Innovation @ BBG » Project Update Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Listen to VOA audio programs over your cellular voice connection with the VOA Mobile Streamer apps Tue, 07 Jul 2015 14:16:59 +0000 Will Sullivan The award-winning ODDI Mobile Team is excited to announce a new product launching in July, the VOA Mobile Streamer. This audio-only experience is available for Android and  Apple mobile devices and serves broadcast audio news in more than 30 different languages.

Besides offering hundreds of radio news programs on-demand in more than 30 different languages, the app also offers live 24/7 radio streams of more than a dozen languages. There’s also a bunch of smart features like a low-bandwidth mode that saves on download time and user costs, and deep social media platform integration, but the true killer feature of this app is its simple, unique design that allows you to listen to audio over data *OR* cellular voice connections.

For VOA audiences in emerging markets this is especially valuable since mobile data rates are very high and connections are often poor quality so streaming is not always an easy proposition.

Why are we doing this? What is the unique value of the Mobile Streamer for VOA & its audiences?

  • It allows us to better serve and connect with audiences in low-bandwidth countries using click-to-call cellular/voice minutes to get our audio content, instead of having to stream it over costly data connections in emerging markets

  • It offers a new way to experience VOA audio content on the go through a unique and refreshing design offering a very non-traditional news app experience, especially for younger audiences that might be turned off by the more traditional news approach.

  • It offers a passive, hands-free way to consume VOA’s content in the background while commuting to work or doing chores or other tasks.

  • It helps showcase the depth and breadth of all the thousands of hours of VOA audio programs we produce each week.

  • It allows us to leverage our partner, AudioNow’s, international Interactive Voice Response (IVR) infrastructure, phone numbers and tools to expand our content reach for new audiences.

Try out the VOA Mobile Streamer now on:

The VOA Mobile Streamer will join our fleet of dozens of free, innovative mobile apps for high- and low-tech audiences around the world. Check them all out here!


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Radio Sawa selected as a finalist for the 2015 Appy Awards Tue, 26 May 2015 16:36:56 +0000 Will Sullivan Sawa ChatRadio Sawa, the all-Arabic streaming music and news application we created with the team from MBN Digital was selected as a finalist in the 2015 Appy Awards for “Radio/Audio Apps” and it’s competing against Disney’s Frozen Karaoke app and HuMX: Human Mixtape app that uses iBeacons to customize audio experiences.

Radio Sawa just launched version 1.1 a couple months ago and is getting close to it’s one-year anniversary since launching last June. The new version added another live stream, so now there’s 8 total, added push notifications, performance improvements and more audio on-demand podcasts.

Radio Sawa was also selected as a finalist for the GSMA Global Mobile Awards earlier in the year for “Best Mobile Music App.”

Download all the BBG’s award-winning mobile apps at:

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Alhurra and VOA Java apps prove wildly successful growing audience quickly in emerging markets Thu, 07 May 2015 18:10:32 +0000 Will Sullivan While the mobile and media industry loves to over-hype fleeting technologies like Google Glass and Meerkat, serving the BBG audiences in emerging markets requires that we focus on user experience and building for not just the elite — and that often means building for very old or low-tech devices like Java phones.

Over the past few years, the ODDI Mobile team has launched and evolved the award-winning flagship fleet of mobile and tablet applications available for the most high-end devices on Android and Apple IOS (as well as supporting old versions of the operating systems back to Android OS 2.3 and IOS 5), and this Winter we launched an improved lineup of low-end device products on Symbian and Java phones to round out our technology offering. One thing we didn’t count on when launching the Java apps was the swift adoption and audience growth — in some markets faster than more modern smartphone products.

In Middle East and African markets we’ve seen ‘hockey-stick’ growth surpassing the weekly installation rate of our larger, flagship smartphone apps. For instance, Alhurra for Java phones already more than more than 50,000 downloads across all the app store markets in less than 3 months since we publicly launched them.

VOA’s Java app has also done exceptionally well in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria — and we recently received a shout out from the BiNu store for the app’s surge and top rankings in African and Middle East markets. RFE similarly does well in Iran.

Not bad for a very low-tech, text-and-image experience, but that’s the reality of these media environments, mobile networks and what these audiences need.

Try out all the Java mobile apps for the 6 BBG brands for yourself:

Learn more about the awesome ODDI Mobile team’s products at



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ODDI Mobile Team pioneers new BBG Java mobile apps for low-bandwidth users Fri, 27 Mar 2015 16:03:13 +0000 Will Sullivan The ODDI Mobile team is proud to announce the launch of the a new fleet of mobile applications for low-end Java phones for VOA, RFE, RFA, Alhurra, Marti Noticias and Radio Sawa, supporting more than 60 languages and more than 80 language news services.

