Innovation @ BBG » IVR Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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 (

]]> 1
Mobile Mali Project Update: Moving IVR into the Cloud Tue, 27 Aug 2013 17:40:48 +0000 Doug Zabransky  

About the Project

ODDI’s first Interactive Voice Response (IVR) deployment was in Bamako, Mali (Read More). We used a Microsoft Research product called IVR Junction. IVR Junction runs on a single laptop using Voxeo Software and a gsm modem used to convert to Voice over IP (which means it can run over the Internet).

Looking towards expanding the Mali prototype to other cities led us down the road of a central IVR server to manage all clients. The server would handle the configuration and management of Client IVR systems or branches. A centrally managed server would allow for rapid client deployment and easier management of a global IVR network.

The IVR server hosted within Amazon Cloud will manage client IVR Voice Forum configurations allowing BBG language services to self-service several Voice Forum options and record or upload custom, in-language voice prompts. Our longer term vision is to evolve client systems into bullet proof “Bricks” in the cloud, able to withstand electrical surges, outages and intermittent network connectivity issues. Clients will be able to seamlessly hibernate into offline mode for days. Once internet connectivity resumes automated server syncs will occur.

Target release Beta – October 7th
Theme Mobile / UGC / Engagment / Accessibility
Product Owner Doug Zabransky
Designer Ahran Lee
Developers Liwen Liu
QA Yousof Kokcha


User Perspective User Story Description
As ODDI Director… I want to deploy a scalable, affordable, and reliable multi-market IVR network on offer to BBG entities and language services
As Language Service Editor… I want to self-manage my own IVR system Voice Forums, messages and prompts
As Language Service Chief… I want to track analytics for my regions IVR deployments and individual Branches
As a Caller… I want to be able to make a local call and listen to the news or leave a message to the station over my cell phone without a data plan
As a Systems Administrator.. I want to more easily manage, implement and connect a network of clients

The current scope of this project is committed to meet the following goals:

    • Ship three next generation IVR clients to locations TBD (Mali Replacement Client?)
    • Client configurations and Voice Forums will be self-service and managed through a user friendly, simple browser interface on an Amazon server
    • Four Voice Forum Templates will be available within this release (Simple Listen and Leave a Message Voice, Voting, Polls, and Caller / Listener Bulletin Boards)
    • Clients will automatically sync Voice Forum updates or additions, voice prompts and news recordings with server and drop box .
    • Clients will continue to function in off-line mode, but will syncing IVR tracking and messages whenever reconnected to the internet.

The server will contain four primary modules: Analytics, Moderation, Configuration and Health

The Analytics module will provide detailed reporting on not only on the number of callers but caller event tracking to track the precise behavior of individual callers and groups of callers.  The Moderation module will allow language services to listen to caller messages and syndicate messages or a playlist of messages to either a community bulletin board available within an existing IVR Voice Forum listening option or to an online digital outlet like SoundCloud.  The Configuration module will allow digital journalists or language services to select and self-service in-language voice forums. Client Health is geared for system’s administrators to proactively manage and troubleshoot client alerts.

Technical Specifications

LAMP: open source software ‘stack’ built on Linux, Apache, MySQL and Python + PHP
Voxeo Prophecy:  software that runs the IVR voice forum menu options
GSM Gateway: device that uses local SIM cards and converts mobile communications to VoIP
VoIP:  delivery of voice communications over an IP network or Internet

Site Design Principles

  • Dashboard / Flat / Simple Configuration / Windows 8 Touch

Voice Forum Selection Wire frame Draft

]]> 0
IVR Admin Hack Day Mon, 01 Jul 2013 21:32:34 +0000 Doug Zabransky IVR Admin Hack Day

Traditionally, Hack Days or Hackathons are reserved for software developers.  However, the term works quite well for any group gathering with a focused mission over a concentrated, uninterrupted period of time.

Group:  Product Owner (Doug Zabransky), 3 Sys Admins (Al Neustadter, Jason McClure and Herb Parker) and Developer (Liwen Liu)
Mission:  Test, Demonstrate and Document new IVR Client Installations Seeking Competency and Speed
Time Period: One workday
Lunch Provided: 1 Large Veggie Pizza, Coke and Sprite
Client Software: Web App Framework, IIS, Voxeo Prophecy IVR, IVR Junction Sample Voice Forum
Client Hardware:  Asus X202E 11.6 inch Ultrabooks, Windows 8 Touch Screen

Project Background
Our office’s first IVR deployment was in Bamako, Mali.  We used a Microsoft Research product call IVR Junction.  IVR Junction runs on a single laptop using Voxeo Software and a gsm modem used to convert to Voice over IP (Read More).

Looking towards expanding the Mali prototype to other cities led us down the road of a central IVR server to manage all clients.  The server would handle the configuration and management  of  Client IVR systems or branches.  A centrally managed server would allow for rapid client deployment and easier management for a global IVR network.


Our day did not get fully started until 10:30.  However, laptops were ready to go and everyone appeared to have had enough coffee.   As the Hack Day coordinator and IVR product owner I kicked us off with a more complete list of goals I hoped to accomplish.

