Innovation @ BBG » Interview Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The illustrated stories of women struggling for human rights Wed, 01 Jul 2015 17:31:32 +0000 Xi Rotmil Earlier this year, the Office of Digital Design and Innovation (ODDI) collaborated with Radio Free Asia and created  “It’s not Ok” – a collection of portraits of Asian women caught in the struggle for human rights in their communities, some willingly, others forced by circumstances.

ODDI UX studio head Steve Fuchs and senior designer Brian Williams were invited to illustrate the stories of these women.

“We wanted to create a series of distinctive portraits, using a variety of mediums and techniques. This goal was rooted in both the desire to treat each story as unique as well as the practical limitations of using the available reference photos and videos,” Steve and Brian wrote in the Artist Statement.

To know more about the creative process and details of this project, we interviewed both Steve and Brian.

Why did you use illustrations instead of photos?

Steve: For some women we found an abundance of photos documenting their public struggles, for others we found virtually no visual reference, as they struggled alone.

Also, rather than just having a photo, I think the illustrations can be more engaging.



Steve: Capturing the essence of a person from a video or few photographs, is a challenging prospect. When the subject of your portrait is a part of a larger narrative, the project becomes even more daunting.

Brian: As Steve mentioned, one challenge was the limitations of what we had to work with. Some of these women are really well-known human rights activists, so they’ve been extensively documented and there are some really great reference photos that we were able to find. But other women are not well known. They really don’t have any photograph or reference. So how do you draw a portrait of someone without knowing what they look like? Or if you do have a photograph of them, it’s such a tiny one that you can’t see their face. That was definitely the case with Jiao Xia. So it was more about illustrating the scene from a story where she was protesting.


Jiao Xia paid the ultimate sacrifice, divorce, for the love of her husband.


Steve: For this project we used a variety of mediums: pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, scratchboard, pencil, and computer to not only reproduce a likeness, but illustrate an individual story of courage.


Work in progress.

Brian: we wanted each of the portraits to be different, and unique. So we just kind of pushed each other to come up with new solutions, to find new ways to draw the portrait.


How do you and Brian go about drawing a character? Is it a combined effort?

Steve: We looked at each other’s sketches making suggestions, it was very collaborative.

Brian: A lot of times, for illustrations you kind of work in a black box where you don’t get a lot of feed backs. And in this case, because we were both partnering on illustrations, it was really nice to be able to bounce ideas off, to do some sketches.

Steve: We tried to do as many different styles as we could, because each case is different.

After we did these initial sketches, we ran them by the individual language bureaus at RFA, because there are some cultural contexts, and cultural sensitivities that we do not know. For instance, the portrait I did for a Tibetan woman, I had it done in a Tibetan painting style, and turned out it is very offensive. The Tibetan’s feel their culture and art has been monetized and exploited by the Chinese. I toned it down, and took the illustration a different direction.


How long did the whole process take?

Steve: We made 12 drawings and it took six weeks in total.

The second edition, which is made for the International Women’s day, is more compressive because of the deadline. It took us three weeks.


What’s your favorite piece?

Dechen Pemba makes sure that Tibetan voices not heard inside China can be heard online.

Dechen Pemba makes sure that Tibetan voices not heard inside China can be heard online.

Steve: My favorite is the Tibetan woman Dechen Pemba. She really liked it and used it as her Facebook profile picture. As I said, because of  cultural sensibility, I had to change the original drawing. In the end, because we worked with the RFA Tibetan Service, we got something better.

Gao Yu is a veteran journalist in China who has been repeatedly imprisoned but never silenced.

Gao Yu is a veteran journalist in China who has been repeatedly imprisoned but never silenced.

Brian: I really like the one I did for Gao Yu. On this one, I know I want to do one that is more collage based. Sort of cutting out shapes and then putting them together, I started with the portrait. Because she’s a writer, so I put the keyboard there.

What’s next?

Steve: What we are hoping to do after this is to do something that moves. RFA has a project going forward on human trafficking. We are hoping to do some 30-second animations for that.

Brian: They’ve hired a team of documentary journalists to produce a series of video, and we are trying to take excerpt from the interviews, and produce a series of animations – something that hopefully will help pull people into the story through social media and from there they’ll see the longer documentary.

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It’s a Mobile World: How Public Diplomacy at State Department is Adapting Tue, 11 Feb 2014 18:24:50 +0000 Erica Malouf During a recent visit to IIP’s OIE, we talked of Agile at ODDI, GitHub, PAOs, andDID I LOSE YOU YET?

When I moved to DC from the West Coast, I initially found the government agencies in the area to be a massive tangle of alienating acronyms. But in all fairness, it’s no different from every other industry or niche.

Boy, was there a jargon learning curve where I started my career in the mobile entertainment division of 20th Century Fox. Let’s flip the track to the year 2007 when mobile websites were “WAPs,” only Blackberry-toting suits had data plans, I had a flip phone, and “widget” was a new term that made me sound savvy in meetings. My brain is thankful that digital advertising acronyms and concepts, like CPM, CPC and PPC, have stuck around.

Remember Verizon’s VCAST? There’s a relic from mobile’s early days. Cutting clips for VCAST from shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, and managing SMS voting for American Idol, was how my office justified its existence. But the buzz was around creating original content for digital platforms (nope, Netflix didn’t invent it), called “mobisides” and “webisodes.” And this all before contracts included royalties for mobile syndication (well, the lawyers and unions were starting to squawk). It sounds exciting, but my day-to-day was rather un-glamorous.

So last week, when Hilary Brandt mentioned GSMA’s Mobile World Congress, and asked whether I’d heard of it, I smiled (wryly, with a note of nostalgia) while recalling my time at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole, which included planning other people’s travel to said conference.


Hilary Brandt is the director of the Office of Innovative Engagement at State Department

You might be saying: ’Wait a minute, why do people from the State Department — a federal agency focused on public diplomacy – care about Mobile World Congress (the CES of the global mobile industry)?’

I shall tell you! Using as little jargon as possible.

The State Department, more accurately called the Department of State, is a large organization with an ambitious mission: to “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” As a part of this mission, the agency is tasked with explaining U.S. foreign policy to the world.

Because increasingly its international audience is primarily accessing digital content on mobile phones – especially people in developing countries, who often have very limited access to the Internet at all – it behooves them to think carefully about mobile.

“Throughout the world mobile phone ownership has exploded. And while many use mobile phones only for voice calls – itself a huge revolution for previously isolated rural populations in particular – mobile is increasingly the gateway to the Web,” said David Endsor, Director of BBG’s Voice of America, during a recent speech about the role of journalism in public diplomacy.

