2014 Winners

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Hack the Mold

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is one of the 2014-15 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 12 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


  • Jere Hester, Director, CUNY J-School’s NYCity News Service,
  • Greg B. Smith, New York Daily News Investigative Reporter,
  • Amanda Hickman, CUNY J-School Visiting Lecturer for Multimedia Storytelling and Data Visualization,
  • Lauren Johnston, New York Daily News’ Digital Editorial Director,
  • Sandeep Junnarkar, CUNY J-School’s Interactive Director,
  • Adam Glenn, CUNY J-School Associate Professor for Interactive

Describe your project as a tweet

.@cunyjschool & @NYDailyNews crowdsource mold scourge in public housing to bring action/#accountability

What is your live news experiment?

Teaming with the New York Daily News, we’ll test high- and low-tech approaches to crowdsourcing to engage New Yorkers who are not hyperconnected to news. Working with public housing tenants, we’ll quantify the scope of a pressing mold problem, work with tenants to test for mold and track NYC’s court-mandated cleanup.

Our hypothesis is that Innovative audience engagement paired with experienced reporting can tell the whole story of a vulnerable community battling a serious health issue and get action. We’ll measure success by:

  1. The number of substantive responses to each query;
  2. Successful mold remediation by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

How is this project unique and innovative?

NYCHA, landlord to 400,000 low-income New Yorkers, recently agreed to unprecedented federal oversight of a mandate to remove mold from countless apartments within 15 days of a complaint.

This project will use engagement tools to track whether NYCHA – already backloaded with 400,000 housing repairs pre-Sandy – complies. Information gathered would close a gap in NYCHA’s repair system, which doesn’t track mold.

Combining graduate student reporters from a public university with the reach of a popular daily paper that’s long spotlighted this important environmental health story, we’ll take several approaches to engagement. We’ll invite residents to use SMS, email and web forms to tell – and show, with pictures – their story in varying levels of detail.

We’ll work with tenants who are already community leaders and can go door-to-door with our students, gathering information and testing for mold. We will become part of the community, virtually and in person.

By engaging tenants directly, we can begin to capture the problem’s extent. We can test tools and strategies for engaging an audience that isn’t part of most newsrooms’ source file. We’ll help residents use photos and lab tests to document mold infiltration, and we’ll use SMS surveys and mail-in coupons – promoted by the Daily News, fliers and neighborhood leaders – to encourage tenants to gather data and share stories.

We’ll produce valuable reporting, generate a network of sources that can tell more stories that matter to low-income New Yorkers – and pack a toolbox with new engagement/crowdsourcing approaches. We’ll present findings in a clear, innovative form (everything from mapping to a custom filterable tables. We can also overlay health and demographic information). We’ll spotlight the chain of responsibility – and, hopefully, prompt action.

We know of no other partnership that combines empowering a community to report on itself, sharing the findings digitally, and producing accountability/investigative journalism. Many past crowdsourcing efforts have involved lighter topics. Our project could lead to meaningful change in tenants’ lives, and lead others to tackle even more ambitious projects.

How will you collaborate?

We know from previous partnerships with news organizations that efforts work only with a combination of dedication/passion on all sides, and frequent, focused interaction.

That starts with building a plan for gathering information and presentation, with all – including students – involved throughout the process. We envision building a class and/or internship/fellowships around the project.

Journalists from the news organization would be a frequent presence in the classroom, and students and faculty will be immersed in the media organization’s newsroom. Working together on all facets of the project, we have a true opportunity to learn best practices from the newsroom and the classroom, and forge new collaborative strategies.

We also envision faculty and media professionals working in the field with the students, as they take on the major challenge of becoming part of these varied communities, where neglect can lead to suspicion.

What technology platforms will you use?

We’re looking at many options, including a mobile platform that would allow users to contribute their photo/gps info, via smart phones. We’d also deploy students with cameras and other digital reporting tools. While we haven’t ruled out creating a customized platform, we’d first turn to existing familiar ones, like Instagram.

Outreach will be key. We’ll try everything from social media to SMS to email lists and websites. We’ll start a database, and will use everything from pen and paper to Google forms for data collection. We can employ CartoDB or Google Maps for presentation. Part of the experiment is seeing what works and adjusting as necessary.

We expect a big part of outreach will involve low-tech communications – fliers, telephone conversations and perhaps radio ads, and interactions at community meetings, gaining the confidence of tenant leaders who could serve as guides and liaisons. Other technology: shoe leather and MetroCards.

How will this project provide an educational experience for students above and beyond their current learning?

Many students remain drawn to “traditional” reporting (video, photo, writing) but not all have embraced engagement. This partnership provides an opportunity to be immersed in meaningful community engagement and absorb its value.

Students will be asked to tackle multiple forms of crowdsourcing/reporting – and will see what works and what doesn’t and learn how to adjust quickly. They’ll become more comfortable with creative, responsible experimentation. They’ll also deal with journalists at the highest levels of the partner news organization.

The boots-on-the-ground aspect will make them stronger reporters – not only in interacting with people, but in learning how to better teach non-journalists to use simple digital tools to report on themselves and become more engaged citizen stakeholders. Students will become better collaborators – within news organizations and communities. We suspect they will be inspired as professional journalists to spearhead innovative projects and/or create their own new news products.

What are the real challenges you face in implementing this?

We face what all journalists face: getting door after door slammed in our face.

There’s a real possibility that we might not get buy-in from a population for whom suffering has led to suspicion of outsiders. Verification could become an issue, casting doubts on some the information gathered. The city could try to bar our reporters, toss our flyers in the trash, attempt to discredit us within the housing population before we’re able to build bridges and trust.

It’s possible that no matter how low we try to make the bar to entry, that people in crisis with limited means may not have the wherewithal to contribute or immediately see the value in doing so. But we also know that the measure of a true journalist is to keep knocking on those doors until someone lets you in.

If this project works, how might the media organization and academic institution change its practices?

We envision a spread of crowdsourcing not only within the media organization but throughout journalism. An impactful crowdsourcing project that improves the lives of people in public housing means crowdsourcing will be taken more seriously – and that our work will challenge others to come up with even more ambitious projects.

We can see community engagement, data collection and presentation becoming embedded throughout J-School the curriculum – and not just the purview of some select classes or high-profile projects. For The News, it could bring a change in how stories – on all levels – are conceived and executed.

Photo and Vine by Oresti Tsonopoulos (a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism)