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April 16 2012


7 Ways to Be the Programmer No One Hates

After reading Sandra Ordonez's MediaShift post "7 Ways to Get Programmers to Stop Hating You," my first thought was: Wow, good advice. My second thought was: How can we programmers get people to stop hating us? After 13+ years of working as a technologist -- from a junior developer to the manager of a couple tech departments -- I've seen first-hand that "tech hating," to use Sandra's phrase, is sometimes justified. Put simply: Sometimes techs deserve to be hated.

And so, I offer this list to you, fellow techies, in the name of Office Peace. Let's show the world that the stereotype of the rude, uncommunicative programmer is as outdated as the 15" CRT monitor issued to me at my first job. Let's earn some love. (Note: Please don't think that I'm holding myself up as a perfect example here -- these aren't things that I do every day, although I try, but they are good reminders for all of us.)

1. Add a new language to your resume: Human

Chances are your resume has a list of programming languages you know. As important as they are to your job, the language you use when you communicate with your co-workers is every bit as important. Being able to discuss the ins and outs of tail call optimization or the pros and cons of statically typed languages with regard to metaprogramming might make you a great programmer, but if you're not able to communicate meaningfully and respectfully with non-technical people, you won't be a great co-worker. And you'll be doing yourself a disservice; how are you going to get recognized for the great work you do if you're not able to explain that work to anyone who's not a programmer? And how are you going to change anything about the place where you work if you're not able to turn a complaint into a constructive suggestion? The answer is: You aren't. So do yourself a favor and start boning up on your human-to-human interface communications.

2. Remember your operating context

Make it your business to learn more than just the technical specifications for your projects. The more you can get a sense of the big picture, the more you can understand the context within which you are expected to make your brilliant technical decisions -- and the more likely it will be that those decisions are the right ones for this unique situation. When you're able to keep the big picture in mind, you become more than just an implementer -- you become a problem-solver.

3. Think like a client

No, I don't mean change your deadlines for no reason, call yourself at 5:00 on a Friday for technical support, or forget your password to the CMS. What I do mean is to try to put yourself in your clients' (or co-workers') shoes. Maybe they don't know the right terminology for everything, but they still need help; maybe they're under time and budget constraints that you don't know about (and that affect their decision-making); maybe they have a million things going on right now and the code you're writing is just one of them. In short, try to remember that you may not know every variable, and that you're not the only one with a difficult job.

4. The power of positive thinking, or at least speaking

Here's a ripped-from-the-headlines-of-my-job (well, my old job) scenario: Say your company's client has already signed a contract with the vendor of a terrible CMS before your project starts. You can say "that was a stupid choice" and await further instructions. Or, you can say "OK, they've made a choice that we wouldn't have advised them to make; now here's how we can work within that constraint to build them a great site." Saying "no, we can't do that" is easy. Saying "yes, we have constraints, and here's what we can do" is harder -- and about a million times more useful.

5. Would you like a side of Value with that?

Let's face it: Most clients (and non-technical managers) don't care how elegant your code is as long as that code works. And while truly great programmers are a rare breed, there are plenty of "good enough" programmers who can get the job done -- maybe not as well as you can, but good enough that your client can't tell the difference. So how can you set yourself apart? Ask questions. Specifically, ask the right questions to help you figure out (and build) what your client/boss/teammates really want, as opposed to simply what they are asking for. You probably know about tools, solutions and approaches from your past work that a client (or a co-worker) has never even heard of -- here's your chance to fully leverage your technical knowledge and skills to help them meet their goals in ways they didn't know was possible. Delivering what someone really wants is a great way to add value and differentiate yourself in a marketplace where any college kid can bang out a Drupal site and call it "programming."

6. Get Involved

Raise issues and ask questions at the beginning of a project, not when it's too late. If technical staff aren't typically included early on in the project process at your company, start making the case for why they should be, because it will save time, money and frustration later on. The more you can involve yourself during the early stages of a project, the more you're setting yourself (and your co-workers) up to succeed by identifying pitfalls before you're staring up from the bottom of one. But pointing out danger is only half the battle; use the time at the onset of a project to make suggestions, add value (see above), and demonstrate your worth to your employer. Making that killer feature work right is part of your job; suggesting a way to make it better/cheaper/faster/reusable/etc. is what will make them love you.

Mind The Gap

7. Mind The Gap

Technical people and non-technical people often suffer from a "failure to communicate" due to the ineffable nature of many tech words and terms. When a non-technical person asks you a tech-related questions, simply coming back at him or her with a string of tech-speak doesn't actually make you look smart -- it makes you look like someone with no communication skills. It pigeonholes you. It reinforces the stereotype of the unhelpful technical person who can communicate well with computers but not with humans. It makes you look less useful, and less useful employees aren't the ones who get the best assignments -- they're the ones who get cut when times get tough. Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Explaining something in a non-technical way doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means proving that you're smart enough to do your programming job in reverse: Take a set of technical concepts or instructions and turn them into ideas a non-technical human can understand. Brilliant!

Conclusion: Try A Little Tenderness

This list is a good start, but in the end if you still have the attitude that all non-technical staff are idiots, you're never going to justify their love (and you're going to hurt your career prospects in the process). You didn't learn everything you know the first time you heard it, so be forgiving when your non-technical co-workers sometimes ask you the same question over and over again. It's OK to tell them where to find the answer that you already sent them, but if that doesn't work, look again: Maybe you're not explaining the issue well enough so that it sticks. Practice transparency. Provide detail. Put a friendly face on the big, scary technical stuff. Remember that you are an ambassador for techs everywhere. So give us all a good name -- and earn that love.

What do you think? If you're a techie, what do you do in your job to try to keep the haters at bay? Is this list useful? If you're non-technical, what would you add to this list? What you are you doing to help inter-office relations? Tell us in the comments.

"Mind the gap" photo by Flickr user asparagus_hunter and used with Creative Commons license.

