Jan 28. Now Accepting 2016-2017 Magic Grant Applications

We are pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications for 2016-17 Brown Institute Magic Grants! 

At the Brown Institute, we look for innovative ideas with the potential to change the ways in which stories are produced, delivered, presented or consumed. David and Helen Gurley Brown believed that magic happens when innovative technology is combined with great content, and creative people are given the opportunity to explore their ideas and vision of the future.

Many of the Magic Grant proposals we fund start with students, faculty, and alumni and draw on expertise from across our the Columbia and Stanford campuses. Depending on the needs of your project, proposals might also include members from journalistic or other institutions. In the past, some of our Magic Grant proposals have come from our Base Camp events, while others have started as class projects or thesis work. Still others have developed independent of our events or the applicants' courses. 

The projects we have funded are varied, but they all represent an authentic collaboration between a story and some kind of novel technology.

Virtual reality documentaries. New kinds of interfaces for personal drones. An open data platform to support coverage of the Panamanian government. A toolkit that helps science reporters quickly contextualize new research studies. A detailed study of how digital information is shared in Cuba via El Paquete. A collaboration with the drag community in Bushwick and the reimagining of a social media platform that allows for richer notions of identity. Declassified documents and machine learning for understanding patterns in official secrecy. Geotagged social media and a new form of police scanner. Novel interfaces for massively collaborative creative work and a story that could draw on the contributions of thousands of people. This is the kind of work we've funded.

Magic Grants can support small teams for up to a year, with an overall budget of $150K for teams that are based at Columbia or Stanford alone, and $300K if the teams involve both universities. You will find specific details about the Magic Grant program and how to apply here. 

Below we list the important dates during the process:

Proposal submission deadline: March 7, 2016 
Announcement of finalists: March 18, 2016
Presentations by Columbia finalists: April 18, 2016
Presentation by Stanford finalists: April 22, 2016
Announcement of winners: April 29, 2016
Projects start: September 2016 (Summer 2016 by special arrangement)  

To help individuals and teams think through their ideas and best formulate their applications, the Institute will be hosting open office hours at Columbia beginning Monday, February 1. Office hours will be held Monday-Wednesday, and Friday from 2-4pm.  We reserve the Friday time slot for pre-scheduled, one-on-one meetings. Beginning February 22, we will offer more individualized time slots to help refine and finalize your ideas. You can register for the Friday sessions or the auxiliary individual sessions at

We can also put you in touch with current/previous grantees and fellows, to talk through the application process as well as what it means to be a grantee. We are happy to use whatever contacts we have to build out any technical or editorial parts of your team that might be missing. Essentially, we are here to help you with whatever you need to create the strongest application possible. The actual evaluation process will involve a committee that evaluates and ranks all the proposals we receive, judging them both on the novelty and depth of both the story being told as well as the technology angle being pursued.

Finally, be on the lookout for meet-ups and mixers that the Brown Institute will be hosting leading up to the proposal deadline. These will help you find teammates and advance your ideas.

If you have any questions contact Mark Hansen ( or Michael Krisch ( at Columbia; or Maneesh Agrawala ( or Ann Grimes ( at Stanford.

Jan 27. Another video from the Reframe Iran team published

The Reframe Iran project continues to publish pieces of its year-long project. This time, the first video in a series of short documentaries on different aspects of the Iranian art market. In this inaugural installment, the team tours the flat of Mohammed Afkhami, "The High-Rise Collector." Congratulations to Alexandra, Matteo, João, and John! See the video here.

Dec 01. Alex Glorioso profiles Nancy Matthews in The Guardian


Alexandra Glorioso from the Reframe Iran Magic Grant has just published a profile in The Guardian of Nancy Matthews. Matthews served as vice president for arts and cultural affairs at Meridian International, "a unique cultural diplomacy nonprofit in Washington DC that receives government grants, including funding from the state department to welcome both high-profile foreigners and exchange students." As part of the Reframe Iran project, Glorioso's piece looks at the difficult political context behind Matthews' important exhibitions of Iranian art in 2001 and 2007. Why art exhibitions "during years of political standoff"? 

"In one of her early exhibitions... she had an ‘ah-hah’ moment. She realised how much the American people could learn about the Gulf through art if only the exhibition could travel around the US. Nancy made the decision to bring art from different countries to as many American cities as she could.

Over the next 20 years she would exhibit artists’ work from over a dozen countries with difficult relationships with the US, including Vietnam, China and Iran. In addition, she would invite the artists to the opening nights and set up historical and educational trips for them during their visits."

