Innovation @ BBG » Agile Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ODDI rockstar Scrum Master shares his Agile expertise at GSA DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit Mon, 18 May 2015 12:45:25 +0000 Will Sullivan I’m proud to announce that our own ODDI Scrum Master extraordinaire, Ashok Ramachandran, has been asked to share his expertise at the upcoming and sold-out GSA DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit. Government leaders of all levels — from federal to local municipalities — will be attending to learn more about topics ranging from 3d Printing to Human-Centered Design. Ashok is speaking on May 21 at 12:30 p.m. about “Agile Methods in Opening Government” with Bill Brantley from the Department of Agriculture.

AshokAshok has been in our office for just under two years and has made an exponential impact on the products and services we offer — especially on the mobile team, where he’s helped us manage multiple teams on-shore and off-shore, launching more than a dozen award-winning products from low-tech to high-tech in more than 60 languages, often with multiple products rolling out at the same time. At the same time, he’s also miraculously worked as Scrum Master for multiple other teams with dozens of developers, designers and stakeholders helping ship live products for the BBG marketing team including a new CRM system, and digital publishing technology tools working with a few other small federal agencies (The State Department and Department of Defense).

“Ashok is one of the best scrum masters we’ve ever worked with, he has kept the Mobile Team focused and executing on multiple projects at the same time.” Bo Kostro, ODDI Mobile Release Manager said, “He works hard on meeting the deadlines and removing blockers.”

Ashok has been key in the execution of our fleet of mobile products and the team’s #AlwaysBeShipping attitude and culture;  we’re proud to have him making a larger impact sharing his expertise with other government agencies.

The Citizen Services Summit is sold out for in-person attendance, but the there’s still remote attendee seats available here.

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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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ODDI Demo Day Kicks Off the New Year Mon, 13 Jan 2014 18:41:16 +0000 Erica Malouf Friday marked the last demo day at ODDI in the current format. In the past, project owners (team leaders) have given demo day presentations in ODDI’s office with an occasional note from a team member. From here on out, the emphasis will be on having the team members take the lead in talking about their work, instead of the project owners.

In the past, stakeholders from within BBG have always been invited, but have rarely joined–it’s usually just ODDI staff who attend the Friday demos. Going forward, ODDI demo days will be centered around the stakeholder. Teams will schedule time with their various project stakeholders within BBG. The goal is to get internal customer feedback on a more regular basis as a part of our Agile, iterative approach.

ODDI scrum master Son Tran says that team-driven presentations provide team members with an opportunity to show that they are delivering on goals and owning the work they’ve done. He also notes it’s about the iterative process:  ”Closing the feedback loop and making it shorter is better for improving projects.”

What are we working on at ODDI?

For most teams, Sprint Zero was a time of research and planning, defining goals and determining KPIs. Adam Martin, our newly minted Director of Innovation, asked teams to come to the January 9 demo day “prepared to discuss their Charter as described in the Strategic White Paper, their shared vision in response to the Charter, the team’s goals, how they will measure their success against those goals, and their product(s) roadmap for Q2 of FY14 (and beyond if available).”

Now the teams are ready to see their brilliant ideas into fruition. And some teams are also managing ongoing projects like Relay, RIVR, the BBG-wide analytics roll out, and mobile app updates.

Here’s a look at what’s happening:

image mobileprez

Will Sullivan presents on the latest mobile app updates and the Symbian launch.


Project Owner: Will Sullivan

The Mobile Team is continuing develop, update and support the suite of umbrella news applications for all BBG entities, which supports more than 82 language services now, and has an install base of more than 400,000 users. We are launching new applications with Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Google Android and Apple IOS for both mobile and tablet form factors and just launched VOA’s Africa-focused Symbian application (the third largest mobile OS in the region, after Android and IOS, which we launched for VOA services last year). This quarter we will be updating the entire suite to a more magazine-style iPad design, building new Android home screen news widgets and moving the app analytics over to the shared Adobe Omniture SiteCatalyst system. We’re also beginning work on an live audio streaming and on-demand podcast Android and IOS application for the Middle East Broadcast Network’s Radio Sawa that is visually-rich with a touch-centered interaction experience and deep user-generated and social sharing integration.