This pioneering effort to reach low-tech devices uses Javascript-based applications for “feature” phones, especially the old Nokia phones that still have a stronghold in African, Middle East and Asian markets.

The apps are built using technology from BiNu, a popular caching and proxy service used by other services like WorldReader, to deliver content faster to very low tech and low bandwidth communities who often don’t have phones equipped with modern or fast-performing web browsers. For example, Wikipedia is 10x faster on the BiNu platform than their Wikipedia-optimized mobile website.

Danish Ahmed, from the ODDI Mobile Team who pioneered the Java app effort, said, ”Its amazing how surprisingly fast the application is on older phones. You can navigate through articles without any lag or long downloading.”

These Java app’s content is limited to text and photos but through at a smartphone-like interface, and in these markets and with limited bandwidth text and photos is a great place to start. The platform also uses a proxy, which helps get content into closed and censored markets around the world so it’s a win-win for audiences. These low-bandwidth apps will compliment our current fleet of multimedia-rich Android and Apple mobile and tablet apps for all entities.

  • Download and learn more about the BBG Java apps and all the other ODDI mobile products at:
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Radio Sawa & VOA News Apps honored by GSMA Global Mobile Awards Fri, 27 Mar 2015 15:44:36 +0000 Will Sullivan

Two of ODDI’s flagship mobile products launched in the past year were selected as finalists for the prestigious GSMA Global Mobile Awards: the VOA News relaunch was selected for “Best Mobile Media & Publishing App” and Radio Sawa was selected for “Best Music App.”

The GSMA is the largest global mobile industry group and they operate Mobile World Congress,  Mobile World Congress, the largest mobile event in the world with more than 93,000 attendees from 200 countries.

VOA News serves users in more than 200 countries and is available for Android and Apple IOS mobile and tablet devices in 44 languages and for Symbian mobile phones in 4 languages. The industry-leading application has also been recognized as a finalist in the Appy Awards for “Best Multicultural App” and in the Mobile Ecosystem Forum’s Meffy Awards for “Best Mobile Service.”

“It is amazing that ODDI has created apps for over 87 language services on different operating systems,” said Bo Kostro from the ODDI Mobile Team, “We could not have done it without the support of all the BBG language services”

Radio Sawa is a youth-oriented mobile streaming app for Android and Apple IOS devices offering more than a half dozen music streams, podcasts, news and user-generated chat feedback through an beautifully designed application.

“We are very proud of the Radio Sawa app and were honored to have been recognized by the Global Mobile awards,” stated MBN President Brian Conniff. “The app encourages user participation through the network’s popular Sawa Chat feature, as well as making Radio Sawa available to cities and countries where there are no Radio Sawa transmitters.”






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BBG Mobile News apps get a huge update and redesign Wed, 27 Aug 2014 22:29:25 +0000 Will Sullivan The ODDI Mobile team is excited to announce we’ve begun rolling out the 3.0 redesign and functionality update to the BBG mobile news applications on the Google Android and Apple IOS mobile and tablet platforms. The platform that was awarded as 2014 finalists for “Best Mobile Publishing Platform or Service” by the GSMA Global Mobile Awards and “Best Multicultural App” by the Appy Awards is getting a big refresh.

Alhurra Android mobile app version 3.0Alhurra and Martí Noticias are already live for Apple IOS in the app stores and the Google Android version should be submitted soon after we iron out some last bugs and the analytics integration.

The mobile and tablet apps 3.0 version features:

  • Redesigned for all platforms to feature bigger, bolder images and typography
  • More easily accessible and usable navigation with a deep, touch-friendly side-loading feature
  • A new tablet-optimized version for larger format Androids and iPads to take advantage of the extra screen real estate
  • Much richer analytics suite to track usage and learn how to improve what our audiences demand
  • Related story suggestions to give audiences more information about the stories they’re interested in
  • Social media sharing improvements and Google+ support added
  • More prominent user-generated content submission on the app home screen so audiences can report news tips, photos, video and audio and send it directly to our service’s content management system
  • Language service UGC submission available directly in the Android system sharing tray for easy access to send multimedia content and news to our services
  • Android Home Screen Widget support with customizable categories, sizes and refresh intervals
  • Additional languages added for VOA (now supporting 44 language services) and RFE (now supporting 29 language services)
  • Google Chromecast streaming support for audio and video content
  • Tons of bug fixes

Marti Noticias on Apple IOS

We’ve done all this while still maintaining an app that is amazingly optimized for emerging market audiences with a small binary size (around 5 mb), offline saving of content, low-bandwidth mode, proxy integration, and a wide range of Android and Apple OSes supported going back more than 5 years (equivalent to decades in mobile technology history).

