An innovation and incubation group was founded in September 2013 as part of a broader restructure to bring digital services into the core of the organisation, and tasked with bringing the best talent and ideas into the fold. The innovation and research arm launched publicly in July and held its first hackathon last week.
Supported by the considerable riches of the Qatari royal family, most media commentators would be forgiven for thinking Al Jazeera could open a news labs system – similar to that at the BBC or the Times – develop their own products and leave the competition behind, but such wealth is allowing them to take the opposite tack.
"Open innovation is what drives this whole thing for us," Morad Rayyan, project lead for the Innovation and Research Group, told Journalism.co.uk at the inaugural hackathon in Doha.There are people out there who are interested in the intersection between technology and media, and we thought why would we even want to compete with such a thing?Morad Rayyan, Al Jazeera Innovation and Research Group
"In the old days people would invest millions of dollars and thousands of scientists in closed labs, with their own patents and they don't share that knowledge or open it up.
"But the new thing is that we have a community, there are people out there who are interested in the intersection between technology and media, just in general, and we thought why would we even want to compete with such a thing? It doesn't make sense. So we thought, let's empower them."
His department has been given three mandates: fostering innovation at Al Jazeera and the Middle East, fostering open innovation in general, leading research and development at Al Jazeera.
Upon its official launch in July the innovation and research team began by challenging developers and media innovators to "give us a prototype around linear narratives", said Rayyan, but they were really gearing up for the main event.
The first Canvas hackathon saw 86 "developers, journalists, designers, entrepreneurs and activists" from 37 countries invited to Doha to build prototypes around the concept of 'media in context'.
"The interesting part is that the type of people we have in here are not newbies," Rayyan continued. "They're really smart people. We're really proud of it. Some of them are GE innovation winners, some are professors from top schools, a lot are from the MIT media lab, from BBC R&D, and so on."
Screenshot from Street Stories, one of the winning projects at the Canvas Hackathon that combines embedded pictures and videos with Google Street View to tell stories
Ousama Itani, another member of the innovation and research group, explained how the team developed 12 challenges for the participants, based on different contexts – personal, situational, historical/cultural and editorial – and the phases, from production, through distribution to consumption.
"We wanted to look at it from two perspectives," explained Ousama Itani, one of the leading members of the I&R group, "[firstly]the context of the story, and [secondly] if you have a new story it doesn't just exist in a vacuum. The person consuming that content is in a context too, because we all are, at all times of the day.
"That was our initial exploration and when we dove a little bit deeper we found it was more than that, there are more contexts."
In addition to the personal context, the team identified a situational, historical/cultural and editorial context that can apply to three phases of media: production, distribution and consumption.
Combining these elements gave 12 challenges, 12 questions or opportunities or target areas to experiment in and innovate around.
A quick glance through the list of submissions at the end of the hackathon proves both the quality of attendees and legitimacy of the framework provided, but the hackathon was the starter pistol for a much broader project.
"Canvas, although it's the big word on the side of the hackathon, it's not necessarily limited to this event," said Itani. "It's the community it's going to establish, our open innovation community.
"Everyone who is here, along with over 1,600 people who applied to be here. We're going to look to those people to create a community going forward of innovators and thinkers. That community is going to be the fire that powers the open ideation platform and that platform helps us take ideas from ideation to prototype."
Demo video (no sound) for Newsclip.se, another winning project from the hackathon, which aims to help journalists discover and organise information online
People involved with the Canvas community can pitch ideas to the community itself, then based on the number of votes an idea receives and how viable Al Jazeera believe it may be, the incubation arm will put forward a seed grant.
"Then there's another round of review," said Rayyan. "And if everyone loves it and our board of investors love it then we'll say 'Welcome to Doha! Come here and we'll talk some business and take it to the next level'."
Al Jazeera will still be working on their own, in-house research and development projects, said Rayyan, but by positioning themselves as a focal point for innovation and experimentation in the media they are offered a unique position to see the best the world has to offer.
Having the funds to fly the cream of global talent straight to the Al Jazeera HQ helps too.
"The cool thing is when people come here and turn [their proposals] into prototypes, the idea is that others can build on it later," added Itani. "Say someone couldn't turn it into a really cool thing just yet, but a few months later someone else might say 'you know what? I can take that to the next level'.
"That's how it's going to be. The platform will have a way for people to showcase how they built upon other peoples ideas so that chain of attribution stays intact."It's not about Al Jazeera, or Al Jazeera content or how to take Al Jazeera to the next levelMorad Rayyan, Al Jazeera Innovation and Research Group
And the ultimate aim, at least for the young developers leading the Canvas community, is to be at the leading edge of a movement taking the global media forwards.
"We're going to identify some great ideas and turn into something that everyone is going to use," said Rayyan. "We cannot control their intellectual property but we recommend everyone to use a licensing like creative commons that allows others to build on that knowledge.
"It's not about Al Jazeera, or Al Jazeera content or how to take Al Jazeera to the next level and a lot of these people, what they're working on [at the hackathon], it's not about Al Jazeera content or news.
"Some people work in radio and say they want to take the radio experience to the next level. Some people are working with comments and wanting to make that better. Some people are saying they want to empower the voiceless. It's great."
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