Jordan Hirsch has spent the last 13+ years as a lovable technologist with a focus on content management. Currently, Jordan helps non-profits accomplish great things on the Internet as part of the team at Beaconfire Consulting. He's also a musician and improviser, and blogs about music and technology at Wired For Music. You can follow him on Twitter at @tfish77, where you can read his thoughts about living in Brooklyn with his pregnant wife and not-pregnant dog.

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December 20 2011


FrontlineSMS Shows News Foo Why Mobile Innovation Matters

With new smartphone apps making headlines daily, it's too easy to overlook the innovative potential of more basic technology like SMS on low-end phones. At FrontlineSMS, we're leaders in helping organizations around the world realize that potential, and we build tools to help turn SMS into an effective and ubiquitous channel for communication and data collection. One of the most exciting contexts for our work is among community journalists who are using SMS to create participatory news environments and deepen the reach of their work.


We had the chance to provide our perspective on mobile innovation in journalism at News Foo, a recent "unconference" sponsored by O'Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation, a major supporter of our work. There, we talked with journalists, innovators and technologists from news outlets around the world, and shared our unique expertise on the transformative potential of basic mobile technology.

It was easy to find common insights and share ideas with even the most high-tech innovators at News Foo this year. Our tools may be different, but we are all working to create new modes of reporting, informing, and engagement between journalists and their audiences. It was proof that innovation is universal, and that the work of Radio Nam Llowe might be able to teach The New York Times or National Public Radio a few things about effective audience engagement.

Creating a vibrant and participatory media environment is a nut we're all trying to crack, using the appropriate technology for our communities. Smartphone apps are great for people who own them, but for the vast majority of the world, mobile technology is still defined by cheap, voice-and-text-only devices.

the power of sms

Many people were interested to hear our ideas about the power of text messaging, both in formal sessions and serendipitous conversations. We talked with the founders of SeeClickFix and EveryBlock about how their approaches to citizen-driven, hyperlocal information-sharing could work in an all-SMS interface.

We brainstormed with investigative reporters, data journalists, and machine-learning experts on collecting, sharing and marshaling the massive datasets new technology is generating -- in last-mile communities, collating and storing SMS interactions has the potential to be a valuable source of accountability data, at a fraction of the cost of a full-scale program evaluation.

We shared our experiences and lessons learned bringing meaningful interaction to community radio via text, with NPR and local radio innovators thinking about the same issues a bit further up the technology ladder.

Basic text-only phones might not be capable of the same technical functions of the iPhone or Android devices, but with a tool like FrontlineSMS, we can deliver the value of the best apps to even the simplest devices.

We're incredibly grateful to John Bracken, Sara Winge, Richard Gingras, and Jennifer 8. Lee for inviting us to Phoenix to be a part of the group you assembled, and we're eager to continue the conversations we started there.

P.S. One of the best parts of News Foo was getting to see some awesome new technology our fellow campers have been building. NPR's Infinite Player is a smart, adaptive player of new and archived NPR footage. Audiofiles is a curated hub of the best audio stories from around the web. Fellow Knight News Challenge winner The Tiziano Project's 360˚ Kurdistan is a beautiful, community-driven look at a community too easily associated with war and poverty.

November 16 2011


In Journalism Class, Think Visceral


"Beyond J-School 2011" is sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which offers an intensive, cutting edge, three semester Master of Arts in Journalism; a unique one semester Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism; and the CUNY J-Camp series of Continuing Professional Development workshops focused on emerging trends and skill sets in the industry.

This week on MediaShift, we're exploring the moving target that is teaching journalism. Stay tuned as we offer tips, tools and insights on educating tomorrow's journalists.

Every semester I conduct a small experiment with the undergrads in my Journalism in the 21st Century course. On the day devoted to discussing media consumption, they walk into class and I ask for their cell phones. They blink, then laugh, then gape as I collect their phones and pile them in a corner behind me.


They're not allowed to use cell phones during class, so it really shouldn't matter where the handsets are for the next hour and 15 minutes. Yet I can tell with every furtive corner-ward glance (to say nothing of the twitching if one of the phones beeps or buzzes), that students are in serious tech-withdrawal.

The best part is, they can tell too.

Yes, they also study Pew Research Center data chronicling Americans' news habits, and they log their own habits for self-study and comparison. They even read about some of the neuroscience behind the brain's dependence on info gadgets. But my hope is that the in-class experiment is visceral enough to help cement the lesson.

As a college educator in the 21st century, I am always trying to think visceral. We know that students increasingly crave stimulation, surprise and interactivity, but we deliberately push against the current. We think students benefit by being forced to focus on something -- anything -- that isn't byte-sized. We think we are lowering our academic standards if we cater to ever-shrinking attention spans.

In many ways, we are right.

But we're also kidding ourselves if we don't acknowledge the changing needs and habits of our target audience. They might engage enough to pass the class, but I worry about what stays with them once the semester is over. It's worth trying to attach a memorable image or immersive experience to the lessons I would have taught anyway -- just in case.

Here are some things worth trying:

Tune in

Picture 41.png

Thinking visceral usually involves teaching visual. There was a time when this meant composing a PowerPoint presentation. It's graphic. It's colorful. Sometimes it's even animated, if you can figure out how to swoop text around. But today's students are so inured to stimulants that it is simply their version of a chalkboard: two-dimensional, text-heavy and often boring.

You can try spicing up your PowerPoint presentations, or you can try a different visual route altogether.

I have journalism students read scholarly work by sociologist Manual Castells about the shifting powers of communication in what he calls the "Network Society." We then talk in class about the vertical structure of top-down, Industrial Age mass media and the horizontal structure of today's all-access, Information Age media. I could (and I have) used PowerPoint to highlight Castells' main themes. But I have better success illustrating them through a series of short scenes from journalism-related shows and films, culled from YouTube and DVDs.


We start with Charles Foster Kane in his newsroom in "Citizen Kane," then move onto Bob Woodward chasing down a lead in "All the President's Men" (the scene I show is described here), then news staffers gathering for a grim announcement in the last season of HBO's "The Wire." If there's time, I squeeze in a short clip from the 2009 film "State of Play." After each one, I ask students: Is this depicting a vertical communication system, a horizontal system, or some convergence of the two? Who holds the power in this system? What is their pursuit?