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless work of hundreds of language service producers (too many to name), their digital leaders Matthew, Hutch, Billy, Alen, Iscar, Mark, Martha, Steven, Rohit, Saeed, Catherine, Enver, Arkady P., Arkady B., Sasha, Martina, Natalia, Matilde, Kim and the Pangea team, our amazing analytics czar, Rebecca, and Ashley and Tyler, and last but not least the marauding ODDI mobile team of Ashok, Danish, Bo, Mo, Marian, Marek, Pavol, Pauli, Stan, and Al for his help last minute on screenshots and Adam and Rob for their support and leadership.

Over the next month (depending on final qa, analytics and localization testing), we’ll be submitting the VOA, RFE and RFA updates too. Get them all and learn more about our award-winning apps at:



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Illustrating “Wild Pigeon,” an allegory of government repression Mon, 18 Aug 2014 12:00:20 +0000 Brian Williamson In 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was a successful Uyghur author living in western China when he published “Wild Pigeon”. The short fable tells the story of a wild pigeon prince who is captured and caged by men. He ultimately decides that suicide is preferable to a life spent in captivity. After it was published, the Chinese government recognized that the story was an allegory for the Uyghur people living under Chinese rule. The court sentenced Yasin to 10 years in prison for inciting Uyghur separatism.

This week Radio Free Asia released Caged: The writings of Nurmuhemmet Yasin in the iBooks store. The project represents another successful collaboration between RFA and ODDI, following on the success of Remembering Tiananmen.

For Caged, RFA wanted to compile their translations of Yasin’s short stories, essays and poems, as well as audio performances of his works.

After he was imprisoned, RFA received a copy of Yasin’s writings and permission from his family to publish and broadcast his works. The Uyghur service recorded an audio performance of “Wild Pigeon” complete with musical score. RFA Uyghur service director Dolkun Kamberi translated the text into English.

In 2013, RFA editors Catherine Antoine and Enver K. Uyghur decided to repackage the audio performance translation into an eBook for the approaching anniversary of Yasin’s conviction. They wanted to publish versions of the book in English and the different scripts of Uyghur: Cyrillic, Arabic and Latin. They approached ODDI looking for creative ways to quickly illustrate the stories, essays and poems.

Three thumbnail sketches for the "Wild Pigeon" illustrations by Brian Williamson.

Creating the illustrations

Before starting the illustrations, I met with Catherine and Enver to discuss possible styles for the illustrations and to define what specifically needed to be illustrated. I created four quick moodboards to provide a starting point for the conversation.

Enver loaned me a book of Uyghur textile patterns and folk art. We decided to try incorporate these patterns into the illustrations.

In addition to the “Wild Pigeon” illustrations, we also wanted small spot illustrations to help break up the poetry, and an author portrait of Yasin.

Initially I assumed that I’d create two or three illustrations for “Wild Pigeon”. But when I laid out the text to create a dummy book, I realized that the story was longer than I’d thought. We needed illustrations throughout the story to help break up the text. To accomplish this, I abandoned the idea of creating hand-drawn illustrations and instead adopted a simpler vector style.

Illustrated portrait of Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Uyghur musician by Brian Williamson for Radio Free Asia's eBook "Caged".

From virtual eBook to tangible print-on-demand hardcover

In addition to releasing Caged in a variety of eBook formats — ePub, iBook, PDF — we also experimented with releasing it as an actual physical book.

Once the illustrations were drawn and the ebook was designed, it was a relatively simple task to repurpose the book for print. We uploaded the book to a print-on-demand service where it can be purchased in softcover and hardback.

By relying on print-on-demand, we’re able to avoid any up front printing charges and the risk of printing too many copies that are left boxed in a closet. Instead, each copy of the book is printed as it is ordered. The service can also handle the distribution of the book and allows the creator to set the profit earned for each book (because of the nature of this project, we didn’t add any additional ‘profit’/expense to the printing cost).

The primary drawback to using print on demand is that individual copies of the book are more expensive. But in this case, it allowed us to experiment and repurpose an existing project at little expense or additional time.

eBooks and USIM

uyghur_book_coverAs Yasin’s 10-year sentence is nearing its end, RFA has received conflicting reports on his health. He is scheduled to be released this November, but RFA has been unable to confirm if he is still alive.

