May 04. 2017-18 Magic Grants Announced!

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Columbia Journalism School and Stanford University’s School of Engineering, has awarded its 2017-18 Magic Grants to 11 teams of innovators todevelop technologies that could transform the media landscape. Grant recipients receive awards of up to $150,000 for projects lasting up to a year.

Founded in 2012 through a gift from longtime Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown, the Brown Institute is celebrating its fifth year of Magic Grants. With the support of the Institute, this year’s winners will build data sharing networks to connect journalists around the globe; develop in-camera video feedback tools to help news teams capture high-quality footage efficiently; explore new ways to critique the data, code and algorithms that shape our world; and enable the routine exploration of vast archives of video.

This is a varied group, selected based on their potential for innovation in both stories and platforms. This year the Institute’s projects are also supported through partnerships with PBS FRONTLINE, the NYC Media Lab,  ProPublica and the BBC.

David and Helen Gurley Brown believed that magic happens when innovative technology is combined with great  content and talented people are given the opportunity to explore and create new ways to inform and entertain. The  Brown Institute annually awards fellowships, grants and scholarships, and designs public events and novel educational experiences in digital storytelling.

The following is a complete list of Magic Grants funded by the Brown Institute for 2017-18:

DataShare. Investigators around the world are all facing the same problem: each holds a wealth of information, but the sensitive documents and data are entirely locked behind their organization's firewall. There are hundreds of stories and investigations that could be done, if only these data collections were interoperable. DataShare allows for valuable knowledge about people and companies to be "sieved" into indexes and shared securely within a network of trusted individuals, fostering unforeseen collaboration and prompting new and better investigations that uncover corruption, transnational crime and abuse of power. The DataShare team consists of Mar Cabra, a fellow at Columbia Journalism School in 2009-10, and Julien Martin, both from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It will be funded by the Brown Institute and supported by PBS’ investigative series FRONTLINE.

Visual Beat. Today’s journalists are tasked with informing a public that is used to being entertained. News has to compete with the rest of the Internet, where good reporting often drowns in a sea of cat videos and click-bait. In this challenging landscape, news organizations have to adapt new strategies to keep readers, viewers, and listeners engaged. One strategy that has seen tremendous success in late-night television has been to embrace the dual role of journalist and entertainer, often by blending news with comedy. While effective at keeping audiences engaged, this strategy is difficult to scale  — comedy, it turns out, is hard. Visual Beat will build tools that take audio/visual content curated by journalists, and transform it into alignment with music to create a song-and-dance like presentation. This editing device could be a powerful way to engage viewers and draw them to a story, without asking journalists to change the way they choose content. The Visual Beat team is led by Abe Davis and Sean Liu from Stanford Computer Science.

Campaign is a strategy game that takes place in an imagined nation whose leaders are up for reelection. You are a campaign manager who must persuade the fictional characters in the game to vote for your candidate. You learn about the characters by accessing their personal information, including their employment status, age and hometown. You can learn more by solving logic puzzles, or by "convincing" the characters to share data in exchange for a reward. With enough information, you even unlock a Cambridge Analytica-style psychological "archetype" for a character. Campaign is a game about politics, privacy, data sharing and micro-targeting. The project is led by Laurent Bastien Corbeil, Rashida Kamal, Kevin Fei Sun and Eileen Townsend, all members of the class of 2017 or 2018 at the Columbia Journalism School. It will be funded by the Brown Institute and supported, in part, by ProPublica.

Camera Observa. In the modern, fast-paced news environment where video is in high demand, it is essential to capture high-quality video quickly and easily. Even for professional news teams, consistently producing high-quality footage is a major challenge. Yet it is essential to get a satisfactory first capture due to the ephemeral nature of news. Camera Observa proposes using a 360° camera technology to capture the context of the scene (such as lighting) to help reduce the many burdens of capturing video. Led by Jane E and Ohad Fried at Stanford Computer Science, the Camera Observa platform will provide in-camera feedback on quality of lighting in a video frame and suggest orientations of the subject to achieve various image styles; capture important interactions happening off-camera; and record additional B-roll.

