A live town-hall event sponsored by the Invisible Institute last year Credit: Marc Monaghan/The Invisible Institute

The Invisible Institute is a tough concept to get your mind around. It calls itself a “journalistic production company” that develops strategies “to expand and operationalize transparency.” The name itself is a joke: years ago founder Jamie Kalven was running a muckraking website, the View From the Ground, out of an empty apartment in a since demolished CHA high-rise along South State Street. To dress up the operation in ironic fashion, Kalven declared that the View operated under the auspices of the Invisible Institute, a name pulled from thin air. But it has a ring to it, and it’s stuck.

Today the institute documents, investigates, and litigates, and its website even makes mention of “conceptual art projects.” Kalven now has partners—such as Darryl Holliday, whose new City Bureau is “training a new generation of young reporters in the practice of urban journalism.” (Some of this journalism—such as this story by Holliday—appears in the Reader.) Another ally is the University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

But what matters is that Kalven is at war against the impunity seemingly enjoyed by bad cops, and he has been for a long time. The Invisible Institute was demanding the release of any police video of 2014’s fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald even before it was certain a video existed. And you’ve probably read about the Citizens Police Data Project, a collaboration between Mandel and the institute that led to last November’s release of some 56,000 past misconduct complaints against more than 8,500 Chicago police officers. Two weeks later, a judge ordered the release of the video of McDonald being shot repeatedly by officer Jason Van Dyke. Says the institute, “In the media storm that ensued, the Invisible Institute’s data tool created crucial context about Van Dyke’s record of undisciplined complaints, revealing an alleged pattern of excessive force and racial slurs.”

The data tool just picked up an important admirer. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the nation’s most prominent underwriter of journalistic innovation, on Monday awarded the Citizens Police Data Project a $400,000 Knight News Challenge grant for innovation. Knight praised the data project as an “online toolkit for reporting, tracking and analyzing allegations of police misconduct . . .  that will serve as a national model for transparency.”

The Experimental Station, which houses the Invisible Institute (and City Bureau and much more) in Hyde Park, was also mentioned in the citation.

A second Chicago winner of a Knight grant was mRelief’s Documents Empowerment Project, which received $250,000. “For the millions of Americans living in poverty, accessing public benefits is inextricably linked to providing documentation that proves they qualify to receive this support. . .” said Knight. “mRelief built and piloted a platform in Chicago to make it easier for families to determine their eligibility for state programs in Illinois. It also allows program providers to create an eligibility template for their services. With new funding, mRelief will scale its tool to multiple cities.”