  1. Demonstrated client installation competency and speed
  2. Slim down original IVR code base by losing vestigial modules and local client database
  3. No Client side Visual Studio compilation necessary or Visual Studio Pro installation
  4. Custom Windows 8 touch startup screen locked with IVR client and server components and documentation
  5. Multi-modem test with multiple SIP ports using newly acquired at&t SIM cards
  6. USB imaging for new installations and recovery
  7. First revision of an official Client Installation guide

How did we do?
Of these 7 tasks we scored a 4 with two tasks getting a ½ point each.

Overall, the day was a success based on what went right but equally based on what went wrong.  While we did demonstrate client installations and gained competency in the procedure the speed part of it was not obtainable so goal 1 was given a half-point.

Goals 2 and 3 were completed by the developer even before starting the day so two points came free.  Sending this list early to all participants before the Hack Day paid benefits.  Our installations proved these goals to be true so full points were given.

Goals 4 and 5 we ran out of time.  Goal 6 was successfully demonstrated by Acronis expert Al Neustadter and Goal 7 was completed by Herb Parker but only given a half-point since we will need to expand the installation guide to include the modem installation which we just did not have time to do.

Biggest Observations and Blockers

It turns out that our administrators had very little experience working through Windows 8 Touch.  Navigating to familiar administrative menus was tough.  Technically, they encountered a myriad of layered IIS security issues from virtual directories to simple directory write permissions.  Software installations and out-of-the-box updates were chewed up quite a bit of Hack Day time.  This was a painful reminder of the installation challenges associated with Microsoft which led to a fruitful discussion about porting the code over to a linux client.

With that said there is acknowledgement of administrator or user error along with new software growing pains.  That is really what our Hack Day was about – Learning what we didn’t know and growing from the experience.  Special thanks to everyone that participated.


]]> 0
Getting News To and From Some of the Most Difficult Places on Earth Mon, 18 Mar 2013 19:28:18 +0000 April Deibert With the ongoing situation in Mali, it has become increasingly important that VOA work with ODDI to strategize an alternative means of getting news to and from this technologically-challenged region.  Currently, ODDI’s Doug Zabransky is leading the team in the development and experimental testing of what they call the Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response (IVR) forum.  This technology uses IVR Junction by Microsoft Research to drastically simplify how locals can consume news and report events.


Zabransky Discusses Mali1 Mobile IVR Prototype [1min 17sec]

[Mobile video credit: Rob Bole]


What Started It All: Mali1 Micro-Blog

The precursor to Mali1 Mobile IVR was the Mali1 micro-blog site created by VOA Africa and the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) to quickly respond to getting news into Mali as Islamists began to overrun the northern provinces of the country.  This site, leveraging Tumblr and SoundCloud, was meant to be light and easy to read on all devices, to load quickly, to provide a way to submit news via email, and to include relevant news and music in the local language provided by the VOA.  The Mali1 site has begun to build an audience of both individuals in Mali, as well as a world-wide diaspora community.  Voice of America saw the value in this tool, but wanted to provide a higher level of services directly to the population in Northern Mali.

Several potential problems still stood in the way of providing the service.  The lack of consistent electricity in the North to power to recharge phones is an issue, as well as the lack of data and wi-fi, let alone affordable Internet services in order to access even the lightest of websites was another core problem.  VOA Africa, working closely with the technical ODDI team began to explore alternative options for content delivery with a focus on mobile voice for news.

Late last year, we posted an article about mobile voice for news on the Innovation Series blog from Ben Colmery, Deputy Director of Knight International Journalism Fellowships. The article, “How to harness the power of mobile voice for news,” explored mobile citizen journalism.  Rob Bole, ODDI Director of Innovation, wrote a brief intro to Colmery’s piece about how he recently “spent some time with a group of exemplary journalists and technology experts discussing the use of voice technology in the aid of reporting the news.”  Specifically, Bole was referencing the use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology and the direction his team was about to take.


Where We Are Today: Mali1 Mobile IVR

In close collaboration, the VOA Africa and ODDI team began work on Mali1 Mobile IVR using IVR Junction by Microsoft Research.

For those who may not be familiar with IVR capabilities, you most likely encounter it on an almost daily basis.  When you call your bank, credit card company or cable company you are usually greeted with a “Press 1 for…, Press 2 for…”  That is interactive voice response and is a technology that allows computer systems to identify or interact with the tone of a human voice or the tone of pressing numbers on your keypad.

IVR Junction by Microsoft Research is an open source project that is recognizes the need for a voice service that can network multiple phone numbers from multiple locations into one back-end system and then use simple existing tools, such as YouTube to manage the comments that are left by audience members.  In that regard it is ideal for an organization like VOA Africa who might need to deploy and manage multiple IVR systems when commercial services are not readily available or are too expensive to operate through a reseller.  According to the IVR Junction product page, interactive voice forums using IVR technology “enable callers to leave messages that can be heard over the Internet and over the phone.”