Dark Inquiry. In an era of "filter bubbles" and social media-driven echo-chambers, the traditional critical essay may no longer be well-suited to the message. In response, the founders of The New Inquiry propose Dark Inquiry, a series of "critical software projects" (a game, an app, a bot, an API or some other creative use of technology) that produce critique through experience and interaction rather than written language. Their first experiment with this idea is the recent “White Collar Crime Zones,” a reappropriation of a predictive policing algorithm that usually targets street crime, refocused on white collar crime. The Dark Inquiry team consists of Sam Lavigne, Rachel Rosenfelt, and Francis Tseng, founder and editors at The New Inquiry.

Esper. With the advent of cheap consumer photography and the rise of ubiquitous imaging devices like street cameras and drones, large video collections are of increasing interest and availability to journalists and academics. Video streaming websites like YouTube and LiveLeak present rich datasets covering both high activity events (protests, conflict zones) as well as more mundane affairs (traffic, C-SPAN). For example, with video streams of a protest, a journalist might ask: how many people attended the protest? When did someone start speaking? What are all the messages seen on the protest signs? Just as existing tools like LexisNexis enable researchers to organize, index, and search large corpora of text, journalists need the same kind of tool to explore video data. Esper is a system that facilitates exploration of large video collections by enabling researchers to easily organize and annotate their videos at scale. Esper is led by Will Crichton at Stanford Computer Science.

Measure for Measure. The Public Theater and renowned theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service propose to experiment with one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously ambiguous “problem plays”: Measure for Measure. Interactive technologies and old media forms collide to create a new media dramaturgy for a contemporary Shakespeare audience. A custom teleprompter system will allow the ensemble of twelve actors to wildly modulate time and delivery. Radical experiments with speed set the play’s combination of the comically absurd and the tragically serious in stark relief, and deliver a remarkable new show that marries the company’s unique performance style with the Bard’s exquisitely lyrical language.

VillageLIVE  is an augmented reality walking tour of New York. Users can walk through the city to selected areas and use their phones as a window to peer into the city’s queer past. VillageLIVE is built around a video archive filmed by Nelson Sullivan. In the 1980s, Nelson became fascinated with video, which was entering consumers’ hands with the advent of handheld camcorders. He is considered the first vlogger; he turned the camera on himself and assiduously documented his life in the queer downtown scene of New York, featuring a cast of queer characters including Rupaul, Keith Haring, Lady Bunny, and more. The VillageLIVE project highlights a selection of these videos that tell stories of gentrification, of public safety for the queer public, and the revolutionary roots of NYC's queer community. The VillageLIVE team consists of Shir David, Jordan Frand and Anne Goodfriend, recent graduates of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and the project is funded through a joint effort of the Brown Institute and the NYC Media Lab.

Measuring Public Perception of Stories in the News. News is no longer made through self-contained works of reporting, but instead often emerges as an ongoing dialog between facts, readers, and multiple media sources. For every news story published, thousands of people will react via comments or social media, and it will often be re-reported by other media outlets (from small blogs to major newspapers). These reactions in turn impact the perceptions of future readers: How do people feel about a story? Do they generally accept its facts, or dismiss them? How is the story shaping public opinion? To understand the true impact of a story, journalists must understand the substance of the discussion it inspires. The goal of this project is to create tools that allow journalists to measure these reactions at scale. The Measuring Public Perception team consists of Ethan Fast and Binbin Chen from Stanford Computer Science.

