Innovation @ BBG » Trends Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Radio Sawa Arabic music streaming app launches on Android & Apple iOS Mon, 30 Jun 2014 11:34:47 +0000 Will Sullivan Seven 24/7 streams of Arabic music from around the Middle East and North Africa region is featured in the Radio Sawa app.

Seven 24/7 streams of Arabic music are featured in the Radio Sawa app.

When Radio Sawa launched as a network of FM radio stations across the Middle East in 2002, the Arab world had not really experienced anything like it as many countries had state-controlled media environments. Radio Sawa provided an alternative, with a mix of Arab and Western popular music coupled with newscasts and social issue programs.

Radio SawaTwelve years later, Radio Sawa has a lot of competition on the radio dial and has limited radio reach in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt because authorities have not permitted FM licenses. To evolve and engage new audiences in the digital age, Radio Sawa needed a new platform to reach closed markets and serve a new generation of listeners; that opportunity lay in designing an innovative audio mobile app for Arab youth.

So the Office of Digital & Design Innovation and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks joined forces to design and build an app unlike any in the Arab market. We focused on building a gorgeously design, touch-driven, mobile-only application which played to the huge popularity of streaming radio on smartphone devices. Streaming radio ranks higher than any other content format as the most popular form factor according to a comScore’s Multi-Platform and Mobile Metrix report released this year:

Streaming radio use on digital devices

Streaming radio use on digital devicesThe application is an audio-first experience, with newscasts and featured podcasts from Sawa’s journalists available on demand. But the crown jewels of the experience are the seven Arabic live-streaming radio stations from around the Middle East and North Africa region. Arab youth can listen to music and news 24/7 and in the background while they read, play or use other applications.

The Sawa Chat feature allows audiences to record and send their thoughts to our programs instantly.

The Sawa Chat feature allows audiences to record and send their thoughts to our programs instantly.

Another fantastic feature of the app is our expanded Sawa Chat functionality. For years, Sawa journalists have asked people on the street questions about social concerns. With the app, users can now respond to weekly questions by recording and uploading their thoughts and sending them to our producers in a couple quick taps. These submissions will feed expanded Sawa Chat content on the air and on the app.

Quick sports, tech and pop culture news is featured in the application.

Quick sports, tech and pop culture news is featured in the application.

The app also showcases articles from Radio Sawa’s digital journalists with six news feeds rich in original journalism, music news and sports. It also showcases Sawa’s innovative Have You Read This? youth-focused journalism which builds stories around trending ideas and conversations spreading on social media.

Check out the Radio Sawa app now, it’s live in the app stores and available for mobile devices running Android 4.0 and above and Apple IOS 6 and above. We’d love to hear your feedback and if you dig it, please give us a review and rating and share it with your friends!

Davin Hutchins, Editorial Director of MBN Digital, and his rock star team collaborated on this blog post and the Radio Sawa design, development and launch.

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VOA West Africa Trip: What I Learned… #Africa2014 Mon, 24 Mar 2014 19:12:07 +0000 Adam Martin I recently returned from 17 days of travel through sub-Saharan West Africa, experiencing the culture, meeting with VOA broadcast affiliates, becoming educated on the local digital media ecosystems and gaining a better understanding of how US International Media can prepare to meet the opportunities presented by this rapidly evolving region and serve our strategic mission.

During those 17 days across Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, I heard from a diverse collection of journalists, social entrepreneurs, students, cab drivers, broadcasters, technologists and Senegalese Wrestling fans (Laamb!) who shared what they say those opportunities are and also some of the challenges they face.

What I learned…

Media & Technology

  • Mobile communication dominates as a form of social interaction among young students and professionals in the region. Mobile messaging apps, chat services, SMS and IVR all inform the way people communicate, organize, learn, send and receive news & information.

  • The Social Web is the Web for many in this same demographic who regularly engage online. Facebook acts as a single destination for people where they can message with friends, share photos, find relevant information, socialize online and organize ‘in real life.’ Twitter, Instagram and multimedia mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and 2Go are also growing as places where people engage with friends, family, media organizations, brands and public figures online.

  • But…radio continues to play a critical role in these communities with its ability to reach a large and diverse audience, engaging them on topics that are local, relevant and personal to their lives while bypassing challenges for Web access that range from low broadband penetration and cellular data accessibility to language proficiency and literacy.

  • Radio and the Social Web share many characteristics that make them complimentary and allow them to serve as critical sources for communications. Having an ‘authentic voice’ that reflects the local language and culture with the ability to respond to the audience in ‘real time’ is key to successfully engaging with and building a supportive, loyal following — on-air or online.

Adam Africa trip

Me (fourth from left) with the Radio Kledu FM Team in Bamako, Mali

  • The regional telcos (telecommunications companies) that control the ‘last-mile‘ flow of data, information and access to the global community have tremendous influence over the way people use their mobile devices to communicate. Working effectively with these power brokers will be necessary for near-term success in providing content to these communities while alternatives are developed to bring more competition and collaboration to the market.

