The Tow Center

Upcoming Tow Tea: New Beats in Digital Media Thursday, September 25, 4-6 PM


Tow Tea
New Beats and Covering Diverse Beats in Digital Media

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
The Brown Institute for Media Innovation

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism is thrilled to kick off our Fall 2014 Series of Tow Teas with an exciting conversation between Zave Martohardjono and David Noriega.  All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Zavé Martohardjono is a Brooklyn-based trans* artist who works in performance, movement, video, and text. With roots in documentary filmmaking, Zavé became interested in video and media while studying International Relations and Political Economy at Brown University. He went on to grassroots filmmaking and youth media education, later receiving an M.F.A. in Media Arts Production at the City College of New York.

David Noriega is a reporter with Buzzfeed.  Born in Bogotá, Colombia, he moved to the U.S. as a teenager. He graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature in 2008 before pursuing his Master’s at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Noriega is interested in covering social justice issues and the Latin American diaspora.

Open to the public

Announcements, Events, Past Events, Research, The Tow Center

Tow Center Program Defends Journalism From the Threat of Mass Surveillance


Knight Foundation supports Journalism After Snowden to ensure access to information and promote journalistic excellence. Below, Jennifer Henrichsen, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and Taylor Owen, research director, write about the expansion of the program.

We’ve long known that it’s easy to kill the messenger. Journalists are murdered all around the world for speaking truth to power. But, it wasn’t until recently that we realized how mass surveillance is killing source confidentiality, and with it, the very essence of journalism. By taking away the ability to protect sources—the lifeblood of journalism—surveillance can silence journalists without prosecutions or violence. Understanding the implications of state surveillance for the practice of journalism is the focus of our project, Journalism After Snowden.

We’re in an age of mass surveillance and it’s expanding. Metadata can reveal journalists’ sources without requiring officials to obtain a subpoena. Intelligence agencies can tap into undersea cables to capture encrypted traffic. Mobile devices, even when powered off, can be remotely accessed to record conversations. The extent of manipulation and penetration of the technology that journalists rely on to communicate with their sources makes it difficult—if not impossible—for journalists to truly protect them. And without reasonable assurances of protection, sources will invariably dry up, cutting off a supply of information about government wrongdoing which for more than a century has been a critical balance of power in democratic governance. And journalism without sources is not journalism at all; it’s public relations for the powerful.

So what can we do? With generous funding from The Tow Foundation and Knight Foundation, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School seeks to address what we think are three core challenges facing journalism in the age of state surveillance.

First, more journalists and news organizations need to take source protection seriously. They need to conduct risk assessments and embrace digital security tools and techniques. They need to arm themselves with knowledge of their legal rights—or lack thereof—and conduct a thorough audit of how the technology platforms they use retain and release data. And more news organizations should consider implementing technologies likeSecureDrop, an open-source whistleblower submission system, which enables media organizations to more securely accept documents from anonymous sources.

Second, we need to strengthen collaboration between journalists and technologists. Bridging this professional divide is critical to ensuring journalists can reach out to trusted technologists for expertise and technologists can better understand the challenges that journalists face and create more user-friendly tools that address their needs. Journalists also need to be more skeptical when problems with their devices arise. Rather than immediately running to the Apple store to wipe their devices (which can actually hide the problem), journalists should enlist technologists to help determine if there is a more sinister cause than simple equipment malfunction. Researchers and technologists also need to join together to develop a system to collect and anonymize data showing digital attacks against journalists so researchers can analyze these attacks, ascertain potential trends and identify possible solutions.

Third, journalist educators and journalism schools need to discuss how to integrate digital security curricula into their classrooms. Currently, most journalism professors provide ad hoc digital security education—if they do at all. Digital security education needs to become more mainstream in journalism classrooms to ensure emerging journalists are cognizant of the real risks they and their sources face in this changing environment, and to foster the confidence they need to better protect both.

The Journalism After Snowden Project seeks to contribute high-quality conversations and research to strengthen the national debate around state surveillance and freedom of expression. The initiative will feature a yearlong series of events, research projects and articles that we will publish in coordination with Columbia Journalism Review, and it will forge new partnerships with the individuals and organizations that are already doing great work in this space. These will include: a workshop bringing together technologists and journalists in San Francisco, a public lecture by Glenn Greenwald; a lecture series in partnership with the Yale Information Society Project; an edited volume likely to be published by Columbia University Press; a poll on the digital security practices of investigative journalists to be published with Pew Research Center; several research reports on digital security teaching and training for journalists; and a conference on national security reporting in Washington, D.C.

