Knight News Challenge Application: The Squires

Project Title: Michigan Local Knowledge Website: Connecting People with Innovative Sustainable Practices

Requested Amount: $5,000

Estimated Time to Complete Project: Six Months

Section 1: Project Description

Our team would like to design a website that allows people to search for local sustainability knowledge in their area. The first part of this project would be to build a database and seed it with local knowledge categorized by location, knowledge type (for example, sustainability information about water use would be one category, electricity saving information would be another, etc.) and other keywords so that searching for the data would be easy. The next step would be to build a search engine on the website to access all the data. Google Ads would be used on the site so we can generate revenue for the project. After that, we would build a forum where users can talk more in-depth about their sustainability tips and tricks or issues, along with a function that would allow users to submit possible entries into the database (entry into the database would happen after the submission was reviewed). So the main site will be a search bar like google along with a forum for the users as well as a page to enter your own knowledge.

After getting a user base, we would look to fund the project through donations, like Wikipedia does. If our idea develops a core base of followers who are truly devoted to it, their small donations could make it possible to keep the database up and running without ads.

Hopefully, this site will become a platform for sustainability minded individuals. The forum could have different subgroupings for different areas, so people in Ann Arbor could talk to each other about their sustainability knowledge with regards to the specifics in the Ann Arbor area, while Detroiters would be able to talk about their strategies without getting their signals crossed.

Another reason why people would frequent our site would be to find ways to save money. Generally, living green means living more frugally, so this could entice a diverse array of individuals to come to the site.

Finally, if we did obtain the resources for it, we would like to interview elderly individuals in different areas to see how they might have done things in the past, before consumer culture became the norm, back when people had to be more resourceful and skilled in many different areas of life. For example, many elderly people possess skills like knitting that other individuals do not. By interviewing these elderly individuals and posting about it on the site, we would be able to connect users to people who know skills and are willing to teach them.

Finally, the website would provide a way for sustainability minded people to reach out to others like themselves for help on specific task, projects, or volunteering opportunities. Many different sustainability tasks become more feasible as the number of people buying in increases. For example, while solar panels are very expensive to buy on your own, contractors have great discounts for groups of people in the same area looking to implement solar. Thus, our site would be a great place to build community.

Section 2: The Unmet Need

Currently, there is no site that houses specifically local sustainability knowledge. Trying to find this knowledge through Google and other online sources is tedious if the information actually exists online, and impossible if the information has yet to be posted. Thus, our site will step in to fill both of these gaps: we will house specifically sustainability knowledge, allowing those who are seeking sustainability knowledge to narrow the parameters of their search. It will hopefully also get far more sustainability information posted online, especially about specific areas. The differential of our website in comparison to existing websites is the ease of access, keeping up with the high standards of search engines like Google, clear organization into categories, as well as a forum, which connects users in real time. Our hope is to show that there is a variety of solutions to a given sustainability problem, solutions which can be better and easier to implement than the current strategies depending on the area you find yourself in. Our stretch goal would be to bridge the gap between generations, connecting older people with younger people in sharing traditions.

Section 3: Interviews with Potential Users

Where do you find sustainability information?

Ryan: “Academic journals, new books. Talking to people. Non-profit social media pages and email newsletters. Governmental sites (Washtenaw County, City of Ann Arbor, MiDNR, EPA). News sites such as Grist, The Hill (Energy & Environment), and more blog-like sites such as Treehugger, Ecogeek, Zero Waste Home. ”

Do you feel the need for a better way to find sustainability information?

Nicole: “I think people in general need a way to access relevant, un-biased, accessible, truthful information on timely sustainability issues they can trust to give them the facts—not alarmist, denial, or exaggerated issues you tend to hear on the news. Something like U-Ms Risk Science Center for Public Health, but for sustainability and with a broader reach.”

Hannah: “It would be helpful to have a list of all the orgs working on sustainability (sorted by type) within a city/metro area.”

When you find something cool about sustainability, do you have a way to share it with other like-minded individuals?

Sam: “I would say yeah, multiple newsletters on campus you can use, social media, word of mouth”

Our interviews confirmed that users do not have a specific site for sustainability information searching and thus rely upon a diverse set of sources to get their information. There also seems to be a desire for local knowledge to be kept all in one place.

All interview data located here:

Section 4: The Potential Market for our Idea

For the launch, we are aiming at the Detroit – Ann Arbor area, which would probably make the market for it quite small. However, as long as a there is a dedicated support base, we would have no problem backing the site. There are many examples of small but dedicated online communities backing their initiative to much success. For example, Roosterteeth, an online video production company raised close to 2.5 million dollars for their first full-length film from only 40,000 funders. That means that the average person donated $62.50 to the initiative. Although we would never need anywhere near this level of funding, examples like these prove that so long as our user-base is dedicated, we can keep the lights on at our initiative. As our support base increases, we would definitely be interested in expanding our market to other areas in the United States.

