Innovation @ BBG » Review Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 KettleCorn: A journalist’s tool for enhancing interactive audio and video stories Fri, 25 Oct 2013 14:49:40 +0000 Brian Williamson This summer, ODDI began forking the open source Popcorn Maker project to create KettleCorn, a tool designed to meet the needs of journalists working around the world in different languages. The original Popcorn Maker project allows web creators to easily create interactive audio and video stories using a WYSIWYG web editor. Projects can be shared, remixed and evolve from person to person.

KettleCorn Updates

Our goal with KettleCorn was to build upon our favorite Popcorn Maker features while tailoring it to the needs of international journalists. To encourage adoption, we strove to reduce the time to publish news-style video while making it as easy as possible to translate projects to another language. With those goals in mind, we added the following features:


Improved subtitles (Updated Jan. 22)

We’ve created a dedicated Subtitles plugin so that users can quickly subtitle a single quotation or an entire video.

When we launched KettleCorn, users could add subtitles one at time by using the Text plugin. This solution worked fine for subtitling a short quotation. But manually adding subtitles for an entire project, line by line (with an additional click and scroll to select the style and positioning) was time consuming.

With the new Subtitles plugin, a user can quickly subtitle a segment by clicking on the plugin and filling in the text field. By default the subtitle is positioned across the bottom of the project.

Users can also insert the link to a published Google Spreadsheet with the subtitles for an entire video. The user simply fills in this template with the start and stop times, the subtitle text, the position of the subtitle (top or bottom) and whether the text needs to be displayed right-to-left (TRUE or FALSE). Then the user selects “File”>”Publish to the Web” and clicks on the “Start Publishing” button. The user copies and pastes the resulting URL into the Advanced tab of the Subtitles Plugin. (We’ve created a simple transcript converter. Insert your transcript text, click the convert button and then copy and paste the output into a new Google Spreadsheet.)

Chris Hadfield sings 'Space Oddity' with Spanish subtitles.
The subtitles for this KettleCorn project of Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s performance of ‘Space Oddity’ are powered by this spreadsheet.

Using a spreadsheet for the subtitles has many benefits:

  • It’s easier and faster to create and edit multiple subtitles on one sheet.
  • It’s a simple process to copy the original spreadsheet page and provide translations.
  • And it’s easy to collaborate on a project by sharing the spreadsheet with another editor.

As long as the spreadsheet URL and page name are included in the KettleCorn project, the translations will automatically be updated as the spreadsheet is updated.

While working on our MLK project, we discovered that Google Spreadsheets also have a simple method for quickly translating a spreadsheet using Google Translate.

Start off with a spreadsheet page with all of your subtitles and timecodes entered. Duplicate that page and rename the copy with the new translation language (e.g. Chinese). You can use Google Translate to translate cells in a google spreadsheet:


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

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



The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) supports journalists broadcasting around the world in over 60 different languages. Because Popcorn projects can be shared and remixed, we wanted to encourage journalists and consumers to share projects across languages. To facilitate that, we baked translation into KettleCorn.

Here’s how it works: A journalist finds a Popcorn story she’d like to remix and translate. She can edit her translation preferences by clicking on “My Preferences” and selecting whether she’d like to manually translate the project or use machine translation, and selecting her preferred language. She then steps through each Popup or Text event, clicking on the “Translate” button in the plugin editor. If she were to select machine translation, it would automatically translate the text into her preferred language using Bing Translate. In some cases and for some languages this may be sufficient. But frequently the journalist (or her editor) will want to refine the translation. For this reason, the original text was copied into read-only field so that the journalist and future editors can review and refine the translation as needed.


Right-to-left (RTL) support for all plugins

We’ve added support for right-to-left languages for all of our plugins. That means KettleCorn can correctly display languages like Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hebrew.

You can set the text to be RTL in the ‘Advanced’ tab for the GoogleMaps+, Lower Thirds, End Card and Wikipedia plugins. In the lower thirds plugin, the RTL toggle flips the titles so that the logo is on the left and the text is set to RTL.

KettleCorn supports right-to-left languages like Arabic and Hebrew for all of the event plugins.
Here is raw footage shot by Alhurra that has been enhanced with KettleCorn.

The text editor in the Text and Popup plugins also includes a button to switch the type from LTR to RTL.

Finally, we’ve also added support for RTL for projects that use GoogleMaps+ spreadsheet integration. We’ve added a column where users can specify for each marker if it should be LTR or RTL.


Advanced Maps Plugin

We extended the maps plugin to include a clickable marker with an optional infoWindow to display a title and description.

Journalists can also link to a GoogleDoc spreadsheet to synchronize multiple markers. As the project plays, the map will focus on the different markers. The user can click on the markers to navigate to different parts of the video.

Screenshot of the new KettleCorn maps plugin showing multiple locations.

Here’s how to create an interactive map controlled by a Google Spreadsheet. Open a copy of the GoogleDoc spreadsheet template. Each stop on the map is represented by a row in the spreadsheet. For each entry you can:

  • Edit the start and stop times
  • Set the latitude, longitude and zoom
  • Enter an optional title and description
  • Set whether you want a marker
  • And set whether the infoWindow opens on focus.

After editing the spreadsheet, from the File menu select “Publish to the web.” Click on “Start publishing.” Copy and paste the URL to the advanced tab of the KettleCorn maps plugin.


Lower Thirds Plugin

This plug-in enables journalists to quickly create clean, consistent lower third titles. If a user logs in to KettleCorn with a Persona account tied to a USIM email address the lower third will automatically be branded with their entity logo (e.g. VOA, RFA, RFE/RL, Alhurra).

Screenshot of KettleCorn project showing the new lower thirds plugin.
Journalists can enter a title and description, and have an optional URL and entity logo.


Restyled popup plugin

One of our first goals for KettleCorn was to restyle Popcorn for journalism. We streamlined the icons and color palette to work with everything from serious breaking news to feature stories. We reduced the overall number of icons, but added icons that journalists can use to help tell their stories or link to related content. Finally, we restyled the popup boxes and speech balloons to simplify their look and make them less cartoony.