During our conversation, Hilary offered up some insight, gathered while at Mobile World Congress last year, on the changing relationship between social media and mobile carriers that further explains why the State Department pays attention to such trends.

“Facebook has been really good at adapting to low-bandwidth, mobile situations in that sort of race to get new users,” she says. Hilary notes that in emerging markets like Africa, Facebook is the Internet for many people, and this new role of social media is forcing mobile carriers to rethink their approach.

“So you have what was previously an “unholy alliance” between Silicon Valley and the mobile carriers that is changing because they need each other now, especially in emerging markets. It’s no longer just Silicon Valley companies taking up mobile data and not paying anything into the [mobile industry], which was the previous tension. Now, if a company like Nokia wants people to buy their handsets, they’re going to need to offer Facebook on that dumb phone. This is exciting and interesting for our embassies, for the tools that they’ll be able to use to communicate with as the industry grows.”

Any innovation in technology that changes how people communicate and access information will have important implications for how the State Department can reach the public. And focusing on digital makes sense for all of their current audiences, both in the beltway and abroad, as more people everywhere are accessing information from mobile devices. The Office of Innovative Engagement (OIE), directed by Hilary, is helping the agency understand and adapt to this always evolving digital world. OIE is in the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), headed by Macon Phillips. Phillips, the new Coordinator for IIP, is heading the charge for a digital first approach. Macon recently spoke on BBG’s tech panel about his vision for the bureau.


Hilary, far right, on a 2013 SXSW panel about “digital diplomacy”

Hilary has only been in IIP a year, and Macon five months, and already things are happening. For example, Hilary’s team at OIE is currently piloting the enterprise-level use of the social media management tool Hootsuite with 240 people from six DC bureaus, as well as all the U.S. embassies and consulates in the western hemisphere region. At the bureau level, another current project involves working on new ideas for digital outreach around an exchange program called YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative), which is an initiative of the White House. And you can catch Hilary at an upcoming SXSW conference where she’ll be a panelist.

Large government agencies are probably not the first place anyone would look for leadership in social media management, but I’ve found that the State Department is fairly advanced when compared to many international companies. Hilary’s office is a resource for social media expertise within the department, offering guidance and education, while organizational units throughout the department work within their authority to conduct social media outreach, and the office of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy provides leadership on governance issues. OIE also backstops the agency with a social media help desk.

There is a clear understanding in the department that being able to use new tools effectively is a necessary part of public diplomacy these days. Hilary’s office holds a monthly meeting called Tech Society about “cool, new digital tools” that provides internal thought leadership on what is coming next in the tech industry and how it can be used to better engage current and future audiences. The department wants to be ready to reach the next billion people to access the Internet.
tech society NOVEMBER

OIE also regularly hosts brown bags with tech companies and other leaders to discuss innovation as it relates to public diplomacy. For example, OIE hosted a meeting with Microsoft to discuss the company’s move to utilize “white spaces” (unused broadband spectrum) in Africa to provide Internet to communities that lack access.

If technology companies have the right incentives, it may not be long before everyone on the planet has affordable, reliable Internet access and a smart phone. It’s really a question of when that will happen, and how much the technology will have changed by the time it does.

Think about how rapidly mobile phones have evolved since the mid-2000s. I can barely remember the ones I had in between owning a Razr dumb phone and a Droid Razr smart phone, and I’m about to make another trade. The one thing that’s stayed constant is the buzz about mobile being the future – or more accurately, the present and the future.

Maybe next year I’ll be booking my own trip to Barcelona to cover Mobile World Congress…or maybe I’ll be covering it via one of those new-fangled drones.

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An Interview with Peter Corbett, Local Tech Leader with Global Vision Wed, 30 Oct 2013 16:32:42 +0000 Erica Malouf Singapore, Kaula Lumpor, Jakarta, Moscow, Bangkok, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Cairo, Zagreb… It’s not unusual to meet someone in DC who is well traveled, but local tech wonder Peter Corbett’s travel schedule reads like a secretary of state’s. In fact, he’s been to about 50 innovation hubs around the world (and he endearingly calls himself “a spoiled bastard” for being able to do it).

“Every time I travel I try to share what I know—there’s a cross pollination of ideas that happens. …it doesn’t have to translate into revenue and profit for a company,” said Corbett during my recent interview with him at his iStrategyLabs office in DC.

I asked Peter to offer some perspective on what’s happening in some of the places he’s been to lately. Here’s a recap of his off-the-cuff impressions.

Corbett airport



He calls Moscow the most underperforming capital on the planet. “So much talent but it’s so constrained by lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy, corruption…legacy of communism. If they were really democratic, they would rival Tel Aviv as the other Silicon Valley.” He describes the inefficiencies of Russia with the example of it taking three plus weeks to ship a package from Moscow to the other side of Russia.


“Bangkok is on fire, and so has Thailand’s economy been for maybe the last decade,” says Corbett. In Asia, most markets are focused on consumer technology. And often in emerging markets, the first customer tends to be the government, so there is some public sector innovation. This is not dissimilar to the US—Silicon Valley owes its existence to Uncle Sam.


Corbett points to the ills of the socio-economic stratification and gender inequality in India, which he believes translates into the inability to get the velocity they need to become a developed nation. Despite this, he notes that there are healthy and growing startup communities in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities.


He describes Nigeria in terms of its “massive acceleration in the luxury segment, and none at all at the bottom.” He finds Africa on the whole to be really interesting from a technology and innovation point of view.


Many people may not realize that many telecom companies test their networks in the Africa. “…to have 4G in the middle of the Serengeti was mind boggling. If you can run it in Africa in the heat, it will run anywhere—that’s why they test there.”


He doesn’t expect much out of Egypt in the near future. “When I was in Cairo two years ago there was a lot of buzz and hope, but now the infrastructure is a mess.” “I’ve got a lot of friends there—really talented, young entrepreneurs who were very hopeful…I wonder what they think now.”


“It’s called ‘Asia Lite’ for a reason,” says Corbett, “it’s very easy to travel and do business there, everything is in English, it’s in the middle of everything. The tech community it dense and people know each other. It’s probably half the size of DC’s ecosystem, maybe 10 percent of NYC. The government is incredibly supportive, having recently announced a $40,000,000 early stage investment fund. The real constraint for them is in regard to engineering and design talent. They have a visa policy that inhibits hiring foreign workers, and it’s already a small country, so there just aren’t enough technology people graduating from college.”

“I feel like [my travels have] given me a good understanding…of why some countries are weaker than others and what their challenges are [for tech businesses] from a policy point of view, tax and immigration…so when I come back to DC I have it all in context. Most of the world wishes they were us and had our policies.”