By tackling these challenges together, we’ll help to prevent the death of journalism at the hands of mass surveillance and ensure journalism after Snowden is stronger, not weaker.

Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014/ Dropping the Stick


Dropping the stick? Even as NYC recycling falls, the city cuts fines in half

NYCrecycling_bannerWith a recycling rate at less than half the national average, New York City is no recycling Mecca.
In fact, the city’s recycling rate has been decreasing since 2005. In 2013, it was at 15 percent, less than half of the national average and far from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s goal to have it at 30 percent by 2017.
Enforcement has also become more lax. City data shows that last year, the city’s fined recycling violators only a third of the levels seen in 2009.
While the City Council has raised the fine amount for larger buildings, the total number of fines issued per year has dropped by more than half in recent years.
Why has the city dropped the stick on recycling?

Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014/ Drones At Home


Drones At Home

DronesAtHomeDrones at Home is a blog curated by Columbia Journalism School students Olivia Feld, Robert Hackett and Julien Gathelier. Drone technology is transforming many industries. Once the domain of militaries and intelligence services, drones are now being made for commercial and domestic use. The rules and legal regulations regarding this new frontier of technological innovation are still being defined. Drones At Home covers all the latest in drone news, from amazing videos taken in Alaskan glaciers and erupting volcanos in the South Pacific to recent dogfights between hobbyists, businesses and the Federal Aviation Administration. Our series #meandmydrone also showcases drone pilots and their drones.


Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Browser Topic Reader


Browser Topic Reader

Noura Farra, Philip Liou, Joseph Taiwo Orilogbon


One way to increase engagement with news articles is to provide users with visual feedback about their favourite news topics and reading habits.  Currently, users spend a lot of time online reading news articles about various topics which can change from week to week. However, they rarely have a convenient and accurate means of aggregating statistics which can enable them to understand their own reading tastes and trends.

By providing analytics to users about their news consumption trends, our tool provides feedback that can alter news consumption positively. For example, a user might realize she is spending too much time reading about “Lindsay Lohan drug addiction” and that she should spend more time reading about other “worldly” events, such as “presidential election 2016”. By providing feedback on reading habits, the proposed tool would increase user engagement with news articles.

The proposed tool we developed is a Chrome browser extension which visualizes a user’s top consumed news topics based on her browsing history. It shows users the breakdown of types of news stories on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and allow them to keep track of their news interests, as well as how they change over time. The extension analyzes news articles based on URL history from the browser and presents a summary of the most popular topics for the selected period, in the form of two types of visualizations: a stacked area chart showing evolution of trends over time, and a Treemap which shows the importance of different news topics to users, based on distribution of keywords. The user has the ability to show and hide topics, as well as zoom in on different topics in the Treemap. Finally, we also show the user links to example articles from each topic.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Story South Asia


 Story South Asia

@Story South Asia , Isheta Salgaocar, Shiwani Neupane, Roshan Ghimire 

StorySouthAsiaStory South Asia started in 2013 when we noticed that we couldn’t find an  in-depth analysis of the region in any publication. We noticed that most South Asian news was very India centric, and wanted to change that, so other nations could get a more equal voice. Today, Story South Asia has more than 600 followers on Twitter and our website has around 15 contributors.

We are mostly interested in opinions, human-interest stories, reviews, interviews, photo-essays, editorials and lists. We are not looking for breaking news – the wires have that covered. We strongly believe in voices from the region: not just numbers and statistics on how many people died. At Story South Asia, we believe in putting a face behind a news article, and we are always looking for contributors. If you are interested, write to us at




Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / IRIS


Iris: Visualizing Geopolitical Sentiment 

Sahil Ansari, Shensi Ding, Robert KuykendallBo Xu

IRISPromoIRIS is a web application that provides a map of global news of positive or negative sentiment. Users can search for top recent news by country or word phrases and visualize its sentimental impact on foreign relations. IRIS was inspired by NewsStand, a research application which extracts location information from news stories and orients them on a zoomable map.
We envision IRIS being used for education and exploration of current events. News readers would be able to broaden their understanding of issues by looking into specific countries as well as countries connected by sentiment. Ideally, users exploring the map would feel a sense of serendipity as visually relationships pop leading to further exploration.



Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Finding Family


Finding Family

Jan Hendrik HinzelAdam Perez

Photocover_TowInnovativeShowcase_PerezHinzelFinding Family is a documentary about building a trans family in NY. The film focuses on a makeshift family bonded by the search for community. Jace, who started transitioning from female to male over a month ago, seeks refuge with a trans family and a new start away from his suffocating rural Texas hometown. With little funds and few resources, Kim and Cris run the only clinic in the Bronx that deals with trans care. They try tirelessly to create a family of transgender individuals who are isolated by friends and disowned by their families. Daisy is an activist, attempting to live openly as a trans woman and inspire others to do the same in the process.


Jace Matthew Jones: Jace, 22, also referred to as the “white adopted son,” moved to the Bronx early January after his parents kicked him out. He shares a room with his sister Jaimie, the only family member that hasn’t disowned him. With the help of Kim and Cris, who he refers to as his mom and dad, he began taking hormones, legally changed his gender to male and has started to build a new family.

Kim Watson-Benjamin: The “mama” of CK Life is the backbone of the family. She is the co-founder of CK life, a clinic that has helped hundreds of trans men and women with finding treatment. She grew up in the ballroom scene, raised in a “house,” banded together under a respected “house mother.” She has taken these principles and is attempting to nurture the next generation of trans people to become doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Cris Benjamin: The “papa” of CK life is the enforcer of the family. He is the one battling insurance companies to pay for clients’ surgeries, he is the one organizing, filing paper work and his calm demeanor balances out Kim’s bold personality.

Daisy Lopez: She is the “crazy aunt” of the family. Daisy self-identifies as a trans woman and is damn proud about it. She represents the counter to Jace, as someone who transitioned and found her voice.

We will create a website centered on the film that will include additional resources and information about support groups, how to navigate the healthcare system and cultivating a trans-friendly space.




Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014/ Salvage Amid The Ruins


Salvage Amid The Ruins

Thomas Shomaker

Shomaker_Innovation_StillFrame“Salvage amid the ruins” is a look at the salvage industry in greater New YorkCity. Anyone who has ever bought old furniture or furnishings has participated in this industry, but recently it has been growing to encompass more services than it traditionally provided. One company, a non-profit, has an environmental mission of diverting materials from the waste stream. For that reason it not only salvages and sells back goods, but also raw materials, such as the wood from a demolished bowling alley.

The other profiled company is a for-profit refurbisher and supplier with a showroom warehouse in East Harlem. But even larger is its facility in Ivoryton,Connecticut. This old ivory processing factory is now filled with 200,000 square feet of every type of fixture and piece of furniture imaginable, included old mantelpieces and hotel bars.

Part of the reason for growth in the salvage industry is New York’s current construction boom, which will see an estimated 34 billion dollars spent in 2014. In such a dense city, something must be removed for everything that goes up. Salvage companies work with demolishers to coordinate extraction.

For this piece, certain images were shot using a high-interlaced frame rate that was then converted to a standard progressive one, rendering smooth slow motion. An original recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty waltz was commissioned to propel the piece forward, reminiscent of the earlier era the salvaged materials come from.


Innovation Showcase

Innovation Showcase 2014 / Illegal Immigration


A legal resident fights deportation for a minor crime

Andrea HilbertLea Scruggs

RolandStillThe deportation of illegal immigrants is a topic that is well covered by the press and debated by the public. This video tells a story that is much less widely understood: How legal immigrants are being deported for minor crimes they committed years earlier.

In 2011, as Haitian-born Roland Sylvain returned from a Caribbean cruise with his wife, he was stopped by immigration authorities in Tampa. They confiscated his green card, and told him he would need to appear in immigration court. By travelling outside the country, the longtime legal resident had unwittingly triggered his own deportation proceedings.

The case against Sylvain is based on a criminal conviction he incurred 13 years ago, after being pulled over for speeding in Virginia. Sylvain, who was driving on a suspended license, panicked and signed the name of his cousin on the tickets. He immediately regretted what he had done, and confessed to the police officer. He pled guilty to forging a public document and was given a suspended sentence, which meant no prison time.

Under immigration law, Sylvain’s crime may be classified as an “aggravated felony” – which carries the consequence of virtually mandatory deportation. The fact that he has lived in this country legally since he was seven, that his wife and children and parents are all U.S. citizens, that he is the sole financial support for his family – none of these circumstances can be taken into account. This story follows Sylvain as he faces his latest immigration hearing, and explains how he and others like him find themselves in this situation.