The Brown Institute Announces Its 2021-2022 Magic Grants

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Columbia Journalism School and Stanford University’s School of Engineering, is pleased to announce its 2021-2022 Magic Grant recipients.

The Institute proudly marks a milestone achievement — its 10th cohort of grantees. The projects in this group are a collective response to difficult cultural, social and political issues. Each one is an example of the impact that collaborations between engineering and media can have, helping to see the world in new ways and take innovative actions.

This year’s awards include two “bi-coastal” Magic Grants — teams with members from both coasts. These projects are Getting Wise to Fake News, which aims to design interventions to help older adults identify misinformation online, and Interpret Me, which will help key stakeholders (e.g. educators, journalists) recognize potentially racially biased interpretations of social media activity by Black people.

The Brown Institute at Columbia funded three Magic Grants. These include the development of a bilingual online repository to help collectives of searchers, families, journalists, and researchers seeking information regarding Mexico’s 88,000+ victims of forced disappearance. A second project creates a mobile application and curriculum package that will serve as a centralized archive for underrepresented Black and Brown historical narratives. Another project aims to address gaps in representation found in news coverage of people killed by COVID-19. In addition to the Magic Grants, Columbia is sponsoring two “seed” grants — smaller awards to help support ideation, background research, and prototyping.

The Stanford side of the Institute funded four projects. These include a project that aims to prevent the spread of disinformation on end-to-end messaging platforms. Another project examines the interplay between disparities in race and gender in online advertising. The third project will develop an augmented reality tool to support self-directed learning in outdoor environments.The fourth team will create tools that enable users to customize the shape and attire of illustrated animatable characters.

The Brown Institute was established in 2012 with a generous gift from longtime Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown. It was inspired by the memory of Gurley Brown’s late husband, David Brown, a graduate of both the Columbia School of Journalism and Stanford University. Through its Magic Grants, the Institute encourages unique interdisciplinary collaborations. As Gurley Brown put it, “Sharing a language is where this magic happens.”

This year we are delighted to acknowledge additional support for our grants from PBS FRONTLINE.

Full descriptions of the 2021-2022 Magic Grants can be found below.


Getting Wise to Fake News: Large-Scale Digital Media Literacy Interventions for Older Adults

Ryan Moore, PhD Candidate in Communication at Stanford University; Jueni Duyen Tran, PhD Candidate in Communications at Columbia University; Jeff Hancock, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University; Sandra Matz, David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School

Recent research has identified older adults as a population especially likely to be exposed to and engage with misinformation online. This is particularly worrisome given that older individuals are significantly more likely to turn out to vote compared to other age groups. Unfortunately, existing interventions aimed at helping people sort fact from fiction online have often overlooked this key demographic. The goal of Getting Wise to Fake News is to offer an efficient solution to this problem. In partnership with MediaWise, a non-profit journalism organization, our team plans to develop, rigorously evaluate, refine, and ultimately scale a digital media literacy intervention that is explicitly tailored to the unique needs and strengths of older individuals. Because older adults are especially civic-minded and tend to have more discretionary time, bolstering their digital media literacy could help them emerge as important assets in society’s fight against misinformation. 

Interpret Me: An Immersive Simulation for Community-Centered Understanding of Social Media Content 

Desmond Upton Patton, Associate Professor, Columbia School of Social Work and Department of Sociology; Jeff Hancock, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communications, Stanford; Hannah Nicole Mieczkowski, PhD Candidate, Department of Communications, Stanford

Social media posts can be incredibly difficult to understand because they can be highly contextualized. Misunderstandings have real consequences: interpersonal violence, police officers arresting innocent people, administrators barring students from opportunities, or journalists reproducing stories that pathologize vulnerable communities. To interpret social media with a greater focus on context, racial bias reflection, and restorative justice, we created Interpret Me — a learning simulation intervention platform that trains law enforcement officials, journalists, and educators to recognize racism in their interpretation of social media posts by Black people. By partnering with members from the Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC) who will act as advisors and co-designers in the training development process and the Stanford Social Media Lab, we will ensure the intervention is community-driven. Interpret Me is embedded with AI-generated, human-in-the-loop feedback for stakeholders who engage with social media and online predictive reporting algorithms to make decisions about speculative social media. Our simulations will provide continuous feedback and self-reflection for users to learn and establish a new vocabulary for culturally aware and ethical social media risk assessment.


