Magic Grants Merge Technology and Storytelling

Aug. 28, 2013Bookmark and Share

When the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation was established at Columbia and Stanford in 2012, part of its $30 million endowment was earmarked for what founder Helen Gurley Brown called “Magic Grants.”

“Great content needs usable technology,” she said at the time. “Sharing a language is where the magic happens.” These competitively-awarded grants of up to $150,000 combine disciplines that until recently were rarely found together: for instance, data science and narrative journalism.

One grant went to a team of graduate students and recent graduates of Columbia’s Journalism and Engineering schools who are creating a system to track censorship in authoritarian regimes.

Key diagram
The schematic above, dated 1917, illustrates a top-secret method to smuggle information by rolling tissue-thin paper and slipping it into the barrel of the key. Such Mata Hari-era spy craft has long been obsolete, yet it remained classified until 1992.

Another grant will fund the Declassification Engine, a partnership between Columbia faculty and students in the history, statistics and computer science departments to examine how more documents are classified today than ever before, often needlessly. (Half the funding for this grant will come from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.)

That effort is led by Matt Connelly, a Columbia history professor who has been rooting through declassified documents for two decades. As he began work recently on a history of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war planning, he noticed that documents had more and more redacted text.

“I began to realize that I was only seeing a tiny fraction of what’s available,” said the diplomatic historian. “It’s debasing the value of secrecy because when everything is secret, then nothing is secret. It gets harder to keep the secrets that really do need to be protected.”

Among the things that the Declassification Engine might do is to see how long certain documents have been classified, and if they should remain so. It also could pair different versions of the same classified documents to see if one set has fewer redactions.

Connelly is quick to point out that no one on the project wants to follow the example of Wikileaks or Edward Snowden. “All of us accept that there are certain things that have to be kept secret,” he said. “Our preference would be to help the government follow the Freedom of Information Act and do so efficiently.”

Another Magic Grant examines how drag queens use technology and social media to curate their drag and male identities. It spotlights how information technology is transforming the way popular culture is experienced and consumed.

“It was interesting to me to see the way sub-culture communities find their way to technology and use it to propogate and thrive,” said Adam Golub, a graduate student in documentary filmmaking whose project, “Bushwig,” looks at the theme through the drag culture in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. His partner in the project is Jessa Lingel, a postdoctoral fellow at Microsoft New England.

Among the challenges for drag culture is that some social media sites, including Facebook, allow a person to have only one page, yet drag queens have two identities. “How should social media sites be designed to accommodate that?” asks Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute. People curate their identities all the time, even deciding whether to use a personal or professional email account.

“I would say we all have multiple digital identities, and the drag queen way of relating to it is more visually stark,” Golub said. “If you have Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook, you are presenting a different facet of yourself in all these social media platforms.”

The project’s first priority is to build a digital archive for the community of drag queens to upload their media data. “We expect to create new archiving tools,” said Golub. “Every performer and active nightlife goer could have their own profile and upload media organized by performer and venue.”

For Hansen, all these projects reflect the breadth and depth of what data science can do. “It’s that back and forth, between technology making stories, and stories creating technology, that I’m interested in exploring,” he said.

—by Bridget O'Brian

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