Corbett at internat conf

Tech Inspiration from Near and Far

Some of the most interesting tech innovations Peter has come across lately were at the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona last year. A developer from Helsinki built an app called BlindSquare to leverage the Foursquare API so that people who are vision impaired can have the nearby venues read to them audibly as they walk through the city. “That’s audio, social, technology services all coming together.”

A US-based company called Breakfast NY that’s a competitor of Peter’s own iStrategyLabs invented a product called Points. “Points is a new age street sign. It’s a simple pole that moves and will point in the direction of things—it’s intelligent signage powered by citizens.”

Peter’s company iStrategyLabs is also creating products in the physical space—they are working at the intersection between digital and physical. For example, they made a social fridge for GE that requires checking into Foursquare in order to open it.

corbett social fridge

“We are like the real-time commercialization layer of technology. We’re good at executing—when we say we’ll do something we do it, we figure it out.”

“Almost everything we do is open source,” says Corbett. “We generally start with open source…[such as] with java script or PHP framework. We leverage what’s been built and share it back if it’s worthwhile. We don’t work with any proprietary technology—no javascript.”

“We’re inspired by the deep web hacker communities” (by “hacker” he means people who are building weird new things and building on open source). “For example, we might be on Hacker News and come across something like parallax.js.”

Behind the Product

“Everything we do needs to tell a story,” said Corbett, “so we don’t specifically talk about storytelling.” However, they do tell stories about their work. His team recently built a scroll-able parallax site that tells the story of how they made a product for Nickelodeon.

“The idea that we need to tell the story of our creation process is crucial because it’s nearly impossible [for others] to understand the level of effort that goes into what we do, and the process, and how valuable all that is unless we document and show it. Usually people evaluate it based on the final product and they don’t realize that there’s this long tail of input that goes into that. So we are focused on getting better and better at telling our own story of how we make things.”

Peter’s non-technical advice to the tech community:

“Don’t forget that there are people in the physical space that you should probably meet. If you’re a developer or designer and you’re not trying to find your local meet-up in Nairobi, then you’re missing out. They exist in every single place on the planet. Those are where you’ll get the kind of connections and insights that are invaluable. I encourage people not to just consume online industry news—go talk to people.”


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Behind the Scenes: April Deibert [] Fri, 08 Mar 2013 21:01:45 +0000 April Deibert [Cross-posted from BBG's Notebook blog, where "Notebook offers a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day work in U.S. international broadcasting."]

Behind the Scenes: April Deibert

By: Roxanne Bauer, 7 Mar 2013

April tours Voice of America headquarters in the Wilbur J. Cohen Building,  Washington, D.C.

“When I first started working for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation, I was given a tour of VOA headquarters by one of my supervisors.  It was great to get a historical perspective of the agency and to see the Cold War-era building it is housed in (that still has rooms that were used as potential nuclear fallout shelters and beautiful vintage brass escalators), and to meet and interview interesting on-air staff, editors and producers.

Getting an overall feeling for how each department operated separately and then together helped shape my perspective on what ODDI’s role is to facilitate the use of innovative technologies to reach different global populations. I’ve learned that the strategy behind what appears to be a simple production to the public can go far deeper and be far more intellectual than what an information consumer may realize.  The BBG is unique because it uses research to localize social media for its many global audiences.”

April Deibert is a contractor working on multimedia blogging and production for the Office of Digital and Design Innovation.  You can find some of her work on their website.


To read more articles on Notebook, visit their website here.

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Interview with Andrew Golis, PBS FRONTLINE Tue, 05 Mar 2013 01:11:21 +0000 April Deibert Andrew Golis is the Director of Digital Media/Senior Editor at PBS FRONTLINE.  In September 2012, he and the rest of the FRONTLINE team won the General Excellence Award for Online Journalism from the Online News Association.  In December 2012, Golis was listed by Forbes in their annual “30 under 30” list for media.  He expanded FRONTLINE’s digital-first original reporting and analysis, and grew its digital audience by over 50% while launching a series of experiments in interactive video.  During this interview, Rob Bole (Director of Innovation at ODDI) and I speak with Golis about how he is continuing to help steer FRONTLINE’s traditional broadcast toward their digital future.


Full Video Interview [33min 42sec]


Key Takeaways

– Thinking about and producing content for the ‘Bored at Work’ Network vs. the ‘Lean Back at Home’ Network is equally important. Referring to phrases by BuzzFeed Founder/CEO Jonah Peretti, Golis notes that there tends to be a ‘bored at work’ network of users (those who like to access quick, bite-size pieces of information through video or easy-to-read articles in between other tasks) and a ‘lean back at home’ network of users (those who enjoy kicking back at home to watch a thought-provoking documentary).   The ‘bored at work’ network likely browse places like Buzzfeed, Gawker, Huffington Post, or Yahoo News/Blogs, while the ‘lean back at home’ users are likely to enjoy traditional evening broadcasts.

Within each of these networks are different ‘tribes’, or communities of thought.  Golis notes that FRONTLINE’s tribe is a uniquely difficult ‘tribe’ to organize, because it has to be built around “abstract and high-brow things such as transparency, accountability, fairness and the importance of narrative.”  Whereas most other tribes can be built around simple things like political party or niche interest.

Overlap in viewing and engagement practices between these audience networks is expected.  There are over 150 FRONTLINE shows streaming for free on the website.  Those who tend to be part of the ‘lean back at home’ network can also easily browse through the guilty pleasures of the ‘bored at work’ network. There is a seemingly endless supply of digital content linked to each documentary including full-length interviews, news about ongoing investigations, digitized official documents from archives, transcripts and more.  Golis notes that this strategy has encouraged engagement with a core group of FRONTLINE fans that continues to grow.  People tend to want to know more about issues that intrigue them and are eager to read follow-up threads about what happens with individuals, companies and organizations that FRONTLINE investigated.


– Creative audience engagement is keyTo build up your ‘tribes’, sometimes you must go to other ‘tribes’ and show your goods.  Sometimes there are scheduled live chats where the FRONTLINE producer and a reporter from a major news outlet take questions from the audience about the show (as was done for Cliffhanger).  FRONTLINE’s audience (a tribe) is made privy to the upcoming chat and the major news outlet (the other tribe) is made privy as well.  Thus, there is a pooling of two audiences that may be interested in what the other has to offer.  Golis explains that this is a great time to show your best content to the ‘other tribes’ so their audience will come on over in the future.  This may translate into converted users and a potential uptick in Facebook followers or newsletter signups.