Bridging the Search

Mónica Trigos Padilla, MPA `21 SIPA Columbia University; William Gregory Odum, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University; Alexander Gil Fuentes, Digital Scholarship Coordinator for the Humanities and History Division, Columbia University Library

Out of 88,000+ missing persons in Mexico, more than 79,000 have disappeared since 2006. Predominantly women-led, self-sustaining “colectivos” of “buscadoras” (searchers) have organized themselves, developing search methods and support systems as they became the principal agents searching for the disappeared. In collaboration with the colectivo Regresando a Casa Morelos and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Cuajimalpa, we formed the student-run Buscadoras Research Unit at Columbia in 2020. We recognized a need for coordination and collaboration between buscadoras, colectivos, and international researchers and journalists that is partially due to an abundance of disaggregated data and analysis of disappearance and search efforts. The Buscadoras Documentation Project responds to this with a bilingual, online toolkit to serve as a repository and portal that offers a productive and practical space for socializing information, inter-communication, critical analysis, and collective memory construction. By producing digital media projects with colectivos, and organizing and articulating data, this project will facilitate and inform dialogue between those unfamiliar, and those all too familiar with the reality of disappearance across borders.


Glenn Cantave, CEO, Movers and Shakers; Idris Brewster, Chief Creative Officer, Movers and Shakers; Micah Milner, COO, Movers and Shakers; Shay Banerjee, Chief Strategist, Movers and Shakers

Black and Brown historical narratives remain diminished or absent from school curricula around the United States. Kinfolk is a mobile app and web archive that will serve as a centralized archive for these narratives. The Kinfolk team includes researchers, historians and storytellers all working to curate existing information from disparate historical archives. Each of these narratives highlighting different historical figures will have an augmented reality monument that a student can digitally place into a classroom or even a bedroom. The student will then be prompted to perform common-core aligned tasks for English and history classes, allowing them to delve deeper into the person’s life, make connections on events that relate to their lifetime and analyze the significance of how their story impacts contemporary life. With existing connections to educators around the country, Kinfolk is poised to change how we teach and learn about Black and Brown historical narratives.


Anjali Tsui, Project Editor and Coordinator, MISSING THEM at THE CITY and Columbia Journalism School ‘16; Terry Parris Jr., Engagement Director at THE CITY 

More than 30,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19. Yet Black and Latino New Yorkers as well as immigrants living in low-income neighborhoods are rarely reflected in the obituary pages. For the past year, MISSING THEM, a memorial and journalism project with THE CITY and Columbia Journalism School has tracked down more than 2,000 names of New Yorkers who died and written 400 obituaries, free of charge to families. The team is aiming to close the gap in representation through a new hyper-local crowdsourcing and storytelling project focused on a handful of New York City neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. Informed by the outreach and organizing strategies used by census workers and community organizers, the team will partner with community groups and libraries to create mobile outreach stations and go door-to-door to crowdsource stories about the pandemic and its aftermath.


Combating the Spread of Disinformation on Encrypted Messaging Apps

Joseph Seering, Postdoctoral Scholar in Computer Science at Stanford University; Raagavi Ragothaman, Undergraduate Senior in Computer Science at Stanford University

Platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram are increasingly popular destinations for group messaging worldwide because they offer guaranteed privacy: messages are encrypted so that the platforms themselves cannot read them. While this privacy offers many benefits, it also means that platforms can’t see or moderate disinformation. Links to disinformation can spread rapidly through these popular platforms through family and friend groups without any opportunity for the platform to intervene. The team will create and launch Lighthouse, an application for Android mobile phones that privately notifies users of disinformation links they receive through the WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted messaging platform. Because WhatsApp cannot itself identify disinformation links in messages, Lighthouse will identify these links locally on the user’s phone and will then notify the user if they have received a link to a known disinformation URL.