  • Affordable access to cellular data and low broadband penetration continue to be two of the biggest obstacles to ‘internet everywhere’ across the Sahel. Closing the digital-divide in these countries will lead to opportunities for incredible growth in access to education, new business opportunities, health and social services and cultural exchanges.

Adam Africa radio

Radio Kledu FM and digital news teams preparing the afternoon rundown


  • Digital Media Literacy within these regional audiences is growing exponentially. There is a critical need to bring more digital training to the journalists, technicians, marketers, programmers and management teams at USIM affiliates in order to meet the needs of an audience that is increasingly finding alternative programming online.

  • VOA Broadcast Affiliates across the region are increasing investments in their digital operations and in original programming. They say there is a demand for unique, local content that reflects their culture and is relevant to their changing lives. This means news that is timely, actionable and formatted for a mobile audience that is increasingly engaging first, through the social web before turning on the radio or television.

  • The potential for Nigeria as a center of economic growth and innovation on the continent appears almost limitless but it also faces many challenges. A renewed confidence in local and national political leaders, investment in its infrastructure, re-emphasizing education reform, and improving access to social services for all citizens were all said to be critical to Nigeria’s future success.

Adam Africa Photo Radio

A look inside a Ghanian broadcasting company


  • Mali has an amazing local music scene with modern r&b sounds rooted in the traditions of blues-men like Ali Farka Toure, but there’s also an underground hip hop community and a collection of club DJs and band leaders bringing Merengue, Salsa and Bachata to Malians.

  • Extreme sports that combine speed, action, music and local passions are growing rapidly in popularity in West Africa. If you want to learn first hand about youth culture in Dakar, go to a Laamb match where you’ll find them watching their favorite wrestlers get after it.

  • Money, Religion, Sports and Politics are the topics people I talked with spoke most passionately about ~ so not that different for a neighborhood guy from north Boston like me.

  • In Lagos there is an ‘energy’ that comes from the people and from the city itself…you can feel the City breathin’. The pace is frenetic but with a sense of urgency – the kind that drives change.

  • But the traffic…Lagos needs to fix its traffic situation.

  • If you’re near Osu in Accra, head toward the beach and ask for the spot where they serve the best ‘red red’ you’ve ever eaten…trust me.

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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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BBG Tech Panel with Netflix CEO Explores Digital Evolution of Media & Government Tue, 07 Jan 2014 21:52:43 +0000 Erica Malouf After a special BBG board meeting in late December, our own Rob Bole, Director of Innovation at BBG, moderated an impressive panel of media and technology experts included Reed Hastings, CEO and co-founder of Netflix, Tom Cochran, CTO at Atlantic Media, and Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP).

This discussion with leaders from all sectors was part of the board’s efforts to help our broadcast-focused agency navigate the evolving media landscape and inspire new strategies to grow audience engagement. (Read BBG’s press release.)

Reed Hastings kicked off the discussion with a telling tale from a recent trip abroad. While vacationing in Costa Rica, he realized his DSL internet connection was surprisingly fast for being in a remote place. So he took a hike down a dirt road to follow the DSL line into the jungle where found a DSLAM converting the DSL line into fiber optic cables (which are much faster across longer distances). It turns out that Costa Rica is prioritizing laying fiber optic above paving roads. It sounds ironic, like a friend who has the latest smart phone but whose shoes have holes. Yet it makes sense in the context of global markets—Costa Rica needs cutting edge digital infrastructure in order to compete.

“When you look at the rate of smart phone adoption, it’s pretty easy to see that Internet connectivity via phone devices is going to be almost ubiquitous,” said Hastings. We at BBG’s Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) are acutely aware of this, and that’s why we’re so focused on creating digital tools and solutions for our journalists. But the challenge is whether journalists will use them. And that’s where a cultural shift is needed. We can already see that it’s underway at BBG as more journalists use social media and incorporate digital into their newsroom strategy. During the panel, Reed Hastings and Tom Cochran, CTO of Atlantic Media, addressed the difficulties of cultural change in a big organization and offered some words of advice for our leadership.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, speaks about leading an organization through change.

Tom Cochran, CTO of Atlantic Media and Reed Hastings of Netflix chat about technology, leadership and driving change.

Of course, appealing to Atlantic Media’s customers is on Tom’s mind because he’s at a for-profit business. But do the same ideas apply to government? Like any other organization, government has “customers,” but instead we call them constituents, citizens or voters. ODDI has “customers”–our journalists at the various BBG entities and language services. And we also share another customer with our journalists–the end user who is consuming the news. But there are many distinctions about how government and business operate. The panelists touched on some of the major challenges, specifically for media companies and government digital departments.

Cochran and Phillips talk about challenges in attracting and retaining tech talent.

On the external communications front, government must take a different approach than private companies. The contrast is stark when it comes to social media and employee policy, as the panelists discuss.

The recent trend of hyper-targeted content, or personalization, affects government as much as media organizations–and there are positives and negatives to this trend.

The panelists discuss new technology and content personalization.

