Rita Allen Foundation Announces $515,000 in Grants to Build Civic Engagement Through Technology and Media

Code for America 2015 fellows Sophia Dengo Asturias and Ernie Hsiung visit the Miami-Dade County 3-1-1 Department. Photo: Mathias Gibson.
Code for America 2015 fellows Sophia Dengo Asturias and Ernie Hsiung visit the Miami-Dade County 3-1-1 Department. Photo: Mathias Gibson.

The Princeton-based Rita Allen Foundation has awarded $515,000 to technology and media organizations to support new work to build civic literacy and engagement.

“We are investing in people of exceptional talent and commitment who are making meaningful information more accessible to the public,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “These early-stage efforts have the potential to spark long-term solutions to some of society’s thorniest problems.”

News coverage that focuses heavily on problems can often alienate people from engaging in important issues. The Solutions Journalism Network promotes reporting that informs readers about solutions. The Network has trained reporters and editors in dozens of newsrooms, and recently released a comprehensive toolkit for solutions journalism.

Support from the Rita Allen Foundation is allowing the Solutions Journalism Network to investigate the impact of their approaches on reader engagement. The Foundation’s grant will also fund a series of free, interactive webinars on solutions journalism in collaboration with the Poynter Institute’s News University, as well as an undergraduate solutions-journalism curriculum. These resources will enable the Solutions Journalism Network to expand its reach to a wider community of journalists with a goal of bringing thoughtful, constructive news stories to broader audiences.

“If done well, solutions journalism makes our reporting stronger and more complete,” Solutions Journalism Network cofounder David Bornstein told the American Press Institute. “It injects valuable information into the public conversation, attracts readers and engages them deeply, and helps to depolarize the public debate.”

The Harmony Institute  is an interdisciplinary research center that studies the influence of media on individuals and society. New support from the Rita Allen Foundation will launch the Institute’s media impact fellowship program. With the goal of uniting academic scholars and media practitioners, the Institute is seeking fellows from among leading researchers in the social sciences and data science. Fellows will collaborate to advance an evidence-based understanding of media’s social influence as well as prototype tools along the lines of Story Pilot, a web application the Institute created to help documentary filmmakers track the impact of their work.

Digital Democracy is a new online platform using technology to increase the transparency and accountability of state legislatures. Housed at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Digital Democracy is creating a searchable video database of recorded California legislative hearings. The database will empower the media, citizens and watchdog groups to find and share video files and transcripts of hearings on topics of interest. Integrated data on campaign contributions and lobbying activities will help users track influences on the legislative process.

Funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow the Digital Democracy team to refine the tool’s software and user interface and assess the project’s outcomes in preparation for introducing Digital Democracy to other states.

Code for America’s fellowship program, now in its fifth year, connects talented individuals in technology and data science (including software developers, designers, researchers and project managers) with local governments and citizens to create new approaches to address their communities’ challenges. Together, they build tools that enable people from both inside and outside public institutions to collectively solve local problems. Fellows work in partnership with local public officials to build digital tools, foster new approaches to problem solving and tackle community issues.