Beyond the Bullets. News reports of firearm violence focus on access to guns, gang activity, poverty, and racial segregation. A careful reading of the conversations on social media among youth living in marginalized communities with high rates of violence, however, can provide an alternate yet in-depth narrative of how and why violence occurs. Beyond the Bullets proposes a hybrid approach to addressing gun violence, mixing automated, machine learning analyses of the networks implicit in social media posts, with community-level expertise and social work knowledge of community development. Beyond the Bullets is led by Desmond Upton Patton from Columbia’s School of Social Work and Kathleen McKeown from the Computer Science Department.

Data Interrupted. The 1994 Rwandan genocide left millions dead or displaced, and a society in ruins. There is one consequence of the genocide that has gone unreported: the near-total collapse of Rwanda’s ability to gather data, including that related to the weather. Data, Interrupted is a story about a country’s struggles to replace a generation of missing data and to try to understand and manage climate uncertainty. It’s also a story about the climate-data divide that exists in the world, and the implications this has on vulnerability, sustainable development and adaptation. The project is led by Francesco Fiondella and Catherine Vaughan, with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and Amir Imani, a student in the Data Science Institute at Columbia University.

Apr 30. Data Viz @Brown - Manuel Lima, Mona Chalabi, Kenan Davis


On Friday May 5 and Saturday May 6, the Brown Institute will host its final Transparency Series events -- this time we're presenting data visualization!

Join Manuel Lima on May 5th at 5pm for a fascinating tour through millennia of circular information design in architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy and physics in a visual feast for infographics enthusiasts. From Venn diagrams and early celestial charts to the trefoil biohazard symbol and Target’s corporate logo, Lima provides a history of humanity's long-lasting obsession with all things circular and a unique taxonomy of the many varieties of circle diagrams.

In addition to the presentation, Lima will be selling and signing his latest work, 'Book of Circles'. Registration is not required to attend the event. 

Bio for Manuel Lima: A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and nominated by Creativity magazine as "one of the 50 most creative and influential minds of 2009," Manuel Lima is the founder of, Design Lead at Google,  and a regular teacher of data visualization at Parsons School of Design.

Manuel is a leading voice on information visualization and has spoken at numerous conferences, universities, and festivals around the world, including TED, Lift, OFFF, Eyeo, Ars Electronica, IxDA Interaction, Harvard, MIT, the Royal College of Art, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, ENSAD Paris, the University of Amsterdam, and MediaLab-Prado Madrid. He has also been featured in various magazines and newspapers, such as Wired, the New York Times, Science, Nature, Businessweek, Creative Review, Fast Company, Forbes, Grafik, SEED, étapes, and El País.

Then on Saturday May 6th from 10am-5pm Mona Chalabi of The Guardian and Kenan Davis from the New York Times will lead a hands-on workshop on data visualization (registration is closed). Graphical (or pictorial) presentations of data have become an almost essential part of journalistic practice. Data visualization helps us see patterns in data, and is an important tool for finding stories. Also, outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian are publishing data visualizations that push the idea of story telling, creating new data-driven ways to inform and entertain. In this day-long workshop, Chalabi and Davis will review some basic data visualization skills--guiding you through the design process. You will add annotation layers and learn to exploit what's unique about data. During the day, we will also help you think critically about visualizations, making you a better consumer of data graphics.

Bio for Mona Chalabi: Mona Chalabi is a data journalist. She is the Data Editor of The Guardian US and a columnist at New York Magazine. As well as co-producing a four-part documentary series about vaginas, Mona has written for TV shows on National Geographic, the BBC and VICE. In 2016, Mona’s data sketches were commended by the Royal Statistical Society. The drawings, which are designed to make numbers more relatable, can be viewed on her Instagram account. Before getting into journalism, Mona worked in the nonprofit sector, first at the Bank of England, then Transparency International and the International Organization for Migration.

Bio for Kenan Davis: Kenan Davis is an Assistant Graphics Editor at the New York Times. Previously, he was the head of interactive for the Guardian US. And before that, he was the coordinator of the Digital Media program at the Columbia Journalism School, where he taught multimedia storytelling and web design.