Tom Cochran and Macon Phillips speak on future of content dissemination in the private and public sectors.

While government has different constraints within which it operates, Macon points out that this doesn’t mean agencies have an excuse not to measure. And there are similar ways that government can approach measurement.

Reed Hastings and Macon Phillips talk measurement and audience engagement in the private versus public sector.

The most interesting moment of the panel discussion for me was when Macon made the case for government use of digital advertising to better reach more narrow audiences. Because at the end of the day, as any social media “guru” will tell you, it’s not about hitting the highest numbers, it’s about reaching the right audience with the right message (…to activate that audience so they can help you achieve your mission). And to take it one step further, it’s not just whether there was engagement, it’s about how your audience engaged with your brand. And so sentiment is another important metric, but one that’s often trickier to measure.

As an aside, BBG has dabbled in digital advertising to some success. For example, Voice of America (VOA) Chinese has used Google Ads in China to promote their content, but the Chinese government has since blocked such online advertisements.

Macon makes the case for a hyper-targeted messaging approach with digital advertising.

And, defying popular belief that government is trend and technology averse, it turns out that Phish has inspired White House communications strategy. There are certainly lessons to be gleaned from social-savvy bands.

Phish inspires White House strategy!

It was a thought-provoking panel and a timely discussion for the BBG as we prepare to navigate new waters in the coming year.

Rob panel crop,

Rob Bole moderated the panel (this serious photo captures his stern disapproval of the panelists for wearing flower-inspired, spring-colored ties in the dead of winter).

One big change for ODDI is Rob Bole’s new role as Director of Global Strategy for BBG, announced in late December. We’ll miss having Rob as our fearless director at ODDI, but we’re excited to see him lead the charge for innovation on a larger scale at BBG.

Next up: a little less conversation, a little more action. Follow us on Twitter (@BBGinnovate)–I’ll be posting more inspired clips from the panel and updates about ODDI.

Contributors to this post: Brian Williamson (@drawinghands): video editing, Anastasia Kolobrodova: photos

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Golden Age of Journalism, Part II – Speed & Accuracy Tue, 19 Nov 2013 16:21:26 +0000 robbole Speed

The increased speed in which news organizations gather and publish content is one of the most notable changes and challenges for digital organizations today.

An over-focus on speed without respect for accuracy leads to problems, often quite public problems, for careless news organizations. Our ability to identify information and publish it quickly has sometimes outstripped our collective journalism judgement.

However, there is a reason that the speed-to-publish is a key part of journalism…our focus on speed is the result of an abundance of riches. The sheer amount of observers with social media accounts, cameras and audio devices pointed at every news event happening in the world gives reporters and editors the ability to access, and then rocket content around the world.

And this 24/7 ‘unblinking eye’ has brought us iconic real-time images of news events that we would never have seen before. So, sometimes speed is the point.

I have sat transfixed at my computer watching the Tahrir Square protests unfold in real-time in front of me. We saw Neda Agha-Soltan die before our eyes during the Iranian protests in 2009.  We gaped as we saw survivors from the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 being picked out of the Hudson River as it was happening through Instagram or hundreds of recording cell phones.

The sheer amount of observers with social media accounts, cameras and audio devices pointed at every news event happening in the world gives reporters and editors the ability to access, and then rocket content around the world.

The speed in which journalists and the audience itself have facilitated the publishing of raw content has acted as a powerful witness to important events. Events that only a few years before would have been hidden behind a veil of geography. In this case immediacy and realism – being THERE – is true journalism. The editorial judgement was simply to point the camera and not interpret the events at the time.

But there are downsides to the speed without journalistic curators and editorial judgement.

In the US for the Boston Bombing it was Pete Williams of NBC news who brought a strong journalistic perspective to rapidly evolving events.  And for the Arab Spring, for Twitter audience, it was Andy Carvin at NPR. Both of these journalists, whether doing original reporting or curating actual and supposed eyewitness or exclusive information stopped to ask the all-important question: “Do we have another source?” “Can we corroborate that?”  As Pete Williams described his approach to reporting “the essence of journalism is the process of selection.”



Accuracy is not the antithesis of speed.

Editorial judgement connected to digital workflows can work efficiently to produce sensical and accurate news content in near real-time. Like sources and speed, accuracy can be aided by technology, but today we have to reassess our understanding of accuracy in a digital world.

At the core of accuracy is context; what is reliable? What is verifiable? What is the public interest? Which public?  What is the proportionality of one story to another?

And there are new technologies that are still emerging as important tools in developing accurate reporting.


In the digital age, the public is not longer a passive, remote receiver of news–they are a participant. The best news organizations understand this; they don’t view the audience as a competitor, but instead as a collaborator. They may work closely with local bloggers to incorporate their product in their bigger publishing channels. Or, for the sake of improving the news, they reach out to the public directly to work with and aid reporters as they pursue stories in the audience’s interest.

