Innovation @ BBG » Relay Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Relay Gets Two Major Functionality Upgrades, More Features On the Way Mon, 24 Feb 2014 16:09:48 +0000 Randy Abramson Relay, the mobile-first, breaking news platform that was released by the Office of Digital and Design Innovation in December, 2013, has been upgraded with two major features:

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

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


Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

What’s Next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Rating Our First Relay Event Tue, 24 Dec 2013 21:07:09 +0000 Randy Abramson Relay is a real-time, live-blogging platform that allows journalists to easily report breaking news and developing stories from their mobile devices (note: it was formerly called Beacon). Relay is still in beta, but its user-friendly interface and sleek design has already caught the eye of HuffPoPBS MediaShift, MediaBistro and Poynter. Here we’ll take a look at our first pilot event, conducted with the Voice of America Urdu team, and grade the results.

In late September, 2013, we outlined the guiding principles behind the development of Relay. After three months of design and development time, we were excited to take Relay out for a test run! Our supremely talented VOA Urdu digital team (Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and several Indian states) stepped forward for the first pilot project to cover the death of Nelson Mandela from inside Pakistan.

Relay Mourning Mandela pilot

This photo of Pakistanis mourning for Nelson Mandela was used in our first Relay pilot with the VOA Urdu team. The card that is being viewed is highlighted in white on the bottom timeline, and the icons on each card signify the type of media–photo, video, quote, producer note, poll, Twitter highlights, and so forth.

Publishing Workflow: B+

We successfully published video, text and photo reports, as well as LiveStream video reports and Google Hangouts–all from mobile devices. In this regard, the publishing workflow functioned as planned and was successful in allowing our journalists inside of Pakistan to ‘shoot, send and go.’ They could create their content quickly on mobile devices, email it to the Relay platform and continue with their reporting.

As smooth as the publishing workflow went, we did hit a couple of snags:

  • Title character limit was too low: 100 characters for English titles suffices most of the time, but Urdu titles tend to be longer. We’ll have to adjust the character limit for future Relay pilots.
  • Photo size limit was too small: We had a 2 MB photo limit size for incoming images. One photo that hit the system was larger, so we’ll need to increase this limit as well.

One of the most interesting learning experiences of the pilot came through the Google Hangout that we had with the Urdu team in Pakistan. The Hangout began as a video Hangout, but despite our reporters being hardwired to the Internet via ethernet, bandwidth fluctuated. We were very happy to see that the Hangout technology did not allow the presentation to stall — instead, the Hangout simply downgraded the experience to audio only. It was clear from this example that there were benefits to relying on best-in-class 3rd party broadcast tools like Hangouts when working with varying connection quality.

Customer Facing Front End and Responsiveness: B+

The user was able to swipe between cards on mobile devices and click through timeline items as planned. However, we did run into a couple of presentation bugs:

  • Video loses image: We noticed that if a user plays a video and did not click pause before moving to another card, the video did not display an image when they user came back to the original card. This is a high priority fix for the next release.
  • We found another bug where text runs over the timeline interface, but only on desktop display.
  • Interface adapted correctly on Apple and Android mobile devices, although Window phones were seeing the tablet layout.

Language: B+

  • Urdu language was presented as planned, although a couple of cards reverted to left to right alignment. This is a ‘must fix’ for our next Urdu pilot
  • One card needed to be edited due to character count limits. We spent a bit of time trying to grab all the right to left aligned copy from GMail.


Another photo of Pakistanis mourning for Nelson Mandela from the Relay pilot with the VOA Urdu team (photo from Reuters).

User Engagement: B+

Having users alerted about updates to the stories that they care about was a key function that we wanted to be part of Relay from the start. For this first release, we programmed in the ability for users to subscribe to updates via Email alerts. The functionality worked flawlessly in our Urdu pilot, but we would like to build in the ability to subscribe for updates through SMS alerts. Be on the lookout for that functionality soon! Also, we incorporated Disqus comments into Relay so that users can leave feedback about individual pieces of content.

Timeliness: A+

All in all, we were able to publish an entire Relay presentation including a live audio interview using the Google Hangout platform with and an in-studio video stand-up in under an hour. We couldn’t have been happier with the way the Urdu team demonstrated the amount of content that could be produced in real time while using tools they already had in their back pockets.

We shot a quick stand-up with Imran Siddiqui in the VOA studio and emailed it to the Relay platform for publishing, all within a couple of minutes

Next Steps

We are looking forward to working with VOA Music on broadcasting their Roots and Branches program using LiveStream and adding extra behind-the-scenes footage on the Relay Platform. We also have a 3 week test with our VOA Spanish group in mid-January. Equally as exciting is a request from the Davanac Journalism Lab in Belgium to use the Relay platform in an upcoming Master Class in February. We’re hoping to learn from these upcoming pilots and iterate on the platform to make it even better for future internal and external users of Relay.

Want more info about Relay? Contact Randy Abramson, Director of Audio/Video products at BBG.

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

The Inspiration Behind Relay

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

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

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

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

Washington post site

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

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

The Four Pillars of Relay

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

1. Mobile First Design and User Flow

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

Beacon timeline navigation

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

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

2. Speed Over Polish/Input Agnostic

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


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

3. Connect Users To the Story Through Alerts

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

4. Engagement

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

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

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

Next Steps

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

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

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