The Brown Institute of Stanford and Columbia universities announces its Magic Grant winners

Stanford graduate students are among recipients of grants aimed at fostering new tools and modes of expression.

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Stanford University’s School of Engineering and Columbia Journalism School, is pleased to announce its 2021-22 Magic Grant recipients. Each year, the Brown Institute awards grants to foster new tools and modes of expression and to create stories that escape the bounds of page and screen.

Magic Grants are awarded by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Stanford University’s School of Engineering and Columbia Journalism School. (Image credit: Getty Images)

This 10th year of awards includes nine Magic Grants and two seed grants. Each project addresses an important contemporary issue, be it political, cultural or technical.

For example, one project aims to design interventions to help older adults identify misinformation online. Another grant will assist law enforcement officials, journalists and educators in recognizing racism in their interpretation of social media posts by Black people.

The institute was established in 2012 by a gift from Helen Gurley Brown. David and Helen Gurley Brown believed that magic happens when innovative technology is combined with great content and talented people are given the opportunity to explore and create new ways to inform and entertain.

The following is a complete list of Magic Grants funded by the Brown Institute for 2021-22:

Getting Wise to Fake News: Large-Scale Digital Media Literacy Interventions for Older Adults
Ryan Moore, doctoral candidate in communication at Stanford; Jueni Duyen Tran, doctoral candidate in communication at Columbia University; Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Stanford; and Sandra Matz, associate professor 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 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 collaboration with MediaWise, a nonprofit journalism organization, the Getting Wise to Fake News 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 civic-minded and tend to have more discretionary time, bolstering their digital media literacy could aid society’s fight against misinformation.

Interpret Me: An Immersive Simulation for Community-Centered Understanding of Social Media Content
Desmond Upton Patton, associate professor of sociology at Columbia University; Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Stanford; and Hannah Nicole Mieczkowski, doctoral candidate in communication at Stanford

Social media posts can be incredibly difficult to understand because they can be highly contextualized. These misunderstandings can have real consequences: interpersonal violence, police officers arresting innocent people, administrators barring students from opportunities or journalists reproducing pathologizing stories about vulnerable communities. To interpret social media with a greater focus on context, racial bias reflection and restorative justice, the team 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 collaborating 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, the team will ensure the intervention is community-driven. Interpret Me is a system for stakeholders who engage with social media and online predictive reporting algorithms to make decisions about speculative social media. The Interpret Me team’s 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.

Automated Accessory Rigs for Layered 2D Character Illustrations
Jingyi Li, doctoral candidate in computer science at Stanford; Nicole Woo, master’s candidate in computer science at Stanford; and Julia Chin and Thomas Escudero, both bachelor’s candidates in computer science at Stanford

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 there were tools to make these mix-and-match characters easily come to life? This project proposes 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. This tool will make authoring compelling visual content more accessible.

Combating the Spread of Disinformation on Encrypted Messaging Apps
Joseph Seering, postdoctoral researcher in computer science at Stanford, and Raagavi Ragothaman, bachelor’s candidate in computer science at Stanford

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 researcher at the Philanthropy and Civil Society Center at Stanford; Michelle Lam, doctoral candidate in computer science at Stanford; Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Stanford; and James Landay, professor of computer science at Stanford

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. The team will build In(advert)ent, the first user-centered system to study race and gender biases in online advertising. This 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, the In(advert)ent team 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 and Jacob Ritchie, both doctoral candidates in computer science at Stanford, and James Landay, professor of computer science at Stanford

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 increase students’ interest in science and the environment and make 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.

Bridging the Search
Mónica Trigos Padilla, MPA ’21 SIPA Columbia University; William Gregory Odum, doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia University; and Alexander Gil Fuentes, digital scholarship coordinator for the Humanities and History Division at Columbia University

Out of 88,000-plus missing persons in Mexico, over 79,000 have disappeared since 2006. Predominantly women-led, self-sustaining colectivos (group) of buscadoras (searchers) have organized themselves, developing search methods and support systems as they came to be the principal agents searching for the disappeared. In collaboration with the colectivo Regresando a Casa Morelos and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Cuajimalpa, the Bridging the Search team formed the student-run Buscadoras Research Unit at Columbia in 2020. The team recognized a need for coordination and collaboration between buscadoras, colectivos and international researchers and journalists to address the 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, intercommunication, 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; Idris Brewster, Chief Creative Officer; Micah Milner, COO; and Shay Banerjee, chief strategist, at Movers & Shakers

Movers & Shakers is building Kinfolk, a mobile app and web archive that will serve as a centralized archive for Black and brown historical narratives. The Kinfolk team is assembling a team of researchers, historians and storytellers to curate existing information from disparate historical archives. Each icon will have an augmented reality monument that a student can digitally place into their classroom/bedroom. The student will then be prompted to perform Common Core-aligned tasks (for English and history classes) to delve deeper into the person’s life, make connections between events that relate to their lifetime and analyze the significance of how their story impacts contemporary life. The students will be able to search through the archive for traditional primary and secondary sources, including documents, video, audio and art, as well as 3D artifacts to place in space with the monuments, to create their own digital exhibition. As it stands, the web archive currently has artifacts and a curriculum for six Black figures.

Anjali Tsui, project editor and coordinator, MISSING THEM at THE CITY; and CJS Stabile ’16 and 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 hyperlocal 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 work with community groups and libraries to create mobile outreach stations and go door-to-door to crowdsource stories about the pandemic and its aftermath.

Seed grants

In addition to Magic Grants, the Brown Institute is providing seed funds to the following initiatives to assist in prototyping and early project development:

Dolls of the Holocaust
Craig Waxman, creative director of Polysphere Creative, and Annalyn Kurtz, ’15 Columbia Journalism School, ’17 Columbia Business School, 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. This project 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, as a vehicle for helping modern-day audiences learn about an important moment in history and connect with stories of trauma, identity, caregiving and resilience. The project will serve as a case study for how journalists and historians can use the latest photogrammetry techniques for storytelling and historical preservation.

Beyond Declarations
Judith Helfand, visiting professor at Columbia 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; and DeAngelo Mack, director of state policy at Public Health Advocates

Beyond Declarations California is a model for how to link the process of creating and utilizing public policy that reframes racism as a public health crisis to recently collected public health data and participatory hyperlocal 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 United States. Using the film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code as a narrative and dialogue-inspiring centerpiece, the team 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 is to 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, manmade, slow-motion disaster of structural racism for generations into critical forms of disaster response and preparedness – and along the way turn these declarations into policies with teeth.