16 August 2010

A Technology Tool to Facilitate Citizen Journalism

One of the primary missions of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri is to leverage new and emerging technologies that can encourage the public to re-engage with professional media. As a journalism professor, I'm also on the lookout for ways my students can help produce solutions for an industry that's suffering from dwindling audiences and profits. When my Institute colleagues and I met with Adobe executives for a preview of AIR technology in the summer of 2007, we saw the perfect opportunity to meet both objectives: an interdisciplinary student competition to build community news desktop applications. After all, some of the greatest inventions in recent technology history, such as Yahoo and Google, were created by college students.

A Student Competition

We encouraged students from Journalism, Business and Engineering to form teams to conceive, pitch, develop and test AIR apps that, broadly speaking, advanced the connections between citizens and media. We started with 13 teams and nearly three dozen students in early September of 2007. Adobe helped us showcase the possibilities of AIR through a live Connect session with company specialists. Two weeks later, each team pitched their concept to a committee of cross-disciplinary faculty. The judges selected three finalist teams. The Reynolds Institute gave them each $5000 to develop and test their software. Adobe provided passes to MAX in Chicago, a Connect room for each team and access to the network of programmers.

These twelve students proceeded over the next four months to refine their concepts with a market analysis, a business plan, and development of a product prototype. Each of the three teams then presented their project to a panel of judges drawn from industry and the original selection panel. Adobe representatives also monitored the presentations via Connect then offered their expert analysis to the judges.

The first team presented Wallowr, a desktop application that aggregates all of your social network contacts in a single interface and allows friends and preferred media outlets to forward news feeds and videos to each other, giving the users speedy access to breaking stories that appealed to their friends. The second team presented Rubik, a tool designed to facilitate hyper-local news and advertising and provide a new neighborhood communication channel. The third team presented a tool called Contributr that makes it easy for newsroom employees and citizen journalists to submit multimedia content that can then be customized for distribution via the web, the desktop and over mobile devices.

AIR as a Development Tool

The student teams all reported that Adobe AIR allowed them to create a unique desktop experience that surpassed web-only applications. They made great use of AIR's drag-and-drop functionality and particularly appreciated its ability to store and access local data when not online.

Future Directions

The contest is nearly complete. The judges have selected the winning team and awarded them a $10,000 grand prize. The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is also sponsoring a $1,000 Viewers Choice award to coincide with the launch of its new web site. Both prizes will be announced at on February 25th. The Institute will work with all three teams to complete development and marketing of some great new tools for journalism. And I'm confident the University of Missouri can use the RJI/Adobe AIR Student Competition as a model for more innovative projects that bring together students, faculty and industry leaders to improve teaching and learning in the world of higher education.