Live-tweeting is another way to engage the filmmakers, reporters, commentators and audience members during broadcast.  This practice encourages all viewers to converse about the program as it’s happening.

Audience engagement can also come in the form of being receptive to groups most directly affected by the documentaries.  For example, Golis points out that after Flying Cheap aired, a lot of airline pilots contacted FRONTLINE to say that the investigative piece was missing a huge issue relating to the subcontracting of maintenance.  With a commitment to expanding on the comments to develop a story worthy of nearly an hour of television, the pilot’s comments facilitated the follow up show, Flying Cheaper.


– The depth of audience engagement means more than measuring the face value of web analytics.  Golis says that it is indeed important for FRONTLINE to know how many people they reach, but it is particularly important to understand the depth of that engagement.  While it may be great to reach a couple million unique users, Golis and his team are interested in keeping people engaged for a proper amount of time—either by watching the full-length documentaries or by getting them to click through all the other videos and documents on the FRONTLINE site.


– Design is important to create a natural stream of ongoing reporting for the audience to follow-up on.  Golis acknowledges the uncommon practice of FRONTLINE reporters publishing reports ahead of and after commissioned broadcasts.  For example, Law & Disorder reporters produced lots of follow up threads due to the huge interest in what happened following the broadcast.  After all, the original documentary resulted in the arrest of eight New Orleans police officers for corrupt conduct and boosted police department oversight policies.  Golis and the editorial staff have learned that the production of interactive reports (artifacts, transcripts, other documents) before and after a broadcast really creates a core demographic of interested followers.  Golis believes that “the more material that surfaces to show transparency, the more credible the reporting and the more interest it drives.”


– Storytelling with interactive artifacts counts for extra.  The process of developing the David Headley piece for A Perfect Terrorist evolved through several stages.  Golis expresses that YouTube is great, but it lacks interactivity to turn it into a real digital artifact.  To figure out how a story would look as an interactive video story, FRONTLINE invited several creative filmmakers to come up with new techniques.

One gentleman, Tom Jennings (FRONTLINE Producer for Law & Disorder, Doctor Hotspot, A Perfect Terrorist, and Money, Power & Wall Street), suggested that the Headley story should be told as a web of relationships.  For those who are not familiar with this story, Headley was the American who masterminded the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  He was a former heroine smuggler and a DEA informant.  According to Golis, Jennings knew that “Headley’s life was only made possible by this really complex web of relationships that he was able to play.”  Jennings laid out his vision for what this may look like as an interactive.

So a hack day was set up.  Initially, a radio piece was created.  As the audio progressed, the Headley story moved across a timeline. As the timeline moved along, it elaborated on various individual relationships that Headley had (such as law enforcement or terrorist cell connections).  Jennings then drew the Hadley network out on a whiteboard to create a visual.  The hack team felt that it would be ideal to be able to click on each item to watch video–then pause the video to look at other related bits of information.

The team then thought about a viral YouTube video of Picasso painting on glass.  So the team bought a giant piece of glass, set it up and they filmed Jennings talking to the camera while drawing the interactive web of relationships.  To create the interactive portion, FRONTLINE hired an interactive-focused firm to animate it to have nodes to click on.  The interactive team creatively used Popcorn.js to design custom-made interactive graphics.  Golis credits his editorial team’s success with this documentary to the fact that they developed the script first and then sought out the technology to build the visual form.


– Golis feels that collaboration between broadcast teams and digital teams will lead to some of the best reporting that FRONTLINE has ever done.  Reports are beginning to be posted for a broadcast about the NFL and concussions (scheduled to air later this year).  In it’s current form, their website Concussion Watch aims to continuously update digital artifacts to add to the transparency of the interactive publishing and broadcasting format.

With the adaptation of interactive reporting, FRONTLINE has also attracted new talent to the team through their broadcasts who are interested in expanding on the design of interactive materials.

And, to make videos more accessible and user-friendly, the FRONTLINE tag management system has been improved so that things can be easily sorted and found.  As an example, Golis specifically references the way they broke down the oral history site for The Choice 2012 by allowing for keyword/phrase searches like “Obama and Drones” or “Romney and Abortion.”


No time to watch the whole interview?  Here’s a couple snippets.

1. Golis on producing content for different types of audiences [3min 14sec]


2. Golis on the creative, editorial and technical process behind the interactive David Headley piece, A Perfect Terrorist [7min 41sec]:


For more information:


- – - – -

(Thank you to Andrew Golis (@agolis) and Rob Bole (@rbole) 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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Interview: Andre Mendes-‘Safety on the Line’ Report with Freedom House Thu, 04 Oct 2012 17:25:45 +0000 April Deibert The report Safety on the Line: Exposing the Myth of Mobile Communication Security is a 2012 mobile technology study jointly produced by the BBG and Freedom House.  The study looked at mobile use and mobile security risks in 12 countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.  BBG and Freedom House hope to inform users and developers about the current variety of operating systems, applications and mobile protocols on the market in order to explore each item’s capacity to protect security and privacy and to combat censorship and surveillance


Andre Mendes


The Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) wanted to gain more insight into the use of this document by speaking with Andre Mendes, Director of the Office of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.


1.      Why was the BBG-Freedom House report produced and what is it? 

Safety-on-the-Line-Report-BBG-Freedom-House-1Mendes: We have been following the migration of content consumption patterns among our audiences and potential audiences.  It became very obvious in these developing markets, the use of mobile is exploding and Internet access and usage via those platforms is substantially increasing.  So we figured it was time to take an in depth look at what that market entails and also how security concerns are handled along every level of the technology stack.

We cooperated with Freedom House to jointly sponsor a report that would look at 12 of the up and coming mobile markets where we would be interested in seeing our mobile utilization (increased) and (where we could) do an in depth analysis of mobile platform security.  (The risk analysis) encompassed the entire ecosystem and examined everything from the service providers (even at the state level) where we looked at the telecommunications organization providing the basic infrastructure, all the way up to the code writers that build applications for the smart phone platforms that are literally flooding these markets.  We looked at every piece of the puzzle that composes the mobile arena.


[Image above: “Big 5 Market Share, May 2012” & “Growth Rate”, p. 70]


2.      What were the report’s conclusions?  Was there anything that surprised you?

Mendes: Nothing in the report was a complete surprise.  Obviously, some of our expectations in terms of platform ubiquity were validated–with the mobile platform either being thoroughly ensconced into the ethos of these countries or very quickly becoming so.  In some (countries), the entire infrastructure is under the control of government–with everything that entails.  Also in some countries, there are some handsets with operating systems that are actually being customized in order to add additional data collection mechanisms to disable (data collection).

