A (verified) picture is worth a grand prize

A group of well-dressed students stands in front of an ornate wall and glass windows.

Zechang Fu, Rachel Thomas, William Fries, Meiying Wu and Alex Johar won the RJI Student Competition with VeriPixel, which uses blockchain technology to allow news organizations and news consumers to verify the authenticity of photographs sent over open networks.

A Mizzou Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major, four School of Journalism students with various backgrounds and skill sets, and a Truman State University computer science and business administration major who joined up via TigerHacks created the app that landed the top prize in the 2018 Reynolds Journalism Institute Student Competition.

Engineering’s Alex Johar, Journalism’s Zechang Fu, Rachel Thomas and Meiying Wu, and TSU’s William Fries created VeriPixel, which uses blockchain technology — similar to that used by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin — to allow news organizations and news consumers to verify the authenticity of photographs sent over open networks. The app provides a sense of certainty and authenticity for images in the era of “fake news.”

“It utilized the blockchain as an uneditable public database to be tracked against, so newsrooms can independently verify photos that photjournalists took, and the general audience would be able to do that, as well,” Johar said.

“As we kept going, we realized in order to have absolute security, we couldn’t just have a software solution, which is why we delved more into a hardware approach.”

The VeriPixel journey from concept to creation to champion began when Fries attended the TigerHacks competition in the fall. He was there mostly as moral support for some TSU classmates and was just planning to do homework but later decided to participate. That’s when he reached out to Thomas.

“This stroke of insight came to me. I was in a blockchain class at the time, and I was talking about it with some other people, and the idea just came to me that this could be used to solve a journalism problem,” Fries said.

With Fries in tow and a potentially viable idea in place, Thomas (a convergence-multimedia producing major) recruited Wu and Fu for their respective skills in photojournalism and data analysis and asked Johar to come aboard for his business and app development expertise. VeriPixel had a team in place with members who all excelled in different aspects.

“We all kind of fill our own niche roles and play a part in making this project a success,” Johar said.

The VeriPixel team earned a trip to New York City to meet with industry leaders in media and technology, and the quintet now will move into working with industry to fine tune their app and begin the process of commercializing it.

“It’s so easy to create fake content that looks real. It’s such a pervasive issue throughout social media for everyday people and for journalists, as well,” Thomas said.

The additional participating teams and their project descriptions, as compiled and written by RJI, were:

Team dBrief: dBrief is an app for traveling journalists that provides quick access to contextual information, relevant news and social tweets for the city or location they’ve been sent to for reporting. Team members are Natalie Edelstein, convergence journalism, political science; and Joseph Frank, Nathan Schlechte and Ian Smith, computer science.

Team Jouraph: This tool provides data visualization of how stories spread across networks, both topical and via the web. Jouraph focuses on how a story interacts with other organizations in a network – not just the volume of shares and views. It is designed to track the flow of information, not the flow of the user. Team members are Christian Cmehil-Warn, computer science, statistics; Megan Hill, strategic communication; Derek Howard and Jonah Zukosky, computer science; and Caroline Watkins, convergence journalism.

Team Mindflow: Surf is an app to surface emerging storylines by reaching out to citizens to supplement story ideas from reporters, editors and media releases. Surf uses natural language processing to analyze the responses to questions and surveys. Team members are Christopher Mitchell, Evan Teters and Lydia Snyder, computer science; and Millicent Wood, business administration, international studies.

Team Transparen: XPoint provides context and transparency to video reports via a small information box next to the video. Information can include geotags, historical reference banks and social media tags. Presets and customization are planned. Team members are Tristan Day and Carter Landis, computer science; Yasmeen Taranissi, accountancy, economics; and Annabel Thorpe, journalism.

The competition is an annual collaboration between the College of Engineering, RJI, School of Journalism and Trulaske College of Business. Judges for the 11th edition of the event included College of Engineering Dean Elizabeth Loboa, School of Journalism Dean David Kurpius, New York Times Vice President of Engineering Brian Hamman, AT&T Director of the National Engineer Group Camille McAuley and University of Missouri-Kansas City Digital Sandbox Director Jeff Shackelford.

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