Innovation @ BBG » How To http://www.innovation-series.com Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 How Alhurra drives more mobile, desktop, social shares and app installs, with just a small, strategic ‘Push’ http://www.innovation-series.com/2015/05/18/how-alhurra-drives-more-mobile-desktop-social-shares-and-app-installs-with-just-a-small-strategic-push/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-alhurra-drives-more-mobile-desktop-social-shares-and-app-installs-with-just-a-small-strategic-push http://www.innovation-series.com/2015/05/18/how-alhurra-drives-more-mobile-desktop-social-shares-and-app-installs-with-just-a-small-strategic-push/#comments Mon, 18 May 2015 14:50:45 +0000 Will Sullivan http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=6509 The digital team at Alhurra has found an effective way to easily, free and smartly grow their audience from content they are already producing: Push Notifications.

They sent their first push when Nelson Mandela passed away in December of 2013, and continue to do it at the present time and over time have found that besides driving people to read stories more in the award-winning Alhurra apps, but sending pushes they can generate surges in mobile web, desktop web and social media traffic to stories they chose to push, as well as drive new app installations.

Below is one of the best and unique examples from Alhurra, one of the most digitally-first minded BBG entities, proving a story that did “ok” when it was initially published on the web can explode in popularity 2 days later on the mobile website and social media — from a simple nudge via their mobile app Push Notification.

Alhurra published this story about how ISIS makes its money on August 25th:
http://www.alhurra.com/content/where-isis-get-its-funding-from/256556.html

Two days after publishing it on originally on the web, they sent it out by Push Notification through the Alhurra app and it drove:

  • 112,000 more pageviews on mobile

  • 25,000 more pageviews on desktop

  • There were more than 12,700 social shares for the story on Facebook and Twitter

How did they start engineering these social and mobile web surges? 

1- First, create the audience expectation by being consistent and regularly deliver value with your pushes. The Alhurra web team sends out a Push Notification for a relevant and important news story at a strategic time during the day when the audience is awake and active (Some days they’ll send several Push Notifications to different stories, especially as important news breaks on busier days or as a huge story is updated with new information). The critical part of this is to be consistent and make sure you’re not just pushing every story to push stories. They should be important and interesting stories that deliver value for your audience or they will turn off notifications. Push is a very personal tool, so be careful and mindful of your audience’s needs, interests and time of day.
site.png

2- Alhurra App audience members get the breaking news Push Notification on their device and read the story in the Alhurra application.

3- If the audience members like the story or think others would be interested, they easily share it on their social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, and through email using the Alhurra application.

4- The audience member’s friends and followers then see the story, interact with it and potentially share it too, creating an amplifying effect. Bonus incentive: Also, if audience members open the story on a mobile web browser, they will be prompted to install the Alhurra App, which also helps grow the App audience.

5- This snowballs and helps drive more and more traffic by social media, mobile web sharing and app installs — all originating from Alhurra’s smart and very engaged Push Notification strategy, and also driving new app installs to interested users.

Bonus Alternative Method for Re-Engaging App Users: Another way to get users to re-engage with the application after installing it is promoting the apps Home Screen Widgets, which allow users to get the latest headlines from their preferred service easily, without launching the app. Users can even customize which category sections and how frequently the Home Screen Widget should update. Android is currently live and supports this and in the Umbrella 3.1 version of the apps, we’ll add support for automatically feeding our news into the Apple Notification center widgets for Apple devices, further expanding the reach of the BBG entity’s content.

All of the BBG entities (and anyone building apps) can learn and optimize their workflow for this tool to create a force multiplier of audience growth. Learn more about the BBG mobile products at:
http://apps.bbg.gov

ODDI Mobile Release Manager, Bo Kostro, and Billy Sabatini, Marwan Sadiq and the MBN Digital team helped with the creation of this best practice report. 

 

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Top Writing Tips for Journalists Writing to Video, Multimedia http://www.innovation-series.com/2014/02/14/top-writing-tips-for-journalists-writing-to-video-multimedia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=top-writing-tips-for-journalists-writing-to-video-multimedia http://www.innovation-series.com/2014/02/14/top-writing-tips-for-journalists-writing-to-video-multimedia/#comments Fri, 14 Feb 2014 17:48:43 +0000 Erica Malouf http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=5910 Have you ever watched a news segment or video and been completely and happily absorbed in the story? Or conversely, have you ever been so distracted by the choppy audio and unnecessary narration that you didn’t enjoy it?

As many a broadcast and multimedia journalists know, achieving “happily absorbed” is a skill and an art. But as with any kind of writing, we can study what the pros do.

I’ve adapted most of these tips from a webinar given by a master: Al Tompkins, Senior Faculty, Broadcast and Online at The Poynter Institute. (With some notes of my own.)

TOP TIPS

When writing to news videos, whether for broadcast or a digital platform, it’s important to keep your writing tight! As Al Tompkins says, ‘the biggest sin is wasting the time of the audience.’

#1
Understand Storytelling: Engaging stories usually follow a tried-and-true formula because…it works. I like to think that the basics of such formulas were figured out during the campfires of cavemen. Storytelling is a defining characteristic of humanity, and your audience is definitely familiar with common story structure even if they aren’t conscious of it. Generally speaking, the audience will like it when a story starts with conflict and ends with resolution.

#2
Pick a Formula: Tompkins recommends the “Hey! You, See, So” structure for news videos. Meaning, start with “Hey!” (the attention grabber), then “You” (the WIIFM—why this is relevant to the viewer), “See” (show evidence), and “So” (the point—what this is all about).

#3
Start Strong: For a news story, jump into the information—don’t waste time with a fluffy introduction. For a narrative, create tension right away.

#4
Remove Redundancies: When you’re editing the accompanying narrative to a video, Tompkins says to “train yourself to spot redundancies.” And cut sound bites that repeat what was said earlier.

PRO TIPS:

  • Ask yourself, ‘Do I need that word for people to understand?’
  • Read your sentences backward in order to catch superfluous words.

#5
Prioritize Video Over Narration: Use narration only for what cannot be shown in the video or told in sound bites and ambient audio. For example, if the video is a man walking down a dirt road, don’t waste time telling us “a man walks down a dirt road.” Instead, explain what can’t be understood from the visuals or audio but is critical to the story. Let the viewer figure some things out on their own.

#6
Use Sound Selectively: Sound—ambient noise and sound bites of people speaking—should not stop the action or cut into the narration in a choppy or jarring way. Tompkins says that “popcorn audio” (described as sound that comes from no where and stops the story for no good reason) is a fad in editing that should be forgotten because it’s distracting. When woven into the story carefully, sound can add credibility to the action and bring the viewer into the scene.

#7
Write the Facts: Narration should be almost all factual. Let the emotion and drama come through sound bites and visuals. I once had a professor tell me to “write flat to drama,” meaning let the action speak for itself and leave out subjective opinion.