What we found was a situation where (under the) most authoritative regimes the end user is the most at risk for unauthorized data collection for tracking—allowing for in depth exploration to identify people, purposes, associations, meetings, and so on.


3.      Do any of the new emerging phone technologies help or hurt end users?

Mendes: Well I mean I don’t know if the iPhone 5 brings any security enhancing measures to the table, but it’s not a platform that we expect to find in these countries any time soon.  In fact, previous iPhones were not secure because they had the ability to track locations and movements on Google Earth across national borders.  It was very distressing.  Some of that is inherent on any phone.  But say you have an account in a government-controlled telecommunications environment.  They’ll be looking at your roaming patterns, they’ll be looking if you are crossing borders and getting authenticated elsewhere.  This will happen if you don’t take the precaution of using different SIM cards or different phones.  (Government telecommunications companies) can even go as far as looking at the people you associate with and the proximity to establish patterns.


[Images above: Security ratings of Android vs. Blackberry mobile platforms, p. 84, 87]

Not too long ago I read an essay positing that, given enough data, (corporate) telecommunications companies could predict your future behavior based on your past utilization patterns.  For example, if you go to the same restaurant at the same time every Wednesday, they can do massive data mining to determine what time you’ll get there.  What we got was an assurance that all of the fantastic functionality that enables some of the great abilities that these phones have (such as the convenience of being able to search for the nearest ATM, to get pizza restaurant recommendations, or to buy movie tickets) are quite a double edge sword, because they allow for massive collection of utilization data.  The original intent was commercial utilization of course, to sell you more stuff or entice you to go to a certain place when you’re doing a search—but, unfortunately, it can be used for nefarious purposes by authoritarian regimes that are less interested in selling you stuff and more interested in making sure that you’re not circumventing any of their thought control, content control, or movement control plans.  Whether we like it or not, this is pervasive and only likely to increase.


4.             How should and where should people be enticed to upload content?

Mendes: From a convenience standpoint, a mobile phone is almost a pre-requisite for modern living. Therefore, curtailing its entrance into a particular country, city, location, stadium, or arena is virtually impossible.  Effectively what we’ve done is enable any citizen with a modern mobile phone to be a citizen journalist—by virtue of the ability to capture both audio and video that can be sent anywhere in the world immediately by using the existing telecommunications network.

The truth is, nowadays, if you buy a phone for $300 you have an HD-capturing-machine, which would have cost you about $120,000 10 years ago. Now you can capture content at 1080p and 30 frames per second that is actually a usable source of broadcast quality material.  It is a bit of a Pandora’s box in terms of how it creates an environment where content from anywhere can be captured and distributed as long as there is enough bandwidth to carry the traffic.  The same technology that enables financial progress and economic advantage to these authoritarian regimes is, at the same time, providing people with tools that enable information acquisition and consumption and escape.  This creates a very interesting quandary—which explains why (governments) probably want to control the entire infrastructure to the utmost degree.

Safety-on-the-Line-BBG-Freedom-House-6[Image above: “Market Penetration”, p. 92]


5.      Why did TSI/BBG commission the report?

Mendes: We are very intent on providing people with unfettered access to the Internet.  As (mobile) platforms become more and more relevant, especially in those countries where access to (personal computers) or cyber cafes is somewhat controlled or impossible from an economic standpoint, then it becomes one of the most important strategic platforms going forward.   As such, we want to make sure we are aware of the security frailties of the environment so that we can properly warn and educate our audiences and our content contributors about the inherent risks associated with it.  We’re not going to be able to completely mitigate them, but at least we need to make sure we’re dealing with people who have a minimum understanding of some of the risks that they’re exposing themselves to.


6.      How have the results of the report been disseminated?

Mendes: We have published them online and have also talked with several other institutions that are interested in further publicizing the report.  We’re cooperating with the U.S. State Department in terms of that distribution and we’ve made the content available on Capitol Hill to some of our appropriators and to some of the staffers that deal with the BBG on a regular basis.  So we’re hoping that more and more people get to read it and take advantage of the report.  It has proven invaluable to us in terms of determining future strategies and our ability to convince some of our providers to implement the security measures recommended in the report.


7.      What is the IAC program at TSI?  What are the goals of IAC?

Mendes: TSI is the Technology, Services and Innovation branch of the BBG and is responsible for broadcast distribution on a global basis—from short wave stations to Internet and mobile distribution.   Within that organization, we operate the Internet Anti-Censorship (IAC) division that is funded separately by Congress.  IAC’s intent and mission is to ensure that people who live in environments that actively promote censorship of the Internet are able to access tools, techniques and capabilities to allow them to access information by whatever means they can in an unfettered manner. It’s a relatively simple mandate that we’re fulfilling by providing access to the tools while helping to increase the security to the end user.

Safety-on-the-Line-BBG-Freedom-House-5[Image above: “Reasons for Use of Circumvention Tools”, p. 72]


8.      How does the work at IAC interact with the rest of the agencies? 

Mendes: We have a substantial amount of interaction with the BBG broadcast networks to coordinate how our tools are distributed via their or the vendor’s websites.  (We do this by) sharing information about the availability of these tools—such as proxy servers—through the broadcasts.  For example, we’ll announce the availability of a proxy server on a radio broadcast or on a TV broadcast.  Our satellite TV and radio with slate distribution into China, Tibet, and Iran has a running list of proxy servers available for people that are watching us on satellite TV.  So we have to coordinate with (the networks) very closely (to distribute) these messages and software tools that their audience can use.


9.            How will IAC interact with ODDI in the future?

Mendes: ODDI is putting forth new platforms and new capabilities in the mobile environment.  It is dealing with the Pangea integration, looking at the integration of audio/video platforms, and its going to be working with other platforms that will be commissioned and deployed on mobile platforms so there needs to be close integration with IAC. (This is) to ensure that if we provide people with an application to access VOA,  RFE/RL or for that matter any other Internet content, they will have the right tools in their platform that enable them to get past the firewall.  If you have an application, but nobody can get to it, there is no point (to owning it).  I think there needs to be a close relationship (between ODDI and IAC) to help make our information available to people in these suppressed countries.


10.            Based on the report, do you have any recommendations for our journalists?

Mendes: By and large, I’ve found that different organizations will pick different tools (based on their needs).  As a government agency, it’s very difficult to make broad recommendations without going through a very elaborate and defensible process.  At the end of the day, all of these platforms have flaws, so there’s not a perfect bullet out there.  I think as all of these platforms evolve the struggle will be between the functionality that is so desired within free societies for convenience and the lack of confidentiality and anonymity that is brought on by virtue of data collection and possible mis-utilization.