This is exemplified by the experience of the Guardian as they could produce incredibly detailed and accurate information about British MP expenses in 2009. Faced with mountains of paper-filed reports – remember data as a source! – they turned to the audience to help process those thousands and thousands of pages of reports into data that could be analyzed. But beyond that they trusted their audience by asking them to not only digitize elements of the reports, but help identify what was interesting; in essence alerting the reporter to some of the juicy bits they could find from the MP’s expense sheet.  A “hey, this looks really, really bad!”

The success of working with the audience has led to Guardian Witness as a new crowdsource platform for their journalism.  On this platform, the Guardian can create a journalism task and ask for help from the audience in a reporting project.  Audience members might leave opinions, fill out a survey, go identify some data, leave a picture, whatever is needed that one or even a team of reporters could not hope to get.

The role of crowdsourcing in improving the accuracy is starting to grow.  For example ProPublica’s “Free the Files” project to help transcribe US political spending, which in turn led to the release of Transcribable, an open source project that journalists can use to build crowdsourcing projects.  Or OpenWatch where news organizations can task (or find uploaded content from) citizen journalists around the world with coverage of news events, such as the protests in Istanbul or in Egypt. Or even services like Storyful that helps you extend your editorial staff, allowing newsrooms to subscribe to their services of sourcing and verifying social content.


While this is still an emerging field, there are a number of people thinking about how algorithms and computer agents can help us more quickly determine the accuracy of information.  The Washington Post recently launched TruthTeller, an algorithm based process that compares transcripts of video and audio to a database of facts to see if politicians are telling the truth.


Finally, in the area of accuracy we have to think about the tantalizing potential of drones.  Drones give journalists new abilities to independently verify information, such as the extent of a natural disaster or an ability to monitor demonstrations from a birds-eye view.

When you combine these nimble, independent sensors with high-powered computing video/photo and audio analysis you get something that concerns many, including myself, about the potential of privacy violations. There is potential here for journalists, but we must be very, very careful about how we deploy such a powerful tool.

Accuracy, reliability and the ability to present verified information are key values of news organizations. There are new technologies that are helping us ensure that journalists can identify, vet, classify and ultimately increase the accuracy of our reporting.  We need to use these tools and embed them into our everyday workflows. It is somewhat ironic that at the same moment we have gained tools that have the potential to augment the core ethics of journalism they also undermine them.  And, of course, what is the most important element in the end is the quality of the individual.  A recent quote by Norman Perelstine of Time Inc. highlights this point.  His quote, paraphrased: “Pick the best editor and everything else falls into place.”

The next and last in this series of posts will turn to the people part; the jobs, skills and instincts in the new newsroom.

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Are We in a Golden Age of Journalism? Wed, 06 Nov 2013 16:28:47 +0000 robbole In a recent piece in Business Insider, Henry Blodget proposed that journalism has entered “a golden age.” While he has a number of well-spoken points, there are three that seem the most salient for US international media.

  • Every journalist on earth can now reach nearly every human on earth, directly and instantly.
  • The proliferation of mobile gadgets has made it possible to consume news anywhere 24 hours a day.
  • Today’s journalism now offers reporters a full range of storytelling formats, rather than be trapped in a single format, such as a newspaper article or television broadcast.

Are we in a Golden Age?

We are.


There has been explosion of creativity across all aspects of journalism. Social curation. Mobile broadcasting. Data visualization. Long-form stories. User generated content. Open news hacking. It is a fantastic time to be a part of journalism.

Before I go too far in tech idealism, we need to balance the potential of the digital age with the critical values that distinguish journalism from public relations or propaganda.

Borrowing a phrase from David Ensor, Director of Voice of America, we need to “aggressively utilize new tools, but keep close to old journalistic values”.

For the old values of journalism are the best guides on how to apply the technological advantages we have today. A subtext to all of thoughts on digital journalism is that “digital tools can help you access new markets, but ultimately it is quality content, maintained by strong journalism values that will enable you to build and keep audiences.”

In a series of posts I want to write about some of the profound changes that technology has wrought in how we gather and write the news. Specifically issues of Sources, Speed & Accuracy. Let’s start with the impact of technology now and into the future of Sources.


On May 1st, 2011 a simple tweet of a man woken by helicopters illustrated the potential of the Internet to become a valuable source for journalism. Despite highly compartmentalized knowledge, nape-of-the-earth-flying with radar absorbing helicopters, one of the most important military operations of the US’s War Against Terror was revealed by a guy who couldn’t sleep.

Screen shot 2013-11-06 at 10.49.25 AM

The “Osama Raid tweet” was a stark display that with the right tools and knowledge social platforms could be a powerful source for news organizations. In the digital age you have the potential of leveraging every mobile phone, every Tweet, every Facebook post as source.

Sourcing Sources: The Role of Social Forensics 

While the Osama Raid tweet was found by reporters through more luck than anything, there is a growing usage of social media forensics with journalism.

Social mining tools, commercial platforms like SocialFlow, SalesForce Marketing Cloud or Mass Relevance, as well as other competitors and academic tools allow journalists to quickly sort through social content to find nuggets of journalistic information.

