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How to innovate? Prototype everything!

4th January 2018

Adriana Groh, from Open Knowledge Foundation Germany, reflects on what the team has learned over the first three rounds of the Prototype Fund - for the projects the Fund is supporting, but also for how the Fund itself is run. This blog was originally posted on okfn.org and is republished with the author's permission under a CC 4.0 License

We recognized a problem. There are so many individuals and small teams with good ideas out there, but there is little to no financial support. We wanted to change that. This is how the idea for the Prototype Fund came to life.

Usually, in order to receive funding, teams need to have a clear-cut business model, be an established company, or pursue a long-term research project. But innovation requires a different environment. Innovation needs room for trial and error, changing plans, and short-term sprints. Innovation is not just planning business models, but identifying problems and needs within your community and addressing these. The Prototype Fund aims to suit the needs for innovation.

The Prototype Fund is a public program run by Open Knowledge Foundation Germany that focuses on emerging challenges and radically new solutions. Individuals and small teams can apply for funding to test their ideas and develop open source tools and applications in the fields of civic tech, data literacy, data security and more.

Our early-stage funding encourages people to follow unusual approaches. The application process aims to be as unbureaucratic as possible and is adjusted to the needs of software developers, civic hackers, and creatives. The Prototype Fund brings iterative software development and government funding together. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds eight rounds from 2016 through 2020. Each round, we can thus support up to 25 innovative open source projects. Each project is funded with up to 47,500€. Our goal is to support code for all and strengthen the open source community in Germany. In true open source spirit, we want to pave the way for innovation for everyone.

During the first two rounds we received more than 500 applications. There was an enormous amount of feedback and the need for an open source funding program became apparent. While the first round was an open call, the second round focused on ‘Tools for a strong Civil Society’. Projects included Pretix, a tool that facilitates the ticket sale and registration for events, while allowing more privacy for the user and self-hosted applications, or Pluragraph, that offers social media benchmarking and analysis in the non-commercial sector.

In the third round, we focused on ‘Diversity: more open source for everyone!’, which led to 19 percent of applications that were submitted by women and a wide range of thrilling projects of which our jury selected 23 projects for funding. A menstrual tracking app, for example, allows the privacy-friendly and customized pursuit of the cycle beyond commercial interests. Another example is Briar, a messenger app that allows encrypted communication without a central server, but directly from device to device. Many of our projects address questions such as: How can we reduce bureaucracy, build strong communities, establish skill-sharing and foster lifelong learning?

As much as we are happy with how things are turning out so far, the Prototype Fund itself is that: a prototype. We are constantly trying to improve and to come up with new ideas. Do you want to get in touch or find out more about our projects? Here is a list with all the projects we funded in Round 1 to 3, subscribe to our newsletter (in German), or get in touch under info@prototypefund.de. Or simply come to our next Demo Day on 28 February 2018 in Berlin and get some live Prototype-Fund spirit!

Adriana is part of the Prototype Fund Team at Open Knowledge Foundation Germany and responsible for the program management. Previously, Adriana studied Political Science and European Public Policy and Governance in Frankfurt am Main and in Maastricht. She is interested in how digital tools can improve democratic participation and communication. In 2016, Adriana started the project wepublic that aims connect societal and political interests.

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