Such scenes help crystallize the power shift I am trying to track, and become quick reference points as students process the idea that they have unprecedented power and responsibility in the Network Society.

I try a similar approach when we get to the resurgence of partisan journalism. Students often say they don't understand how the opinionated bluster of a Bill O'Reilly or a Keith Olbermann can draw large audiences. This time, I go for the visceral first by having them watch some video clips for homework. I choose a "straight" news interview with a direct participant in the story, a commentary on the issue by a conservative media figure, and another one by a liberal counterpart. The more bluster the better.

The next day in class, I have students quickly say what they remember from the clips. Almost always, the memories are of the commentators' name-calling or insults. (When I did this once with the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, only one student recalled the dry but informative CNN interview with the center's own imam, but only to point out anchor Soledad O'Brien's "rude" interruptions.)

In this way, students live the lesson before they study it. When they then read research on higher retention of opinionated versus straight news, they can't question why people gravitate toward an O'Reilly type, because they've done it themselves.

Get out

Teaching visual doesn't just mean bringing multimedia into the classroom. We have the opportunity to bring students into the subject matter because we are studying a living, breathing profession. I can almost hear the jokes about life support or breathing tubes, and I understand. Yes, newspapers are contracting and in some cities shuttering, but the number and variety of media companies have only grown in the digital age. Students have more to study than ever before. Plus, we have two advantages when trying to arrange such field trips: Journalists usually are happy to evangelize to future generations, and they happen to already believe in the concept of transparency.

And in any case, it doesn't have to be limited to media businesses. My students tour The New York Times every semester, but they also see the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. They see grad students, high-tech equipment, and professors whose work they have read for class. It's just the right blend of the familiar and the aspirational.

Own it

If part of your plan is to teach students that they have unprecedented power in today's media world, then let them feel the weight of that power.

Many journalism graduate schools are doing a great job of incorporating business education and entrepreneurship into their programs. Why not give undergrads an early taste? Have students formulate business plans for their own media companies, then pitch their ideas as if their classmates are investors. With the Knight News Challenge and other start-up funding out there, you never know what kind of initiative this will spark in students.

For more advanced students, why not have them cultivate a real product? Using a San Francisco State University course as a model, I have students create a WordPress blog on a topic of their choosing, then spend the semester posting text, photos, audio, video, mapping and other digital content to their site. They must market their blogs through social media, and track their success through web analytics. They are free to continue or disable the blogs after the semester is over, but at least they have a practice run at managing their own journalistic content.

Again, these ideas are meant to supplement, not replace, the lesson plans of any journalism or media course. I don't want my students to simply pass my class. I want them to think differently about the way they produce and consume media in their own lives. If that means pushing more visceral experiments and experiences into the class calendar, it's worth it.

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master's degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.


"Beyond J-School 2011" is sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which offers an intensive, cutting edge, three semester Master of Arts in Journalism; a unique one semester Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism; and the CUNY J-Camp series of Continuing Professional Development workshops focused on emerging trends and skill sets in the industry.

Get the weekly Journalism Education Roundup email from MediaShift

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June 27 2011


Silicon Sisters Builds Videogames for Women by Women

The stereotypical videogame player is a young male under age 18, but study after study has shown that the majority of the game-playing population does not fall into that demographic. Only 18 percent of gamers are under age 18, and women over 18 represent a significantly greater proportion of this population (37 percent) than do boys age 17 or younger (13 percent).

With the explosive growth in social gaming, particularly on Facebook, more games are being targeted at women. Games like Farmville and Pet Society, while not explicitly aimed at women, have been embraced by an older, female gaming population.

But what about girls? Videogames are increasingly considered an important tool for learning. And even though plenty of women do play videogames, there is still a sense -- particularly among girls -- that games are a "boy thing."

Building Games for Women, Girls


That girl-gamer audience is the focus of the Vancouver, B.C.-based gaming studio Silicon Sisters. The first female-owned and run videogame studio in Canada, Silicon Sisters is committed to building games for women and girls by women and girls.

Founded by former Radical Entertainment executive producer Kristen Forbes and former Deep Fried Entertainment COO Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, the studio released its very first game, School 26, to critical acclaim back in April. (We featured the game in an April round-up of the best new educational apps of the month.) The studio plans to release its next School 26 game -- Summer of Secrets -- next month.

The School 26 games are geared toward tweens and teens, and the storyline is built around the very complicated social hierarchy of high school. You play the game as a young girl who's a newcomer to a school. She comes from a nomadic family, which has made it difficult for her to maintain long-term friendships. As she enrolls in this, her 26th school, she strikes a bargain with her parents: If she can make friends, they'll stay put.

So the player of School 26 must help the character do just that: build friendships and navigate the sticky, awkward and sometimes awful moral dilemmas of school. These range from power struggles to peer pressure, romance, betrayal, alienation, acceptance -- all real and relevant situations that girls face every day.

The player must select appropriate emotional responses to certain scenarios and answer quizzes that provide insights into players' personalities. The emphasis here is on empathy and networking.

All talk, no action

That's a very different set of goals and behaviors than what most videogames encourage. There isn't swordplay here. No princesses to rescue. No alien invaders to vanquish. There isn't “action.” There's “talk.” The rewards aren't cash or weaponry. The skills honed in School 26 aren't the ability to time your jumps or dodge bullets or land killing blows. Of course, there are plenty of casual games aimed at tweens that aren't action-oriented, and there are lots aimed at girls. But unlike many games that target this girl market, there is no emphasis on shopping, fashion or beauty in School 26.

The Silicon Sisters say all their games will emphasize this sort of “social engineering” — an emphasis on relationships and communication. These are important skills for girls and women to develop, the studio argues, and will allow them to navigate the sometimes treacherous social situations.

As the female gaming population grows, it's likely that more companies will begin to cater to this market. But as it stands, there still aren't a lot of games that meet women and girl gamers' needs. A recent report by the entertainment market research firm Interpret, titled "Games and Girls: Video Gaming's Ignored Audience," argues that the female gaming market is far more nuanced than some of the “casual-centric reputation” suggests. Indeed, 44 percent of those who responded to the survey say that they prefer genres other than exercise, music, and casual games -- the kind that are most often marketed to women and girls.