Project Owner: Doug Zabransky

The Affiliate Digital Services (ADS) team represents a new chapter for USIM and affiliate relationships. Existing and new BBG Affiliates will be offered up to three tiers of digital service. Each tier represents levels of digital-hosted offerings including live streaming, adaptive html 5 digital players, and an internet broadcast station which will allow for content source switching between BBG live and on-demand content, as well as other affiliate content within the ADS community. All tiers include customer service and support.

Essentially, BBG hopes to build a robust network of affiliate partner on-line stations. Growing the BBG affiliate digital audience will grow BBG’s audience as well.


Project Owner: Rebecca Shakespeare

The insights team is focusing on setting up tools that collect and present objective information about digital performance to inform BBG leadership and editorial about what is actually happening with their digital products and content. The team is currently focusing on the rollout of the new web analytics tool which measures digital properties owned and hosted by the BBG. It is also contracting outside validation of the numbers that are collected and reported to ensure accuracy of the information presented. Beginning in February 2014, the team will start to focus on displaying weekly performance analytics from BBG’s range of digital reporting tools, side-by-side in a dashboard, to present a complete picture of digital performance.


Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.30.53 PM

Brian Williamson’s illustrations illuminate the Storytelling Team’s vision


Project Owners: Steve Fuchs, Randy Abramson

The storytelling team is determined to revitalize and update USIM storytelling around the globe. We are brainstorming innovative ways to tell stories that inform, engage and connect with audiences based on their needs and expectations. One of our main goals is to build community engagement with younger audiences by using a toolbox of highly relevant, visual, trans-media storytelling techniques. We plan to not only count standard metrics–such as time spent, return visits, videos watched, social engagement, and so forth–but we also aim to make a real-world impact that affects conversation and behavior. Randy will continue to work on Relay, and the entire team will work on projects like finding innovative ways to cover sports in developing countries, among others.

Other Teams & Projects

In addition to the teams that demo’d last Friday, ODDI also has several other teams that are kicking A and taking names.

The Research & Analysis (R&A) team functions as support for all other teams. R&A was recently pivotal in helping the Storytelling team and the Affiliate Digital Services team determine their next projects. During Sprint Zero, the R&A team dug deep to find data on countries around the world, interviewing internal experts and BBG’s Regional Marketing Officers, diving into BBG research reports and library databases, and translating that data into insights and strategic recommendations. The R&A team includes Son Tran, Ashley Wellman, Yousef Kokcha, Ahran Lee and myself (Erica Malouf).

image RIVR screen

Ongoing Project: Doug Zabransky will continue to lead the IVR project called RIVR. Look for a blog post update to come soon.

ODDI also has various teams working on ebooks, UX testing and more. Follow the action here on the blog, on Twitter (@BBGinnovate) and on our new website portal (

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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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ODDI’s Gone Agile! Thu, 15 Aug 2013 21:55:11 +0000 Son Tran Hey there, my name is Son Tran and I’m the Agile Project Coordinator at ODDI!

Agile? What’s that?

Many people use the word liberally, but what does it really mean to practice agile? Agile doesn’t mean working faster. It doesn’t mean being highly adaptable to the winds of change.

agile definition

And when I hear people say agile doesn’t involve any planning, I’m just like:


Agile project management is a team-based approach where the interactions among team members take precedence over processes and tools. The team commits to creating functional, viable products by completing a defined list of work within a time-boxed iteration known as the sprint.

Sprints can run between two to four weeks. At ODDI, we opted for the two-week sprint. Collaborative work is the core practice. It brings together the decision-making, skill sets and experience of the entire team to achieve a sprint’s goals. The end result does not have to be production-ready. As long as your team commits to taking an iterative approach toward improvement, you’re on the Agile path. This may take two or three more sprints–and that’s just fine.

Take it from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

iterative approach

Moving Toward Agile at ODDI

Four months ago, I joined ODDI as its new Scrum Master. While the position’s title comes from this game:


In reality, I serve as the enthusiastic cheerleader for the Agile process, cheering on my team members’ commitment to achieving the sprint’s goals that’s more akin to this:



When I arrived, an online agile project management tool was already up and running. It even had a few projects with a backlog of user stories.

What’s a user story, you ask? A user story captures, in everyday or business language, the functions a business system must provide and is the basis for requirements-gathering in the Agile process. It embodies the ‘who,’ ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the requirement in simple terms and is primarily written by the Product Owner of the agile project team. In certain workplaces, they even hand write them on note cards.