Revised icon set for KettleCorn.

Improved text styling

Online producers need to be able to style and edit text quickly. We’ve simplified the text editor by adopting and implementing the familiar CKeditor interface.

This also allowed us to introduce custom styles for common types of text like block quotes, subtitles and labels. Producers no longer have to remember (or decide on the fly) that subtitles should be white text on a black background at 1.2em. Instead, they can just highlight the text, select the style and decide if they want to anchor the text to the bottom, top or manually position it.

Screenshot showing some of the new KettleCorn prebaked text styles.


End card promo plugin

This plugin provides an easy way to promote related stories by adding three headlines, three links and three photos.

Screenshot of KettleCorn's new End Card Promo plugin.


Showcasing new projects

BBG journalists are encouraged to share their work between language services and entities. To help facilitate the remixing and translation of projects we created a gallery for recent projects. When a creator is ready to publish project, he checks a box to make it public and have it appear in the showcase gallery.

In the near future we’ll allow visitors to sort projects by creator, organization, language and publication date as well as being able to search by keyword.


But wait, there’s more…

We made several small but important improvements to the KettleCorn editor to speed up production. Many of these changes are simple enhancements that professionals expect in a basic video or audio editing tool.

Rename layers: Popcorn projects can quickly grow in size and complexity. Users can now rename project layers to help organize their project.

Undo/Redo: We’ve also enabled undo/redo functionality so that journalists can step back to quickly undo a mistake. Creators can use the standard shortcut keys for undo (Ctrl+z) and redo (Ctrl+Shift+z).

Copy and paste: During our testing and training with BBG journalists, we saw that users were spending too much time recreating similar effects at multiple spots on the timeline. To speed up production, users can copy and paste events.

Precise sizing and positioning: And finally during our earlier training efforts we heard journalists asking for help providing greater precision in the sizing and positioning of plugin events. Most event plugins have an “Advanced” tab where users can set the height, width and position.

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Introducing KettleCorn: Forking Popcorn Maker for Journalists Thu, 24 Oct 2013 21:26:06 +0000 Brian Williamson Popcorn Maker makes it easy to enhance, remix and share interactive web videos by combining audio and video with live web content. But despite its potential power, there has been limited adoption by professional journalists. That’s why ODDI stepped in: to find out why journalists weren’t using it and to create a new tool to address any issues.

This past summer we began transforming Popcorn Maker into KettleCorn with the goal of tailoring the tool for BBG journalists broadcasting around the world. We wanted to rethink, enhance and restyle Popcorn Maker to create a storytelling platform built around the BBG mission of supporting international, multi-language journalism.

Like most of our projects at ODDI, KettleCorn is open source so that all journalists can benefit from it and developers can build upon it. That’s why we’ll be doing demos at Mozilla Festival in London this weekend (follow the action on Twitter: @bbgkettlecorn and use #bbgkettlecorn).

It’s functionality also lends itself to academic and commercial use–it’s a multipurpose digital storytelling tool. For example, a BBC or a Discovery Channel could use it to enhance videos on their website, specifically when the topic begs a more in-depth look than the length of the video allows. The ability to add interactive articles and other elements means producers can add an extra layer to engage viewers longer.

Why Our Journalists Weren’t Using Popcorn

Last spring we began conducting Popcorn Maker training sessions with VOA, RFA and MBN journalists to teach and encourage them to use the tool. When we initially demoed Popcorn Maker, the journalists were extremely excited about the potential to tell rich interactive audio- and video-based stories. That initial enthusiasm started to wane as they tried to incorporate it into the deadline-driven newsroom environment. Despite their interest and our efforts, we saw limited adoption. We identified three main reasons:

  1. Too slow: The deadline-driven nature of journalism means that producers expect to quickly create finished, professional looking projects. In our training efforts we saw journalists spending far too much time creating basic effects like branded lower thirds.
  2. Too cartoony: The original Popcorn Maker was designed to be accessible to novices exploring content creation on the web. The current styles associated with Popcorn Maker are cartoonish and unsuitable for many news stories.
  3. Too unpredictable: Because it’s an open source project, new versions (and new bugs) are regularly released. This makes for an unpredictable (and at times unstable) user experience.

These aspects made it difficult to incorporate Popcorn Maker into the BBG journalist’s toolset.

Screenshot of the KettleCorn editor.

The KettleCorn editor interface and functionality is designed to be more intuitive and to cater to the needs of journalists.

Forking Popcorn Maker

We started by creating a BBG instance of Popcorn Maker. We’re working on hosting a stable instance with reliable core features and the ability to version and remix projects. We created new plugins to simplify common tasks like creating lower third titles, adding markers to maps and creating end card promos to related content. We also decreased the time-to-publish by adopting a more familiar text editor with pre-built styles and integrating standard features like undo/redo, the ability to rename layers and the ability to copy and paste events.

We restyled Popcorn for journalism. We updated the Popup plugin styles to make them more appropriate for the needs of journalists. We added automatic branding for creators logged in with USIM email addresses (e.g. VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN) so that their logo will automatically populate. When RFA produces a project, a VOA language service can repackage the project and rebrand the project for VOA.

We built a tool that facilitates the translation, sharing and broadcasting of stories between different language services. Our goal was to create a platform to support BBG’s broadcasts in over sixty languages. To accomplish this goal, we made it easier for the content creator to switch between Spanish (left-to-right) and Arabic (right-to-left). Our second challenge was to integrate a machine translation service (Bing Translator) to automatically translate the text of a Popcorn project event and allow someone to easily edit and refine the text as needed. This will hopefully enable and encourage language services to adopt and rebroadcast material across the agency and around the world.

And finally we created a showcase gallery for KettleCorn projects to allow services (and consumers) to search and sort projects to see what is available for translating, remixing and rebroadcasting.