But making games for girls isn't simply about providing good entertainment. Some of girls' reluctance to play videogames may have other repercussions: a lack of familiarity with or comfort around technology, for example, and a missed opportunity to learn more about science, technology and engineering.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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June 15 2011


Tanzania Media Copes with Wild Success of Feedback via SMS

For the largest civil society media platform in Tanzania, back talk is good. 

In fact, talking back is the objective of a new service at Femina HIP called Speak Up! The service aims to increase access of marginalized youth and rural communities and promote a participatory, user-driven media scene in Tanzania.


Femina HIP is the largest civil society media platform in the country, outside of commercial mainstream media. Products include print magazines, television shows, a radio program, and an interactive website. Fema magazine, for example, has a print run of over 170,000 copies and is distributed to every rural region in the country.

Over the last few years, Femina HIP has encouraged its audience to connect and comment by sending letters, email, and SMS messages -- and comment people did. Dr. Minou Fuglesang, executive director of Femina HIP, said the platform was nearly drowning in messages.

It became clear to the team that SMS needed to be handled more systematically. Speak Up! is a service that offers a more automated, organized way to receive and respond to incoming SMS messages. With the Speak Up! service, the message flow is more systematic and organized. Femina HIP is better equipped to respond to comments and queries. A more automated system also helps Femina HIP embrace the young community -- one that feels a growing need to organize and participate, Fuglesang said.

How It Works

Femina HIP uses an application built by Starfish Mobile, a wireless application service provider. All SMS messages are sent to the same shortcode (15665) and the Starfish application sorts messages according to key word. (Senders have to begin the message with the key word of the product they wish to address, be it Fema magazine or the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show.) 

Femina HIP staff members access the application from a web-based dashboard, where they can view all incoming messages across products. Virtually all messages received are in Swahili. "It is very rare to get a message in English, let alone other languages," said Diana Nyakyi of Femina HIP. "Though if we do receive something in English, it is considered just as much as any other SMS in Swahili in terms of feedback value."

The Speak Up! service works in collaboration with local mobile providers, because the shortcode is "bound" to the providers, Nyakyi said. "However, we are keen on having a more engaging and beneficial relationship with them [the mobile operators] as partners, and some have shown interest."

Two-Way Communications

Femina HIP wants to talk back to its audience, too.

When an individual sends an SMS to the Femina HIP shortcode, he or she receives an automatic confirmation. Senders' phone numbers are automatically entered in a database, which allows Femina HIP staff to further respond to individuals. Often, this is to simply say thank you for the message. But staff can also access and respond to urgent or serious messages, including questions on issues of health, sex, suicide, or requests for advice. Currently, Femina HIP has a list of about 30,000 active mobile numbers.

chezasalama sms.jpg

The Speak Up! database can also be sorted by categories such as key word, time submitted (date, week, month), or by phone network. Statistics are available, including which phone numbers have had the most interactions with the system, and whether the interactions were via SMS vote or SMS comment. The ability to sort allows the staff to group SMS messages around content themes and inform people about relevant, upcoming programs. 

Speak Up! wants the audience to become agenda setters, and claims to achieve "a more inclusive public debate and a more investigative reporting that mirrors everyday life in Tanzania." 

Challenges and Lessons

Femina HIP and the Speak Up! service have faced a learning curve. For example, it's been challenging to help the audience understand how to send an SMS to an automated service. "It's not as easy as it sounds because people have to understand how to use the shortcode and our key words," Fuglesang said. 

If someone misses a space or spells the key word incorrectly, for example, the SMS is marked "invalid" and ends up in the trash box. 

Similarly, if people send a message that's over the 160-character limit of a text message, the second half of it is also marked invalid. Currently, Starfish Mobile does not support these so-called concatenated SMS messages. "This is causing a problem, even though we ask our listeners to send us short messages," Fuglesang said. "People write long messages." 

For example, Speak Up! had 900 responses to a recent question, but nearly 500 ended up in the trash bin because of error or length. While the messages can be retrieved, and the team is trying to do just that, "it does pose a bit of a headache," Fuglesang said.

Another issue may be cost. While there is a cost to send a text message, sending an SMS to a shortcode actually carries a slightly higher cost, Fuglesang said. "We are trying to monitor this to see if it affects the flow."

March 29 2011


How Project Argo Members Communicate Across Time Zones

Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.

Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we're still learning.

I'll break down our various approaches -- what we've tried, what's working, and what we're still working on -- using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

One-to-one communication

These exchanges with the stations have offered some of the most intensive and valuable interactions of the project. When we started, much of our communication happened through the typical channels -- lengthy, one-on-one phone calls and emails to brainstorm, strategize, give feedback, and train.

Email has a tendency to be high friction. Messages can take a long time to compose and a long time to digest, and much is often lost on both ends of the process.

But of course email still has its advantages. It's asynchronous -- in other words, you can carry on a thread without needing to be on the same schedule. It's great for laying information out in precise detail, whether you're talking about metrics or line-editing posts. And it's invaluable for documenting your communication and finding it later.

For working remotely, there's nothing like a phone call or Skype session to have a good back-and-forth conversation. There are drawbacks here too, of course: Calls longer than 10 minutes need to be scheduled, and lots of good information can escape without being documented.

Lately, I've taken to augmenting phone conversations with a PiratePad to help with that last problem. Like Google Docs, PiratePad allows two or more people to see what one another are writing in real-time. The difference is that PiratePad shows your document-mate's typing character by character, rather than refreshing at regular intervals, so it's a little more immediate. This combo has been excellent.

As the project has evolved, most of our one-on-one contact has become pretty quick and spontaneous. Twitter has proven to be one of the best tools for communicating one-on-one. Since all the bloggers are on Twitter, a quick DM conversation often suffices to get across what we need to convey or inquire about.