User stories tend to be written in the following format: “As a user, I want to do [X] so that I can [Y].”  Here’s an example of a user story from ODDI’s Analytics project:

“As a content editor, I want to view analytics by characteristics of content so I can compare performance by topic, byline, or type of static page.”

On my first day, there was an ample supply of user stories in the product backlogs. It was a veritable fifty-two card pick up! I enlisted my services to help two existing teams, both of which had unknown velocities–how much effort a team can handle in a sprint. For one project, the product owner had user stories ready to go into upcoming sprints.

For another, the product owner had to develop the user stories and figure out their priorities Prioritization alone was a daunting task. In fact, prioritizing the user stories was her top priority:



Sizing the Stories

We prioritized the stories, but how do they stack up to one another? Instead of hours, we chose to assign story points using a technique called Planning Poker. You may think it would look bit like this:











Or even this:


But alas, no. Planning poker is a consensus-based activity a scrum team uses to assign estimates of complexity or relative effort to each user story in the project backlog.  For our planning poker, we viewed complexity in relative terms.  It’s not considered proper agile technique but you can consider complexity as a scale of the amount of time it would take a team member to complete a story (a couple of hours, half a day, a few days, a week, more than a week, two weeks).  A better perspective is to consider the resources needed to achieve the story, i.e. would you assign the story to an intern, a jr. programmer, a sr. developer or a sr. architect?

We used story point values based on the exponential Fibonacci sequence.  Using this sequence has origins in the software development world where the estimation of effort has an inherent level of uncertainty due to the many unknowns.  The Fibonacci sequence represents a set of numbers that we can intuitively distinguish by their different magnitudes.

Instead of 21, we used 20.  We chose 20 to represent the maximum amount of effort by a team member to complete a single user story in one sprint.

The structure of the planning poker goes as follows:

  • The Scrum Master presents one User Story at a time to the Team.
  • The Product Owner answers questions the Team may have about a story.  (Usually product owners do not cast cards, but our teams were so small in size that they participated.)
  • Each Team member selects a card representing his/her estimate of the ‘size’ of the story.  When all Team members are ready, all cards are presented at once.
  • If there is consensus, the Scrum Master records the size and the Team moves to the next story.
  • If the estimates differ, the high/low estimators defend their estimates.
  • The Team briefly debates the arguments and a new round of estimation is made.
  • The Team continues this process until consensus is reached. If no consensus is reached, the higher estimate is selected and recorded by the Scrum Master.
  • These steps are repeated until all the User Stories have been estimated.

If you have a large backlog like we did, planning poker can last a couple of hours. Impressively my teams had the perseverance to carry on in the same meeting with the sprint planning.

When you’re starting off in agile, there is no established velocity to estimate how much work your team can complete in a sprint. I had to estimate from my previous experience working with agile teams that a single team member could complete 10-13 story points in a single sprint. Once we determined team availability for the next two weeks, team members volunteered to take on user story assignments.

The planning process involved a lot of team involvement. It’s the agile way, after all, and it captures the trifecta of Daniel Pink’s drivers for motivation: everyone had an opportunity to steer the direction of the project (autonomy), they made a commitment to continuous improvement (mastery), and they gained a sense of how they can contribute to the project’s “big picture” (purpose).

Prioritized, story-pointed and motivated–we were ready to begin our first sprint!


Have you adopted agile project management at your workplace? Did you have similar experiences of going agile from scratch? I’d love to get your feedback!


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VOA Pronunciation Guide, Reimagined for 2013 Sat, 27 Apr 2013 22:58:30 +0000 Steve Fuchs Innovation is not only exploring the future, it is also rethinking the present with new tools.  ODDI’s redesign and retooling of VOA’s Pronunciation Guide (originally developed circa 2000) relaunched in April.  The project team’s code name for the guide, “Juicy App,” refers to the fact that, just like a juicy red apple, the pronunciation guide was ripe and ready for the next step in its digital career.

