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Berkman Community Newcomers: Francesco Marconi

This post is part of a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Profile of Francesco Marconi

Berkman affiliate and strategist at the Associated Press

interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Tijana Milosevic

It was the interest in reverse innovation that took Francesco Marconi on a long journey from the Portuguese city of Coimbra, where he got his BA degree, to Missouri, New York City and eventually the Berkman Center.

Francesco, an economist focusing on media and technology, describes reverse innovation as something that “first takes place in the developing world before spreading to the industrialized world.” Low-cost medical devices, cell-phones and clean energy solutions are prime examples of this phenomenon. These innovations are born from the need of finding solutions for local problems while keeping in mind the limited availability of resources. The result is often a product that “solves 80% of the problem using 20% of the capital,” Francesco explains. Their less restrictive prices make these products virtually accessible to anyone in the developing countries. These products are then distributed to developed economies, allowing companies to capitalize on mass market. More information about reverse innovation can be found in Francesco’s TEDx talk as well as in his book on innovation, for now only available in Portuguese.  

This idea of aligning business goals with social problems takes us away from the capitalism where “greed is good,” and towards what Francesco calls a new form of capitalism where companies can leverage “greed for good.” Taking the lessons learned from his past research and using “greed for good” - in the context of democratizing information- is what he will be exploring as a Berkman affiliate while researching and conceptualizing new tools aimed at providing context for news.

“My goal as a Berkman affiliate is to learn how new mobile and data technology can fundamentally change the way news content is created. Today, if someone witnesses a newsworthy event, e.g., a plane crash, that person can rapidly share that information through photos, video or text. But while the distribution of the content happens immediately via social and mobile media, the context for the event will only come later, usually through the hard work of journalists. As professionals, journalists provide an explanation of events that allows people to understand the forces at work behind those events. This requires research, validation and editorial oversight. It also creates a lag between when content is shared and [when] context is provided. But if we start from the assumption that all information in the world is already available for anyone to use, then why can’t context be distributed alongside breaking news?”

Francesco believes that this imbalance between content and context will pave the way towards a new generation of technology tools for both journalists and citizens reporting from the field. “A successful businessperson will identify and/or develop the tool that will help journalists, citizens and organizations create original content that can be reported and read in context in real time. That is using ‘greed for good,’” he explains. Francesco’s work at Berkman, to be conducted under the guidance of Harvard Business School Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee who has studied media companies including BuzzFeed and The New York Times, should inform the first steps towards imagining new tools for journalists. Since Francesco is only at the beginning stages of his research, he is not yet sure what such tool might look like, although it should be based on data analysis and content recognition. “Think of a journalist snapping a picture of a newsworthy event on a mobile device -- such as a politician making an important announcement. Now imagine a system that automatically identifies the context and collates additional information already available about that politician, the issue he is discussing and his past posts. In that scenario the journalist could create contextualized breaking news in real time,” Francesco says. While it may seem that such technology already exists, the value added of such an approach is that content can be validated and contextualized even before it is distributed. His work at Berkman will take place in three stages: 1. Studying underlying issues impacting the news ecosystem to better understand how to shrink the delay between the dissemination of content and context; 2. Building a conceptual model of what he calls “the perfect news creation and distribution tool.” 3. Applying research to potentially develop a product concept. He is planning to collaborate with other researchers and practitioners that might be interested in the endeavor; he is not yet sure which company might be interested in sponsoring the development of the product in the future.

Francesco is a corporate strategist at the Associated Press (AP) news agency in New York City, where, using big data analysis, he looks into major forces affecting the news industry: digital disruption, data, and mobile technology. While working at the AP, he also completed a graduate degree as a Chazen Scholar at Columbia University Business School’s Media Program, as Prof. Miklos Sarvary’s advisee. His focus there was on data and user-generated content and their implications for the transparency of information.

Prior to working at AP, Francesco got his BA in economics at what he describes as a quiet Portuguese city of Coimbra, housing one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1290. This peace and tranquility, he observes, left him “hungry for something more innovative and cutting edge.” He moved to Universita Cattolica in Milan, which eventually landed him a job at the United Nations in New York City, where he first researched hidden opportunities for innovation in media and technology within emerging economies.

His interest in exploring innovation as it applies to media and journalism led Francesco to pursue graduate school in business and journalism at the University of Missouri (MU). One of his mentors there was Professor Randall Smith, an innovator himself and former Kansas City Star Business Editor who managed a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. Professor Smith brought Francesco on board for several applied research projects that involved solving “old media” problems with new technology innovations. Francesco led a small team of students from the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute to produce a content recommendation tool for Hearst Corporation, which won them the Hearst Media Design Competition. With Prof. Smith, he also started Missouri Business Alert, a digital-only publication that filled the previously existing gap in state-focused business news. The Alert also allows journalism students to employ content management systems for more effective business news reporting. The project won funding from MU and became a training ground for students in new media and business journalism classes.

In the next five to ten years, he hopes to contribute to a more democratic society through increased transparency in information flow.