Heather Goldstone, who blogs for WGBH at Climatide, said Twitter was her favorite tool for staying in touch. "Just in general, I've gotten really hooked on Twitter," she said. "It's more like texting instead of email. If the other person's around, it's got a faster turnaround time and more of a conversational feel than email."

Despite the surfeit of tools to choose from, however, the most valuable one-on-one interactions we can have are in person. For as much as we can do by email, over the phone, through Twitter and other means, nothing replaces being able to sit down face-to-face with our station colleagues, or being able to peer over their shoulders as they're working on their Argo sites. Of course, this is the most time- and resource-intensive way to communicate. But there's still nothing like it.

One-to-Many Communication

We occasionally need to broadcast messages to all the stations involved in the project. For that, we mainly use Basecamp, which gives us a good common archive of files and messages, and integrates pretty well with everyone's email. The biggest problem with Basecamp is that all replies to a message are sent to everyone who received the original message. This can create quite a cascade of emails when a lot of folks weigh in on a thread.

We regularly lead webinars for the Argo bloggers, and we've tried a variety of approaches to doing this. We started out setting these up through a common, organization-wide GoToMeeting account, but this required quite a bit of advance set-up and coordination, and one of the participants invariably had technical troubles. Plus, we've had difficulty recording the webinars. (GoToMeeting's recording technology only works on PCs; my teammates and I use Macs. Plus, the GoToMeeting software tends to conflict with screencasting tools we might use to record the desktop and audio.)

We've since moved to a lower-fidelity approach, using free tools. Join.Me to share desktops, and FreeConference.com for voice communication.

The voice controls in FreeConference.com's system are reasonably robust. Call organizers can mute everyone but the presenter, allowing call attendees to un-mute themselves selectively. For a small fee, FreeConference.com allows us to record the audio when we need to. Pair that audio up with video of the related slides, and you've got a webinar recording.

When our goal is capturing best practices all the stations can replicate, or documenting instructions on using various aspects of the Argo platform, we turn to our two public-facing communication channels: the Argo blog and the Argo documentation site.

Like everything else, these communication platforms pose their own disadvantages. It can be time-consuming to write up or record material for these sites. Also, the more material that's there, the harder it can be for the stations to find what they need when they have questions.

We created an FAQ on the documentation site to help the stations find answers to the most common questions. And the time invested in producing the documentation and material up-front often saves us time down the road when we can send a link to a post we've made in response to a question from one of the Argo-bloggers.

Many-to-Many Communication

We've consistently found that some of the most valuable communication around the project happens when folks at each station can talk with one another. Yet because of the geographical and topical dispersion of the stations, these can be the hardest interactions to foster. So we continue to seek ways to encourage this, using all of the tools mentioned in this piece.

Webinars offer a regular opportunity for folks at the stations to share lessons about a focused aspect of developing a niche site. Increasingly, we've sought to foster more open-ended conversations among the stations as well -- including regular story calls where a subset of the bloggers share what they're working on, spontaneous brainstorming calls, and check-in conference calls where we discuss how the project is going.

Right now, requests for technical help from bloggers at the stations tend to fall into one of three categories: bug reports (this should work, but doesn't), feature requests (I'd like to be able to do this on the site), and requests for advice (how can I accomplish this in a post?). It's impossible for the bloggers, who don't know the details of how the software works, to determine which is which.

So it would be helpful for us to route all these reports to a common channel, accessible by all, where users can chime in if they're having similar problems or have advice to share on how to accomplish something. To that end, we're working on creating a Stack-Overflow-esque board that would allow the bloggers to discuss issues and solicit advice as a group without the reply-all problems Basecamp poses.

On a few occasions, we've been able to bring the stations together for some of that invaluable person-to-person contact. As Tom Paulson, who blogs for KPLU at Humanosphere, pointed out, in-person communication builds on all the other methods of sharing ideas.

Generally Speaking

For a project as variegated as Argo, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping in touch. The project has unfolded in phases -- hiring reporters, training reporters, building audience, and sustaining growth -- at various rates for each station, and each of those phases has required a different approach to communication.

What's served us best are flexibility and adaptation. Setting up a phone call over Twitter while we trade notes in a PiratePad. Using Basecamp to agree on a time for a webinar that mashes up FreeConference.com with Join.Me.

Although I've mentioned specific tools in this post, I don't think the hodgepodge of software and services we use is the most important takeaway. Instead, my strongest recommendation is this: Be attentive to your communication needs and how well your approaches are serving them, then adjust continuously.

Matt Thompson is an editorial product manager at Project Argo.

January 28 2011


Lightning slow…

Yeah…once again, a turtle is the winner. Steven Johnson takes a look at creativity and the concept of the “slow hunch.”

October 20 2010


Meet “The Hub,” a virtual clubhouse for community nonprofit news sites

At the Block by Block community news conference last month, an irony emerged: Local site publishers, who spend their days cultivating community, hadn’t enjoyed much community amongst themselves. Again and again during the event — a convergence that co-host Jay Rosen aptly described as “entrepreneur atomization overcome” — participants expressed their desire for a centralized spot for conversation, information…and commiseration. As one publisher put it during the conference’s introduction session: “I just don’t want to feel like I’m alone in this.”

Enter The Hub, a new site that wants to be just what its name suggests: a centralized space — in this case, one for community news nonprofits. The site wants to be a go-to spot — the go-to spot, actually — for the people involved in nonprofit news, from journalists to publishers, from academics to funders. Click over to the site now, and you’ll find, among other things: a Getting Started section with legal and tax primers, editorial guidelines, and samples of marketing collateral; a Beyond the Basics section with info on business modeling and engagement strategies; an Academics and Research section with reports and teaching tips; a searchable database of participating news sites; a collection of contextual materials, like Q&As with, and videos of, nonprofit experts; and — maybe the most valuable resource for a nonprofit startup — a list of organizations that fund nonprofit journalism.

The Hub is overseen by Voice of San Diego, which has emerged of late as a kind of mega-org, leading collaboration efforts with fellow nonprofits. The idea for the site, says Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, came in part from the many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own nonprofit news sites. (Little surprise: The logistics to be worked out when it comes to news startup-ing — editorial, legal, and, of course, financial — are dizzying.) “We were getting so many people asking so many questions and wanting so many documents,” Lewis told me, “that we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put it up. Let’s put it all up.’”