Used as a blunt object, newsrooms are using social data analysis to try identify news trends early. In this mode, newsrooms are not always applying their core journalistic values of sourcing or context, but just thinking about being the first to report on a news event.

More sophisticated users use social data analysis to ask more interesting questions: “Why did this event occur?” “Who is associated with it?” “How is the public influenced by it?” “Who is a reliable and authoritative source on what is happening?”

How information moves between people and across the network are essential elements to understanding the news. For example in the recent attack on the Westgate Mall there was a running PR battle between Al-Shabab and the Kenyan government as a real battle was taking place. For a journalist that back-and-forth on Twitter was newsworthy. Using social forensics reporters have a better opportunity to broaden the story, to understand the context of the attack with all of its ethnic, religious and political implications.

For instance, How does the Arabic population in Kenya in the Mombasa region view Al-Shabaab, a Somali based organization? What are the various reactions by the people of Kenya to the attack?  How do these reactions align with key tribal and political organizations? What is the discussion and thoughts of the Somali diaspora in places like the US, Canada and the UK and populations in Africa?

While this information is not a traditional “source” it is the distillation of the comments, feelings and engagement of millions of “sources”…social media data in essence is a ‘meta-source’, a source of sources, that can help truly inform a story.

There is an immensely important role for journalistic values in using social media data as a source. It can be a dangerous proposition to not apply basic journalism skepticism.

Jennifer Carrnig, Direct of Communications for NY ACLU, captured the promise and problems of social data: “When everyone has a video camera with them at all times, the potential is limitless. But there is clearly a downside to that, because when everybody is submitting stuff, it is hard to know in real time what is valid; there is the potential for [false information] to be out there.”

Data: An Emerging Source for Journalists

A second powerful new source–and perhaps one still in its infancy–is data. Journalism is rooted in storytelling; and the tradition is of a reporter talking to enough other people to paint a picture of the news.  It almost goes without saying that when I say “sources” 99% of you in the audience think “people.”

However, we have to start broadening our minds. Computer-aided journalism and data visualizations from NPR, Ushihidi, InfoAmazonia, NYTimes and infographics like Visualizing Palestine are beautiful examples of how data not only enhances storytelling, but IS the story.

Screen shot 2013-11-06 at 10.58.16 AM

Infographic on Syria communicates the news in a visually engaging way.

Data is a valid and highly relevant journalism source because powerful data analysis tools have become accessible and affordable for non-technical users. You don’t need a PhD in statistics or have to have the title of “Data Scientist” to be able to mine journalistic insights from data sets. This is information that was not possible to glean from any one person or even groups of people. If your future newsroom is going to start recruiting “data sources” a good place to start is the Data Journalism Handbook and getting your reporters to understand tools like Google Fusion Tables or Tableau.

Social forensics and data are just two emerging sources amongst a number of encouraging technology-based tools, including crowd-sourced platforms (e.g. Open Watch) or social curation/verification services (e.g. Storyful), which I will cover in more depth as they are also great tools for enhancing journalistic accuracy in this networked age of speed.

My next post will discuss the nature of Speed vs. Accuracy and how journalism organizations are balancing the ability to publish quickly with the core journalistic values…

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NPR’s Gone Agile…Even Their Newsroom! Wed, 23 Oct 2013 15:24:02 +0000 Erica Malouf On the last blazing hot day of fall, Rob Bole  (Director of Innovation at BBG) and I  (Erica Malouf, Blogger/Researcher at BBG) hopped in a cab near the National Mall and landed at the shiny, new NPR headquarters at 1111 North Capitol Street NE. We had one mission: corner Zach Brand, head of all things digital at NPR, and get him to tell us all his secrets…well, all his secrets about successfully running Agile development teams at NPR.

zach brand

Zach Brand of NPR

“[NPR’s digital] group is complementary to the content creating groups (digital news, music, etc.)…we don’t make the content, we make the experience and platforms that showcase the content,” said Mr. Brand. He explained that the digital team’s iterative workflow is very different than the deadline-driven news cycle that many departments are subject to at NPR. The fascinating part is that, despite these stark differences, Agile implementation facilitated better internal processes and communication between teams.

“We found out that an unintended consequence of implementing Agile at NPR is that it has begun to break down silos between digital and other departments…by involving stakeholders from other departments in the  product development process.”

What’s Agile?

Before we get into what Agile has done for NPR, let me explain it briefly. Agile means having a interactive, team-centered, iterative process for completing a project (two-week ”sprints”). As a contrast, another project management style is referred to as waterfall, in which a project’s milestones cascade like a waterfall from start to finish without outside feedback.

Our office at BBG called the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) has made a huge push to move toward an Agile project development methodology in the last year, which is unique for a government agency. We were interested in how NPR, a journalism-focused nonprofit, was able to make it work for them.

(For more on Agile, watch this video from an NPR employee and read about ODDI’s approach to Agile with Scrum in Scrum Master Son Tran’s entertaining post.)