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Paul “DJ Spooky” Miller mashed up media and music in a free-flowing performance/talk at Stanford April 13. Miller explored the intersection of hip hop and high tech, arguing that new forms of storytelling can emerge in our high-tech age when we remix and redefine content and contexts.

Listen to the talk here. 

Apr 07. DJ Spooky heading to Stanford as Brown Innovator-in-Residence


Brown@Stanford welcomes Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, for  a week-long residence, starting April 10. Together with Stanford Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning, the Stanford Institute for Diversity in the Arts, and the Stanford Center for Computer Research and Accoustics, we will be hosting several events during his visit, including:

With Clayborne Carson, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Allyson Hobbs, Adam Banks and Jonathan Calm. 
Join DJ Spooky and Stanford's nationally renowned Black scholars as they discuss the rise of African-American film in the 20th century. Scenes from newly restored films by Oscar Micheaux, Frank Peregrini, and others will be shown.

With Jeff Chang
Come hear the influential Afrofuturist artist, musician and theorist Paul D. Miller explore the past, present, and future of Black cultural performance in conversation with Jeff Chang. 

MASH UP MEDIA (LECTURE): April 13, 4:30 PM, Oshman Hall
In this free-flowing intellectual talk and performance, Paul "DJ Spooky" Miller explores the edge of the possible - from Hip Hop to High Tech - making the case that creativity in our hyper-technological age comes from remixing and redefining context. 

In addition to these public events, Stanford students can enroll in CS 82: Social Impacts of Media Innovation, to earn one credit in this course limited-engagement course on music and media innovaton. 

Mar 27. Transparency 2.0: Experiments in Interdisciplinary Collaboration


Over the weekend, the Brown Institute hosted an experiment in interdisciplinary collaboration. On Saturday, March 25, we gathered 24 journalism students and 7 PhD students from Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Sciences campus to collaborate on new stories about our changing climate.

We started the day with a presentation by Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, which brought students up-to-speed on the latest news and developments in climate science, and highlighting some of the ways in which published journalism has involved collaborations with researchers in the field. Following his presentation, Susanne Rust, former investigative reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting and Director of the Environmental Reporting Fellowship at the Columbia Jounalism School, conducted an engaging discussion with Dr. Schmidt on how journalism can better respond and inform the public on issues of climate. The main takeaway: now more than ever, scientists and journalists need to work together on stories about our planet. This set us up perfectly for the second half of the day...


In the afternoon, we got our hands dirty, pairing journalism students with doctoral students from Lamont-Doherty to build on our morning discussion. This started with a rapid ideation exercise, where groups were challenged to take non-environmental articles from major news outlets--a story about housing developments, a wedding announcement, a pasta sauce recipe--and produce a climate angle to accompany the story.

So, for example, a team of MS candidates from journalism and a student studying ocean science were given an article that focused on the White House's plans for constructing Trump's wall on the border with Mexico. After 20 minutes the students had an angle. Stream and river flow into the Gulf of Mexico has a tremendous impact on coral growth in the region. Clean river discharge has a neutral-to-positive effect on reef health. But with major construction taking place across hundreds of rivers and streams along the border, run-off and construction debris could have dramatic impact on the coral of the region. 

The goal of this exercise was to promote collaboration between the scientists and journalists -- moving them from "expert" and "reporter" to collaborators. Some articles were harder than others to view through a climate lens, but we were surprised and delighted by the incredible creativity of teams!


Following three rounds of rapid story ideation, groups prepared pitches for new stories altogether. From bird migrations to profiles of new climate scientists facing an uncertain funding and research future. This weekend was a testament to interdisciplinary collaboration and the need for journalists to work alongside scientists when reporting on issues of climate change. With each round of exercise, our angles and pitches got deeper and deeper. It was gratifying to watch.