In(advert)ent: Investigating and countering disparities in race and gender representation in online advertising

Danaë Metaxa, Postdoctoral Scholar with the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society; Michelle Lam, PhD Student in Computer Science at Stanford University; Jeff Hancock, Professor of Communication at Stanford University; James Landay, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University 

Online advertising is pervasive and powerful, but remains understudied from the perspective of users. Unlike other forms of media, users have limited control over the ads they are shown, can be targeted based on potentially inaccurate or insensitive inferred attributes, and are consciously and unconsciously prompted to change their beliefs and behaviors by ads. Our team will build In(advert)ent, the first user-centered system to study race and gender biases in online advertising. Our system will allow us to understand the lived experiences of real internet users as they encounter repeated exposures to numerous independent, personalized ad delivery platforms that follow them across the web. With this user-centered, cross-platform, in-the-wild approach, we will observationally measure race and gender disparities in the content and audience of ads, and also experiment with interventions to change ad landscapes and measure their effect on users’ behaviors and beliefs. 

The World is your Textbook

Alan Cheng, PhD Student in Computer Science at Stanford University; Jacob Ritchie, PhD Student in Computer Science at Stanford University; James Landay, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University

Current classroom instruction often defaults to a one-size-fits-all model, causing some students to be left behind. The World is Your Textbook team will investigate how advances in machine learning and augmented reality can support personalized, self-directed outdoor learning to complement traditional instruction. By grounding scientific and social issues in examples from students’ own neighborhoods, this project aims to build interest pathways, making children more likely to engage with science and the environment in the future. The team will work to develop a series of educational outdoor activities that children aged 8-12 can complete with the aid of a smartphone and embed these activities in a compelling narrative to increase engagement. The resulting software will be refined through iterative user testing with the target demographic and evaluated to determine its impact on learning and other outcomes of interest.

Automated Accessory Rigs for Layered 2D Character Illustrations

Jingyi Li, PhD Candidate in Computer Science at Stanford University; Nicole Woo, MS student in Computer Science at Stanford University; Julia Chin, BS student in Computer Science at Stanford University; Thomas Escudero, BS student in Computer Science at Stanford University

Digital 2D illustrated characters are prevalent in many contexts, from user avatars to comic book stars. Mix-and-match character creation tools like Bitmoji or Picrew help even novice artists make their own characters but limit them to choosing a set of clothes and accessories. What if we had tools to make these mix-and-match characters easily come to life? We propose a set of novel, automated constraints which attach clothing and other accessories to the body of an illustrated character such that when a user modifies the shape or pose of the character’s body, the accessories will automatically adapt. Thus, users can customize their characters to better match their own body shapes or to dance around in clothing reflective of their own cultures. Our tool will make authoring compelling visual content more accessible.


Dolls of the Holocaust

Craig Waxman, Creative Director of Polysphere Creative; Annalyn Kurtz, Columbia Journalism School ’15, Columbia Business School ’17 and Freelance Journalist

Artifacts, like those displayed in museums, are an important way contemporary viewers learn about history — but as was the case during the pandemic, many people simply cannot visit museums to engage with these items. We will use journalism storytelling and photogrammetry techniques to digitally preserve and capture 3D representations of dolls that child victims of the Holocaust once played with. This will be a vehicle for helping modern-day audiences learn about an important moment in history and connect with stories of trauma, identity, caregiving and resilience. We aim for this project to serve as a case study for how journalists and historians can use the latest photogrammetry techniques for storytelling and historical preservation.

Beyond Declarations California

Judith Helfand, James Madison Visiting Professor on First Amendment Issues, Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism and Producer/Director of Cooked: Survival By Zip Code, Kathy Leichter, Engagement Strategist and Impact Producer for Cooked: Survival By Zip Code, DeAngelo Mack, Director of State Policy at Public Health Advocates

Beyond Declarations California is a pilot project for how to link public policy that reframes racism as a public health crisis to recently-collected public health data and participatory hyper-local storytelling and journalism. As of June 8, 2021, 31 California jurisdictions have officially declared racism a public health crisis, joining a growing movement across the U.S. Using the film, Cooked: Survival By Zip Code as a narrative and dialogue-inspiring centerpiece, we will gather public health experts, journalists, community members, frontline organizations, and policymakers to explore and report on aggregated death-by-racism and “life expectancy gap” data that is tied to on-the-ground experience and the stories of residents, community anchor institutions, and mutual aid efforts. The goal: Inspire cross-discipline community dialogue and journalism that rebrands and reframes community-led, grassroots organizations that have been striving to dismantle and transform the systemic, man-made, slow-motion disaster of structural racism, into critical forms of disaster response and preparedness.