This will be a case where commercial interests will dictate more access to data and more correlation between geographical locations, utilization patterns and access to databases, versus the dark side of that, which is the usage of that data aggregation by nefarious regimes and 3rd party applications (which you can’t control at all).  A government owned telecommunications company can collect your information at whatever interval they desire to do by virtue of triangulation and storing that data.  It is going to be a constant interplay between those things.  People need to be very aware that, effectively, an overwhelming majority of people that are unwilling or unable to go through annonymization of their platforms, are effectively giving up an enormous amount of privacy for the sake of convenience.


Safety-on-the-Line-BBG-Freedom-House-7[Image above: “Security Desired”, p. 37]


The same is true online on a desktop, or at a cyber cafe where someone can be looking over your shoulder, or by participating on an email chain, or by participating in a physical demonstration parading down the streets.  There is always a built in danger when taking on dissident-like activities.  You can’t be protected against all of the dangers that ensue.  People should just be aware that when you’re in a mobile environment and are an active user, you might be exposing yourself in ways that you don’t understand.  Hopefully this report will shed a little light on that.  It will also bring to the table the opportunity to deal with hardware, software, application and operating system manufacturers to make them aware that they should—at the very least—put in place some tools that enable the opt in or opt out type of functionality for some of these identity (masking or) unmasking features.


There’s no free lunch… if people want to be bad they will be bad. And if a government really wants to find you and you’re using regular tools, yee shall be found.Safety-on-the-Line-BBG-Freedom-House-8[Image above: "The Guardian Datablog14 analyzed over 300 records of people on riot-related charges before English magistrates’ courts to see where people lived and when the riots took place in London. The map shows where riots and looting took place in each part of the city.", p. 34]

Safety-on-the-Line-BBG-Freedom-House-9[Image above: "CCTV cameras in London, recorded thousands of hours of video footage of looters and rioters. Operation Withern15 at the Metropolitan (London) Police is an operation to collect information about those involved in the London riots. Photographs of the rioters were released to the general public in the hopes that witnesses will come forward to identify suspects.", p. 34]

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(Thank you to Andre Mendes, Will Sullivan, and Rob Bole for their contributions to this post.  To contact Mendes:

(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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Interview: Daniel Jacobson & How API Drives Digital Media Strategy Tue, 02 Oct 2012 15:07:29 +0000 April Deibert

Daniel Jacobson is the Director of Engineering (API) at Netflix and author of the book APIs: A Strategy Guide (OReilly Media, 2011).  After a long stint as part of and then the leader of NPR’s digital team, Jacobson gained vital experience addressing difficult API technological and business strategy challenges.  Netflix took note of his innovative approach and brought him on board to join their staff of technologists.  This is the transcribed conversation had by Office of Digital and Design Innovation Director Rob Bole, ODDI Multimedia Blogger/Producer April Deibert and Jacobson about how to strategize internal and public API development.


[Video: What is an API? (Volume I), Source: apigee on YouTube]


Bole: Why write the book and what have you found so far?

Jacobson: The purpose of the book is to focus on the business aspects of API development.  There were already a lot of books about the technical aspects, design and best practices of API development.  The other authors and I felt that there was no holistic picture about API–about the benefits, about the detriments, about the legal ramifications, and about the security ramifications.  We wanted to just step back and think about all the things that you have to consider when you are thinking about an API and how that translates into execution or implementation.  So one of the key principles that we try to lay out throughout the entire book is that you should know your audience.  For example, if your audience comprised of internal development teams and you don’t open it up publicly, that has different legal ramifications than public developers.  We felt that was a really important message that we needed to convey, especially as the API industry is really ramping up.


Bole: In your book, you discuss that the real growth of APIs has been internal (a core business mission) rather than external (crowdsourcing innovation).  Do you recommend internal or external strategy first for API development?

Jacobson: Different businesses thrive on different things.  I think Twitter has benefited from their public APIs and they wouldn’t be who they are today if they didn’t do that.  But, they are changing their strategy now.  It really depends on the business.  That said, when NPR launched their API and Netflix launched their API, both companies had the idea of “let 1000 flowers bloom”.  Meaning, create a field of opportunity and then see what sprouts up around it.  Both companies wanted to take advantage of the crowdsourcing opportunity.

However, before I left NPR, it became very clear to me that the public API wasn’t really going to change anything for us in a meaningful way.  The major transformation was the internal consumption, such as: building iPhone apps off of the API, distributing to member stations, letting member stations post into the API, then redistributing that information out to other member stations.  It is about using your API to create tighter technical relationships with your partners.  This was beyond what you would see in the public developer world.  Similarly, at Netflix, it’s magnified here.  We have a bunch of public developers who work on a bunch of apps, but it pales in comparison to the impact that the Netflix API has had toward our device proliferation strategy.  We currently have about 800 different device types.  The API is seeing about 2 billion transactions per day through our streaming applications.  The public API is doing less than 0.1 percent of the total traffic.  That is negligible compared to the impact of our internal API strategy.  So, it depends on the company and how that company can leverage the API to support their business.


Bole: What is the API business strategy like at other companies?  How do APIs play out in terms of engagement by the business development crew and the engineering teams?   

Jacobson: Here’s how I characterize it: some people like to view an API strategy as ‘what is our business strategy for the API?’  I think that’s the wrong approach for that type of model.  I think what we’re really saying is, ‘what’s the business strategy and does an API help us satisfy that business strategy?’ So, the business strategy at Netflix, for example, we want to be ubiquitous across all devices and where ever that user is, whatever they have, we want to make sure they can get it.  How we can most likely leverage that in a highly effective and efficient way and use the economy of scale to do that?

API is a technical implementation that helps you achieve that.  I think that’s, for the internal use case, the way to think about it.  And we think about this in terms of our metrics.  As an example, I think a lot of people think the metrics that you should care about are how many requests is the API getting, or, how many apps are driven off the API. I think those are the wrong metrics for an internal use case.  The right metrics are: how is the traffic that is coming in from the API mesh with the rest of the traffic that you care about?  It’s the logging that you care about for your system.  Is that representative?  Are there things that we can do better within the API to better support the user experiences?  Or whatever the engagement is for your business.  Don’t think of the API metrics as API metrics, think about them as part of the ecosystem that supports your business strategy.


Bole: How aware is the business development team of API technology and how do you work with them?

Jacobson: They are extremely aware of the API as a way to facilitate partner engagement.  Plus, most of the product managers and business development staff are very aware of the role that the API plays in our product development.  They think of the API as one of many components of our entire product, but are aware that it is the distribution engine that gets our metadata onto devices in our customers’ homes.