Embracing the Open Web

Creating a new piece of software from scratch is an expensive and time consuming proposition. By forking an open source project like Popcorn Maker, ODDI can leverage what other developers have already created and focus on the core features that will help our audience of journalists. KettleCorn is our chance to contribute to the open source movement and help support online journalism.

We’re unveiling KettleCorn at Mozilla Festival to try to build an international community of users, creators and developers to help support and extend the project. We hope to come back with additional feedback and suggestions that we can roll into the backlog of features we’re already planning to add.

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Relay Calling: Creating the Next Generation Digital News Experience Thu, 19 Sep 2013 13:34:49 +0000 Randy Abramson Relay is a new ‘mobile first’ breaking and developing news experience from the Office of Digital and Design Innovation

The Inspiration Behind Relay

Although the tools used in reporting breaking news and developing stories have become staggeringly advanced (see LiveStream, UStream, Vyclone, SoundCloud, YouTube Live and Videolicious to name a few), the way in which digital media outlets display breaking news has not had a formal update in quite a while. If you’re looking at a desktop site when a big story breaks, the normal homepage layout is altered by including an extra large photo and a large headline font (read: this is important!). You click in and read a few lines about the story that is developing and see a notation and that you should “check back for updates.” At this moment, most users rush to their TV or dash to Twitter/Facebook to see if they can get more information on the breaking story, never to return to the initial Web or mobile site that they initially sought out. The media outlet that first informed a user about the story missed an opportunity to fully connect and engage with the user.

As the global audio/video lead at the Office of Digital and Design Innovation at the BBG, I challenged myself to create a breaking news product that would rethink how we displayed content around developing and breaking stories. The most basic purpose for this product (which we affectionately have named ‘Relay’) was that it would serve as an invitation of sorts to the user to engage with our coverage for the full development of a story and that its design would be focused on one event, free of distracting ‘related stories’ and trending content modules.

Learnings From the Boston Marathon Bombings And the Recent Navy Yard Shootings

During the Boston Marathon bombing incident in April, 2013, I scanned some of the larger news outlets to see how the story was being covered. Most outlets ran the ‘big story’ format described above: big font, big photo, “check back later” messaging. But did something different: they placed a live blog widget on their homepage as the central component. The use of the live blog widget did not provide the most visually interesting experience, but it signified to me that was reporting on this story NOW. The message wasn’t “check back later.” Instead, it screamed to me, “DON’T GO AWAY!” (Note: The Washington Post also placed a live blog widget on their home page in the recent DC Navy Yard shootings.)

Washington post site

The Washington Post site included a live blog widget on their site during the recent Navy Yard shootings.

Taking a page from The Washington Post and’s playbook, I thought about how we could create a breaking news experience that built on the immediacy of the live blog, but I also wanted it to have new design elements and functionality that are specific to mobile devices and alert systems to keep the user engaged with a story. We also wanted to provide tools that allow our journalists to react and report quickly on a story (also from mobile devices), but also ensure that the digital experience could expand and allow us to continue to add to the story as it develops over time. Finally, the design should immerse the user into the story; the experience should be focused on the most recent developments and be free from other distracting content.

The Four Pillars of Relay

In thinking about what Relay could and should be, I focused in on four ‘must have’ features that would make the product most useful to both our reporters and users during a breaking news or developing story situation:

1. Mobile First Design and User Flow

BBG mobile audiences are growing. Additionally, developing news events happen in off hours when users are not in front of their desktops but are instead reaching for their mobile phones or tablets for updates. So, ensuring that the Relay experience be optimized for mobile phones and tablets is critical. In ordering our development, we prioritized for tablets first, phones second and desktop last, and, in this case, the desktop and tablet experiences will be the same. Content needs to be responsive to screen size and interfaces need to be clean and focused, with minimal scrolling and navigation. We came up with the idea of using ‘timeline’ navigation on the bottom of the user interface that would eliminate wordy text links, but it would also allow users to go back and catch up with coverage that they may have missed.

Beacon timeline navigation

The Relay timeline navigation allows users to easily go back and catch up with coverage that a viewer may have missed.

Just as important as the responsiveness of the experience and the clean navigation is the need for focused design and smooth user flow throughout Relay. We tried to learn from some of the most popular mobile apps and mimic what works, namely having one piece of featured content per content ‘card’ (very much like the ‘one photo at a time’ experience of your favorite photo viewing program on your mobile device) and to give the user the ability to to swipe to the next piece of content (mimicking iTunes cover flow and the Newsy video app). If we succeed here, Relay should feel familiar and the user should be able to focus in on each individual new piece of developing content without a lot of extra distractions.

2. Speed Over Polish/Input Agnostic

There are countless fantastic news gathering, editing and publishing tools that work on mobile devices (Live Stream, UStream, YouTube Live and our Radio Free Europe’s PangeaGo to name a few of the video apps alone) that allow our journalists to react quickly and report without the legacy need of a film crew and satellite truck. After the fact checking and sourcing process is complete, a reporter on the ground should be able to react to a story and engage with our users. In creating Relay, we wanted to empower our journalists and be sure that it would be wired to accept reports from the latest and greatest tools that are available. That means we need to think ahead and strategically prioritize how we develop to make Relay compatible with the tools that are established now. Since we have reporters on the ground all over the world, we need to consider all the possible inputs as well as the fact that app availability and bandwidth may vary greatly. Making sure we build Relay to accept the full gamut of reporting, from simple text tweets up through rich live video streaming, is key to Relay’s success.


LiveStream is just one example of a technology that can help our journalists react and report on stories quickly.

3. Connect Users To the Story Through Alerts

After our fact checking and source verification, our reporters should be able to shoot and publish in real time using tools like LiveStream, UStream and PangeaGo. But the exciting part of live coverage really happens when users are brought back into the story as the reporting is happening. We are exploring several SMS and email alert solutions that will notify the user when new reports are starting and bring the user back to the experience. The user should also be able to configure how often they’d want the receive these alerts. We believe that if users are alerted to coverage as it is happening, there is an increased possibility that they can help direct our coverage in near real time. Which brings us to our last area of focus for Relay…

4. Engagement

Reporting the news in real time is an exciting proposition, but we’ve learned that simply reporting the news is not enough. Engaging with our audience and ultimately having them participate in news gathering and helping to direct our reporting is baked into the early planning of Relay. Clear placement of Twitter hash tags can help direct users to join the conversation with us and comment functionality allow users to discuss specific pieces of audio, video and photos. Content cards that feature polls can help us survey popular opinion from our users. Poll results will be relayed back to our reporters in the field and hopefully direct commentary and reporting. Relay also features editor message cards that can direct users to other interactive features during times of content editing and fact gathering.