Though the idea was conceived by journalists, the site was funded by a foundation — the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — and built by academics: San Diego State University assistant professor Amy Schmitz Weiss, with the help of grad students Jessica Plautz and Yueh-hui Chiang. They designed the site (work began in May) and then, over a busy summer, seeded it with relevant data. The hope, though, is that news organizations will supplement the existing infrastructure with their own contributions: information about their operating models, resources they’ve found helpful in building out those models, etc. Ultimately, Lewis says, he’d love to see each outlet with its own profile page on the network. (“Like a Facebook for nonprofit news sites,” he says.) From there, The Hub could also function as means of connecting community sites, both fledgling and already existing, not only to each other, Block by Block-style…but also to the organizations that might want to fund them. Voila!

The Hub doesn’t want to be simply a repository of documents, though, or even a connector of institutions; it also wants to be a centralized space for conversations. This past spring, the Knight Foundation convened a group of nonprofit journalism practitioners in Austin to share best practices, consider opportunities for collaboration, and generally discuss strategies for sustaining themselves into the future. (Check out videos of that meeting here and here and here and here.) Many new insights sprang from that meeting, Lewis notes — one of them being the meta-insight that was the need for a spot to incubate those insights in the first place. “We needed a natural place to put ideas once they come out,” he puts it — and “a natural place to promote them and make sure they spread.”

Lewis recently wrote a much-circulated blog post on the benefits of revenue promiscuity in the nonprofit world; it’s now hosted on The Hub. Ideally, he says, other people will contribute their own posts — original topics, or riffs on writings from other contributors — that will live on the site and fashion it into a kind of virtual brain trust. (Think Snarkmarket, the excellent group blog run by Twitter’s Robin Sloan, NPR’s Matt Thompson, and Wired’s Tim Carmody.) If the current state of the site is any indication, though, Voice of San Diego will continue to play a leadership role in cultivating the conversation, with the outfit’s models and strategies continuing to be a guiding resource for emerging startups. It’s a one-for-all approach that serves an all-for-one goal in nonprofit journalism. “If we and everyone else are seen as a viable solution that the community can turn to,” Lewis says, “then that helps us all.”

October 15 2010


Public, Closed or Secret? How to Use the New Facebook Groups

I was wrapping up a normal evening of checking through my newsroom's content before bed when I noticed I had been invited to a Facebook group. This was about seven hours after Mark Zuckerberg and his team introduced a number of changes to groups. The change that most piqued my interest was the new groups process. So when I noticed the invite, I decided to stay up a little longer.

Two hours later, I was hooked and looking for ways to engage with this new and improved groups tool for my newsroom.

Along with joining a group created for social media journalists, I decided to launch new groups for my newsroom, my neighborhood, and for my digital media class (fondly known as #jenclass). I wanted to see what types of engagement I could find.

There are three different types of new Facebook groups:

  • Public
  • Closed
  • Secret

I have used each setting with my groups. Below is a look at what I've done, along with some initial reaction and results.

My Groups

Newsroom community - KOMU8 News - Public setting
I created an open group and invited members of our station's Facebook fan page to see what kind of engagement I could get. It grew quickly at first. Members said hello in posts, while others played with the new chat function. What is most interesting is how a few members have turned it into a chat room for their own conversations. I have jumped in to try to encourage others to join in, but two men tend to the chat more than anyone else.

In order to increase engagement, I've posted fun questions and hard news topics to the group. The biggest topics that have engaged members so far include a discussion of where to spot the best fall colors outside, and a member-driven conversation about taxing fast food and cigarettes.

I've found most people join in on the group when they see the alerts I post on the KOMU8 Facebook page. I've sent notes with specific times when I was available to add new members and take part in a conversation. I also take the time to warn new members to change their settings so they don't get constant email alerts about new activity on the page. I also offer a chance to share story ideas. So far I've taken at least three stories that emerged from the conversations within the group and brought them to the newsroom.

One challenge is that the group is not gaining new members outside of my daily appointment engagement. Once members join the group, they don't seem inclined to invite others. I can't decide if this is because most people do not know how to invite a new member, or if it's because they don't want to bring a new person into the group.

Students and alumni - #jenclass - Closed group
I wanted my students to see how this new Facebook group feature works. After my social journalism interaction test with our station, I didn't want to miss the chance to chat with my students outside of class. I figured we could geek out in a similar way I have geeked out with other journalists. And since I have a new set of students every semester, I decided many of my former students would be very curious about new Facebook tweaks. So I started inviting current students and alumni. Once again, very few members invited other people. But students and alumni have contributed comments and links. So far, most conversations have started thanks to my prompts, but I don't think that will be the case forever.

Neighbors - Jen's Neighborhood - Secret group
My final group is for my neighbors. I invited all of my current Facebook friends who live near my house. Not everyone knows each other personally. In this early stage, each person who's commented said they were really excited to have an easy way to connect all of our busy families together. One neighbor saw me walking on the street and told me the group has encouraged her husband to start figuring out a way to formally create a neighborhood watch program in our area. I love the fact that a virtual group has the potential to foster even better relationships in person.


My experience with groups may not be the same as everyone, but I'm really glad I've taken the time to explore them in order to engage with different sets of people. The conversations in some groups are very Twitter-like, but they're now taking place inside Facebook. So far, I don't see groups growing past Facebook fan pages. They do seem like a chance to expand the pages and take conversations beyond a static page.

Just like anything else in social media, this new community opportunity requires attention. If I ignore my news group, a member could easily take over and use the space as a venue to push their own interests. I need to peek in on a regular basis and encourage diverse conversations.

My student/alumni page is mainly driven by my conversations -- but it is also focused on a class I run. Hopefully its members will soon feel more comfortable to share more of their own thoughts and opinions. My students probably don't realize the number of connections they could start if they start talking to members of the group who are working in different industries.