Bole: What is your role in working with the business teams?

Jacobson: The API is in a unique position within the overall product stack, so I think of it as an hourglass.  At the top of the hourglass: all the UI’s, all the devices, and all of the product people who think about what we need to deliver as an experience to customers.  At the bottom of the hourglass: many of the back end services (like the movie metadata database, the subscriber information, the ratings algorithm, the recommendations, and the search service).  The API is in the skinny part in the middle of the hourglass.

My role is to make sure that we can broker the data (between the top and the bottom of the hourglass) in a highly efficient, resilient and scalable way.  So we’re involved in quite a bit of the product development for virtually all of our UIs  We have to work with the back end services to make sure that the data needed is exposed, or if its not currently exposed, get teams to interface with other teams to build a patch to get it delivered.  So my team is kind of a broker in terms of data and in terms of product development; we make sure everything moves.  And because the business development teams, partner engagement teams, and product managers drive many of the goals for these UIs, the API teams’ involvement with them is quite high.


[Video: What is an API? (Volume II), Source: apigee on YouTube]


Bole: BBG is a media news organization, so it’s about moving product or content to people’s devices.  In your opinion, what is the role of APIs in news organizations now and in the future?

Jacobson: When I was at NPR, they thought of themselves as a journalism organization with a digital media arm.  At Netflix, we think of ourselves as a technology company.  We staff ourselves accordingly; more than half of our staff are part of product development.  We’re certainly in the media space though because the core of what we deliver to people is media, but we’re doing it with a very technology-oriented mindset.  That’s an important distinction because it makes the technology part of the DNA of what we do, instead of just delivering videos to people.  NPR for example, the staffing is in balanced in the favor of non-technologists.   That presents some challenges in terms of capabilities.  When I was at NPR and helped to develop the API, I knew that it needed to be highly efficient for what we were doing because we didn’t have the resources to do a lot of experimentation.

Media organizations need to really think about digital strategy.  What is the digital strategy and what is the role that it plays within the organization overall?  Staff accordingly and get the right skill sets and the right number of people in the right positions.  Focus on what the products are that you’re delivering and the API is going to come from whatever that strategy is.  If you think it will be a crowdsourcing model, then you will want to focus more on public API developments and doing things that will promote external development of the APIs.  If it’s an internal strategy, then you need great technologists with the right skill sets who can build and leverage APIs.  If your strategy is all about mobile, then you need people who can work on those products and consume from those APIs.  The API is a service that will help you develop your digital products.


Bole: What are some of the companies that are ‘doing it right’?  How can one execute against using an API to advance a news or media strategy?

Jacobson: NPR is doing it right.  Things have really evolved there in the past few years. While I worked there, we started thinking ‘let’s develop this API and then let’s see what public developers will do with it’.  Then Bradley Flubacher built the NPR Addict iPhone app off of our public API and that got us thinking that we should build our own iPhone app which ultimate sat on top of our internal APIs.  We realized that we needed to really leverage this great tool so we can work with our member stations and reach the growing number of distribution channels.  They are staffed to support that entire ecosystem.

I don’t know enough about the details around some of the other media companies, but I think USA Today launched a public strategy about a year ago and ESPN launched one about 8 months ago.  What they have done is try to use API publicly and internally and launch strategies around the same time.  When I talk to them about their internal strategies, I think that they’re moving in the right direction.  I would possibly question whether or not launching a public API is worth it at that point—based on my experiences–and I think I’ve told them that much.  I think that’s part of the evolution, as you’re starting to adopt a strategy, you have to start thinking about the things that are opportunistic for your strategy, over time you’ll learn, and then adjust that.  One other key point is that the strategy should be an evolution; it’s not like, okay, we’re doing this for the next five years.  You’ll learn pretty quickly–if you’re NPR, or Netflix, or maybe even ESPN or whoever else–that either the public API is going to be worth the effort or not.  You should make adjustments based on that and change your strategy.  And as your strategy changes, that should impact your staffing as well.


Bole: What’s the future of APIs?  Where should BBG aim for in the future?  What are the trends that are most important?

Jacobson: The best bet is to think about internal API and to find a discrete use case or two and then have it developed.  See how it evolves and grows.  I think there’s a strong tendency for people to start with a public API because of the iceberg theory talked about in my book.  The tip of the iceberg is above the water and highly visible, representing the public APIs.  But the overwhelming mass of the iceberg is not visible below the water, which represents the internal APIs.  So people tend to get lured in with the notion of public APIs because they see other companies releasing and evangelizing them.  What they don’t realize is that many of these companies are really leveraging APIs mostly for their internal case.

So I would stay clear of the public APIs at the outset for two reasons: 1) I think in many cases, the value proposition is not as great as the value proposition of the internal case; 2) it’s a lot more expensive and harder to get going than an internal case because you have a lot of external considerations.  These external considerations can include legal concerns, securing rights to content (making sure you can offer content if you’re getting it from other sources), what does your business want you to deliver, making sure you aren’t going to cannibalize your other business strategies, and how you are going to monetize the distribution of the content for public use.  Also once the public API is out there and used by a other people, you can’t easily take it away without upsetting them.  So there is a public relations risk there.  I think it’s riskier and more challenging go forward with a public strategy, especially if you don’t have a clear value proposition.  If public APIs are part of the strategy, then launching first with internal APIs can give you confidence in the development and change process of running an API without the initial risk associated with a large set of external developers depending on it.


Deibert: How would the development of an API affect USIM in the short term and the long term?

Jacobson: It’s hard to differentiate international and U.S. media—with digital, the barriers of proximity are broken down.  At NPR, for example, the member stations were how people consumed information in the past because the radio towers were near where they lived.  Now digital is coming into play—so you can get your home stream while you’re (on the opposite coast or overseas).  I’m sure there are people outside the states that are reading and subscribing to the New York Times, but that’s not something they could have easily done 15 years ago.  In the future, the majority of the consumption will be closer where the company is, but I think people should be thinking more about an international strategy if the content has international appeal.  APIs offer that.  For example, as Netflix broadens and goes to more countries (UK, Latin America, and the Nordic region), APIs play a key role.  That’s how we get into people’s homes; location is not the factor, it’s just about having the right pipeline to get there, assuming that is part of the overall business strategy.