NPR’s Flavor of Agile

Their core focus is product development work. “The team is comprised, as currently defined, by about 45 individuals…typically comprised of 3-10 people on a scrum team. And about three of those teams work concurrently at any given time,” said Brand.  “That’s been the big change as our scope has expanded a little bit over the last five years…both our methodology as we became orthodox scrum, and embraced that, as well as our portfolio has grown particularly with the advent of mobile devices as we’ve come out of a legacy [media model].”

“If we were to rewind the clock to go back a decade, it was about a companion website and podcasting…I guess a little less than a decade for that—it’s a little funny to remember how relatively young podcasting is.”

“We have established ourselves as a significant source for news, and the cultural programming that we’ve always represented, but now we’ve demonstrated that we’re able to do it on the web and on mobile and in other spaces as well. So the team has grown a bit and we’ve reached our current size, which I think is very sustainable.”

One thing that is key to Agile is the integration of feedback into project development, and NPR has a passionate fan base that they can tap into for this. “At NPR,” says Brand, “we have an audience who gives us actionable feedback on our digital platforms. The faster we get our ideas in front of our audience the faster we can learn what works and what doesn’t.” In true Agile fashion, this means that they are not waiting until a final launch to find out what the audience thinks and whether there are any flaws.

Zach explained that their philosophy of product ownership is generally that, “if something is worth doing, someone should clearly be assigned ownership on it, and if we can’t bother to assign someone to own it, then it’s not worth doing.” They’ve divided up ownership of the different digital products, such as the website, social media and newsletter. And there is also someone managing their suite of APIs, so that they are “looking ahead on what’s going to be needed, not just the maintenance or what’s needed today.”

The Newsroom Went Agile Too?

How does a newsroom that is subject to a continuous news cycle work with a digital product development team that comes from a historic approach of doing ‘one gold release per month’? Not very well, as it turns out.


A view into the NPR newsroom.

Prior to adopting Agile, the content departments were largely unaware of how digital products were being developed and there was some criticism about the speed that things were being produced and what was being made. Essentially, the digital team was working in a silo. But when Zach’s team embraced Agile, it was clear that the content producers would need to be a part of the product development process in order for the team to get the feedback it needed to be Agile. However, content teams were not clear on the value in attending Agile training or being involved in the process.

“It was our commitment to the methodology that meant that if we were going to produce work, for example, around a news tool or a library tool or a music tool, that we needed to have people from those teams [on our team in the digital group]. And if they were going to be in a team, then we needed to train them up on our methodology and have them be dedicated. And if we were going to take the time to train them up and be dedicated, we needed to have their managers buy in to freeing them up for all of that.”

Zach explained that it was a tough battle initially, but their persistence paid off. “…rather than second-guessing from an outside perspective, it has actually gotten  members of other teams to be a participant in an exercise where we inform them that ‘you should be involved, you need to give me somebody to be involved in this team and either commit to it or accept that you’re not a stakeholder in the process.”

Once content people became involved in the process, they began to see the value and report  back to their teams praising the Agile methodology–so it began to spread virally around the office. Other departments even began asking to join Agile trainings. They were thinking about Agile not “in the same way as it’s used to build a platform, but that it might have resonance around this effort that we have going on in the newsroom.”

nprs dig products

NPR wants fans to be able to listen and interact on every device, and the digital team is hard at work making this possible.

“To be clear,” said Brand, “there’s still a distinction between a group that is charged with putting out a show every single day no matter what and a team that gets to go in a box for a two-week sprint cycle and deliver at the end of that. So there are still huge differences, but certainly the common ground is much more evident. The ways that we think and approach things is better. And I think the understandings between the teams are fundamentally better because these approaches have meant that we are figuratively and literally working closely together and understanding each other’s world better.”

Agile Wisdom

Zach said that one thing he learned is that it takes time to adopt Agile. It took the NPR digital team around 8 or 9 months to finally fully commit to being Agile. He also mentioned that managing an Agile or Lean team can be frustrating at first. Even if he knows where he wants a team to take a project, he has to be hands-off and let the team get there on their own. It’s a very different role for most managers.

A critical aspect of their Agile adoption was incorporating the internal end-users  or content departments into the development process. Some of their new tools and ideas have been “entirely driven by having a member of that team involved…it forces the engagement, and once their team is inside and part of the [development] team, you have that conveyance of understanding of why decisions are made,” said Brand. “Probably the most valuable thing we did was a commitment to real training for everyone who was going to be involved.”

NPR continues to do ongoing Agile training to make sure new employees are brought into the fold quickly. As a complement to Agile, the digital team has now adopted Lean methodology.

Inside the new building at NPR

Perhaps the open floor plan of NPR’s new building is enhancing internal communication along with Agile practices.