#8
Review Grammar: Be judicious with adverbs—try to remove words that end in “ly” because often they are unnecessary opinion.  For example, in the phrase “she cried happily,” happily can be removed, especially if the video or the story indicates that she was clearly happy. Use more active verbs that clearly tell who and what did what.

PRO TIP:

  • I suggest reading the book, “Writing Tools,” by Roy Peter Clark, and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, to brush up on grammar.

#9
Write for the Platform: Create the narration and edit each video based on the platform. Keep in mind that TV is still a passive experience (except for the second screen, meaning people using another device while watching TV). The Internet is about interactivity, plus know that people have shorter attention spans online and so are apt to bounce more quickly if a video isn’t interesting right away. (Try this free, journalist-friendly tool for creating interactive videos online called KettleCorn that our team at ODDI created.)

TRY IT

Watch this video about VOA’s use of Google Glass to record concert of a Beatles cover band. Do you hear any narration that could be cut because the visuals tell the story without it? What worked and didn’t work?

See more videos of the concert on the Relay platform.

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How to Do UX Testing on Tablets, In Cartoons http://www.innovation-series.com/2014/01/27/how-to-do-ux-testing-on-tablets-in-cartoons/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-to-do-ux-testing-on-tablets-in-cartoons http://www.innovation-series.com/2014/01/27/how-to-do-ux-testing-on-tablets-in-cartoons/#comments Mon, 27 Jan 2014 16:01:33 +0000 Erica Malouf http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=5682 One of my great passions is traveling — I get a kick out of understanding other cultures, and how they use technology. As a graduate student, I am rarely able to travel, but working at the BBG is truly the next best thing.

We frequently interact with people from a broad array of cultural backgrounds, with fluency in various languages, who each share their unique perspective and offer a fascinating glimpse of a distant place. (The holiday parties and hallway networking spreads offer a tasty glimpse of distant places — BBG staff can really cook.) This cultural diversity also happens to be convenient for user experience testing because we are able to tap into our ‘natural resource’ to test our digital products, which are often targeted to a specific segment of our global audience.

Typically, when we’re doing in-house testing, we test each application in it’s intended language as well as in English, whether it’s a product for one of the 44 language services at Voice of America or another BBG entity. Most recently we have done testing for Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

The cultural diversity within BBG is convenient for user experience testing because we are able to tap into this ‘natural resource’ to test our digital products.

And so we need bilingual participants, who also fall into our target demographics, to provide our English-speaking developers, designers and testers with feedback we can understand. Thankfully, our gracious multi-lingual employees and interns are happy to oblige.

We’ve been using software called Morae for in-house UX testing on tablets and mobile phones. Morae allows us to capture video — with more than one camera angle — and record scoring as we go. Having video of a participant’s hand movements allows us to do a more accurate and thorough analysis of how they reacted during certain tasks, as opposed to just having a heat map and data that provide only part of the story. Also, since it’s in-person, we can ask follow-up questions immediately after a task to find out why a participant may have been confused about a task.

This comic strip breaks down how we do UX testing. Hat tip to the illustrious Steve Fuchs (one of our lead UX testers and designers at ODDI) who illustrated these, and who I often work with on UX testing.

1-stake-holders-managers

2-3-design-book-volunteers

4-tv-tray-plus-chair

5-6-table-top-mic

7-two-cameras-record

8-laptop-software

9-test-team

10-collect-analysis-report

One of the more interesting UX tests that I worked on was for RFE/RL mobile websites, which we tested in English and in various languages common in Russia and nearby. Without knowing anything about the site, several of our participants commented right away that it must not be from a Russia-based news network solely from the editorial choices, referring to the top stories on the home page. I recall one participant commenting that no Russian news outlet would dare have the Pussy Riot story front and center, if they reported on it all, because in-country news typically paints the Kremlin in a positive light.

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 10.01.22 AM

In addition to a responsive website, RFE/RL now offers a mobile app for Android and iOS.

Comments like those remind me why it’s so critical to provide an alternate point of view for people in countries where the press isn’t truly free — where people only hear one side of the story because the media is subject to repercussions for content published.

I find it ironic that in the U.S. we have so much freedom to chose what we read and so many options of media offering all points of view, and yet pundits and others are saying that we are increasingly choosing to consume news from organizations that support or confirm our existing point of view. Are we self-imposing what is forced on people in less free countries? It’s a similar concern to that voiced by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, at the recent BBG tech panel, who cautioned that we should consider the downside of personalized content streams.

It’s something I want to be more conscious of — in fact, I’ll be checking multiple news outlets tonight in order to get a more balanced view of the world, starting with the VOA news app that I recently helped test. Speaking of the VOA news apps, I have to brag that our mobile team at ODDI led by Will Sullivan has just been dubbed one of the top five mobile platforms in the world by the GSMA, which means we’re in the running to receive a prestigious award at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Please comment here if you have any questions or thoughts! We’d love to hear how you do UX/UI testing, especially for products intended for global audiences. You can also find us on Twitter: @BBGinnovate, @ericamalouf and @stevefuchs1.

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10 Tips for Rolling Out Enterprise Analytics http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/11/01/10-tips-for-rolling-out-enterprise-analytics/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=10-tips-for-rolling-out-enterprise-analytics http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/11/01/10-tips-for-rolling-out-enterprise-analytics/#comments Fri, 01 Nov 2013 21:01:12 +0000 Rebecca Shakespeare http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=5112 The biggest challenge for measuring digital analytics at BBG is the agency’s size. The BBG has more than 300 websites (most that are mobile responsive) and mobile apps, five separate organizations and more than 100 units that need individual reporting.

When we committed to getting an enterprise web analytics tool, we were using at least three separate Google Analytics implementations, a Sitecatalyst implementation, and other tools to measure whatever we couldn’t catch in those. VOA alone had 50 Google Analytics profiles.

While everyone was doing due diligence to maintain their analytics tool(s), we didn’t have a way to look across the whole organization’s digital properties. Some of the questions we couldn’t answer before were things like “Which BBG network is most popular in Vietnam?” or “Of our Russian-language content (many sites’ worth), what topics are most read by Russian speakers in Kazakhstan?” And every report about the BBG’s digital performance in general required calls for data and assumptions that the data all meant the same thing, even though it came from different places. It’s hard to make business and content decisions based on shaky data.

Planning for the new web analytics tool revolved around answering those questions, and making nearly instantaneous feedback about people finding and engaging with our content accessible to everyone–journalists (content reports by byline, so writers can see how their content performs), editors (content reports by topic, so it’s easier to get a feel for topical interest in a target region), marketers (everything that the BBG does, as consumed by a given city or country) and strategists (the whole universe of the BBG’s content, consumed by the whole world).

After lots of hard work, the expertise of some great thinkers and consultants, and really good feedback from our editorial teams, we’re anticipating a really exciting outcome–usable information that tells stories about all BBG entities online that nobody has ever had before.

