Development challenge focuses on ‘Better news for the smart home’

As the internet of things technology marches forward, college students who participate in this year’s RJI Student Competition will be challenged to develop products to help improve lives in smart homes through news delivery.

The research firm Gartner projects there will be 20.4 billion “connected things” being used by 2020.

“The concept of how to make our lives better at home is ripe for the news industry because news is informative, helpful and enriching,” says Ebony Reed, director of innovation and the Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “Putting this challenge in front of some energetic and smart young students can have some really awesome returns for the industry.”

The internet of things refers to all those devices that could be connected. Think of a toaster delivering the news.

The annual RJI Student Competition brings together interdisciplinary teams from journalism, engineering and business to develop a product or prototype in seven months that helps solve a journalism challenge. The competition is also open to students outside the University of Missouri as long as they attend TigerHacks, a 36-hour hackathon Oct. 12-14 at MU’s College of Engineering.

An informational session for the competition will be 5 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Palmer Room on the first floor of RJI. The session will include presentations from some of the previous winners.

The teams can use any internet of things technology, but the preferred platforms are single computers including Raspberry Pi or voice computing devices such as Amazon Alexa, says Reed.

Teams will receive regular coaching from mentors including James Gordon, senior editor in the RJI Futures Lab; Damon Kieslow, Knight chair in digital editing and producing at the journalism school; Reed, and Reuben Stern, director of the journalism school’s New York program. Other advisors will come in throughout the competition to teach on a variety of subjects.

All finalists receive a technology prize, which in past years included the Amazon Echo and Apple Watch. The winning team selected in spring 2019 will receive a trip to learn more about technology and journalism and to build connections that can help foster their careers. Last year’s winners presented their photo verification tool VeriPixel to the Associated Press, Getty and Google in New York.

Benefits of the RJI Student Competition

Learning product development helped VeriPixel team member Rachel Thomas land a fall RJI Student Innovation Fellowship at Mic on the product team, she says.

“I wouldn’t have been prepared for this fellowship if I hadn’t joined the competition and gotten to know other student engineers, developers and business students and the mentors who guide the students in the competition,” she says.

Teams can work remotely, learning communication and organization skills. Team VeriPixel worked with a student from Truman State University and with an MU student who studied abroad in spring 2018.

 “Making sure you’re organized and on top of your tasks and making sure that you delegate and meet regularly, that’s what really makes the difference,” says Thomas.

Student teams are eligible for early stage investments. The 2015-16 winners, Recordly, earned financial backing from the Mid-MO Tech Accelerator and Chicago’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The creators of Maply, which won a Technical Merit award during the 2015-16 competition, launched their crowdsourced mobile map app as a full-time business.

The safety app Noonlight, formerly SafeTrek, won the 2013 competition and has raised millions for its startup.

For more information about the RJI Student Competition, contact Ebony Reed at

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