Mar 07. Magic Grants Due TODAY 3/7!

This is a reminder that applications for Brown Institute Magic Grants are due TODAY (3/7) by midnight Pacific time! 

As many of you might know, one of our current team of grantees has released a VR documentary on the famine in South Sudan. It's an immersive video that we produced with FRONTLINE. The full video is out now -- watch it at is just one example of the projects we fund. Successful Magic Grants are varied, but they all represent authentic collaborations between a story and some kind of novel technology.

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. A platform to apply machine learning to collections of declassified documents 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.

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.

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

Below we highlight some of the important dates in the application 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)

That first deadline is here. TODAY! If you have any last-minute questions, please contact  Mark Hansen (, Michael Krisch ( at Columbia, or Kelly Yilmaz ( at Stanford. 

Good luck!

Mar 05. Behind the scenes of "On the Brink"


In two publications this week, the Magic Grant team of Evan Wexler, Marcelle Hopkins and Ben Moran take us behind the scenes of their VR documentary "On the Brink of Famine," a moving experience of the hunger crisis in South Sudan.

In a post for FRONTLINE's blog, Marcelle Hopkins explains how the food crisis developed in South Sudan. Shockingly, it has nothing to do with climate change or El Niño.

South Sudan’s food crisis is entirely man-made. In December 2013, two years after the country gained independence, a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, launched the young country into civil war...

In April 2015, the government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held areas. Across Unity state, its forces burned down entire villages, destroyed food crops and looted livestock, sparking mass displacement of the survivors, according to the U.N.

“There are indications that this may have been a deliberate strategy by the government or the SPLA [South Sudanese military] aimed at depriving civilians of any source of livelihood with a view to forcing their displacement,” a U.N. human rights report said.

It is a chilling article.

Next, in a video and accompanying story in ArsTechnica, the team explains their creative process for making both technical as well as journalistic decisions for "On the Brink."

Managing civil war, excruciating heat, and a ton of GoPro cameras—these were just a few of the challenges of shooting a virtual reality documentary in South Sudan...

Once in the field, the team put those cameras into some risky situations, including planting one in a field designated for a humanitarian food drop. Luckily, the camera survived its bombardment with 100-pound bags of sorghum, producing a mesmerizing, if terrifying, 360-degree view of the drop.

In these two pieces, the team offers deep historical analysis of the crisis and the technical approach they adopted to tell its story.  Again, congratuations to Evan, Marcelle and Ben for creating a powerful work of journalism.

Mar 04. Photo Expanded Fellow DiCampo Launches "What Went Wrong"


This week, Peter DiCampo, a fellow in the Photography Expanded program -- a joint effort of the Magnum Foundation and the Brown Institute -- launched his site "What Went Wrong". DiCampo explains the goals the project. 

The efficiency of development aid is one of the more contentious issues of our time, but consistent journalistic investigation and the voices of the would-be beneficiaries are often missing from this debate. What Went Wrong? is an effort to reframe the conversation on foreign aid through in-depth photojournalism, crowdsourced reports, and data visualization.  

In parallel, the first issue of Broken Toilets was published today. It is a new online magazine focusing on development issues.

Welcome to the first issue of Broken Toilets, an online magazine featuring stories about global development and culture.

Issue 1, Sludge, deals with the often ignored, decidedly murky, yet undeniably crucial topic of fecal sludge – a subject that exemplifies the problems of reconciling new solutions with old practices.

This first issue includes a piece by DiCampo. In it, he reflects on his Peace Corps experience that led to his photography of foreign aid sites and, ultimately, to "What Went Wrong."

Mar 03. "On the Brink of Famine": Full Doc Released

The Drop Posted by FRONTLINE

Today we are proud to announce the release of the full documentary "On the Brink of Famine.”