[Graphic depicting how the technology works, credit: Microsoft Research]

This is particularly useful because the technology can be configured to enable mobile users to leave voicemails and retrieve messages (similar to another promising open source project, the Interactive Voice Forum for citizen journalists known as CGNet Swara).  IVR technology can also be used to send email and text messages by speaking into the mobile devices and can allow consumers to ‘opt in’ to mobile campaigns with a voice call.  Microsoft Research notes that IVR forums are already being used for “citizen news journalism, agricultural discussion, community dialogue, user-generated maps, access to health information, outreach to sex workers, group messaging, feedback on school meals, support for community radio stations, and a viral entertainment platform.”

In fact, activist groups are a growing consumer of such technology as well.  The Sunlight Foundation is currently using IVR technology (powered by Twilio, a cloud communications API) to provide a means for users “to navigate a menu tree to search a member of Congress by postal code” to listen to lawmakers recite “their biography, their top campaign donors, recent votes and allows a caller to be transferred directly to the Representative’s office.” This particular service is available in both English and Spanish.

Facebook is also aware of the value of IVR technology.  According to, “Callme, an application offered in partnership with Global Telelinks and based on IVR Technologies’ Talking SIP platform, allows Facebook users to make free voice calls with other members of the social network without revealing their phone number.”  This technology works for mobile Facebook users—even for Facebook ‘Zero’ users (provided that they log in).  (I just did a pretty in-depth write up on Facebook ‘Zero’.)

I could go on and on… the possibilities for IVR are seemingly endless.


Field Testing

So, since late last year, the ODDI team, lead by Doug Zabransky, Manager of Technology Services, have been working on tailoring the Mali1 Mobile IVR for field testing.  “The key ingredients in mind for serving digital and mobile content to Mali are lightweight and low cost solutions,” notes Zabransky, “The Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response system meets these criteria.”


To better understand exactly how the product is used, Zabransky explained the step-by-step details to me…

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Staff:

  • The listening junction consists of a pre-configured PC-based laptop with a GSM Standard SIM (the number that users will call) to be inserted into the modem.  (The junction must be able to access a wi-fi network.)
  • Staff must plug the network cable from the LAN port of modem into the LAN port on computer, then power up the modem and laptop.
  • Finally, staff must check that the Internet connection is working, then must call the SIM’s phone number to check that the IVR is working for users.

And that’s it.  The setup instructions are simple enough for practically anyone.

[Mali1 Mobile IVR prototype setup for staff; photo credit: Rob Bole]

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Users:

  • Listener calls Bamako cell phone number (Orange telecom, local in-country rates apply)
  • Menu options are press 1 to ‘Listen to the Latest News’ or 2 to ‘Leave a Message’
  • Option 1 will play the latest 3 minute news package
  • Option 2 will allow listener to leave a message or to self-report the news
  • Messages are digitized and sent to YouTube automatically for language service moderation.

“The ability for someone to make an inexpensive, local call is key,” Zabransky continues, “Technically, in order to achieve this we have adopted open source software from MicroSoft called IVR Junction.”

“If this solution proves successful, then future expansion into other target regions will be considered with central infrastructure management in mind, customized and enhanced menu options would need to be developed,” further explains Zabransky, “and user-generated content integrations into our own content management systems” would be discussed—including “piggy-backing SMS services using the same local SIM cards.”

And, it should be mentioned that there are mobile visual IVR solutions available as well.  These solutions are generally meant for users with smart phone access, but if that is a possibility in particular regions, then users are privy to another level of potential news service.


VOA IVR Systems and Audience Growth

According to Steven Ferri, Mobile & Digital Media Manager for VOA Africa, IVR initiatives within VOA “are a recent addition to our media distribution strategy”. He adds that, “at present, our audience between 30K to 40K unique calls per day” and that “call length averages approximately 10:00 per call.”

When asked why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa, Ferri replied:  “There are three reasons why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa. The first is audience acquisition and escalation. IVR, like SMS is an entry-level content channel. It provides anyone with a phone, which in Africa is highly likely to a mobile phone, the ability to listen to a VOA audiocast. IVR positions users to move up to more sophisticated VOA products as their device and income dictates. The second is cost. IVR services are calibrated to meet the cost expectations that are within the user’s economic means. The third is affinity. IVR, as an audio-centric medium, meets the historic media consumption habits of a large portion of our potential audience.”

In addition to the Mali1 Mobile IVR used by VOA Africa, there are other IVR channels that are currently in use in Afghanistan.


Future of IVR

Zabransky says, “if the pilot goes well we would consider expansion into other regions (unknown exactly where at this point).”

“VOA believes there is a large, untapped market for our IVR products in Africa,” Ferri explains, “We envision growing IVR in those target regions where it is economically and technically possible. We want to grow IVR in parallel and integrated with our traditional radio and TV media as well as our digital platforms.”

- – - – -

What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.

- – - – -

Thank you to Doug Zabransky, Rob Bole, Adam Gartner and Steven Ferri 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.)

]]> 0