As with all web analytics tool changes, we anticipate changes in the numbers we get–different tools count things slightly differently, so we may see all traffic increase or decrease by a constant amount. When we start tracking mobile visits too, we’ll see another change in traffic. I’m already looking at how our new setup is getting different numbers than the tools we have been using.

None of these changes mean that our audience has changed how it behaves. It just means we’re recording it differently. And the specific number isn’t the most important thing in web analytics; the stories the data tells and the information it can help you find are the valuable insights.

When you move to any new tool, you have a new baseline and a new normal daily or weekly number. You want to keep your eyes out for changes–good and bad ones–and determine what caused them. You want to monitor projects you’re putting effort into to see if you’re getting the outcome you want. And if you’re targeting a certain audience, you can get to know them based on what they do, and try to get to know more about what they respond to by testing things that you think they’ll respond to. For example, this might be a slightly different headline, a different angle, using more or less pictures, or promoting a story with a different hook on social media.

RebeccaBlog_Thumbnail (1)

If you’re planning an enterprise web analytic tool rollout, here are some tips:

1. Find great experts to advise you. We were lucky to get to work with outside consultants who helped us define reporting requirements before we selected a new tool, and to work with great vendor specialists who helped us turn those into reality. We not only have a setup with best practices, we learned a lot about the tools and their uses by working with industry leaders.

2. Thoroughly assess what information is most useful to stakeholders across your organization before you start setting up or selecting a tool. We had consultants come in and hear from our internal key stakeholders what they wanted to know. They assembled the organization-wide feedback and made expert judgement calls on what data we needed to gather and how we should present it.

3. Decide whether to use a tag manager. We had the luxury of choosing whether or not to get a tag management tool. We chose to get one because we have many different groups managing the technical side of our digital properties but wanted to maintain a unified analytics/measurement system. Using a tag manager centralizes our web analytics management.

4. Plan a clear, specific structure for naming and tagging. We worked closely with the technical teams to create a data layer on all of our websites containing uniform information about the page and the site. This means the data in our web analytics tool is clearly named across all of our web analytics report.

5. Keep a list of priorities. Know which reports or platforms you’re tracking are most important or most time-sensitive. Knowing what’s most important makes it easier to pick the elements that won’t get built when resources run low. Clear priorities make it easier to move forward to an actual release by instead of waiting to complete everything perfectly.

6. Know the field limits for your analytics tool and any tag manager. The last thing you want in your reports are awkwardly truncated page titles or worse – gibberish. Multibyte languages have more bytes than characters, and automatic truncation may garble them. One of our developers alerted me to this, and we made wiser decisions knowing exactly how much information we could track (Further reading on truncating multi-byte languages here from RFA Developer, Flip McFadden :http://stackoverflow.com/questions/8719330/python-utf-8-xml-parsing-suds-removing-invalid-token)

7. Find out what’s easy to set up but hard to change. Some things, like profile names, report suites, reporting heirarchy, and default values are better to set correctly at the beginning. Other things, like dashboards, are easy to change later. Know what to commit to early, and what you can wait on or change later.

8. Organize page-level and site-level variables early. This really only applies to implementations where you need multiple content management systems to track the same way in analytics. We created a matrix of all variables for each type of page on each CMS with sample values and notes for the developers. We also created a matrix of all site-level variables for each property. Both of these reference documents continue to be invaluable.

9. Make sure you know exactly which things happen in tool configuration and which things are coded onto your site. This is particularly important if you’re not technical. If your tag manager is separate from a web analytics tool, just give the developers tag management documentation. You’ll set up the web analytics tracking inside of the tag manager. If you conflate these, you’ll confuse yourself, and probably slow down development work.

10. Prepare to spend a lot of time checking that your new tool is configured correctly. Good documentation, including what domains you expect to see in what reports and a complete list of all reports, is really helpful to have  here.

Special thanks to Ahran Lee, Designer at BBG, for creating the artwork for this post.

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Synchronizing MLK’s speech with PopcornJS, Skrollr and Google Docs http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/09/11/synchronizing-mlks-speech-with-popcornjs-skrollr-and-google-docs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=synchronizing-mlks-speech-with-popcornjs-skrollr-and-google-docs http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/09/11/synchronizing-mlks-speech-with-popcornjs-skrollr-and-google-docs/#comments Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:06:47 +0000 Brian Williamson http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=4195 On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream speech” at the March on Washington. As part of VOA’s 50th anniversary coverage, ODDI decided to transform archival footage of King’s speech into an interactive video with subtitles and synchronized interactive content to help provide context for the speech for an international audience.

In the end we weren’t able to secure the rights to the entire speech. As a result, this abridged version of the project is meant as a proof of concept and an inspiration for future stories (currently the project works best in Google Chrome). The JavaScript libraries we used support modern browsers and mobile devices, but for this demo we decided to limit the time we spent making it work across browsers and devices.

Making More Popcorn

One of our goals this year is to help international journalists create more interactive audio and video stories. We’re approaching this challenge on three different levels:

  • Quick turn video projects where journalists want to add simple context.
  • Medium-scale projects with more interactivity and more layers of information.
  • Larger scale, custom built projects that require a designer and developer.

For the smaller and medium scale projects, we’re currently forking a version of the Popcorn Maker project for the specific needs of journalists. We’re restyling the look and feel, adding new plugins to reduce the time to publish and building in translation support to promote sharing across language services.

For larger custom audio and video stories, like the “I have a dream” project, we’re using the Popcorn.js library to synchronize media with layers of context and interactive elements.

mlk_randolph

We added popup explanations and links throughout the speech.

PopcornJS

We were definitely inspired by NPR’s “Lost and Found” project, created by Claire O’Neill and Wes Lindamood. “Lost and Found” tells the story of the obscure but masterful photographer Charles Cushman by synchronizing a radio story with a portfolio of Cushman’s photos.

The project used Popcorn.js to synchronize the audio with photographs and text. According to the popcornjs.org website, “Popcorn.js is an HTML5 media framework written in JavaScript for filmmakers, web developers, and anyone who wants to create time-based interactive media on the web.”

Using Popcorn.js you can include a variety of plugins for synchronizing different types of content—like images, wikipedia articles and maps—with audio or video. For this project I stuck with the popcorn.code.js plugin, which allows you to easily execute JavaScript at specific times during the audio or video.

var p = Popcorn( "#video" )
 p.code({
  start: 3,
  end: 8,
  onStart: function( options ) {
  alert('Insert your JavaScript magic here');
 }
})

When the video reaches the 3-second mark, the browser executes whatever JavaScript you’ve included.

Scrolling with Skrollr

A parallax site features different elements appearing on the screen and moving at different speeds as the user scrolls down the page. Over the last year, we’ve seen a number of journalism stories told with parallax scrolling, from ESPN’s story on Dock Ellis to La Tercera’s story on the 40th anniversary of the Chilean military coup.