"On the Brink" takes you inside South Sudan in 360° to meet people battling a man-made hunger crisis. Experience the front lines of a famine in the making, in a VR documentary by Marcelle Hopkins, Evan Wexler and Ben Moran. The team received a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for this piece -- a collaboration betwen Brown, FRONTLINE and The Made in NYC Media Center by IFP. Watch the video here or on Facebook 360°

Feb 27. Second VR Trailer for "On the Brink": The Camp

The Drop Posted by FRONTLINE

Imagine having to leave your family, your home, everything you hold dear, and walk alone for days just to find food and shelter. Eventually, you end up in a camp with over 120,000 others who, like you, fled the violence of civil war -- living on the brink of starvation.

It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to experience it. We invite you to go inside a UN camp in South Sudan via Facebook 360° in this scene from “On the Brink of Famine.” The full VR documentary, by FRONTLINE and The Brown Institute with support from the Ford Foundation and The Made in New York Media Center by IFP, premieres March 1.

Feb 27. Reframe Iran selected for Kaleidoscope World Tour


Reframe Iran is a virtual reality experience taking place in eight Iranian artist studios throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. With a Gear VR headset, the user will be up close and personal with internationally acclaimed artists such as Shirin Neshat and Parviz Tanavoli. The narration and music for this experience are both minimal, allowing the user to feel like they are dropping in on some of the artists’ most intimate moments– while they are working – or behind the scenes of a conversation with our team. While the user visually investigates these studios, a cohesive story emerges through narration and interviews about Iranian identity and the heavy burden these artists carry to represent Iran while living simultaneously in exile from their country. 

Reframe Iran is one of 19 VR videos awarded "Official Selection" at the 2016 Kaleidoscope World Tour. The event, produced in association with WIRED, is a "traveling showcase of the best in cinematic virtual reality & immersive experiences." The tour will take the winning videos to 10 cities around the world.

Reframe Iran received a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for 2014-2015. The core group – João Inada, Alexandra Glorioso, Matteo Lonardi and Matt Yu – applied for their grant while they were graduate students. Inada, Glorioso and Lonardi were journalism students at Columbia and Yu was (and still is) a PhD candidate in electrical engineering at Stanford. They wanted to understand the connection between media narratives about an isolated country – Iran – and their effect on the public’s perception of that country through its demand for art. Later, a former classmate, John Albert joined their team and Reframe Iran was born. Currently, Albert is working for McClatchy News in Kansas, Inada and Lonardi are working as video journalists for Culturerunners, Glorioso is working at a the Center for Responsive Politics in DC and Yu is finishing his PhD.

Congratulations to João, Alex, Matteo, Matt and John!

Feb 26. Visual Genome: A new interface for image search and retrieval

Visual Genome is a dataset, a knowledge base, an ongoing effort to connect structured image concepts to language. It allows for a multi-perspective study of an image, from pixel-level information like objects, to relationships that require further inference, and to even deeper cognitive tasks like question answering. It is a comprehensive dataset for training and benchmarking the next generation of computer vision models. With Visual Genome, we expect these models to develop a broader understanding of our visual world, complementing computers’ capacities to detect objects with abilities to describe those objects and explain their interactions and relationships. Visual Genome is a large formalized knowledge representation for visual understanding and a more complete set of descriptions and question answers that grounds visual concepts to language.

Feb 25. Announcing the MINDS Innovation Challenge!

On Saturday March 5, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation are teaming up to host the MINDS Innovation Challenge.
Working with text, photo and video APIs made accessible from AP and the Press Association, students will be challenged to rethink how agencies can find new uses for their content.
Over the course of the day, teams will be mentored through design exercises to prototype new engagement, products and stories that can be can be told through the mass of existing content. If you have attended the transparency workshops or Base Camp offerings, consider this a continuation of those exercises.
Now to the exciting part! At the end of the hack, teams will be evaluated on the ideas generated during the hack. Three select finalists will be given the opportunity to present at MINDS Conference NY at AP in April. The winning presentation at this conference will be awarded a one-week trip to London and the chance to present at Press Association and AP Headquarters in London! Winners of MINDS Innovation Challenge will also receive a Diploma/Certificate signed by all the agencies.
We know this is a week away and you're the midsts of finalizing your master's projects and Brown Institute proposals. But if you have time, this is the opportunity of a lifetime!

Apply to the hack event at

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.

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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