When Mark Hansen joined the statistics faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles, in 2003, he insisted that the job come with an appointment in the media-arts department as well. Mr. Hansen, who has a history of art and science collaborations, wanted to ensure that "there was an expectation that these interdisciplinary projects were the kind of work that I would keep doing."
Now he's bringing that background to his new job, as East Coast director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. A partnership between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University's School of Engineering, the institute was established this year with a $30-million gift from Ms. Gurley Brown, a former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, who died in August.
``According to Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia's journalism school, Mr. Hansen will work with the West Coast director, Bernd Girod, who is senior associate dean for online learning and professional development at Stanford's School of Engineering, to "give money to applicants able to create things in the journalism and media worlds that don't now exist." The two will recruit grant candidates, determine award distribution, and oversee projects.
Mr. Hansen, 48, has also joined Columbia's journalism faculty; this semester, he is teaching a seminar on data visualization for architecture and journalism students with Laura Kurgan, an associate professor of architecture. The pairing of the two disciplines may seem like a stretch, but the idea is that journalists work with events and time-based reporting, while architects have a spatial, design-based understanding, he explains. Bridging the two disciplines "opens up a new kind of thinking about how to turn the world into bits of information."
An appreciation for this type of work might be expected from someone whose own portfolio includes collaborative projects like "Listening Post," an art installation that pulls and displays text in real time from chat rooms, and Project Cascade, a visualization of how New York Times articles are shared across social media. Both were built with a longtime collaborator, Ben Rubin, a New York-based sound designer.
Mr. Hansen moved to New York this year to make it easier to work with Mr. Rubin. Once there, he was encouraged by Mr. Lemann to apply for the job at the Brown institute. The dean says Mr. Hansen was chosen for his ability to "thread the needle on the very rare combination of interests and skills needed for the job."
"The director needed to be somebody who can sit down with advanced computer scientists and speak their language, and also have a strong engagement with news organizations," Mr. Lemann says. "There are very few people, or sitting journalists, who can be in that conversation."
Mr. Hansen is interested in projects that display new ways of engaging content and that serve three main constituencies: technology, media, and the donor, who hoped that her gift would encourage change in journalism. One such project, a proposal to create personalized TV-news streams, has already received financial support from the institute.
Reporting will always be crucial, but "new forms of storytelling" are becoming necessary as institutions—such as businesses and colleges—provide more data and journalists are called on to make sense of the information.
"There are more ways of understanding the world now, and it is useful for a journalist to have those tools at their disposal," Mr. Hansen says. "Ultimately, the metric about what makes a story good or not remains the same, and it's just the material on which that story is based that might shift."