The Lamont-Doherty PhD Students involved were Weston Anderson, Ocean and Climate Physics; Alex Boghosian, Marine Geology and Geophysics; Logan Brenner, Biology and Paleo Environment; Kyle Frishkorn, Biology and Paleo Environment; Laura Haynes, Geochemistry; Nathan Lennsen, Geostatistics and Modern Climate; and Ruth Oliver, Biology and Paleo Environment.

For the past few years, the Brown Institute has been attempting to better understand how journalism can respond more productively to climate change. We've partnered with the UNDP and IRI to help African-based Meteorological agencies provide new ways to turn weather and climate data into information for farmers and other at risk communities. We've partnered with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to contextualize the impacts of and potential adaptation models for climate change through food and art. And we've partnered with the Sundance Institute to think through new models of documentary to better engage and inform around the topic of climate change. This weekend, however, we focused inward, bringing our previous work into the Journalism School.

More information about the event can be found at

Mar 11. REMINDER: Magic Grant Deadline 1-Week Away!

This is a reminder that applications for Brown Institute Magic Grants are due in one week -- March 17!
We are looking for hardware, software, and story proposals. We are interested in projects that advance storytelling and journalism through new applications of technology. We also are interested in new tools and applications to the media space, broadly.
To date, the Brown Institute has funded 30 projects focusing on big data, applications of new technologies like drones and virtual reality to media, personalized TV and more. We've told some amazing stories as well -- stories about the digital life in Cuba, the drag renaissance in Bushwick, food adulteration in the markets in Dhaka, and the famine in South Sudan.
Magic Grants can support small teams for up to a year, with an overall budget of $150K for teams that are based at Columbia and $300K if the teams involve members from Columbia and Stanford. On our web site you will find specific details about the Magic Grant program and how to apply. 
If you're still searching for collaborators, post your pitch to our slack. If you still need help crafting your proposal or have specific questions pertaining to the grant/application process, reach out to a member of the Brown Institute Staff! At Columbia, you can register for office hours at or reach out to us at with any questions or concerns! At Stanford, reach out to to ask questions or schedule office hours.

We look forward to seeing your proposals1

Mar 10. Brown and Engima partner for unique internship!

Enigma and The Brown Institute for Media Innovation are hiring a graduating student from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to work as Fellow for a period of three months beginning sometime in the Summer or Fall of 2017. The Fellow will work at the Enigma offices near Madison Square Park in New York City. The deadline to apply is April 3, 2017!

Enigma started with the idea that there is an enormous quantity of hidden knowledge locked away in public data silos and obscure formats, waiting to be released. The company is building data discovery and analytics tools that make it simpler for organizations to understand their own private data; and for the wider community to explore and build on Enigma’s own integrated public platform, linking data from federal, state, local and international government sources. 

With this Fellowship, The Brown Institute and Enigma are combining efforts to introduce the idea of “narrative” into the all stages of the data pipeline. Where do data come from? How are they organized? What algorithms are used to recognize “entities” across different databases? At each stage in the process, a narrative perspective helps designers, engineers and end users tell better stories. 

Scope of the role and prerequisites 

This fellowship seeks an individual interested in engaging with data on one of two beats: either healthcare or issues surrounding financial sanctions as a tool of foreign policy, anti-terror and antiorganized crime efforts. The ideal candidate will have experience producing content on regular deadlines and thrive in a self-directed environment. 

The Fellow will spend some amount of time finding stories in the vast collection of data offered by Enigma. They will also explore how decisions in data collection and organization affects the different kinds of stories that can be told. Perhaps it’s best to think of this Fellowship as a kind of “Journalist in Residence.” As such, the ideal candidate has a background in data and computation as well as strong reporting and writing experience. 

The Fellow must be a student or graduate of Columbia Journalism School. They must be reasonably fluent in a programming language for data manipulation — R and Python are fine examples. They must also be skilled at reporting and writing, with some experience using data to find and tell stories. The Fellow will work as a full-time, temporary employee of Enigma and will be paid a gross amount of $1,200 per week.