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Apple IOS 7 evolves to flat design, merging with developing mobile industry interface standards Tue, 24 Sep 2013 18:43:06 +0000 Will Sullivan

Creepy IOS 6 vs 7 Icons, Scott Forstall vs. Jony Ive comparison image courtesy GadgetLove

On Wednesday, Apple publicly released it’s new IOS 7 operating system for mobile and tablet devices and with it came one of the most significant ( — and for some, controversial — design changes to the Apple Human Interface Guidelines (Apple’s strongly encouraged design principles that have driven apps and products on the platforms to be so uniformly designed) that has many major applications redesigning their interfaces from IOS 6 to IOS 7. It’s this heavy design guidance (or constraint, depending on which side of the fence you fall on) that has rooted Apple’s style and foundation in the history of mobile and tablet design.

Early on, Apple was a pioneer in digital skeuomorphism – the practice of making objects look like ‘real world’ objects. This can be observed in Apple’s old Notepad application designed with lines, texture, shredded paper edges and yellow background color, simulating a paper legal pad or the leather stitching details in the User Contacts application.

With early digital interfaces, using skeuomorphism can often help users unfamiliar with technologies or digital interfaces become more comfortable using apps by mimicking a ‘real world’ experiences they’re familiar with.

As digital literacy grows, moving away from this practice to a flat design becomes easier and a natural evolution of interface design. For some of our BBG audiences with lower digital literacy, and experience this could be good and bad news, but overall I think it’s positive. How familiar are people in rural Africa going to be with interfaces that mimic legal pads or leather-bound Day Planners? The jump to flat, cleaner and simpler interfaces might serve them better, despite having less experience navigating digital content.

With IOS 7 removing a lot of the beveling, textures and gradients, the interface becomes cleaner and more open. The design also appears incredibly more simple, but managing that simplicity with making a sophisticated, content- and feature-rich and usable user experiences requires a mastery of design.

Flat design also elevates content and its visual quality to a new level — a critically important factor for the BBG’s content producing entities — because all the design noise and textures are stripped away, having excellent, high-resolution, optimized images and video becomes increasingly important.

Patrick Keane on Venture Beat emphasized flat design’s importance for content and advertising:

“The shift from skeuomorphic to flat design is not purely aesthetic. Stripped of any ornamental clutter, the minimalistic design of iOS 7 elevates the content. The implication for advertisers is simple — if any aspect of an ad’s form or function is not integrated into the new interface, it will be a clear distraction from the user experience. Take the new Safari, for example.  It’s buttons and bars stay hidden until you scroll to reveal them and ‘Reading List’ in Safari consolidates web articles into a feed that you can seamlessly scroll through.”

The curious thing about these changes are how many mobile and tablet operating systems are converging on a “flat” design paradigm. The approach was first brought to the modern mobile market by Windows 8 and their tiled navigation interface. Google’s Android has also embraced simplicity and flat design in their 4.0 and newer platforms. This design principle merging is good news for those of us producing multi-platform apps.

As we continue to build out the BBG mobile and tablet applications we’re preparing a redesign this Winter for larger device interfaces that will further embrace flat design principles and allow our international content to sing by showcasing our journalism in bigger, bolder and cleaner interfaces. Stay tuned for more.

Oh, and yes, we’ve upgraded our apps to support IOS 7 in the meantime.

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The Beauty of Paper Prototyping: Low-tech UX Testing Yields Timely Feedback Thu, 12 Sep 2013 16:26:16 +0000 Erica Malouf We’re Testing a Digital Tool with Paper??

I admit to feeling very skeptical when I was first told we’d be doing a paper prototype UX test for a digital storytelling tool that my colleagues have been developing. Thoughts in my head included: How can a paper version of a tablet simulate what it’s like to use this tool on an actual iPad? Could users reacting to a paper mock-up possibly give us the feedback we need?

In concept, it sounded silly to have someone touch an image of a button on a piece of paper and then have an ODDI staff member pretend to be the computer and change out the paper with each touch  of the ‘screen.’ However, my tune changed on testing day as we went through the process.


The Set-up

We had four interns from our building at BBG participate—they were all in their twenties and generally savvy with technology. On our team, we had a moderator to guide the testers through the process, a person acting as ‘the computer,’ and several people on the panel to ask questions afterward. We also had a video camera set up to record all of the action.

During the test, our moderator read from a carefully prepared script that guided each participant through different tasks. While best practice dictates that one strictly follow the script, we were somewhat relaxed with this particular test and occasionally improvised in order to extract the information we needed.

The Results

Despite the fact that we only had a pool of four testers (testing usually requires a minimum of five for a paper prototype), we were able to get some extremely valuable feedback. None of our test subjects knew they would be testing a storytelling tool for breaking news, so it was telling that all of the participants guessed that it was a news application right away—we knew we were on the right track with the general design and feel. All of testers noticed at least one flaw in functionality and offered suggestions on design that continue to inform our decisions as we refine the tool.


A Testing Rule to Live By

My colleague Steve Fuchs (head of design at ODDI) taught me an important lesson about testing. He explained why we do paper prototyping at the early stages of the design process by equating it to the ’5-50-5000 rule of print production’.

“An error gets exponentially more expensive to fix the later it is caught in the production process.”