“Caged: The Writings of Nurmuhemmet Yasin” is available in multiple formats and languages from RFA’s bookstore. The ePub and iBook versions of the book also include the audio performance recorded by RFA’s Uyghur service.

ODDI encourages and supports USIM journalists interested in using eBook formats as an alternative distribution method to help circumvent government censorship efforts.

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Creating responsive graphics and streamlined images for VOA’s World Cup coverage Thu, 14 Aug 2014 14:44:18 +0000 Brian Williamson For the French and English VOA World Cup sites, we wanted to create a lean, minimalist site. Through the use of progressive enhancements and responsive design we added features to provide an enhanced experience for phones, tablets and desktop browsers. What follows is a description of some of the techniques we used to optimize the World Cup sites.

Using progressive enhancements and SVG (or: How i stopped worrying and learned to love <tables/> )

Who scored when? How many saves did the goalkeeper make? How many shots on goal per a game did a player make? How many of those were successful? Statistics and graphics are a core feature of most sports coverage.

We experimented with a number of approaches for creating graphics for the World Cup. We explored NPR’s fork of ChartBuilder, for converting tabular data into SVG graphics with image fallbacks. We used DataWrapper, a tool that creates responsive graphics embedded via an iframe. Both tools work well for quickly creating one-off graphics.

But because of the tremendous range of devices used across our target market, we couldn’t be sure if (or how) the browsers would support Javascript, CSS or SVG. Ultimately we decided to create a custom solution, using D3.js and borrowing the progressive enhancements approach described by the Filament Group.

We started off by converting Opta’s XML data into a standard HTML table and sending that to the browser. This tabular view was a perfectly valid way of reading and exploring the data. (We actually relied on HTML tables for many basic design elements, because modern CSS techniques created inconsistent results across older, archaic and obscure devices.)

If the device supported Javascript, we could use that data to create a graphic (e.g. a simple bar graph). If the browser supported SVG graphics, we used D3 to bind the data and create the SVG.

I was really inspired by Ryan Pitts’ talk at NICAR 2014 on creating responsive graphics for The charting library we created creates responsive graphics based on the width of the browser. If the user resizes the browser, the graphics on the page will be resized.

Because D3 isn’t strictly an SVG-based tool, we could bind the data to almost any HTML element. If the browser didn’t support SVG, we attempted to create an alternate form of the graphic using a somewhat bastardize technique of drawing the bars and labels with an HTML table.

Two JPEG photos of Lionel Messi from VOA football, comparing download sizes.

Streamlining downloads

In addition to creating responsive graphics, we took several simple steps to optimize the site and reduce the overall page weight.

Adaptive images: We used a Javascript solution for downloading the appropriate sized images. The initial images that are downloaded with the page are low-res thumbnail images. If the browser supports Javascript, we check the browser size and then replace the initial image with an image tailored to the size of the window. For comparison, the desktop version of this photo is 156kb, while a 400-pixel mobile version is only 29kb. Multiplied for posts with multiple images, this optimization resulted in tremendous bandwidth savings.

Lazing loading videos: Most video players automatically download additional Javascript and CSS files whether you watch the video or not. We installed a WordPress plugin to add lazy loading support for YouTube videos. When the page initially loads, the plugin displays the YouTube thumbnail image of the video. The user taps or clicks on the image to load the Javascript, CSS and video. This results in a savings of 300 – 1000kb.

Animated GIFs: Those small, pixelated animated loops of cats can actually be fairly large files (particularly for clips created from video footage). We used a similar approach for animated GIFs as we used for video. For the initial page load the user downloads a tiny static JPG image. If the user taps on the image, jQuery replaces the .jpg with the animated .gif file.

In addition, we also tried to optimize the GIFs by simplifying the color palette, reducing the size and reducing dithering. In some instances, an MP4 video would result in a smaller file size than an animated GIF. And for some very simple animated graphics, we loaded the GIF directly without the need for user action.

Planning versus execution

By using a mixture of server- and client-side solutions, we tried to tailor the site to the technical and bandwidth needs of the audience. But the realities of producing a news site with a diverse group of journalists scattered across multiple newsrooms sometimes undermined those efforts.

Third party embeds of tweets, photos and large Storify iFrames, occasionally resulted in enormous, multimegabyte posts.

Future efforts will need to recognize the importance of continued training on best practices in coordination with any technological solutions.