As for my neighborhood group, I do not plan to push that community. I will chat with each member face-to-face as I see them and we'll talk about what we want the group to become. I envision it as a place to warn about wandering dogs and upcoming vacations, and to search for trustworthy babysitters.

My three groups have different focuses, but all have the potential to grow new and existing communities based on common interests.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

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July 27 2010


USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism for Prospective Students

USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism for Prospective Students The undergraduate degrees at USC Annenberg provide a strong foundation for people interested in working in the communication industries: the media, public relations, advertising, strategic corporate and organizational communication, political consulting, higher education, and many more. USC Annenberg offers three undergraduate degrees: * Communication: One of the most versatile degrees offered at USC, a bachelor’s degree in communication prepares you for professional employment or graduate work. * Journalism: With options in Print & Digital Journalism and Broadcast & Digital Journalism, undergraduate students focus on writing, ethics and the use of new technology in a rapidly changing industry. * Public Relations: Emphasizes communication problem solving, strategic thinking, applied skills and management, rather than communication theory; alumni work in all types of organizations. For more information for prospective students: annenberg.usc.edu

June 21 2010


What project management software / techniques do you use to coordinate digital projects that cross departments and/or publications?

Projects such as designing and/or redesigning a news website, adding a third-party product (Legacy, Boocoo, Local.com), installing a new front-end system, etc., involve people from the newsroom, the ad department, the production department, accounting, executive management, etc. And, if your company owns more than one publication, you can continually add more "stakeholders" to a project. (Oh, how I cringed when the folks I covered as a reporter used that word -- and yet there it is!)

Short of CC'ing everyone on emails and holding dozens of meetings, has anyone found a good solution for coordinating such projects and keeping everyone in the loop?

I've been looking at project management software at 37signals

Any other software suggestions? Or good tricks learned through trial and error?

June 03 2010


Net2 Think Tank: Using Online Tools for Internal Comms

External communication practices have been transformed by the growth of the internet and in particular blogging, micro blogging, and other services like Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. These online tools have created tremendious opportunities for people, organizations and companies to make information available to a world-wide audience, but what have they done to transform efforts to communicate within teams?

Share examples of how your group, organization, or company is using online tools to communicate internally!

read more

May 25 2010


Engaging with journos: At GigaOM, there’s an app for that

Have you ever tried to get in touch with an online journalist, only to wander her employer’s labyrinthine maze of non-linked bylines and PR department messages and institutional contact forms? Have you ever, desperate but not optimistic, actually written a message into one of those contact forms, only to have it languish, unanswered, in what you can only assume is the cyber-equivalent of the Lost island’s Orchid station? Have you ever found yourself thinking, “This is not how things should be done”?

If so, you will probably love GigaOM’s new iPhone app. The app — a free one — has the comprehensiveness of the most effective media apps: As GigaOm founder Om Malik put it in announcing its App Store availability, the platform features “a unified experience of all our various properties — from our blogs to our paid subscription service to our events to our real-time Twitter feed.” One key difference, though: The app also offers a direct communications channel to GigaOM’s writers. Swipe to the final screen of the app, and you’ll be greeted with a list of those writers; tap on a name, and you’ll be led to the author’s iPhone-abbreviated bio — complete with a photo and an “Ask the Author” button.

Tap the button, and you’ll be sent to an email interface pre-populated with the author’s (direct! non-institutionally-mediated! hallelujah!) email address.

The direct-communication-with-authors approach is standard at GigaOM: “There should be no friction when it comes to our readers getting in touch with us,” Malik told me. “That was the premise of starting my company, and that’s the premise I hold true today. We are who we are because of our readers, and they should have the ability to get in touch with us whenever they want.”

The new app facilitates that ability. The communications interface is built into the user experience even more explicitly and directly than it is on the website proper: swipe, click, email, done.

But, then: Don’t the writers get overwhelmed by messages? Well, “some days it gets to be too much,” Malik acknowledges. “But people understand that you won’t respond right away.” Besides: While, overall, “yes, it’s going to take time — and, yes, it takes you away from your writing or reporting or whatever you’re doing,” Malik says, “customer service is a part of any business. And journalism is no different.” Communicating with users, both in taking direct feedback and giving it back, “is just good business practice.”

While the direct-email approach isn’t immediately feasible for bigger outlets with broader editorial interests (imagine if the New York Times’s app offered a direct communications channel to Maureen Dowd!), the overall, connection-is-key attitude is ripe for emulation. As much as we love to talk about “engagement” and “connection” and all the rest, the talking-to-journalists aspect of our press’s new approach to its old public mandate hasn’t, for the most part, caught up with all the 2.0 rhetoric. Easy, direct communications with reporters suggests the engagement side of news’s new frontier. And while, sure, GigaOM isn’t the New York Times, in size or attitude or mission, its emphasis on connection suggests the way we’re all heading: Toward a more direct, and open, dialogue between journalists and the people they serve.

And that dialogue doesn’t just benefit readers; the value, as in any true conversation, goes both ways. “I have learned so much…by being able to communicate with people on a one-on-one basis,” Malik points out. “That, really, is what’s behind this whole thing.”

March 25 2010


News Service Uses Mobile Voice Messages to Inform Rural India

One call can bring news to hundreds in rural villages in India. Gaon Ki Awaaz, which means "Village Voice" in the Avhadi language, sends out twice-daily news calls to subscribers directly over their mobile phones. Launched in December 2009, the project recently expanded to 250 subscribers spread over 20 villages.

What Does Gaon Ki Awaaz Do?

Sunil Saxena, dean of the International Media Institute of India that launched the project, said that Gaon Ki Awaaz was developed in order to meet the needs of rural populations. Gaon Ki Awaaz has two reporters, Divyakar Pratap Singh and Priya Gupta, who produce news reports by recording 30-to 60-second voice notes on their phones. Those short news bulletins are sent as multi-media messaging (MMS) to local editor Satyenda Pratap for review and are then sent on to Saxena for final review. The reporters are from the village of Rampur-Mathura (where the pilot is being run) so they can transmit reports in the local dialect, Avhadi.