Relay polls and Twitter are  features that will help us engage with our users.

Polls and Twitter conversations are features that will help us engage with our users.

Next Steps

We’ve done a great deal of work around planning out the feature set, design and experience of Relay, but we are also spending time testing the product as we build. Our initial round of testing was extremely helpful in helping us clean up the UI and it gave us insight into how real users would interact with the timeline navigation, content cards and more. Next up, we want to do field testing with our reporters and have them test Relay from the other side: the content creation side. There are still a lot of questions around how this product will be used: at what point do you start a Relay experience over authoring a basic news story? How will Relay experiences be archived over time? How can we make the Relay experience more portable so it can be viewed on social platforms? How will users submit content and have more interaction with our journalists and producers? Even with these questions (and others) outstanding, we feel that there is great promise in the product, both for our journalists covering the most important of stories and for the users who will hopefully become more and more engaged with our reporting.

What features do you think should be in Relay? Be sure to comment–we’re listening!

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Go Local: Embracing Global Tech Entrepreneurs Tue, 20 Aug 2013 15:14:06 +0000 robbole Today, the sources of media and technology innovation for emerging markets are moving away from the traditional centers of Silicon Valley, New York and Seattle.

Using powerful and flexible open tools, innovative centers are spreading across the globe to places like Dakar, Accra, Lagos, Bangkok, Dubai and Lahore. This new class of innovators is creating products and services made for their local markets that respond to the particular culture and interests of their local audience. The trend of “go local” in digital products and services is a growing, and it’s an important one for media companies to understand for their future.

In his seminal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steve Johnson pointed to the engine of “crowd-based, decentralized environments” in driving new products and services. This is because their “openness creates powerful opportunities for good ideas to flourish.”

Young men and women around the world are creating innovative new products that are made in their own image and for their local markets. Social networks such as 2Go (Nigeria), or communication suites like Swaara (India) or WhatsApp (Dubai) are defining the next generation of technology for US international media (USIM) markets.

Africa innovation hubs map L

Once the province of geographic anchors that had a unique combination of power, money and education (e.g. Silicon Valley, NYC), this openness is spreading across the globe powered by open source technology, cloud-based services and increasingly improved technical education for new classes of engineers and entrepreneurs. (It is important to note that the improvement of technical education is in no small part powered by new collaborations between established and emerging market universities, as well as technology companies investing in employees.) Entrepreneurs in emerging markets have the same advantages today with access to low-cost computing and software resources as their Western counterparts.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that emerging market entrepreneurs and innovators face a number of barriers not faced by Western counterparts, such as poor electricity, high data costs and low digital literacy rates among audiences. But these barriers present an opportunity for organizations like the Broadcasting Board of Governors to add value.

As a media organization, we at BBG have a vast audience of over 200 million weekly and a world-class distribution system that includes a global broadcast and digital infrastructure. We also have access to a large network of both thinkers and doers in the digital space around the world.

These assets form the basis for an exchange of value. Rather than just an opportunity to take new thinking and energy and apply it to our mission, the heart of any partnership is that all are advantaged. As a global media organization, we have the ability to accommodate many partners, giving them the support of enterprise-quality technical infrastructure, mass audiences and ability to access the vibrant channels of radio and television. In turn, through these partnerships we can become more agile, relevant and have clearer insight into ever-changing markets.

The Co-Creation Hub in Lagos

The Co-Creation Hub in Lagos

USIM’s future and competitiveness depends on our capacity to innovate. We need to move flexibly and fast—increasingly, that means we need to be plugged in to new innovation centers around the world.

In the coming months and weeks ODDI will look at ways we can be connected to this new class of innovators. Perhaps we will become consortium members or angel funders or just good partners with the next generation of entrepreneurs. At a minimum ODDI and USIM needs an inside understanding of how markets, audiences and technology are evolving together. This could take the form of building a close relationship with an innovation center to get first look at the technology, collaborating with developers on open source technology, or partnering with young companies to enhance our presence in key markets.

ODDI needs to continue to evolve and go beyond the four walls of its inside-the-beltway HQ. Increasingly, we need to go where tech meets markets and be that much more aware of how we take the smart thinking of these hives of innovation and turn them into expanding our ability to meet audiences where they are going to be.

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A Snapshot of Journalism Labs: HuffPost Labs Tue, 21 May 2013 06:00:22 +0000 April Deibert
There are a number of big journalism labs all striving to be on the cutting edge.  Below is a ‘snapshot’ of one of the more commonly known labs, HuffPost Labs, with a discussion how they operate and some examples of projects they’ve developed.  Their research, techniques and new tools sometimes provide inspiration for BBG staff as they are looking for creative solutions.  I’ve already posted about the Nieman Journalism Lab, the New York Times Research & Development Lab, and Northwest University Knight Lab.



HuffPost Labs


According to Arianna Huffington in an interview with Poynter columnist Steve Myers in 2011, the overall mission of the Huffington Post is “is building community around news, information and entertainment, inviting the audience to participate in the conversation and interact with each other.”

While the HuffPost Labs website doesn’t explicitly state its mission on their website, it seems that their projects do reflect the overall mission of  They’re self-described as “currently hard at working redefining the future of mobile cloud traffic via APIs and data hubs. #sorandom,” followed by “NOW HIRING: FULLTIME GROWTH HACKER NINJA INTERN!!!” Despite this announcement, HuffPost Labs intern Ilana Sufrin assures us that the team is fully staffed.