For more info:


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(Thank you to Daniel Jacobson and Rob Bole 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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Denise Hassanzade Ajiri: RFE/RL, MJ Bear Fellow Fri, 07 Sep 2012 18:05:24 +0000 April Deibert Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, 29, was one of three journalists under-30 selected for the prestigious 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship that is sponsored by the Online News Association (ONA).  Originally from Tehran and born to an open-minded family with an Azeri Muslim father and Assyrian Christian mother, Ajiri felt drawn to the art of journalism and free press.  She now resides in Prague where she works as a Web Writer for Radio Farda, a Persian-language news service operated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  With the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship opportunity, Ajiri hopes to find new ways to encourage other Iranian journalists, in particular, to cover international styles of art, music, film, and performance to encourage a new generation of open-minded, global-thinkers—or, people who will be open to observe events around the world without being judgmental.


Ajiri received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Tehran University in Iran and received her graduate degree in Professional Communication and Public Relations at La Salle University in the Czech Republic.  She first fell in love with writing fiction and satire, but then likely realized that the journalism of our generation did not fall far from the fiction and satire tree in some respects.  With that notion, she found a passion for pursuing a career of reporting facts and supporting the notion free press—things not readily supported in Iran.


She’s Setting the Bar High

Last week, I called Ajiri for an interview while she was on her way home from work.  After a few brief minutes of speaking, I could completely picture why she was selected for the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship: her voice was happy and full of excitement when talking about the goals she was preparing to achieve with her fellowship mentor, Asli Yerdekalmazlar (Executive Producer for MEA (Middle East and Africa) as part of the MSN CEEMEA team in Turkey).  Ajiri was hoping for a digital online news mentor who specializes in cultural issues.  “Iran can be an insular environment, and the society can be close-minded on topics such as art and lifestyles,” explained Ajiri in her application for the fellowship, “In my own journalism, I hope to contribute to making Iran’s cultural life more fertile.”

“Since the Iranian government is an Islamic one,” Ajiri explained, “(art) that uses the female body in a sexual form (is) totally banned in Iran. …  I believe a country’s culture will not be fertile if it is not in contact with other cultures’ (way of doing things).”  Using this type of alternative art as an example, Ajiri points out the necessity of at least exposing people to things that may make them uncomfortable, even if they do not partake in it, so that ignorance cannot be an excuse for judgment.

A particular example she provided is Documenta–an exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.  Ajiri noted that Iranian people are not generally aware of these types of cultural events, nor why they are so important to our generation, due to censorship or disinterest in non-Persian art.


She’s All About Media For the People, By the People

Ajiri said, in particular, she would like to work with her MJ Bear Fellowship mentor to explore new ways of creating more engaging online content for specific audiences (Iranian and international), develop a closer relationship with her readers, and how to develop synergies with other news providers to boost Web traffic.

“(Media’s) whole existence depends on the audience.  Therefore, I think keeping (a) connection with (the) audience is necessary,” Ajiri explained about her desire to work with the MJ Bear Fellow mentor on new forms of audience engagement.  However, she noted that Radio Farda is a banned news organization within Iran, so “keeping the connection with our audience within Iran is more difficult.”

Many Iranians still try to access information on non-Iranian government-approved websites, however.  “Iranian media is a very protected media which filters most of the news,” continued Ajiri, but the anti-censorship filters become outdated “almost daily”, so “it is an exhausting process for the audience within Iran.”


She’s Up Against Challenges That Few Truly Understand

By accepting her position at Radio Farda and the MJ Bear Fellowship, Ajiri is bravely taking on a massive challenge that is both career-oriented and very personal.  Iran has been known to harass or threaten Iranian journalists (and their families in Iran) who accept positions within US International Media (USIM).

Looking ahead, Ajiri sees a bright future in journalism—especially as it relates to expanding coverage of lesser-understood topics.  “We have an expression in Persian: ‘you have to gather all the drops to finally have a sea,’” wrote Ajiri in her application for the MJ Bear Fellowship, “this captures what we have journalistically accomplished and what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.”  She also hopes to be an example to other Iranian journalists.  “News is inseparable part of an Iranian daily life…therefore, I think the need for preparing the news professionally is indeed essential,” Ajiri points out, “This, I think comes from not only following other journalists’ works, but by being in contact with other non-Iranian journalists.”


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Examples of Ajiri’s work (in Farsi):

Iran Intelligence Minister Says They Have Diffused a Cyber Attack (a June 22 piece written about Iranian Intelligence Minister claiming that Iran has defused a cyber attack against Iranian nuclear sites) and Panetta Says No Time To Arm Syrians (another June 22 piece written about Panetta saying that the US is not going to arm the Syrian opposition).  She also produces a cultural podcast, called Podhang, when time at work allows.

More about the MJ Bear Fellowship:

According to ONA, “the MJ Bear Fellowships identify and celebrate young digital journalists, working independently or for a company or organization, who have demonstrated — through professional experimentation, research or other projects — that they deserve support for their efforts and/or vision.”  Ajiri will be provided with a mentor to help her develop her goals into reality, an all-expense-paid trip to the 2012 Online News Association Conference & Awards Banquet (ONA12) in San Francisco (Sept. 20-22), recognition at the conference, and a three year ONA membership.
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(Thank you Denise Hassanzade Ajiri for her contributions to this post.  To contact her:

(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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Interview: Google+ Journalism Mon, 21 May 2012 12:37:30 +0000 April Deibert Google+ is a social networking platform that has developed into a valuable tool for journalists.  To better understand how Google+ has specifically impacted the world of journalism, Office of Digital and Design Innovation Multimedia Blogger/Producer April Deibert interviewed Voice of America (VOA) Senior Web Editor Colin Lovett.

Key Takeaways:
1. Promotion and Audience Engagement:
Google+ allows journalists to alert people on the social network about global breaking news and about stories of interest that VOA has produced.  Most importantly, it allows abridged content to be easily shared and also encourages readers to click-through to the VOA website for the full article.  Journalists can also engage with the audience directly to find sources and reactions to events.  (See highlighted clip below.)

2. Validation: Google+ requires a person with a name and a photo to be associated with each account.  Interactivity is encouraged, but this validation method diminishes the likelihood of “trolling” and negative commentary.  This validation method has encouraged people to be more polite with comments, even when they disagree on a particular topic.

3. Advice to Journalists: Get engaged with Google+ and other forms of social media.  Develop a personal brand to grow your own audience as well as the audience of your organization.  By building these networks ahead of time, you will have resources available to you for when they are needed in the future. (See highlighted clip below.)


Top Highlights from the Interview:
1. “We use Google+ to engage the audience directly” [2min 2s]

2. “The advice I would give to journalists is…” [2m 13s]

Full Interview (16m 13s):


(Thank you to Colin Lovett and Robert Bole 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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