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Relay Gets Two Major Functionality Upgrades, More Features On the Way Mon, 24 Feb 2014 16:09:48 +0000 Randy Abramson Relay, the mobile-first, breaking news platform that was released by the Office of Digital and Design Innovation in December, 2013, has been upgraded with two major features:

1. Making Cards Sticky by ‘Pinning’
Previously, Relay displayed content in chronological order on a timeline at the bottom of the interface, with the first card on the left containing the most recent piece of content. However, we anticipated that users would soon request the ability to feature specific content and ensure that selected cards would be the first thing that users see when the Relay interface loads (similar to making content “sticky” on other platforms). With the new ‘pinning’ functionality, featured cards — that hold everything from live video streams to interviews — can be designated to display in the first slot of a card timeline.

2. Photo Card AutoGeneration
For our December, 2013 release, we were excited to offer journalists the ability to generate video, text, and Tweet cards directly from their mobile phone.  In our latest release, the new Photo Card AutoGeneration feature allows journalists to shoot photos on their phones and share them with Relay via Email. We are leveraging the Flickr platform and API for storage and image serving and the ‘Email to publish’ workflow is consistent with easy-to-learn video-Email process that received positive feedback from our field testers.


Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

What’s Next?

The Relay team continues to prioritize enhancements based on BBG journalist feedback and also suggestions from NASA, who plans use Relay to cover the launch of the NASA-JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory on February 27, 2014. Features that we expect to release in the coming weeks include:

1. Easy Updates: The Easy Updates feature will allow us to publish new enhancements to existing Relay events without having to erase existing content.

2. Turn-key Language translation: Creating Relay instances for non-English language services is a fairly manual process. With some work, we can create sites in any language based off of a set of defined terms in Google spreadsheets or other cloud based document storage platforms.

3. Enhanced Alert Messaging: We’re re-working the flow and design for how users can sign up for Email alerts and will be rolling out SMS alerts in the coming weeks

4. SEO and Page Load Optimization: We’ll be re-architecting code to ensure that search engines can see our content and also provide for faster download times to mobile and desktop platforms

5. Audio Card Generation: We’ll be leveraging the SoundCloud API to allow journalists to record audio interviews from their mobile devices and publish that content to Relay

6. Designing For Multi-day/Multi-week Events: We are working with an information architect to design interfaces and user flows for events that go on for several days/weeks. We plan to make use of this new design for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

At the Yesterday and Today Beatles 50th Anniversary show in Washington, DC with Carolyn Presutti (donning Google Glass) and Jose Vega (center)

At the Yesterday and Today Beatles 50th Anniversary show in Washington, DC with Carolyn Presutti (donning Google Glass) and Jose Vega (center)

7. Continued Experimentation With Google Glass: Wearable technology is the shiny new toy that journalists are dreaming about for the collection and broadcast of on-the-ground content and Google Glass is the ‘must have’ gadget of the moment.

I joined VOA’s Carolyn Presutti and BBG’s Jose Vega to test Glass and to see how it would integrate with Relay at a tribute show for The Beatles in Washington, D.C. at the venue where they first played in the U.S., 50 years ago. Glass was able to transmit photos and video to Relay via Email, but, without some serious hacking to Glass, live video streaming is restricted to private Hangouts that can’t be embedded into Relay or other Web pages. We’re excited to monitor the evolution of Glass’ live broadcast functionality and see how it can be integrated into the set of Relay feature offerings.

What features would you like Relay to have? Mail Randy Abramson and let us know!

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Radio Free Asia launches apps on Android, Apple IOS Thu, 06 Feb 2014 16:17:33 +0000 Will Sullivan I’m tickled to announce that Radio Free Asia is the latest BBG entity to join our suite of BBG applications for Android and Apple IOS mobile and tablet devices with support for 10 languages from English to Tibetan (including 3 Uyghur scripts).

Our partner in collaboration, Catherine Antoine, Director – Managing Editor of RFA Online, welcomed the launch saying, “These multilanguage applications delivering Asian news will inform the new generation of mobile users, who are tomorrow’s leaders.”RFA Article Page

This project took a lot of extra hard work from superhero developer and all-around nice guy, Michael “Flip” McFadden, as RFA is on an entirely different content management system than other BBG entities so ODDI Mobile marauders, Bo Kostro and Danish Ahmed, had to do a lot of testing, localizations and custom development work to get all the framework connected and working.

RFA joins RFE, VOA, Alhurra and Marti Noticias on the Umbrella App framework, which going forward we’ll be able to build features for all five entities in parallel providing innovative, enterprise-quality news experiences customized for the challenges that our audiences in emerging markets face.

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