The HuffPost Labs’ team consists of Matthew Conlen, Brandon Diamond, Andrew Sass, and two full-time interns.  A small, but creative team, their website is probably the most amusing of all the Lab websites.  The team of developers went mega-retro and have a site full of old school animated .gifs, ugly fonts highlighted by ugly colors, set to the soundtrack of a Hawaii Five-0 .midi soundtrack.


Project—From Lab to Production:

Presumably focusing on tools that serve the news aggregation model, the first project out of the HuffPost Labs (fall 2012) was HuffPost Highlights.  This tool “feeds quotes and passages readers have copied into a searchable web page”.  According to Ariana Huffington, HuffPost readers copy and share quotes from HuffPost via Twitter, Facebook, or email over 40,000 times a day.

In December 2012, the HuffPost Labs team “released the first version of our way of giving back to the tech community in New York and around the world.” is a community of developers and designers “who have something to add to the broader group” in order to create a go-to source for the industry in New York to encourage job growth, career growth and creativity. Hacker Union is poised to set up chapters in San Francisco and London.


Current Projects:

The team is currently working on a mobile app designed to “change the face of NYC nightlife.” In addition to this project, HuffPost Labs maintains a startup tech blog at


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Thoughts? Feel free to post comments or questions in the section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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(Thank you to Rob Bole for his 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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A Snapshot of Journalism Labs: Northwest University Knight Lab Tue, 14 May 2013 06:00:20 +0000 April Deibert
There are a number of big journalism labs all striving to be on the cutting edge.  Below is a ‘snapshot’ of one of the more commonly known labs, Northwest University Knight Lab, with a discussion how they operate and some examples of projects they’ve developed.  Their research, techniques and new tools sometimes provide inspiration for BBG staff as they are looking for creative solutions.  I’ve already posted about the Nieman Journalism Lab and the New York Times Research & Development Lab, and next week, I’ll post about the HuffPost Labs.


Northwestern University Knight Lab


They recently revamped their branding strategy to better communicate their mission.  According to their blog, “Northwestern University Knight Lab is shorter and friendlier than our previous name and it comes with a tagline to help us better communicate our mission: Advancing news media innovation through exploration and experimentation.”



The Knight Lab is self-described as “a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance media innovation through exploration and experimentation.”  They even repainted their office to match their updated orange logo design (see photo here).

They have two Fellows who have been “hard at work on the Lab’s new visual identity and branding” and they also have “an army of hacker-journalist students” hard at work on other tasks.  In fact, as of March 2013, they have “a student who tweets for (them), a number of them who write, and quite a few who commit code and develop projects.”  Over the summer, they plan on hiring a “research intern who will contribute to our business development and product design research efforts.”  As their plans and projects mature, they plan to share their “’living’ style guide as well as our content strategy and product development process documentation as a collection of resources for all,” they note on their blog, “We hope that publishing these guides and documentation will be useful for web-making teams everywhere.”


Project—From Lab to Production:

TimelineJS is perhaps the most well known of all the Knight Lab projects currently.  ODDI’s Brian Williamson documented how he uses it and then updated the post when HuffPo used it to document the timeline of the Boston Marathon bombings.  The TimelineJS Twitter account also is pretty active posting and RT’ing different uses of the technology.

The Knight Lab blog documents the evolution of production to different uses by journalists.  On March 21, 2012, Knight Lab discussed a new tool that they were developing to fit different needs that was built by Zach Wise (who joined the Northwestern University faculty from the New York Times).  It seems that Wise’s main goal was to create a tool that was easy to use, used open-source software, had simple coding, was able to incorporate a number of social media platforms, and looked nice to the user in order to explain events that happen over a set period of time.  To gain interest, the Knight Lab offered assistance to “publishers with compelling story ideas for timelines can get free help in building timelines from a team of Medill students working with Wise.”

About one month later, the Knight Lab noted that journalists had adopted the new technology. “Twitter feedback made it clear that Timeline’s developer and Medill faculty member Zach Wise had created something particularly useful,” Ryan Graff posts on the Knight Lab blog, “Visits to also surged, peaking at 13,332 on March 29 (2012) before settling into a steady rate of about 1,400 visits a day.”

Two and a half months later, Knight Lab changed its name from Timeline to TimelineJS, which is “a move that makes the product easier to market and gives a nod to the technology’s JavaScript roots.”  And in addition to “Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, and SoundCloud”, Wise also worked with the Knight Lab to incorporate “content from Wikipedia, Instagram, and Storify.”  New additions also include nearly a double in the number of supported languages and a newly developed WordPress plugin.

By September, 2012, TimelineJS had been deployed over 1,500 times and included new features such as: 25 supported languages (including Arabic and Chinese), an embed generator, and other customization options (size, font, and map style).


More Projects:

The Lab is still just under two years old, but has developed quite a portfolio of projects.  During that time, they “produced one stable product, deployed seven systems and 32 prototypes,” according to their website.  They also revised their blog, which is responsively designed for use across laptops, tablets and mobiles.

According to their ‘About’ section on their website, their first year, they “developed several prototypes and tools, including: TimelineJS, Local Angle, Local CirclePrintF, and SoundCite” and several other items under Social Loupe, “which includes prototypes of TweetCast Your Vote, TwxRay and Hashtagger.”

For a much more detailed set of featured projects, check out their projects site.  In 2013, they have three projects listed for continued development: Social Loupe (“experiments and ideas realized into technology which seeks to find meaning and utility in social media data”), Reporters’ Notebook (products geared toward “information gathering, data management, recording and correlating information found in online data repositories, virtual beat reporting, and more”), and The Publishers’ Toolbox (“tools and services intended to help with content publishing and aid in faster and easier web development around storytelling”).

They also recently held a 3-day hackathon which produced some really interesting results.