Congratulations, Alex, on an outstanding profile! 

Nov 24. Cannabis Wire wins NY Innovation Grant

The Made in NY Media Center by IFP, in partnership with Mayor De Blasio's Office of Media & Entertainment and the New York City Economic Development Corpoation, announced the first recipients of its first Made in NY Entrepreneur Innovation Grants. Yes, that's a mouthful of organizations, but Cannabis Wire, Magic Grantees from 2014-2015, were one of the nine winners! These grants range between $5,000 and $10,000 and come without strings ("equity- and stake-free funding").  The site hosts comprehensive and non-partisan reporting on legislation and policies on the issue of marijuana across the country. With this new round of funding Nushin Rashidian from the Cannabis Wire team told us what's ahead in 2016 - "Look for wider coverage and a more robust team of correspondents and researchers."

Congratulations! This is a remarkable event!

Nov 21. Want to solve a cold case? Grantee turns citizens into sleuths

Working on a Magic Grant can be a full time job, but Brown Institute grantees are also are busy with projects outside of the grant program. 
Before starting on her 2015-2016 Magic Grant project, Allison McCartney of spent her summer as the data fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Emeryville, California. While there, she worked on the interface for The Lost & The Found, a web application that gives audiences the tools they need to attempt solving a cold case. The site was developed to accompany a CIR investigation into the broken system that leaves thousands of unidentified dead without names for years, sometimes decades.
In this blog post, McCartney and CIR’s senior news applications developer Michael Corey explain the process of conceptualizing, designing and building an application to accompany an in-depth investigation.
The steps of preparing a news application, whether it’s purpose is to solve cold cases or explore government contracting data, are somewhat universal: research, prepare and build. Expect to see many of the principles found in this post in the project, which will be released Spring 2016.

Nov 20. Base Camp, Round 2!


What is Base Camp?

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the School of Engineering at Stanford University and the Graduate School for Journalism at Columbia University invite you to apply for the third Media Innovation Base Camp on January 15-17, 2016 at Stanford University in California. The Base Camp is the second of two for this academic year, and offers a great starting point for students who want to explore the interplay between story and technology, creating new ways to delight and inform.

Our goal with Base Camp is to help students at each university develop new ideas that might lead to a one-year “Magic Grant” project -- Read more about the Magic Grant program. At Base Camp you will work in interdisciplinary teams, with members from Stanford and Columbia. Brown Institute Fellows, industry experts, and faculty will be on hand to provide feedback, guidance, and support. You don’t need to have a fleshed-out idea -- the Base Camp is designed to give you space to develop your ideas, collaboratively. If you attended the first Base Camp, you are welcome to apply for this second event. But know that you won't have special priority in the application process. For those who were not accepted in the first round, that decision will have no bearing on this second round of decisions.

Applications & Deadline

Up to 15 Stanford students and up to 15 Columbia students will be accepted to Base Camp. (Columbia students’ travel expenses will be covered by the Brown Institute.) At Stanford, applications are open to all student levels -- undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral. At Columbia, we invite applications from graduate and postgraduate students. The application should include the following items: 

1. A resume and, if you are currently a student, your latest academic transcript

2. A short description (maximum 300 words) of your vision for the future of media. How will technology transform the kinds of stories we tell, or how will telling new stories lead to new technologies? How might business models for media evolve? How do you think production and consumption of media will change?

3. A short description (maximum 300 words) of an idea or area of media innovation or a story that intrigues you and that you would like to develop further at Base Camp.

4. A short explanation about why you should be invited to attend the Media Innovation Base Camp. 

To learn more and to apply, please visit

If you are at Stanford, please address questions to Tanja Aitamurto at and if you are a student at Columbia, please address questions to Michael Krisch at

Nov 15. Upstairs, Downstairs

This weekend the Brown Institute at Columbia sponsored two events. In the Brown Institute space on the ground floor of Pulitzer Hall, Ellen Weinstein led a day-long workshop on illustration and journalism. One flight up, in the Lecture Hall, students from the School of Journalism and the Department of Statistics joined forces in a hackathon mixing data and story. 


As part of the Transparency Series, the session downstairs introduced J-school students to an aspect of publication that is usually not discussed in the curriculum. As Ellen put it, an illustration is like the book cover for your story. Students started with rapid sketches in response to verbal prompts like "identity" or "social security" or "bullying." Then, an exercise for pairs of students, one playing art director and the other an illustrator. 