VOA’s Pronunciation Guide was the first of its kind on the Internet.  The database has nearly 7,000 entries, most of which have an attached audio clip. Along with showing the pronunciation of the word in text format, the audio clip allows you to hear what the name should sound like. VOA Special English broadcaster Jim Tedder says that using the correct pronunciation of a name shows that the speaker cares about his listener.  It also builds credibility, which is very important for a news organization

The primary aim of the redesign is to make the pronunciation guide more friendly and universal by making the design responsive; so that a single design is accessible via phone, tablet, or desktop. A secondary goal is to update the back end of the site: Ajax is now used to streamline code, Twitter Bootstrap now provides a new framework, the site has moved to a cloud based host and Google Analytics code has been added.


Twitter Bootstrap jumpstarts development.

Twitter Bootstrap is an easy way to get a responsive website up, running fast, and saleable to any device. Like other tools, it does end up making many of the sites built with it look similar. But, it is easy to customize with CSS, logos and images to add branding and uniqueness.

Bootstrap is simply an HTML, CSS and JavaScript framework. It uses 140 icons in dark grey and white from Glyphicons, has built-in buttons (with pre-defined colors and sizes) and a vast selection of reusable components, like dropdown menus, pagination, tabbed navbars, progress bars and default thumbnail sizes. The components are easy to implement without thorough knowledge of JavaScript, but you do need to be comfortable with HTML and CSS semantics.

To build the VOA Pronunciation Guide, we started with the Basic Marketing Site template and designed our site with that structure in mind—adding color, logos and functionality where needed. The template is simply HTML with CSS—nothing fancy. We added a custom CSS file on top of Bootstrap’s starter CSS to add our custom styles. Using Bootstrap’s built-in components and JavaScript (including the breadcrumbs, search, modals, tabs, buttons and dropdowns) helped the project move quickly.

pronunce-before-afterBefore (image behind) and After (images in front) re-development.


Migration from local server to the cloud.

The VOA Pronunciation Guide was originally served from a locally managed web server connecting to a locally managed database.  In order to take advantage of flexibility, maintenance, and cost savings, the new application is served utilizing Amazon cloud services.  The files were moved to an Amazon EC2 instance connecting to an Amazon RDS instance for database services.  Amazon Simple Email Services are also used for management and notification purposes.  The application code was completely re-architected and rewritten to migrate from a closed proprietary language to a standard, and more open, LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).  Twitter Bootstrap stepped in again to help with new functionality such as paged data navigation and type-ahead search results.  Audio playback was implemented using the open source jPlayer plugin.  This allows the VOA Pronunciation Guide to play back audio files seamlessly across devices and platforms.


A product of agile development.

The new guide is a product of the ODDI new agile project framework.  These feature a team-based collaborative approach to setting goals, daily scrum meetings and constant collaboration in person or online using new project management tools.


To explore the VOA Pronunciation Guide further, visit


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Questions? Comments? Post in the comments section below or tweet us @BBGinnovate.

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Thank you to April Deibert and Lynne Venart for their contributions to this post.

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

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Prototyping a Global News Dashboad Mon, 28 Jan 2013 18:06:10 +0000 Randy Abramson A News Portal?  Haven’t We Tried This Before?

Back in the ‘90s, Time Warner had tried to put together one of the first general news portals on the World Wide Web.  With some immediate success, the portal leveraged branded content from their incredibly deep stable of media outlets that included Time, Life and Sports Illustrated.  The URL became one of the first true brand names on the Internet: and the effort was so important to Time Warner that they refused to let the individual periodicals have their own web addresses (example:  Instead, management wanted users to go to this new destination for all of their news–but there serious dilemmas at hand.  How would the portal be programmed?  How would revenue be distributed back to the individual brands?   How could the individual brands continue to grow name recognition on the Web if they were under the umbrella?

In the end, only lived from 1994-1999 and is reported to have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million and saw a large share of employee turnover.   You can easily imagine managing editors vying for prime promotional spots on the Web page, trying to eek out millions of dollars from an online news revenue model that hadn’t (and still isn’t, in many ways) materialized.  In the end, just uttering ‘’ could send shivers down the side of any digital editor or business development team and the word ‘portal’ became a term to avoid in your strategy decks.



What’s Changed?  Why Now?