How to Apply

To apply, upload a resume and 3 examples of your written work (links or PDFs), including data related publications or visualizations. The link is and the deadline is April 3, 2017.

Mar 10. This summer - The Brown Institute in Columbia College!

Brown Institute fellow Charles Berret and other members of our staff collaborated on a new class being offered by Columbia College. The six-week summer course is focused on using data, code and algorithms to open new lines of journalistic inquiry and new ways of telling stories about the world around us. The class will explore the role of journalists as storytellers for the public, explaining that over time, technology has changed how and what stories are told. In parallel, the course builds on the traditional journalistic techniques for asking questions about how society functions, and introduces the new technical tools of computation. This course is intended to help students understand the world in new ways and question the very tools and frameworks that they will learn during the semester. The classes will enable students to recognize what phenomena in the world can be translated into data and what aspects of the world are open to computation. Students are expected to produce works of journalism. They will explore the history of the profession and the basics of reporting, but will continually return to aspects of computation as a means of exploring the world and how it functions. Our hope is that this class, through its connection to journalism, will offer a new kind of critical thinking around technology. Students are required to bring their own laptop to all sessions. Read about the class!

Mar 07. A Brown Institute All-Hands: The Magic of New York In February


Part of the joy of the Magic Grant process is getting to see all of our teams coming together over the course of their year with us. So two weekends ago, we brought the whole Brown Institute family (our grantees, fellows, and staff) out to Columbia University for our first All-Hands of 2017.

Magic Grantees get together for four collective meetings a year - two at Stanford and two at Columbia - coming together frequently enough so each team can benefit from the cultures of each university and its surroundings. This year, the cycle kicked off in September with a public showcase at Stanford for our outgoing class of grantees and fellows and our first meeting of the new class to orient them to The Institute.

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For this second convening, we made a point to bring the city into the conversation, sending teams out to visit four field trip sites across New York with visits to the Bloomberg Graphics team, public data platform Enigma, the archives of the New York Times, and world-renown architects diller scofidio + renfro. While these form a somewhat eclectic collection of New York institutions, they also happen to be progressive in how they think about the organization and presentation of information. We wanted folks across Brown Institute teams to see information in new ways:


    • How information can be presented interactively; not just what's possible, but the processes behind doing so regularly at Bloomberg
    • How public data can be collected an organized at scale at Enigma, and how similar approaches to information collection can solve different kinds of problems that they're facing
    • How archivists at the New York Times' morgue have created a usable past for reporters and researchers out of over a century and many lifetimes of work organizing newspaper and photo clippings
    • And how the aggressively interdisciplinary architects at DS+R approach their practice of research and how the spatial design of information can affect inhabitants and users


Expect to hear more over the coming weeks about what kinds of magic folks have been up to: from finding public health stories in Dhaka, the latest in newsroom source security, to computer-aided creativity, and documenting dying (and thriving) coral reefs.

If you've got a project that's just perfect for one of our Magic Grants, you've got a few days until the March 17, 2017 to submit your proposal and join us this coming September as we welcome a new class of members into the Brown Institute Family.

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Mar 04. Brown staff in Reveal with "The Wall"

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President Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is the subject of intense discussion. The immigration debate has raised the question about the current state of the U.S. border protections and what would be needed to build such a wall.

Former Magic Grantee and current Brown staff member Allison McCartney took a look at the question. Working with The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Michael Corey and Andrew Becker (of Reveal, CIR’s nationally-syndicated radio show), the three created an interactive map of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The map allows viewers to see the existing border fencing already built by the U.S., see what that border fence actually looks like, how much has yet to be built, and identify locations that represent quirks or issues with the current border fence.

Established in 2012, the Institute is a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford Universities. Our mission is simple: Sponsor thinking, building and speculating on how stories are discovered and told in a networked, digitized world.
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