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Thoughts? Feel free to post comments or questions in the section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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(Thank you to Rob Bole for his 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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A Snapshot of Journalism Labs: Nieman Journalism Lab Tue, 30 Apr 2013 22:27:07 +0000 April Deibert  

There are a number of big journalism labs all striving to be on the cutting edge.  Below is a ‘snapshot’ of one of the more commonly known labs, Nieman Journalism Lab, with a discussion how they operate and some examples of projects they’ve developed.  Their research, techniques and new tools sometimes provide inspiration for BBG staff as they are looking for creative solutions.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about the New York Times Research & Development Lab, Northwest University Knight Lab and HuffPost Labs as well.


Nieman Journalism Lab


“The Nieman Journalism Lab’s mission is to investigate and chronicle the changing world of journalism in the Internet age through original reporting, analysis and incisive commentary,” and is meant to “highlight attempts at innovation and figure out what makes them succeed or fail.”

Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, describes it as “85 percent newsroom, 15 percent think tank,” “We try to contribute to a discussion of how journalism is going to move through this disruption.”  By disruption, he means finding a new way forward from traditional news and journalism into the current and evolving digital state.  As Harvard Magazine puts it, “the lab also covers many stories on journalistic innovation: new developments in data visualization; emerging business prototypes; novel advertising formats; the growing role of mobile devices in both consuming and producing journalism; the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and the ways news gets shared online.”  Benton says. “What are people trying, what is working, and what can we learn from it? It’s all aimed at trying to figure out a path forward for journalism.”



The lab is a physical place, but operates “an online news site about online news sites,” quotes Benton in the interview with Harvard Magazine.  The article goes on to state that “the lab has a rare status: a news operation running within the University that is not devoted to Harvard news.”  The Nieman Foundation’s endowment fund provides “most of the lab’s budget; it has also received grants from the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation.”  This allows the Nieman Lab to operate like a news site without needing to place ads to turn a profit.

To get the word out about the lab, Benton travels heavily domestically and internationally to give talks, the lab keeps in touch with other journalism centers, and they host monthly happy-hours at the lab that are open to the journalism-minded public.

The Harvard Magazine article notes that the lab employs “three staff writers, plus many freelancers, do the lab’s reporting, posting new material five days a week; the day’s first tweet goes out around 9 a.m.”

Who are these staff writers?  In a post on Nieman Lab by Benton last year, he described his team’s perfect Staff Writer candidate.  In a nutshell, qualifications include being an “excellent reporter”, an “excellent writer”, and a “nerd”.  “In other words, you care about all this stuff — it matters to you, and it occupies your thoughts in ways that go beyond just wanting a job.  That’s the kind of person we want around here,” Benton sums up.


Project—From Lab to Production:

Fuego 2.0 is where readers can “get up-to-the-moment news and see what the future-of-news crowd is talking about and linking to.”  Once an hour, it pulls in popular links to articles and posts with the right keywords that fit the search algorithm, checks their popularity, then calculates which articles and posts tend to be at the center of conversations.

Benton posts about the process and updates, here, on the Nieman Lab blog.  He notes that they “believe in iterative design”.  He also feels that the new visual nature of the tool is thanks to the “magic of Embedly, a Cambridge startup with an API that converts simple URLs into rich metadata, including headlines and images.”

[Read more about it at Fuego’s FAQ page.]


More Projects:

In addition to Fuego, Nieman Journalism Lab has Encyclo, which is described as “an encyclopedia of the future of news.”  The design of each page of Encyclo is meant to inform journalists about particular brands, companies, people and issues by giving them background on why it may be important, it’s history, and a selection of articles related to it in the past.  To find out more about the “anatomy of an entry,” read about it here.

There is also the Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism 2013, where they ask a bunch of industry experts for their thoughts on what the current year “will bring for the future of journalism.”  The discussions and links are extensive; offering the reader an in-depth understanding of what’s on the mind of today’s media specialists.


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Thoughts? Feel free to post comments or questions in the section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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(Thank you to Rob Bole for his 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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Syndication Update: SoundCloud Thu, 10 Jan 2013 01:36:07 +0000 April Deibert Remember our post about Addie Nascimento (ODDI’s Syndication Project Lead) and her efforts to syndicate to everyone, everywhere, on every platform?  Yep, it’s happening.  Wanting to hear more specifically about SoundCloud, I hit up Addie again.  She was happy to explain everything in detail—even though she was concurrently battling a bad cold and had been kept awake at night for a few days by a rogue raccoon that had taken up residency on her roof.  True story!

Startups: Alex Ljung of SoundCloud [Video from YouTube user ThisWeekIn]

Ready to Rock

SoundCloud has been incredibly receptive to BBG’s needs and wants… meaning that a cooperative technology agreement has been reached according to Nascimento, “making sharing media through social media easier”.  Benefits from a mutual agreement between the BBG and SoundCloud include things like an increased audience base for both parties as well as an easy way to share content across Facebook (in fact you can sign up for SoundCloud using your Facebook account).

Early estimates suggest to Nascimento that this mutual agreement has the potential to bring in upwards of 100,000+ more plays per year.  By utilizing SoundCloud’s built-in audience and their metrics tools, BBG entities can easily expand and measure their programming’s reach.


How the Software Works

Maybe you’re thinking that this all sounds great, but have no clue how exactly a BBG-SoundCloud-Facebook interface would work.  Nascimento says it’s as easy as taking a broadcast feed (RSS) or podcast feed, ingesting the files into SoundCloud (they provide storage for the files), connecting the SoundCloud account to your Facebook account, and then checking back in on metrics on your SoundCloud admin page.

VOA’s Urdu Service, Indonesian Service, and Khmer Service are using SoundCloud in a pilot project.  These uploads can take place daily, weekly, or biweekly—but they must be done manually—but once they are uploaded, all content plays automatically and functions like a radio station.  Their staff uploads content to SoundCloud manually pushing metadata-rich podcast feeds (VOA’s Urdu, Indonesian, and ___ are already doing this) to the SoundCloud server.  There are upcoming changes that will allow this process to happen automatically. However, their users are accessing the content through SoundCloud’s main website, through a Play Store app, through an iTunes Store app, as well as directly on Facebook.