Essentially, he is saying that what we can test for maybe $5 and fix cheaply early in the development of a design project–be it a website, an app or any digital product–would cost more and more as we get further along in the process. The goal is to save time and money by catching things early with a simple and easily implemented UI test.

Take home lesson: in the early stages, don’t worry about creating a fancy UI/UX test that simulates the product perfectly—first do a low-tech test to fix the major flaws.

Paper prototyping is what I now think of as the quick and dirty way to do a first round of UI testing. I’m a convert. I also read a recent blog post from Jamie Tolentino on “The Next Web” that praises guerilla UX testing, further confirming my newfound appreciation.

Do you have any UX or UI testing rules, methodology or tips that you live by?


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Building on Open Source Audio Technologies Or…Why I Still Believe in Radio Fri, 06 Sep 2013 18:04:13 +0000 Adam Martin At ODDI we’re continuously looking for new ways to reimagine how US International Media informs, connects and engages with audiences around the world. Digitally connected audiences are rapidly expanding in emerging markets across the Sahel in Africa, in Southeast Asia and throughout Latin America. But in many of these areas, traditional radio continues to be a critical source of news and information while also providing listeners with a common social experience.

With this in mind, ODDI is challenged with creating new digital products for the next generation of listeners, storytellers and community leaders around the world. OurBlock Open Source Community Radio is our first experiment in meeting this challenge. With OurBlock, our goal is to help establish, then grow, digitally connected communities while providing a platform that delivers vital news and information to an increasingly diverse and evolving audience.

ODDI’s Open Product Development

When we begin working on a new product at ODDI, we start with a set of guiding principles that help make sure what we deliver is flexible, extensible and scalable (both in capability and cost!). We want to be sure it is not only something that is highly desirable, but also possible and viable for our unique ‘clients’ and their (and our) audiences.

Innovation Venn Diagram Black

Open Product Development Principles

  •  Build on Open Source Technologies Using Web Standards
  •  Be Licensing, Vendor and Technology Agnostic Where Possible
  •  Build with an API Strategy at the Start–Portability of Data and Content is Key
  •  Be Modular and Service Oriented in our Architecture
  •  Be Adaptive in our Design — All Screens, All Devices, All Environments
  •  Be Innovative (e.g. ‘better’) by solving a unique challenge for USIM, its partners and audiences


Open Source Meets Open Radio

When (re)thinking radio for digital audiences in emerging global markets, building an open source solution that follows these principles is critical to reach the range of devices, operating systems and mobile networks found in the diversity of the communities.

Even more than the technical requirements, there was a sense the functional requirements of a next generation radio platform would also need to mirror the principles of ‘open’ and embrace the shared social experience and participatory nature of traditional radio within a community.

The OurBlock Community Radio project is an idea that was first pitched to the public during the 2012 Mozilla Festival as a way to, “Help answer the question, ‘What does our block sound like?’ Enabling individuals to come together online to create and participate in the power and passion of neighborhood community radio.” Since that time OurBlock has evolved into a new platform for USIM to build and grow an international community of digital affiliates, independent audio storytellers, local community leaders and neighborhood voices providing participants with an opportunity to share news & information, share connections and build stronger communities.

For the team at ODDI, the goal is to deliver a suite of digital services that promote rapid deployment of localized, personalized and highly social streaming audio channels in emerging markets throughout the world. For USIM and its partners, the opportunity will be establishing new networks of listeners, storytellers, newsmakers and influential leaders creating a more informed public and building stronger, more connected communities.

To achieve these goals, we’re bringing together members of ODDI’s UX, App Dev and Storytelling teams lead by Steve Fuchs, Eric Pugh and Ashok Ramachandran to deliver the following:

  • An HTML5 streaming media player for mobile devices in emerging markets built on the jPlayer.js framework and IceCast streaming server technology.
  • A custom Airtime radio playout and automation system that integrates with the BBG’s Direct service for improving USIM content distribution to digital affiliates.
  • Integration of Airtime with SoundCloud, Dropbox and IVR solutions to allow independent producers and community members to contribute audio content directly.
  • A custom drupal-powered publishing system that supports continuous and on-demand streaming, community contributions and real-time social engagement.
  • A digital marketplace to promote station discovery, content sharing and community building.


Are You a Developer or a Designer Who is Passionate About Community Radio?

Building with open source solutions from jPlayer, Sourcefabric and Drupal on our highly scalable Amazon Web Service infrastructure is ODDI’s first step toward building a platform of complimentary services for traditional affiliates and new digital-first partners. Staying within our ‘radio framework’ of open collaboration and shared participation, the team is building the OurBlock platform in the open and looking for developers and designers to join us on this project. If you’re passionate about community radio, building shared experiences on digital platforms (or know what LiquidSoap is), please join us by going to our GitHub page where you’ll find the OurBlock project.

We’ll be blogging more about our progress as the project continues and look for your feedback in the comments. For real-time updates about OurBlock and other digital community radio work–follow us on Twitter: @thisIsOurBlock.


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