At ODDI, we’ve also been interested in using parallax scrolling for storytelling. As an added challenge, we decided to create a story where the scrolling was driven by the video.

We experimented with a number of different parallax libraries. Ultimately we decided on Skrollr.js for the following reasons:

  • It has a proven track record for professional projects (inside journalism and out).
  • It played nicely with our CMS.
  • It supports mobile (which wasn’t a priority for this project, but it’s nice to know for the future).
  • Several tutorials are available here, here and here.
  • It has a simple, familiar syntax (most of the action is handled by CSS-like attributes).

The animation is defined by “data-#” attributes in the HTML tags. Any CSS attribute can be animated over time.

< div id="king_cutout" data-100="opacity:0;top:-100px;" data-500="opacity:1;top:50px;">
    < img src="../img/photo.png"/>
</div>

In this example, when the the scroll position is 100 (“data-100″), the opacity is 0 (invisible) and the position is -100px (off screen). As the user scrolls to 500 (“data-500″) the image fades in to an opacity value of 1 and moves down to 50px from the top of browser. Positions can be described in pixels or percentages, but you’ll need to use consistent units across the entire animation.

mlk_myCountry

We used PopcornJS to synchronize subtitles and kinetic type.

Creating Subtitles with TabletopJS + GoogleDocs

One of our major goals for this project was to include subtitles for King’s speech. I wrote about using Google spreadsheets and TabletopJS to support translations in a previous post. The idea here is very similar.

I started off with a spreadsheet page in English that includes the speech broken up into sentences. I added a column to timecode each block of text by seconds. I then create a separate page for each translation.

There’s a quick and dirty solution for translating a spreadsheet. You can use Google Translate to translate cells in a google spreadsheet.

=GoogleTranslate(English!B3,"en","zh-CN")

“English” = the name of the spreadsheet page source (optional)
“B3″ = the cell source of the text
“en” = English, the language you’re translating from
“zh-CN” = the language code for the language we’re translating into (simplified Chinese)

This technique offers varying degrees of success. Google Translate appears to work better for western languages (Here’s a link to the Spanish version translated by Google). But regardless, it offers a starting point and is a very quick way of translating the speech into dozens of languages. For a public facing project we would still rely on human translator to provide an accurate translation.

mlk_mountains2

Map overlays were used to show the path of the protesters and places mentioned in King’s speech.

…But Wait, There’s More

Since we’re already loading in a Google spreadsheet, I decided to use a spreadsheet page to handle the timing and locations for the scrolling.

Rather than manually creating a separate popcorn.code.js event for each scroll, I added a spreadsheet page with the start times, end times, scroll position and length of time for each scroll. Then I created a loop that runs through the page to create the code events. This made it significantly easier to add and edit times without having to update the JavaScript file.

var numberOfScrolls = scrollData.length;
//scrollData is the data that was loaded in by TabletopJS
var scrolls_array = [];
for (i=0;i<numberOfScrolls;i++){
 currentP=i.toString();
 scrolls_array.push(currentP);
 var startTime=Number(scrollData[i].starttime);
 var endTime=Number(scrollData[i].endtime);
 var scrollPosition=Number(scrollData[i].scrollpos);
 p.code({
  start: startTime,
  end: endTime,
  paragraphID: scrolls_array[i],
  scrollPos: scrollPosition,
  onStart:function(options){
   var currentElem = options.paragraphID;
   s.animateTo(options.scrollPos, {duration:1000});
  }
 })
}

Future Storytelling Opportunities

There was definitely a learning curve trying to integrate Popcorn.js and Skrollr into a project that runs in our CMS. But we were able to resolve most of the technical issues, and now we’re looking forward to working with language services at the BBG to find new stories that could benefit from this treatment.

What do you like about this project and what suggestions do you have? Please comment!

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TRANSLATION PERSUASION: Localization & Quality Assurance in a Global Media Organization http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/08/22/localization-quality-assurance-2/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=localization-quality-assurance-2 http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/08/22/localization-quality-assurance-2/#comments Thu, 22 Aug 2013 19:00:13 +0000 Borana Kostro http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=3986
Our VOA News App Sets a Record

Hi, we are Borana Kostro and Danish Ahmed and we work for mobile team at ODDI. The Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) took on the task of creating a news application for Voice of America for both the Apple iOS and Android operating system. No big deal you say? How about having this application support over 40 different languages. Yes, that’s right, a single mobile application that can deliver up-to-date news to people around the world.

Download VOA app today for free!

Download BBG apps today for free: http://bit.ly/bbgapps

This has never been done before, and the closest thing to our 40+ language application only supports 9 languages at the most.

This application does more than just give a user a few articles to read. The VOA app offers photos, videos and audio, along with the capability of being able to submit your own stories to VOA journalists in the newsroom—stories which could potentially be featured on the VOA website and application. Creating an app that had those features translated into 43 different languages was not easy!


Over 40 Languages!?! How Did We Do It?

Just in English, you can imagine how many terms are needed to be able to navigate through any application. It was overwhelming to discover that the app would require about 500 or so key words for each of the 43 languages.

The estimation was well over 20,000 items that needed translation in a matter of months.

There really was no reliable, easy shortcut on getting all the terms translated for the application. If Google Translate was a little more accurate, it would have made the daunting task of translating those items much easier. But Google Translate is notoriously unreliable. The only plausible option that would accurately get the job done was to get 40 or so individuals who are proficiently fluent in those languages to translate 20,000 terms for us.

Borana Kostro (Bo) “Translation Persuader” working with language services

Borana Kostro (Bo) “Translation Persuader” working with language services

Luckily, the ODDI office is located in a building that houses more than 40 language services. A language service is an office for specific language and is comprised of journalists, editors, producers and broadcasters who are fluent in those languages (i.e. Albanian language service, Urdu language service). Unfortunately, they are not hired translators, but they were the only resources available to us. Basically, this meant that those editors, journalists and broadcasters we thought we could have at our disposal, in reality, had their own work to worry about.


So How Did We Really Do It?

You have got to give something to get something…and for the most part we learned that chocolates were the key to getting our peers to do us a great service. We probably went through 10 large bags of chocolate candy in the four months it took our team to get these translations from our peers. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have helped if we didn’t bribe them with sweets, but it did make it easier to go to them week after week asking them to translate “just a few more” things.

Finding and scheduling a point of contact with each language service was the first, laborious step. And then meeting with language services and explaining what needed to be done for Mobile apps was also time-consuming. There were 500 plus words and phrases we needed translated, so it wasn’t like they could take a few minutes out of their day and quickly give us what we needed.

This was hours and hours of work navigating through our language localization database and filling in words and phrases.

Sample of  mobile app  localizations

Sample of mobile app localizations

Take a look for yourself at the sample of mobile app localizations and multiply that by about 500 lines for 43 languages. It looks intimidating doesn’t it?

