Update: Geo-Targeted Mobile News App


Hi, we are Randy Abramson (Director of Product and Operations), Eric Pugh (Senior Developer) and Joe Flowers (Developer) at the Office of Digital and Design Innovation.  We are part of a Skunkworks team that helps develop innovative products for the digital arms of VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and OCB across the mobile, audio/video, social, syndication and API product lines.

After the announcement of the Google Goggles project, we were inspired to develop a mobile application that would deliver relevant news content to users based on their location–called News On Location (NOL).  We started the project back in July and just delivered a finished demo on August 31, 2012.  We also have another demo planned for this week.  This post tracks some of the challenges we faced while developing this prototype.


Prototype screenshot of NOL

Technical Decisions and Challenges

When starting a mobile project, product and technical groups are faced with a bird’s nest of decisions.  The myriad of options are daunting and can quickly overwhelm the group.  Some of the out-of-the-gate decisions we had to make included:

1. What mobile operating systems would we target? iOS? Android? Symbian? Blackberry?  And what versions of the operating systems would be supported?

2. Should we create a native app (one that can be downloaded from a branded store, such as Android’s Google Play store) or should we create a Web app that would be able to play in most modern mobile browsers?

3. What out-of-the-box mapping tools are available?  Should we use Google Maps?  The new Apple map product?  Mapbox?  Something else?

4. What open source tools are available for use to help power the mapping experience?

Since our inspiration came from the Google Goggles project, our first inclination was to move toward an Android app, but the other mobile platforms are extremely competitive and we didn’t want to limit usage based on OS or app store preference.  In the end, we decided to create a Web app using common Web technologies like Javascript and HTML5, so the experience would be compatible with most browsers, including iOS and Android. Our mindset was that a functioning Web app could later be extended in a native web browser, using a platform like PhoneGap, if it ever became necessary to distribute the app as a native application. We looked at several open source tools and ultimately opted to use the Mapbox platform with Leaflet.js to power the on-the-fly mapping experience for it’s cross browser compatibility, as well as, aesthetic reasons.


Playing With the Big Boys

Another daunting task of this project was that we needed to nail down the fluid mobile mapping experience that has already been put forward by Google and Apple.  Since users already fire up maps on their mobile devices regularly, anything but an equal experience would be seen as a sub par interaction.  We were intimidated by the thought of trying to replicate something that ‘the big boys’ created with infinitely more resources, but the development team did it.  During early testing, we were relieved to know that the experience felt familiar and, in some ways, was more aesthetically pleasing than widely used mapping apps.

Editorial Agility

We went through three different editorial shifts on this project.  The first idea involved using the app to launch relevant content at the Olympic Village, but we nixed that idea after realizing that testing would be a challenge.  We then thought locally and rallied around a ‘Secret Smithsonian’ concept that would ‘unlock’ informative media about specific Smithsonian museums in DC when the user approached targeted locations.  After some internal debate, we decided to answer the ‘where’s the journalism?’ question and move to rebrand the experience as ‘NEWS ON LOCATION’ (NOL).  We hope that the BBG entities (VOA, RFA, RFE, MBN and OCB) will embrace the flexibility that this branding provides: an entity digital producer could just as easily target breaking news video clips to a remote location in Nigeria as they could compile an ‘evergreen’ photo package that could be embedded in a walking tour of New York City.


Next Steps

Our demo will allow ODDI management to play ‘digital producer’ and geo-target video, text, and photo content to DC locations via an off-the-shelf content management system.  If this Skunkworks project graduates to the next step, we will hopefully modify this CMS to provide quicker access to target location longitude and latitude points and tie in to our existing CMS for quick content access.  Down the road, we’d love to explore user content upload, badging/check-ins and social publishing integration.

There is a lot of talk about how mobile device content consumption should deliver ‘personalized’ content.  The word personalization often refers to the type of content that would be displayed to a user.  In the case of our prototype, we opted to explore how personalization relates to a user’s exact location.  We know that geo-targeting will be part of the future of news consumption and the NOL prototype puts USIM on the fast track to creating a robust, next generation news delivery experience.


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(Thank you to Randy Abramson, Eric Pugh, and Joe Flowers for their contributions to this post.  Questions & comments can be sent to Abramson at: rabramson@bbg.gov)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson is the Director of Product Management and Operations for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @randyabramson.

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