science M.S. degree student, will report on the effectiveness of Brazil’s recently enacted Access to Information Law (AIL). One byproduct of his fellowship will be a tool that disseminates requests to every branch of Brazil's state and federal government and manages the documents that are returned.


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