Downstairs, the day finished with each participant being asked to start an illustration for a story they had written or were thinking about. This was a very special session of the Transparency Series in that it stripped the subject matter to something  very basic -- pencil and paper. Thinking through the relationship between illustration and story proved to be an invaluable exercise for our students and we're grateful for Ellen's encoragement and support.


Upstairs at the hackathon, students started their day learning about the data that had been prepared for them to work on. Members of the Newscorps data science team took them through FEC filings, presidential speeches and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services payment data. Soon after that, teams formed, mixing journalists and statisticians. We kept the group small -- about 30 people in all -- for this event. From the J-School we invited members of our Dual Degree with Computer Science as well as our Data Concentrators, and the statistics students were all members of the newly-formed Statistics Club. The combination of journalism and statistics created unique projets. To be frank, this is the first hackathon I've attended that emphasized both the quality of the story being told, as well as the tools used to tell it. Data visualizations mixed with digital platforms to craft a unique collection of stories.


Work upstairs continued until around 9pm Saturday night and picked up again at 8am Sunday morning. Judging will take place at 4pm after a talk by Ben Wellington. Stay tuned for the results!


Nov 09. Base Camp 2015!

This weekend, 15 students from the Graduate School of Journalism joined 15 graduate students from Stanford's School of Engineering for a unique workshop, our second "Base Camp." We began the weekend with a simple assigment -- think about stories you've come across, or technologies you've experienced, that have changed the way you see yourself or your city, or have made you rethink your relationship to the world around you. Both journalism and engineering create images for us, images of who we are as communities, as a nation, as a planet. True, they work in very different ways, but ultimately the two practices help us understand the world, perhaps also making a case for how it should change. Base Camp is about making new stories or thechnologies that will forever alter the way we see the world.


Alright, that sounds like a pretty tall order, but, in the end, 8 groups of students coalesced around a fantastic set of ideas. Some were stories that aren't being told because of some technological block, while others were platforms that structured or published information in new ways. Some were designed to aid people in moments of crisis, and still others imagined new forms of stewardship over endangered or fragile corners of our planet. It was a special weekend and we thank our participants for coming to the event with open minds, in a spirit of forging authentic collaborations. We also thank our most excellent facilitator, Ivan Sigal, for his thoughtful leadership over the weekend. 

The next Base Camp will take place in January at Stanford and applications will be due December 4.


Nov 09. Information Cartography


Former Magic Grantee Dafna Shahaf, a post-doc in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University, together with researchers from Stanford, the University of Washington, and Microsoft, has just published a paper in the Communications of the ACM on "Information Cartography." Dafna and her coauthors construct a news summarization tool inspired by "metro maps."

Metro maps consist of a set of lines with intersections or overlaps. Most important, they explicitly show the relationships among different pieces of information in a way that captures a story's evolution. Each metro stop is a cluster of articles, and lines follow coherent narrative threads. Different lines focus on different aspects of the story; for example, the map i[above] was automatically generated for the query "Crimea." The map outlines the 2014 Crimean crisis, with the three lines corresponding to the Russian, Ukrainian, and Western points of view. 

The paper is a thoughtful presentation of the algorithm's design and implementation. Congratulations, Dafna!

Oct 23. Science Survey in the NeimanLab Blog

The goal of Science Surveyor, a flagship project sponsored by the Brown Institute, is simply stated - Produce better reporting on science. The NiemanLab Blog has just published an overview of the project. Here is there setup.

"About 1.8 million new scientific papers are published each year, and most are of little consequence to the general public — or even read, really; one study estimates that up to half of all academic studies are only read by their authors, editors, and peer reviewers.

But the papers that are read can change our understanding of the universe — traces of water on Mars! — or impact our lives here on earth — sea levels rising! — and when journalists get called upon to cover these stories, they’re often thrown into complex topics without much background or understanding of the research that led to the breakthrough.

As a result, a group of researchers at Columbia and Stanford are in the process of developing Science Surveyor, a tool that algorithmically helps journalists get important context when reporting on scientific papers."

Achieving the project's goals is a heavily interdisciplinary affair, involving faculty and graduate students from both Columbia and Stanford Universities. Marguerite Holloway (Journalism), Dennis Tenen (English) and Laura Kurgan (Architecture) lead the team at Columbia and Dan Jurafsky (Computer Science) and Dan McFarland (Education) head the effort at Stanford. With this team, Science Surveyor has decades of experience in science reporting, the digital humanities, data visualization, and the science of networks. 

The NiemanLab post nicely summarizes the team's process and aims for the year. Congratulations to Marguerite and her team on an excellent article!

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.
Join our mail list.



Brown News