It’s easy to flash back to those memories of when the idea of bringing all content from a news organization under one roof is suggested, but times have definitely changed and there are definitely some clear examples of applications and news organizations that are doing it right.  Let’s take a look at some of the things that have changed since the ‘90s and why creating a prototype for a BBG-wide portal for our content makes sense:


1. Programming is removed from the picture; real time, filters and algorithms reign supreme

In the example, editors would pitch their stories against each other in order to get the main photo spot on the homepage (see below).  When starting to conceptualize how the Global News Dashboard would work, we wanted to empower the user and downplay editorial programming.  First, we wanted the Global News Dashboard (GND) to be real time, meaning that our content would be up-to-date and would serve as a destination that users would hit first in a breaking news situation.  Therefore, our default view showed the most recent information.  Next, we allowed users to get the content that they wanted to see, so we added filters to filter in content by requested region, source and media type.  Users could also filter content on ‘most read’ filters or to see only content that was denoted as an ‘editor’s choice,’ which is selected by our digital producers and writers.


2. Enter Mobile Apps, Flipboard and Google Currents

Sure, it‘s arrogant to create a single URL and promise users that it is the only news source they will ever need.  But we as information consumers have changed our habits.  Web sessions have shortened over time and now that we have moved over to mobile platforms, the intent of our news experiences sway between targeted information searching and casual browsing.  For the latter, we have seen the rise in use of news aggregation apps like Flipboard and Google Currents. Flipboard masterfully collects content from multiple sources and presents it in a smooth, magazine-like experience that is personalized by recommended content from your own social graph.  Google Currents is more like a RSS reader on steroids, letting you pick and choose which sources you want to sift through, but, again, providing a fun, interactive presentation.  They point is that users that are short on time and on the go are engaging with one-stop news aggregation sites.  The Global News Dashboard prototype was built to adapt to mobile layouts in order to give those users a great experience, no matter the device.


3. Imagine the breaking news, multi-language news portal

The Global News Dashboard prototype currently only serves English language content, but imagine the power of being able to read breaking news from around the world in multiple languages, and, more importantly, from unique, local perspectives.  The BBG currently serves up content in more than 40 languages.  The Global News Dashboard could bring local views and social interactions from around the world together, and, with the help of translation services, make all of these voices heard and understandable to all.


The Global News Dashboard is in beta now and we look forward to learning about how it will be used and how it can grow.

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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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Re-Launching VOA Direct and Building Toward a New USIM Affiliate Service Wed, 14 Nov 2012 21:47:28 +0000 Adam Martin With the re-launch of VOA Direct, the BBG has taken another step forward in establishing stronger relationships with its global affiliate partners by developing a flexible, scalable service that can meet the evolving needs of an international audience.

The VOA Direct service is a B2B product that delivers high quality audio and video content to a network of registered affiliate partners around the world for redistribution into local television, radio and digital marketplaces.

The new version of the site takes a simplified approach to this service by providing a streamlined user interface that allows easier browsing and discovery of relevant programming based on an affiliate’s target language market.

The new site also features an improved search engine for finding recent and archive content. This makes it possible for affiliates to select the right story to match with their local programming and provide seamless experiences for local audiences that incorporate VOA programming.

Registered affiliates now have the ability to download audio and video content directly from the site. Previous versions of VOA Direct featured a complicated ordering process that often resulted in long wait periods before affiliates received notification content they had selected was available to download. With the new registration and login process, content is downloadable immediately and detailed records are maintained that show VOA content producers the topic areas and program formats most frequently selected by affiliates in each market.

These new reporting services will allow VOA producers to make even more informed decisions about the types of programming offered in each market and offer a higher quality of service to the affiliates. This will allow for greater audience impact and engagement in the future as VOA continued to grow its presence in local markets around the world.

AM-BEFORE - VOA Direct_HomePage

                            The old VOA Direct – Front Page

The future of VOA Direct however is to evolve to include content from all entities within the BBG. The rich combination of high quality audio and video content from all services will strengthen the mission of the BBG helping to reach new audiences by maintaining a high level of engagement with regional affiliate publishers and local audiences of listeners and viewers.

As VOA Direct moves toward a future that includes all of US International Media, the focus of the service will be to develop beyond a web site to an API-driven service that allows affiliate partners to use content from across the BBG in new ways.

While an API service provides more opportunities for distribution, developing tools that allow affiliates to develop their own networks is key to the future success of the BBG’s mission.