Also, there were additional “legal docs” (Terms of Use, Privacy Policy, and About Us) to be translated.

After collecting all the translations for 43 languages, and receiving new version of the app, all of these translations had to be checked against the app. Many of the keywords had to be changed due to their length, inaccuracy and other issues. Rinse and repeat, again and again. Working with 43 language services and typing translations directly, sending e-mails and copies of documents with translation terms, were the means of acquiring massive amounts of localizations.

VOA News App Home Page for Tibet (Right)

VOA News App Home Page for Tibet

We developed the bulk of this app during vacation season, which we now know not to do in the future; our designated translators who originally agreed to help us out when we asked near winter’s end were not around for spring and summer. This forced us to scramble to look for other credible translators and basically start from square one. After countless hours of begging and chasing via Skype, Google Hangout and after-hour emails, we were eventually able to get the translations we needed.

Another obstacle we came across was that some technical terms just did not exist in certain languages. There were a few language services that decided that some terms (i.e. multimedia, which did not exist in their language), would just appear in the app in English. But some language services weren’t content with just popping in an English word in the midst of a completely different language.

It was pretty neat to see the creative minds of those language services get together and create a new word for certain journalistic and technical jargon that did not exist yet.

Application users for some languages will notice new terms in the VOA mobile app that are appearing for the very first time in the history of those languages.

 

Working with Different Devices and Operating Systems

QA Specialist, Danish Ahmed, testing the application on multiple devices

QA Specialist, Danish Ahmed, testing the application on multiple devices

For those that are thinking about creating a multilingual application: TEST YOUR APPLICATION ON AS MANY DEVICES AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE!!!!

For those developing for the Apple iOS, you probably won’t come across any major problems with trying to do something with many different languages and font types. I will give credit to Apple for being multilingual friendly. The fonts render beautifully and all languages that we created this app for were supported without any hiccup.

Android was a completely different animal—man was it a headache. Not sure how many of you know this, but there are over 11,868 different types of Android versions and devices out there in the world today. They come in all shapes and sizes and all different resolutions. As much as we would have liked to be able to test on all 11,868 versions, we were able to get our hands on just a fraction of that to test our app on. Near the completion of the application we discovered that Samsung, which happens to be the largest retailer of Android devices, did not support many of the major languages, including Urdu, Pashto, and Kurdish.

At first we thought there was a problem with the fonts we provided our developers, for all the languages with font issues on android. We provided our developers with multiple TTF files for right to left languages (Urdu, Kurdish,  and Pashto). Eventually we discovered it was just on Samsung devices that we had an issue with the right to left languages, and that Samsung devices did not render the fonts as they should.

Android devices as a whole had a problem with Amharic, Azerbaijani, Burmese, Khmer, Lao and Tibetan fonts. The TTF files provided, which were the best TTF files known for those languages, the fonts still appeared broken or failed to appear. We are still working on a fix for these and, unfortunately for the time being, had to hold off on releases for these languages for our Android version: Amharic, Azerbaijani, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Tibetan, Urdu, Pashto, Kurdish and Deewa language service (Pashto to Pakistan).

 

Partial List of Languages (Left)

Partial List of Languages

Triple-checking the Translations

The ODDI Mobile Team worked round the clock training and handing out different devices to different language services to have them try out the product. VOA was excited and enthusiastic about having a robust news application. Some stated this would be the very first application in their respective language. Everyone was eager to make sure that their language worked without any flaws. I truly believe that without them we would have not been able to find as many defects and font errors as we did. The translators were hands down the greatest asset we had to making sure we had a quality product.

What’s Next in Terms of Localization?

The Office of Digital and Design Innovation is currently working on creating an application to make the whole process of getting translations a little bit easier. The current project of ‘Localization Database’ will be an open source tool for anyone that will allow users from all over the world to provide translations to this application, kind of like a Wikipedia but for translation purposes.

Thank you to VOA language services who have provided us with translations for VOA mobile apps. It has been a lot of work on your part and finally we have a great product we are proud of. Special thanks to all and especially IME’s and web editors who participated in this video: Will Sullivan, Martha Townes, Hakki Ocal, Steven Ferri, Alen Mlatisuma, Rohit Kulkarni, Hasib Danish Alikozai, Abdulaziz H. Osman, Al Neustadter, and Abdushakur Aboud.


Authors: Danish Ahmed | Borana Kostro

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5 Keys To a Successful Global IPTV Strategy http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/06/24/5-keys-to-a-successful-global-iptv-strategy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=5-keys-to-a-successful-global-iptv-strategy http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/06/24/5-keys-to-a-successful-global-iptv-strategy/#comments Mon, 24 Jun 2013 21:16:03 +0000 Randy Abramson http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=3411 The International Broadcaster Opportunity

If you’re a video publisher, your interest in IPTV surely spiked when you read that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reported last July that the company streamed over one billion hours to its customers that month.  Knowing that there are over 27 million U.S. Netflix customers as opposed to only 6.3 million overseas, it can be assumed that most of that streaming didn’t happen in places like Nigeria or Indonesia.  Still, the Netflix numbers are inspiring and international broadcasters surely began to be think about distributing to IPTV hotspots outside of the U.S.  IPTV, which is defined as video delivered to connected devices via Internet Protocol on a closed network, has to be part of any broadcaster’s strategy, but the challenges to international broadcasters are especially great.

A Fragmented World

Once you step beyond the Western IPTV monsters providers of Netflix and Hulu and hardware solutions like XBox and Roku, it becomes clear that, well, the path to IPTV distribution is anything but clear.  Below we look at how users in the U.S., Japan, China, France, Germany, Italy and the UK connect devices to IPTV content.

device-usage

Source: NPD DisplaySearch Quarterly Smart TV Usage Study, April 2013

In looking at the device usage, it’s clear that there is no standout hardware platform to chase.  Game consoles appear to be in the lead in usage, but this metric fluctuates by region.  For example, in China, OTT media center boxes lead with 23% whereas the UK sees more people using game consoles to consume TV media at 20%.