Section 6: Innovation and Competitors

Our idea is definitely innovative: there are no sites currently like it from what we can tell. The closest site we found like it was the one located below, a site that tracks indigenous knowledge:

The next closest competitors would be the sites it emulates, like Google and Reddit. Google is a search engine, but the problem with Google is that, first of all, it is too broad to get at local sustainability knowledge, and secondly, there is a lack of local information posted on the internet in general. Reddit is only similar in that it is a forum where people can discuss topics, but it lacks the search engine capabilities that our site would have. Our website would be far more credible than Reddit, and local knowledge would be discussed in greater depth and detail. Thus, though we seek to emulate certain features of these sites, the idea of how to implement and use these features on our own site is completely original.

Section 7: Financial Sustainability

Initially, we would crowd fund the project through Kickstarter or Indiegogo in order to pay the overhead fees as well as to obtain capital to work with in order to get the idea right. This would require a decent advertising campaign to make sure we get the right amount of funds, but we believe that we could handle it. After the launch, we could use a voluntary subscription service like Patreon, a site that allow individuals to support the creators of their favorite content. As stated above, there only needs to be a small but dedicated fan base to make it possible for the project to thrive.

Section 8: Our Team

Our team is the right team for the job because our skillsets align with what needs to be done. We also care deeply about the environment and this project, thus our passion will make sure it is done right and done well. Kayla would be in charge of media and outreach, especially getting funding during our crowdsourcing campaign and later for increasing donations to the project. Beatriz would handle the graphic design aspects of publicity and the website itself, as well as manage our community and their entries into the database. John would handle coding and web design, as well as the background research into sustainability knowledge in order to seed the database with enough knowledge to attract users. We would all be active users of the site, helping to build the local knowledge it possesses as well as help spark insightful discussions on pertinent topics in the forums.

Section 9: Mock-up of Potential Site

Capture1 Capture


About jythree

Environmental Science Student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

4 Responses to “Knight News Challenge Application: The Squires”

  1. I think this is a fantastic idea that directly addresses the “What can I do?” regarding people who would like to “go green” but haven’t much idea where to start. I would definitely want to load the site with imagery – specifically images of the places and people the site directs them to in the act of working on whatever service or product they offer, as reinforcement of text. Video interviews might be nice, too.

  2. I think this is a wonderful idea, and something I would like to see become a reality! I like that in your application, you back your claims with solid evidence and examples of other successful, small-scale initiatives. I also like that you are starting up in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area and keeping it local initially to built a supportive community around it, but as it grows I think you could consider expanding and getting local sustainability knowledge from communities around the U.S. too. Your website seems to focus on those that are already sustainability minded, but have you thought about reaching out to those that aren’t really sustainability minded, those that are least likely to have these kinds of skills and knowledge? That way, your website could be an educational tool that may even help shift the mindset of a larger population in adopting sustainability practices, ultimately contributing to the protection of our environment!

  3. Great idea! I think this really capitalizes on the growing “sharing” culture that is forming with uber and other services like that, this is just more knowledge sharing. Starting in Ann Arbor and Detroit I think is great because AA is a nice liberal town where people would love to try this stuff and in Detroit I feel people would use it more out of necessity. Have you thought about generating revenue by charging sustainable businesses/restaurants to put their information on your site? You are doing them a service by getting their name out so after you run a pilot and prove that it can generate more customers, I’m sure companies would be willing to pay.

  4. Wonderful graphic! It’s very helpful to see a sketch of what’s in your imagination.
    I also really like this idea. I think you might also want to mention early in your proposal that what you’re talking about is a modified wiki focused on local information about sustainability. Or a wiki with a more beautiful interface that has these special features: list them. Describe it in a familiar way, then say how your vision is better.

    I think you should highlight the elder interviews. That’s a great idea, and I think that might be the unusual angle that would help you get funding to actually launch this idea.

    I also really like the feature that creates group discounts or gathers neighbors to help with a specific task – a modern spin on the old barn-raising idea.

    The amount of money you’re requesting is very modest! You should pay yourself a bit more to create a nice design, test it more thoroughly with potential users and revise the design. This is a process that takes some time, and you should be paid for your time and expertise. If you aren’t paid enough, there’s a danger that this project might understandably wind up at the bottom of your priority list. That would be a shame.

    I give you big props for conducting the interviews in a way that documents and explores the need rather than endorsing the solution you’re proposing. Providing the link to all of your interview data is an outstanding move. That’s the way to conduct user research!

    Have you thought about partnering with existing sites that people interested in sustainability may already be frequenting, such as grist or treehugger?

    Also, I wonder if you could do some research to figure out which communities in the US are most interested in sustainability issues. Maybe Ann Arbor is one, and so it’s a great place to launch. But you should consider other parts of the country as well, to help you build the case for why Ann Arbor is the right place to launch. For example, I wonder if you talked to environmental organizations based in California, Oregon and Washington state, would you find that something like this already exists in any of those places? If not, would those place be even more likely to embrace this idea than Ann Arbor?

    Even if a few local competitors or near competitors exist in other parts of the country, I think there is still a market for your vision, especially if you scale it into a national effort, as you describe. Great idea!

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