Nascimento and her team hope that there will be some live streaming events broadcast via SoundCloud by the end of summer in 2013.  “This will open a lot of doors with the addition of 24-hour streaming media,” she adds.  “But there’s a difference between streaming and downloading,” Nascimento continues, “the streaming experience is great for online radio experience where you can pick up on the conversation mid-event, but the drawback is that it requires a constant Internet connection or mobile device with wifi—which is not always possible.”


Example of how others are using SoundCloud+Facebook [Demo by YouTube user Keith Everett]


As With Other Digital Tools, Keep Your Audience In Mind

To prepare content specifically for use in SoundCloud, Nascimento suggests that producers “start thinking about their content in general and the advantages of this tool—what kind of package will do well on this platform? What do we already have? What can we create?”  This may require individual file programming to be done, where staff will need to manually post content and then encourage their audience to check out each update on Facebook.

Nascimento knows BBG staff doesn’t have time to mess with lots of new tasks each day.  “We only have so many hours, yet so many things to do—so if you don’t have time for custom content, just post a question or comment on your own SoundCloud posts on Facebook. Ask your audience to add their comment, and always mention it in your programming.”

These things may sound simple, but Nascimento encourages staff to remember that “the products you’re creating are strategically important and should be 100% about engagement”.  For example, perhaps producers can use SoundCloud as an extension for audiences to hear more of an interview, broadcast, or event that was not broadcast on air.  Or, perhaps an entire interview can be conducted with a popular guest and the content is available only through Facebook in order to drive more traffic.  Regardless, think of SoundCloud as a bulletin board and think about what issues your audience is considering important in their localized livelihoods and interests.


For Success, Nascimento Says Remember To…

1)   Get the basics down. Be sure that you have clean metadata. You always need unique titles and descriptions for your media files. Make this a common practice. This will help your content perform better in search engines. This will also help identify one program from another; users will look for a person’s name or topic of which they are interested. Label files so people can find them based off what they are likely to be looking for.  You can’t do number two and three in this list without doing number one.  Users will look through your content and know that you are engaged because you’ve labeled it clearly for them.  She compares having a great digital space to being an awesome party host: make everything look clean and inviting, lay out your best food (content) and have the best entertainment (visuals) so they’ll come back for more. “You are much more likely to eat the food when it looks good and you know what it is than take your chance on ‘mystery meat.’”

2)   Engage your audience: What does this look like?  Make content short and consumable. Clearly labeled, engaging and enticing. Ask for their opinion.  People want to share their ideas, be heard and feel valued. They also want to know what real people think: their peers, their community and people around the world.  SoundCloud can also provide new audiences where content producers are not currently seeing much.  Nascimento hopes content will get more plays and more engagement by leveraging new ways to engage the audience where they already are.  And, remember to talk back when people comment on content.  Think about it: aren’t you more likely to make a comment where you know you’ll get a comment back?

3)   Create specific content:  If you are ready for the challenge, create content specifically for use on this platform. Consider the unique experience to tying broadcast audio or web-only audio with a social media venue. What kind of content would my Facebook audience be interested in? What kind of content would the SoundCloud community be interested in? Again, clear metadata and active engagement are your keys to success.


For more info:


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(Thank you to Addie Nascimento for her contributions to this post.  To contact her: addien at bbg dot gov [or] @addien)

(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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HTML5 Mapping and Interactive NOL Thu, 10 Jan 2013 00:49:17 +0000 April Deibert A few months ago, I posted about HTML5 video and Randy Abramson (Director of Product and Operations) posted about News On Location (NOL).  In this post, however, we want to take a look at how HTML5 mapping is evolving and how BBG’s NOL may make use of the technology in the near future.

Knowing the location of users (with their permission of course) can be a good thing both for them and for one’s service.  Not only do users often feel that they’re receiving personalized results, but there is potential for them to contribute to live maps and live feeds—making their entire interaction with your site more relevant.  This is great news for you because with an improved UX, your web metrics have the potential to flourish.

Here’s a few examples of some really cool HTML5 mapping uses and how similar techniques could be applied to NOL:


Austin Music Map

Description:  “…Austin is full of amazing musical moments. Lots of them where you least expect them. That’s where you come in. The Austin Music Map is a collaboration between KUT Austin and YOU. Take us into your corner of the city. Show us a musical venue we’ve never heard of before. Surprise us with your favorite undiscovered musician.”

Why it’s cool: Austin Music Map instructs users to snap a pic with their phones, make a video, or record a story about one of their favorite musical moments in the city—then post it to the website.  By tagging the media with the venue and neighborhood where it was captured, plus hashtagged words that describe the event, users are able to add to a growing public playlist so you can “play the city”.

Applied to NOL: NOL wants to bring local news and culture to life through the sites and sounds of the people on the ground.  What better a way to provide users with a way to participate in ‘remixing the news’ by adding photos, videos and sounds? Users could tag items to create interactive, region-specific media playlists.



SoundCloud API

Description: “If you build an app or web service that generates any type of sound, it’s easy to connect it to SoundCloud and enable your users to share their creations across the web. Allowing users to share what they create to their existing social networks and the SoundCloud community brings great value in a variety of use cases. … Letting users share tracks is also a great way of virally-promoting your app. Uploaded tracks will automatically be tagged as uploaded with [your app], so when a user shares a track on Facebook, his friends will see what app the track was created with.”

Why it’s cool: You can share sounds and recordings from your specific location, then share or embed them.

Applied to NOL: Ever wanted to hear an unedited clip from a revolution to see if you can understand what people are really saying on the street?  You could.  Ever want to pump up your speakers for a dance party in your own living room listening to a live stream of your favorite band performing at a music festival in your home country?  You could. News On Location could use the API to allow users to share audio commentary from the ground.  New users that come to that spot could then react to that clip and create their own contributions to the conversation.




Description: “Remake the Internet—Zeega is a community of makers passionate about creating immersive experiences that combine original content with media from across the web.”