Chasing IPTV Users

Americans might be surprised to know that well over 40% of IPTV usage is happening in Asia.  There is also explosive growth in Russia (ROS TV added 50,000 subscribers in one month in St. Petersburg alone) and the Middle East/North Africa region is expected to see 10X growth in paid IPTV subscriptions by 2014.  However, figuring  out where IPTV customers are, and are going to be, is only one piece of an effective international IPTV strategy.  Below we lay out five steps that can help focus your international IPTV strategy:

1. Where to start? Find your sweet spot

Figuring out where to start distributing your content in the world of IPTV can be mind numbing.  If you’re targeting the Western world, things are easy: you’d probably start by going after Netflix, Hulu and Roku.  And if you’re feeling extra aggressive, develop for Google TV.  But when you look at the global landscape, the playing field is a lot different.  You have local TelCos that offer IPTV services.  You have independent hardware manufacturers that are more than happy to distribute content to their custom OTT boxes.  And, you have frontrunners like BesTV in China and  MT in Russia who are massive growth.  What platforms should you target first? The best thing to do is to take a step back and find markets and partners that represent your ‘sweet spot’ – the place where  your mission, partner reach and content inventory intersect. Think about these buckets when figuring out where and how to distribute your content:

  • Mission: As a publisher, you may have a mission to reach a particular population. Focusing on where these people are and what platforms they are using to connect to IPTV content can help you focus on where to start.
  • Partner Reach: You may have found a partner that will make getting on an IPTV platform easy for you.  They’ll ingest and encode your content, they’ll build you an app for their OTT box…you’ll be up and running in no time.  However, this is the time to ask about this platform’s penetration and usage in your target market.  Although the relationship sounds risk free, there are always updates and upkeep to think about. Go with the platform that has the largest reach to justify the work.
  • Content Inventory: Early on, you should form a strategy around the content volume and mix you have available for your IPTV presence, but realize that requirements vary from partner to partner.  Some platforms require 24/7 live feeds, others are happy with loops of content that make up the 24 hour cycle.  Also, try to find out what type of content performs best for the market you are trying to reach and program appropriately.

2. Have a Marketing Plan
Once your content is on a platform, you will be competing with other publishers that want to capture the eyes of your potential audience. The sheer number of choices in IPTV environments can be daunting. Take a look at the number of channels that exist for these three platforms:

channels-available

How does your channel stand out in a sea of hundreds? Having a marketing strategy can help. Trying to negotiate promotion with the platform provider is great place to start. Having your content front and center when users fire up their OTT box, for example, is worth its weight in gold. Also, think about the platforms you control that can help market your content on this new platform. Do you have available ad space on your Web site? Market the IPTV platform there. Same goes for available time on your radio, TV, mobile or print outlets.

3. Maximize Your Development Efforts
If you go ahead and develop your own app for IPTV platforms, take a good hard look at how your code can be repurposed for other platforms and devices. For example, can any of your code for a Google TV app be repurposed to drive an Android mobile phone app? Or, if you are programming primarily in HTML 5 for a particular partner, be sure to find out what other platforms require similar code so that you can reuse code and maximize your development efforts.

4. Diversify Your Content Distribution
IPTV is promising in many markets, but technology trends change rapidly, as do user habits. Don’t put all of your eggs in one platform basket. IPTV may be working in certain locations now, but users may, for example, move to mobile phone video viewing once mobile plan pricing changes. Or, bundling of IPTV delivery into existing technologies like traditional cable boxes may push users to abandon OTT devices. In short, stay alert and be aware of emerging trends.

5. Learn From Your Audience
When it comes to new platforms, metrics are your best friend. It’s imperative to not only monitor how much content your users are consuming, but also understanding what type of content they are consuming. Are they more inclined to watch short form content or long form? Is it hard news or lifestyle content? Also, be sure to watch metrics that are tied to major design elements. Are your users finding content? Are your navigation and search interfaces effective? Researching and iterating on your product is essential to your ultimate success.

RELATED: Download our IPTV: Opportunities and Challenges for International Media infographic (right click, save)

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Using TabletopJS to support translations for interactive graphics http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/25/using-tabletopjs-to-support-translations-for-interactive-graphics/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=using-tabletopjs-to-support-translations-for-interactive-graphics http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/25/using-tabletopjs-to-support-translations-for-interactive-graphics/#comments Mon, 25 Mar 2013 18:35:32 +0000 Brian Williamson http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=2858 Our office uses GoogleDoc spreadsheets as a way of collaborating internally and with the different language services. We use them to help manage the translations for app and website navigation across more than 60 languages. And we’re encouraging newsrooms to use the spreadsheets with TimelineJS to create interactive timelines. Recently we experimented with using TabletopJS and Google spreadsheets to help facilitate the translations for an interactive project.

For the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, we partnered with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFERL) to create a page that looked at his life and legacy. The project needed to be capable of being translated into multiple languages.

It’s a fairly straightforward task to translate text. It’s more of a challenge to translate graphics. For this project we tried a number of different approaches:

  • We used static images of graphics without any text and kept the text in the surrounding HTML.
  • We inserted SVG graphics. SVG is an XML-based way of creating vector graphics. In order to translate the graphic, the editors had to manually dig through the XML tags and translate each one.
  • We experimented with different charting services.
  • And finally we created a simple interactive graphic with RaphaelJS that used a Google spreadsheet for the data and labels.

The map of the former USSR showed over 20 years of forced migrations where millions of people had to leave their homes. Over a million of them died in the process.

Map of forced migrations in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Building the Graphic

We created a vector map of the region in Illustrator, saved it as an SVG file and then converted it to RaphaelJS. We connected the map and arrows showing migration patterns to a Google spreadsheet using TabletopJS. TabletopJS makes working with a spreadsheet as easy as working with a simple Javascript array of data. “… Imagine it’s a read-only, JavaScript CMS that you can edit through Google Docs.”

The spreadsheet includes the year, population, number of people and the reason they were forced to move. The spreadsheet also includes a column for the map locations and navigation terms.

Once we had the graphic working in English, it was a fairly straightforward task to support additional translations.

We shared the spreadsheet with the different language services. They duplicated the main sheet of spreadsheet, naming each new sheet with the name of the language. As long as the column headers and the organization of the data remained consistent between the pages, we could redirect TabletopJS to the Belarusian, Persian or Romanian sheet. We then used jQuery to replace the graphic text with the appropriate translation to create a Belarusian, Persian or Romanian map.

Why This Helps

Graphics can be difficult to translate for several reasons. The data may be stored in a database with limited access. It may be buried in a dense nest of code and tags. It may be hidden inside of a third party tool like Flash. Or it could be part of a flat, static image file. These methods all require additional time and technical skills to help translate.

By using a GoogleDoc spreadsheet:

  • We’re separating the data from the presentation
  • We’re sharing the data in a format that people are likely familiar with
  • And when you combine it with TabletopJS, you have a quick and easy way of connecting the data with the graphic.

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Do you publish content in multiple languages? How do you handle graphics? Post in the comments section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.
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(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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Using TimelineJS and a GoogleDoc spreadsheet to create a responsive timeline http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/22/using-timelinejs-and-googledoc-spreadsheet-to-create-timelines/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=using-timelinejs-and-googledoc-spreadsheet-to-create-timelines http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/22/using-timelinejs-and-googledoc-spreadsheet-to-create-timelines/#comments Fri, 22 Mar 2013 11:25:11 +0000 Brian Williamson http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=2807 ODDI works with journalists broadcasting in over 60 languages around the world. One of the challenges the UX studio is focusing on this year is how to help busy journalists create more interactive content. We want to identify existing tools (or create new ones) that will enable journalists to quickly and easily tell stories in new ways, while ensuring that the content is accessible across devices.

