Feb 21. "On the Brink of Famine"


The Brown Institute and The PBS investigative series FRONTLINE continue their exploration of virtual reality (VR) in journalism  today with the release of the first in a new series of 360-degree Facebook videos. Filmed on the ground in war-torn South Sudan, the series — On the Brink of Famine – transports viewers inside a hunger crisis that few people in the Western world are aware of.

The project is an immersive, up-close look at life in South Sudan, where more than 2.8 million people are going hungry and at least 40,000 are near starvation as a result of a devastating civil war. The human catastrophe captured by the filmmakers is made even more urgent by a recent report from the United Nations warning that the people of South Sudan are facing unprecedented levels of food insecurity, with the numbers expected to peak this summer.


On the Brink of Famine was created by Evan Wexler, Marcelle Hopkins and Benedict Moran, all three alumni of the Columbia Journalism School. The project was awarded a "Magic Grant" from The Brown Institute, and received extensive support from FRONTLINE. The Ford Foundation also contributed the development of the project via its funding for FRONTLINE's Enterprise Journalism Desk, and via a Ford Foundation JustFilms Fellowship at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP.


FRONTLINE and the Brown Institute will release the immersive documentary in stages. In the first On the Brink of Famine story, linked here and on FRONTLINE’s Facebook page, viewers are taken on a critical mission to deliver food by plane to those trapped in the swamplands of South Sudan. In a second 360 video experience, viewers will visit the country’s largest displaced persons camp — where more than 120,000 people have fled to escape the violence. The full documentary, which also includes a look inside a clinic where Doctors Without Borders cares for children suffering from acute malnutrition, will be available starting Tuesday, March 1.


“We wanted to transport viewers into the heart of this man-made catastrophe to meet the people who are experiencing it,” says filmmakers Evan, Marcelle and Ben. "We hope that viewers come away with a better understanding of the causes of this crisis and how it affects people in South Sudan."

“At FRONTLINE, we’ve been exploring VR’s potential for journalism for some time, and we’re so proud of the work this team has done to tell a critically important story in a new way,” says FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath, who oversaw FRONTLINE’s first virtual reality documentary, Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey, a collaboration with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the interactive technology agency Secret Location.


“We’re excited to partner with the Brown Institute on this important project, and to release the resulting immersive experience on Facebook for a broad audience,” Aronson-Rath adds.

"The Brown Institute is proud to support the work of Evan, Marcelle and Ben,” says Brown Institute Director Mark Hansen. “Their video is heartbreaking. Their story, told through VR, will help the world better understand the tragic dimensions of this disaster.”

"On the Brink of Famine is our first formal partnership with FRONTLINE, but we hope it is the start of a series of experiments with technology to tell such important stories in powerful new ways," Hansen adds.

Here is the first installment of On the Brink of Famine.

The Drop Posted by FRONTLINE

Feb 13. Brown hosts Hacks/Hackers on February 16

Please join us as we welcome Hacks/Hackers to the Brown Institute. See below for details. If at all possible, please RSVP via their MeetUp page, but you can also signal your intention to attend by emailing Kelly Yilmaz
Hacks/Hackers @ Stanford:
Illuminating SearchLight & DocumentCloud
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM 
We return to Stanford University for an event hosted in partnership with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation ( and Stanford’s Computational Journalism Lab ( Join us for free pizza and presentations from these data journalism professionals:
Ted Han, DocumentCloud Lead Developer
Ted has been leading DocumentCloud's technology efforts with a product focus since 2011. He studied computational linguistics and has worked in technology and startups for more than a decade. The Knight-funded DocumentCloud project is an open-source platform that has allowed journalists to upload, analyze, annotate, and publish more than a million documents, everything from local public records to files from the Guardian’s Edward Snowden leaks.
Rebecca Weiss, Brown Institute Fellow and Stanford PhD Communication candidate
Rebecca is working on SearchLight, a Brown Funded Project that provides an open-source platform for discovering algorithmic bias in search engine results.  Specifically, she and her collaborators are seeking ways to identify “partisan profiling,” where search results are more likely to cater to a specific political ideology given the content of search queries and individual attributes of the user.
Location: 443 Via Ortega, Shriram Building, Tea Room (Basement).
Parking: Parking is free in the structure across from Shriram after 4 PM.
Tentative schedule
6:30 - 7:00 pm - Casual networking, pizza

7:00 -7:15: Welcome from Maneesh Agrawala, Director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Stanford Professor of Computer Science

7:15 - 7:30 - Ted Han, Lead Developer at DocumentCloud will discuss the investigative insights that can be found from text-mining the documents and public records uploaded and published by journalists.

7:30 - 7:45 – Brown Fellow Rebecca Weiss explains how Brown funded project SearchLight uses text mining and data science to discover algorithmic bias in search engine results and political advertisements .

7:45 - 8:00 - Q&A led by Dan Nguyen, Lecturer, Stanford Journalism Program.

8:00 - 8:30 - More casual networking.

Feb 05. Celebrating the Launch of 'Fade Resistance' by fellow Zun Lee


Join us in celebrating the launch of "Fade Resistance", a project by Zun Lee. “Fade Resistance” seeks to restore the narrative impact of thousands of found African American vernacular Polaroid photographs, and to fill a representational gap in the history of American snapshot photography. Set at the Gladstone Hotel in the arts district of Toronto, part I of the project puts on display thousands of original polaroids, as well as large format prints of select found photos.

With the goal of complementing the analog with a digital component, Zun has been working with GOODDIGITALCULTURE to develope an interactive archive and storytelling platform. This portion of “Fade Resistance,” which is currently in development, will invite viewers to participate in the collection, organization, and narrative arrangement of African American vernacular imagery.

Zun Lee is recipient of our joint venture with the Magnum Foundation's Photography, Expanded Fellowship, an initiative that supports innovation at the intersection of technology and documentary practice and cultivates interdisciplinary ideation and production. This fellowship offers an opportunity for photographers to collaborate with technologists to expand their practices and to develop new forms for narrative storytelling to more effectively address social issues.

Details on the project can be found at, with additional write-ups at The Globe and MailThe New Yorker, and The Instagram Blog.

Feb 01. Announcing Partnership with UNDP for "The Last Mile"


The Brown Institute is proud to announce its partnership with the UNDP’s Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA) for the launch of “The Last Mile”, a workshop and hackathon dedicated to improving livelihoods and increasing resiliency with tailored weather information services for a changing climate.

“Innovation, out-of-the-box-thinking, big ideas, and smart applications of technology have the potential to significantly impact the way weather information is shared across Africa,” said CIRDA Programme Manager Bonizella Biagini.  “In a world where information is power – and climate change is producing more severe storms and temperature fluctuations that affect vulnerable African communities – access to accurate and timely weather forecasts can work toward reducing poverty, empowering rural communities and saving lives.” 

The Climate Action Hackathon will take place on March 15-17, and participants will have access to leaders in meteorology, technology, sustainable development and communications. They will work individually or in teams to create mobile applications, technology solutions or data-crunching systems that address Africa’s persistent challenges in adapting to climate change, and sharing early warnings and accurate climate information across the continent.

To learn more about the Climate Action Hackathon and apply for a travel scholarship, please visit

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

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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