Why it’s cool: Zeega was demonstrated at the London Mozilla Festival in 2012 and exposed developers to how it’s more than an interactive storytelling tool.  Zeega’s developers liken the technology to Tumblr or WordPress.  In a nutshell, a blog can be transformed into a rich interactive site—full of audio, video, images and a means of easily sharing everything.

Applied to NOL: Again, users could collect sounds and photos on mobile devices and geo-tag them.  Once uploaded, the photo and audio could be remixed into Zeega presentations that could be consumed on desktop or mobile devices.  The playback of these presentations could allow for users ‘off-location’ to feel like they are ‘there’ with the contributors.  Social integration between the presentation and users on location can further dialogue between the ‘on-and-off-location’ participants.




Description:  “Design maps in the cloud, publish in minutes.”

Why it’s cool: Custom maps can be designed and published in minutes (all powered by OpenStreetMap data).

Applied to NOL: Journalists can create custom, detailed maps of specific events.  Colors and styles can be changed, terrain layers can be integrated to show elevation, and maps can be annotated with pins, symbols, icons and interactive tooltips.  Maps can then be shared or embedded and represented with the NOL application for ‘on-and-off-location’ users.



Additional Examples and Resources:

- KartographKartograph is a simple and lightweight framework for building interactive map applications without Google Maps or any other mapping service. It was created with the needs of designers and data journalists in mind.

- Georelated: A blog full of articles that relate to the art of web mapping. Includes a lot of technical reviews detailing what’s possible now and may be possible in the future.

- GeoCAT [Video]: Perform rapid geospatial analysis of species in a simple and powerful way.

- SVG Open Conference (2011), “Even Faster Web Mapping”, by Michael Neutze.  [Neutze’s video presentation and slideshow can be found here.]

- HTML5 and Esri-based Web Mapping [Video]

- HTML5 Canvas Visualization of Flickr & Picasa API [Credit: Eric Fischer of The Geotaggers’ World Atlas]

- PBS FRONTLINE’s Interactive: David Coleman Headley’s Web of Betrayal
[Read more about the process here]


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(Thank you to Randy Abramson, Eric Pugh and Rob Bole for their link suggestions, quotes and additional contributions to this article.)

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

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Agile in Action: A Shared Online Video and Audio Platform for US International Media Mon, 31 Dec 2012 14:29:33 +0000 Adam Martin The Office of Digital and Design Innovation is leading the effort to bring a new enterprise-level online video and audio platform to all BBG entities. These new shared services will allow digital video and audio producers throughout the agency to benefit from a more streamlined workflow that is tightly integrated with the Pangea CMS and enable individual language services to reach new audiences through improved presentation, delivery and syndication of BBG programming to an expanding range of digital channels and connected devices.

Launching a comprehensive suite of products and services that impact multiple areas within IT, broadcast operations and the newsroom requires close collaboration among many groups and a willingness from individuals at all levels of the BBG to adopt agile principles to deliver the greatest value to the agency in the shortest amount of time.

The ODDI product and technical teams, RFE/RL’s Pangea development team and the project team from Kaltura Open Source Video worked together over six, two-week agile sprints to deliver new digital video and audio services for asset management, file encoding, publishing and syndication for all VOA language services, MBN’s Radio Sawa and Al Hurra TV and OCB’s Radio Marti.

The success of this project required the collaborative efforts of the teams involved, contributions from supporting divisions within the BBG and the confidence of executive stakeholders from each of the entities who enabled the teams to work together and make decisions on the scope of the project and individual feature requests from a diverse group of ‘customers’. With an Agile framework in place at all levels of the organization, the project team was able to make decisions with positive outcomes that allowed the team to deliver on the project goals under an aggressive timeline.

Managing an Agile project with core team members spread across multiple geographic locations and time zones was an added challenge for this project but one that represents how our office will work more and more as we move into the future. The success of the Kaltura online video and audio platform depended on a strong commitment from the Pangea team at RFE/RL in Prague and the Kaltura project team in New York to be flexible with their time and willing to adapt to changing priorities during the twelve weeks of the project.

While the ODDI team held daily morning stand-ups in its DC offices to track project progress, additional twice-weekly meetings were held over Skype with the Kaltura and RFER/RL teams to address the ‘big picture’ of bringing the Kaltura system online with integration into the Pangea CMS before the end of the calendar year. While these scheduled virtual meetings were necessary to keep the project on schedule, individuals from each of the three teams also communicated every day using a combination of email, Skype, phone calls, agile project software and even face-to-face, in-person conversations to manage new tasks as they emerged and keep the focus on delivering the highest amount of value to the customers.


“The ‘Big Picture”  – Completed Kaltura Integration with BBG Digital + Broadcast Services

With the teams were focused on their tasks and delivering on the ‘big picture’, bi-weekly sprint demos were held for BBG division and entity stakeholders to maintain a high-level of transparency into the project’s process and receive valuable feedback that was shared with the team to help prioritize remaining tasks and shape the focus of upcoming sprints.

Providing working demonstrations to the stakeholders at the end of each sprint and allowing them to offer feedback kept the project on course to deliver on its stated goals and also helped the team make important decisions about when individual components, of what would be the complete system, were ready to be put into production. This type of collaborative decision making and stakeholder support for the work done at the team-level is what ultimately allowed the project to succeed and launch on schedule.

The launch of the Kaltura online video and audio services is an important first-step toward bringing all BBG entities onto a single, common shared platform for all digital content creation, management and publishing. It is also an important early success in demonstrating how adopting an Agile framework at all levels of an organization and focusing on the core principles of the Agile process, early and continuous delivery of valuable software and providing a supportive, trusting environment to promote sustainable development, are critical to ODDI’s ability to deliver on its mission within the agency and help the BBG reach its strategic, organizational goals.

The project teams from ODDI, RFE/RL and Kaltura as well as the key stakeholders from BBG IT, Broadcast Operations and at the entity-level will continue to work together throughout 2013 to further integrate the Kaltura system with the Pangea CMS, develop new digital video and audio products for a growing global audience and bring even greater value to the organization.

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