For our first project, we collaborated with the Vietnamese language service at Radio Free Asia to create a timeline of online dissidents in Vietnam who have been jailed.

After exploring various timeline tools, we settled on TimelineJS.

TimelineJS is a free, open source tool developed by Zach Wise and The Knight News Innovation Lab that enables journalists to make responsive timelines that work well on a desktop screen or mobile device.


How It Works

In its most basic form, the timelines can be created with a GoogleDoc Spreadsheet, so they’re easy to update, make corrections and expand in the future. And, because they’re based on a GoogleDoc, multiple journalists can collaborate simultaneously to create a timeline on a deadline.

Each timeline can include a variety of media. Journalists can use photos, maps, videos, audio files, tweets and wikipedia articles to help tell the story.

TimelineJS currently supports more than 30 languages. And if a language isn’t supported, it’s relatively easy to add it by creating a language file that translates the months, days of the week and navigation.

Building a Timeline

Creating a timeline is easy. Simply grab a copy of the timeline template and fill in the information.

GoogleDoc spreadsheet for a timeline about Aung San Suu Kyi

Each row represents a new date in the timeline. Begin by creating a start date for the event. Write a headline and short text description.

The media column is your opportunity to include multimedia content. Simply insert the link to an image, Google map, unique tweet, Wikipedia article, SoundCloud file or YouTube link. TimelineJS will process the link and incorporate the content directly in the timeline.

Flickr, GoogleMaps, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, Twitter and Wikipedia icons

If you’re linking to an image, you should be hosting it or linking to it from your Flickr account so that you can control the file size and quality of the image (and to avoid this).

When you’re ready to see your timeline, go to the File menu and select “Publish to the Web.” Check the box next to “Automatically republish when changes are made” and click “start publishing.” This will give you the spreadsheet URL to insert into TimelineJS. Copy the link and paste it into the embed generator.

You now have several options for customizing your timeline—changing the language for the navigation, choosing a map style and selecting the fonts.

Timeline Tips and Inspiration

Here are some basic suggestions for working with TimelineJS:

  • Vary the pacing using different types of media. Decide whether a map, image, video or tweet will best tell the story for that specific date.
  • Keep the headlines and text short but descriptive. Remember that you can link to additional content to enable readers to dig deeper.
  • It’s easy to add to the timeline and collaborate with others. Think about setting up a timeline with a handful of points to start with and then building on it as the story evolves.
  • You can customize the look and feel of the timeline by tweaking the CSS.

In addition, Zach Wise suggests that you “pick stories that have a strong chronological narrative. It does not work well for stories that need to jump around in the timeline.”

Remember that there are lots of different ways to use a timeline to help tell a story:

Spreading the Word

Before we met with RFA, there were already a few journalists in the language services who had used TimelineJS. Our goal is to democratize the process so that there aren’t just one or two timeline ‘experts’. We want to have entire newsrooms of journalists who are comfortable creating interactive content.

To help us accomplish our goal, we created a short tutorial video and we’re hosting a series of brown bag sessions to introduce TimelineJS to more journalists throughout VOA, RFA, RFE/RL, MBN and OCB.

Update: April 16, 2013

We reached out to Chris Spurlock, Graphics Editor at the Huffington Post, to find out how he used TimelineJS to follow the breaking news of twin explosions at the Boston Marathon.

Huffington Post timeline of the explosions at the Boston Marathon

ODDI: When did you start working on the timeline and how did you set it up?
Spurlock: As soon as I got word of the blast and how serious it appeared to be, I immediately set up the HTML for the timeline, which I did by simply cloning our Newtown page. Next I made a copy of our Newtown Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the reporter I was working with. Lastly, I copy-pasted the new Google Docs link into the HTML file and got the timeline live online.

ODDI: How did you collaborate on creating the timeline?
Spurlock: From there, the reporter and I started working on filling in the sheet. I started with the events from earlier in the day (race start, winners, etc.) and she started from the present moment and worked backward until we met in the middle.

After we had it decently flushed out and fact-checked we put it up on the site and continued to add to it (and are still adding as of now). We had a reporter from Sports offer to grab and add AP photos for us, and later we passed it off to the NewsDesk for the evening.

ODDI: What’s your favorite part about working with TimelineJS?
Spurlock: What I love is that all you have to do is share the Doc and an infinite number of people can collaborate and add info. The only tricky part is making sure you don’t paste over something someone has just entered. You also have to be careful of typos and other errors, because as soon as something is added, it goes live.

ODDI: How long did it take you to post the timeline?
Spurlock: I think I started the timeline about 30 minutes after the first bomb, and it was up on the site in less than an hour after that.

ODDI: How’ve you used TimelineJS to tell stories?
Spurlock: We’ve used the tool for big breaking news events like the Aurora and Newtown shootings, but also for other stories, both serious and not.

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What are your thoughts on TimelineJS? What tools do you think more journalists could use to produce interactive content? Post in the comments section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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Thank you to April Deibert and Chris Spurlock for their contributions to this article.

(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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Getting News To and From Some of the Most Difficult Places on Earth http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/18/getting-news-to-and-from-some-of-the-most-difficult-places-on-earth/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=getting-news-to-and-from-some-of-the-most-difficult-places-on-earth http://www.innovation-series.com/2013/03/18/getting-news-to-and-from-some-of-the-most-difficult-places-on-earth/#comments Mon, 18 Mar 2013 19:28:18 +0000 April Deibert http://www.innovation-series.com/?p=2763 With the ongoing situation in Mali, it has become increasingly important that VOA work with ODDI to strategize an alternative means of getting news to and from this technologically-challenged region.  Currently, ODDI’s Doug Zabransky is leading the team in the development and experimental testing of what they call the Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response (IVR) forum.  This technology uses IVR Junction by Microsoft Research to drastically simplify how locals can consume news and report events.

 

Zabransky Discusses Mali1 Mobile IVR Prototype [1min 17sec]

[Mobile video credit: Rob Bole]

 

What Started It All: Mali1 Micro-Blog

The precursor to Mali1 Mobile IVR was the Mali1 micro-blog site created by VOA Africa and the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) to quickly respond to getting news into Mali as Islamists began to overrun the northern provinces of the country.  This site, leveraging Tumblr and SoundCloud, was meant to be light and easy to read on all devices, to load quickly, to provide a way to submit news via email, and to include relevant news and music in the local language provided by the VOA.  The Mali1 site has begun to build an audience of both individuals in Mali, as well as a world-wide diaspora community.  Voice of America saw the value in this tool, but wanted to provide a higher level of services directly to the population in Northern Mali.

