New grants will help Chicago tech initiatives fight police misconduct, poverty

Written by Andreas Rekdal
Published on Jan. 26, 2016
New grants will help Chicago tech initiatives fight police misconduct, poverty

The Knight Foundation, a charitable organization centered around media, the arts, and fostering community, released the winners of its News Challenge awards today. Recipients included two Chicago upstarts:

and the Citizens Police Data Project.

mRelief, featured in our 50 startups to watch this year, helps residents in participating cities discover which government services they qualify for and apply for them. The Citizens Police Data Project makes an online toolkit that helps communities report, track, and analyze allegations of police misconduct — as well as the investigation into those allegations — in order to promote greater transparency in how such cases are handled.

“We were actually really floored," said mRelief president and CEO Rose Afriyie about discovering that her company had won the award. “Chicago is home to so many leaders in civic technology and we are so grateful to receive support towards enhancing quality of life for those in our community facing tremendous financial challenges.”

mRelief — whose current platform was built with a smaller Knight prototype grant issued in an earlier challenge — will receive $250,000 to further expand its range of services. The platform helps users fill out eligibility forms for government assistance programs via web and text message. (Although text messaging is hardly cutting edge tech, this functionality is crucial to mRelief’s operations, since many who qualify for government assistance do not have reliable internet access.)

Thus far, the company has been receiving a lot of positive feedback from city and state governments who administer programs. Their next project is to help residents identify what documents they need to apply for the benefits.

The Citizens Police Data Project received $400,000 to improve its online platform for increasing transparency in police misconduct cases.

This project started a decade ago when Invisible Institute founder Jamie Kalven met a Chicago public housing development resident who had been repeatedly assaulted and sexually harassed by a group of police officers. During a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the victim, she obtained a private list of Chicago Police officers who had received the most complaints. 

After seven years of litigation, the Illinois Court of Appeals held that police misconduct records should be open to the public. To keep the database current, the organization submits Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for these records twice yearly.

“Apart from updating the existing database to include new information, we are also actively expanding the variety of perspectives that can be searched and visualized by improving the data tools and importing new data types from numerous sources,” said Alison Flowers, investigative reporter and staff member at the Invisible Institute.

The News Challenge is a media innovation contest put on regularly by the Knight Foundation, and is centered around a different theme each time. This 14th challenge was issued to initiatives that help people and communities navigate the complexities of living in a data-rich age, and the winners were chosen from an application pool of 1065 projects.

“Something like the mRelief project grows out of the larger ecosystem that we have here in Chicago,” said John Bracken, VP of media innovation at the Knight Foundation. “One of the exciting things is that we’re living in an age where tools like internet-equipped cell phones enable not just governments to provide services for citizens, but for other people to come in and build from the data that government provides.”

The next Knight Challenge will be centered around the question of how libraries can remain relevant to its citizens in the digital age.

Images via the Knight Foundation.

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