Radio and television will continue to be integral in many markets but additional publishing opportunities through affiliate partner web sites, blogs, social networks, mobile applications and distribution to emerging connected devices will all present opportunities for BBG entities to reach new audiences.

The launch of the new VOA Direct is only the beginning of a strategic emphasis on strengthening relationships and delivering content at the international, regional level. As the new VOA Direct matures and more is learned about our affiliates, we will continue to develop product features to meet the diverse needs of our affiliates and providing high quality, well-crafted news, information and cultural programming from the BBG entity services to their audiences.

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Agile in Action: Middle East Voices Thu, 21 Jun 2012 03:51:26 +0000 April Deibert Agile is a ‘life-cycle management software solution’ that allows tech teams to manage everything from innovation to customer needs.  It allows large—and often international teams—to accelerate product development and communicate with the customer throughout the entire process.  In the case of Middle East Voices, the team wanted a mobile-friendly website in order to keep up with the changing landscape of their audience.  Adam Martin, Manager of Technology Services for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) worked on Middle East Voices’ (MEV) new site and offered some insight into the process.

mobile technology wireframe

An early stage mobile wireframe design.

Perhaps one of the most valuable reasons that the ODDI team chose to work with Agile is because it allowed their customer, Middle East Voices (MEV), to be one of the team members.  By allowing MEV to be involved in the process the whole way through, they were able to immediately ask questions or ask for changes without waiting for particular milestones.  “Management style (is) based on getting working software done a little at a time,” states, “Instead of … waiting till the project ends for software, we (can) manage our requirements and demonstrate each new version to the customer.”

In order to help future organizations achieve these goals, a group of developers (in the 1990′s) came up with a list of methodology principles for “The Agile Manifesto” that are necessary for more streamlined programming, including:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Martin described how essential it was to have such a streamlined process for programming projects, such as for MEV, when it comes to the rapidly changing face of digital journalism.  “They came to the (ODDI) team with a good sense of what they wanted to accomplish,” explains Martin, “They knew that mobile was incredibly important to their audience, so it was important to not just do a mobile optimized desktop version of the site—instead we all decided that we wanted to take a ‘mobile first’ approach.”  After all, making sure that your audience can access your content—regardless of their mobile platform or telecommunications connection—is almost a pre-requisite for engaging and interacting with a growing audience.

“Thanks to Agile, our work wasn’t dictated by the requirements,” adds Martin, “Instead we could work collaboratively with the customer toward the goals of the project.”  Martin also was happy with how receptive MEV was to working collaboratively, on a daily basis.  “(MEV) saw that their involvement had a lot to do with the success of the project; you get better results the more involved that you are,” said Martin.

In fact, one of the most satisfactory outcomes from the process was the incredible time and resource savings.  According to Martin, since ODDI is a small team of specialists, Agile allowed their teams to have the flexibility to get some working prototypes in front of (MEV) so they could evaluate it based upon the audience that they already had. These prototypes included such things as wireframes, to card exercises, to information architecture, to live mock websites.  “We wanted to take advantage of a collaborative effort up front so we could receive constant feedback,” Martin advocates, “where we could build out a section of the website so MEV could see progress and communicate daily about any quick changes.”  With that, they could immediately respond to requests for changes.

mobile page

A mockup of the mobile design after the design team added working code and incorporated feedback from the MEV product team.

From start to finish, Martin said the MEV project took approximately 10 weeks.  The 10 weeks included hardware upgrades, information architecture upgrades, and the design and development work.  This is compared to lasting approximately “twice as long if not for taking the Agile approach with daily stand-ups and weekly demos of our work in progress,” states Marin, utilizing other processes; demonstrating an obvious savings in the form of time and resources as mentioned above.

Martin also offered a few pointers for future developers who would like to use Agile:

  1. Get a lot done early in the process; “do this often and do it over and over again.”
  2. “Get actual working software and working designs in front of the customer early on.”  This will allow them to give you direction and ask for adjustments before they become problematic.
  3. Listen to feedback.

Using agile project development can rapidly speed up processes, open up the lines of communication between the development team and the customer, and can help organizations create beautiful ‘mobile first’ sites that are designed with the audience in mind.

For more information about how other media powerhouses use agile project development, visit “How NPR Benefits from Agile Project Development & You Can Too.”

To visit  the new and improved Middle East Voices website:


(Thank you to Adam Martin 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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