Several potential problems still stood in the way of providing the service.  The lack of consistent electricity in the North to power to recharge phones is an issue, as well as the lack of data and wi-fi, let alone affordable Internet services in order to access even the lightest of websites was another core problem.  VOA Africa, working closely with the technical ODDI team began to explore alternative options for content delivery with a focus on mobile voice for news.

Late last year, we posted an article about mobile voice for news on the Innovation Series blog from Ben Colmery, Deputy Director of Knight International Journalism Fellowships. The article, “How to harness the power of mobile voice for news,” explored mobile citizen journalism.  Rob Bole, ODDI Director of Innovation, wrote a brief intro to Colmery’s piece about how he recently “spent some time with a group of exemplary journalists and technology experts discussing the use of voice technology in the aid of reporting the news.”  Specifically, Bole was referencing the use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology and the direction his team was about to take.

 

Where We Are Today: Mali1 Mobile IVR

In close collaboration, the VOA Africa and ODDI team began work on Mali1 Mobile IVR using IVR Junction by Microsoft Research.

For those who may not be familiar with IVR capabilities, you most likely encounter it on an almost daily basis.  When you call your bank, credit card company or cable company you are usually greeted with a “Press 1 for…, Press 2 for…”  That is interactive voice response and is a technology that allows computer systems to identify or interact with the tone of a human voice or the tone of pressing numbers on your keypad.

IVR Junction by Microsoft Research is an open source project that is recognizes the need for a voice service that can network multiple phone numbers from multiple locations into one back-end system and then use simple existing tools, such as YouTube to manage the comments that are left by audience members.  In that regard it is ideal for an organization like VOA Africa who might need to deploy and manage multiple IVR systems when commercial services are not readily available or are too expensive to operate through a reseller.  According to the IVR Junction product page, interactive voice forums using IVR technology “enable callers to leave messages that can be heard over the Internet and over the phone.”

IVR-Junction-Microsoft-Research-how-it-works-1
[Graphic depicting how the technology works, credit: Microsoft Research]

This is particularly useful because the technology can be configured to enable mobile users to leave voicemails and retrieve messages (similar to another promising open source project, the Interactive Voice Forum for citizen journalists known as CGNet Swara).  IVR technology can also be used to send email and text messages by speaking into the mobile devices and can allow consumers to ‘opt in’ to mobile campaigns with a voice call.  Microsoft Research notes that IVR forums are already being used for “citizen news journalism, agricultural discussion, community dialogue, user-generated maps, access to health information, outreach to sex workers, group messaging, feedback on school meals, support for community radio stations, and a viral entertainment platform.”

In fact, activist groups are a growing consumer of such technology as well.  The Sunlight Foundation is currently using IVR technology (powered by Twilio, a cloud communications API) to provide a means for users “to navigate a menu tree to search a member of Congress by postal code” to listen to lawmakers recite “their biography, their top campaign donors, recent votes and allows a caller to be transferred directly to the Representative’s office.” This particular service is available in both English and Spanish.

Facebook is also aware of the value of IVR technology.  According to TMCnet.com, “Callme, an application offered in partnership with Global Telelinks and based on IVR Technologies’ Talking SIP platform, allows Facebook users to make free voice calls with other members of the social network without revealing their phone number.”  This technology works for mobile Facebook users—even for Facebook ‘Zero’ users (provided that they log in).  (I just did a pretty in-depth write up on Facebook ‘Zero’.)

I could go on and on… the possibilities for IVR are seemingly endless.

 

Field Testing

So, since late last year, the ODDI team, lead by Doug Zabransky, Manager of Technology Services, have been working on tailoring the Mali1 Mobile IVR for field testing.  “The key ingredients in mind for serving digital and mobile content to Mali are lightweight and low cost solutions,” notes Zabransky, “The Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response system meets these criteria.”

 

To better understand exactly how the product is used, Zabransky explained the step-by-step details to me…

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Staff:

  • The listening junction consists of a pre-configured PC-based laptop with a GSM Standard SIM (the number that users will call) to be inserted into the modem.  (The junction must be able to access a wi-fi network.)
  • Staff must plug the network cable from the LAN port of modem into the LAN port on computer, then power up the modem and laptop.
  • Finally, staff must check that the Internet connection is working, then must call the SIM’s phone number to check that the IVR is working for users.

And that’s it.  The setup instructions are simple enough for practically anyone.

Mali1-Mobile-IVR-prototype
[Mali1 Mobile IVR prototype setup for staff; photo credit: Rob Bole]

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Users:

  • Listener calls Bamako cell phone number (Orange telecom, local in-country rates apply)
  • Menu options are press 1 to ‘Listen to the Latest News’ or 2 to ‘Leave a Message’
  • Option 1 will play the latest mali1.com 3 minute news package
  • Option 2 will allow listener to leave a message or to self-report the news
  • Messages are digitized and sent to YouTube automatically for language service moderation.

“The ability for someone to make an inexpensive, local call is key,” Zabransky continues, “Technically, in order to achieve this we have adopted open source software from MicroSoft called IVR Junction.”

“If this solution proves successful, then future expansion into other target regions will be considered with central infrastructure management in mind, customized and enhanced menu options would need to be developed,” further explains Zabransky, “and user-generated content integrations into our own content management systems” would be discussed—including “piggy-backing SMS services using the same local SIM cards.”

And, it should be mentioned that there are mobile visual IVR solutions available as well.  These solutions are generally meant for users with smart phone access, but if that is a possibility in particular regions, then users are privy to another level of potential news service.

 

VOA IVR Systems and Audience Growth

According to Steven Ferri, Mobile & Digital Media Manager for VOA Africa, IVR initiatives within VOA “are a recent addition to our media distribution strategy”. He adds that, “at present, our audience between 30K to 40K unique calls per day” and that “call length averages approximately 10:00 per call.”

When asked why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa, Ferri replied:  “There are three reasons why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa. The first is audience acquisition and escalation. IVR, like SMS is an entry-level content channel. It provides anyone with a phone, which in Africa is highly likely to a mobile phone, the ability to listen to a VOA audiocast. IVR positions users to move up to more sophisticated VOA products as their device and income dictates. The second is cost. IVR services are calibrated to meet the cost expectations that are within the user’s economic means. The third is affinity. IVR, as an audio-centric medium, meets the historic media consumption habits of a large portion of our potential audience.”

In addition to the Mali1 Mobile IVR used by VOA Africa, there are other IVR channels that are currently in use in Afghanistan.

 

Future of IVR

Zabransky says, “if the pilot goes well we would consider expansion into other regions (unknown exactly where at this point).”

“VOA believes there is a large, untapped market for our IVR products in Africa,” Ferri explains, “We envision growing IVR in those target regions where it is economically and technically possible. We want to grow IVR in parallel and integrated with our traditional radio and TV media as well as our digital platforms.”

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What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.

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Thank you to Doug Zabransky, Rob Bole, Adam Gartner and Steven Ferri for their contributions to this post.

(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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