Subject matter for the broadcasts can include alerts such as when health camps are coming to a nearby area, farm tips, events happening in the village such as religious and/or community-oriented celebrations, or local-centric government announcements. Saxena explains the value of mobile phones for communicating information:

In most of the Indian villages, the literacy levels are low. So newspaper do not work as the medium to disseminate information. And because the electricity is erratic, the television is also not a very good medium - we're talking about the villages, not the cities - so the only way one could overcome these two hurdles was to look at mobile phones. And if you look at the way the mobile phone's popularity has grown in India, it's absolutely remarkable. There are 543 million subscribers, and even in villages a lot of villagers now own mobile phones. It's become a part of their everyday life.

Saxena explained the thinking behind using voice calls: "We wanted to move away from the SMS alerts [that many large media companies in India use], because many villagers can't read them, so the purpose is completely defeated. It had to be a voice call, and it could not be MMS because some of the villagers are very poor - they're using very simple phones and don't all have MMS facilities."

Another reason mobile and particularly, mobile voice works for this project is its ease of use; recording voice notes and sending them as an MMS is easy for the local reporters, and subscribers need only to answer their phones in order to hear the pre-recorded messages. Adds Saxena, "The advantages we saw with mobile was 1. the villager could hear a news bulletin in the language or dialect that he or she speaks; and 2., the news relates to events happening around the village life. And this was not possible with any other device."

The ease of receiving and sharing Gaon Ki Awaaz's reports motivated the group to expand from an original closed group of 20 subscribers to 250 users. Saxena explains that the original 20 subscribers would often organize other villagers in order to broadcast the news alerts via speakerphone. According to Saxena, mobile phones are changing how news can be shared. He says, "They're enabling a large number of people who did not have access to information or could not contribute to information flow."

How Does It Work?

The twice-daily news reports (broadcast at noon and 5 p.m.) start with the village reporters recording their bulletins into the phones' voice recorders as .amr files. Those files are sent to the local editor, then on to Saxena. Saxena transfers the files to his laptop and converts them to .wav files. Because the .wav files are data-heavy, the files are compressed as .zip files and then sent on to Netxcell, a company in Hyderabad, for broadcast. Netxcell takes the files and sends them out as a robo-call to the numbers stored in a database (which the villagers submit).

Although the process has multiple steps, it doesn't take much time as everything is sent electronically and is automated.

The cost of the program is low; it's free for the villagers and is currently funded by Saxena's IMII colleague Dave Bloss. Bloss is a Knight International Fellow, and is funding the project through his Knight grant. Saxena estimates that the total cost of the four-month project is roughly $1000 USD. The only costs have been the purchase of three MMS-equipped phones (for the two reporters and local editor), which cost about $100 US each, and the monthly broadcast fees. Because the transmission costs of the short robo-calls are fairly cheap (Saxena estimates that the expansion of the subscriber to 250 raised the monthly fee to roughly $300 USD; before that is was under $100 USD), the project is able to operate with a small budget.

Despite the small budget, Gaon Ki Awaaz is now trying to become sustainable by bringing in independent revenue. Gaon Ki Awaaz recently got its first advertisers - in early March 2010 one of the village merchants, who was part of the original group of 20 users, bought an ad that was played before the news. Saxena says that they are looking to eventually bring in two types of adverts from local merchants and from national agricultural companies. The plan is to start with hyper-local advertising in order to gauge the response, and then start looking to agri-companies to have them sponsor some bulletins.

Plans for expansion include making the system more interactive for the villagers and increasing the number of subscribers. Subcribers currently only receive news voice calls but Saxena hopes to eventually enable villagers to submit their own news updates to a toll-free number. That information will be vetted by the reporters or local editor, and then added in to the reports. Says Saxena, "The aim is to enable subscribers to generate information about themselves in their own language, and to be able to hear information that's relevant to them."

He adds, "There is no better tool for information to come in, and for information to go out. If something happened in a remote, rural area there was no way to communicate with the media, or the administration or anybody [before mobiles]. This is the first tool that makes it possible."

March 15 2010


Must-read: PEJ’s annual State of the News Media report goes live

Each year the US Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) produces a report on the State of the News Media, aggregating other reports on what has happened to news organisations during the previous 12 months and providing its own research into what lies ahead.

The 2010 report weighs in on paywalls, and why there’s still a “hill to climb”; the increasingly niche-focus of both traditional news organisations and new online-only players; and features a special report on the state of community media or citizen journalism projects.

It’s an incredibly thorough survey – featuring figures on changes in advertising spend across all sectors and analysis of news sites’ traffic figures – and is best read in full at this link.

Some highlight quotes:


  • 79 per cent of those surveyed said they had never or rarely clicked on an online ad.

News content:

  • “When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new.”
  • Online news coverage is still geared towards breaking news. New technologies for live reporting can provide a less vetted version of releases/press conferences;
  • BUT: “While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.”
  • News organisations are becoming disseminators rather than gatherers of news, and becoming more reactive than proactive.

Social media:

  • Eventually, the news operations that develop social networking strategies and distribution mechanisms well might be able to convince advertisers that they have special access to attractive news consumers – especially those who influence the tastes of others;
  • Blogging, amongst news consumers, is declining in frequency;
  • 80 per cent of links from blogs and social media sites studied are to US legacy media.

Niche news:

  • “Old media are trying to imagine the new smaller newsroom of the future in the relic of their old ones. New media are imagining the new newsroom from a blank slate.”
  • “Online, it is becoming increasingly clear, consumers are not seeking out news organisations for their full news agenda.”

More on the report’s take on niche news at this link…

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March 12 2010


Freedom Fone Promotes Information for All in Africa

Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses access to one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profit can be made up in volume.

A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions. Instead, they involve a pragmatic appreciation that, through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. The poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner -- not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The Freedom Fone Strategy

Freedom Fone, a Knight-funded project, has a BoP strategy focused on building and promoting an open source software platform for information sharing that is intuitive, cost-conscious, Internet-independent and that ultimately targets all kinds of phone users. Deployers of the Freedom Fone platform can be small or large NGO's or service organizations, or even individual information activists. The goal is to broaden the base of audio information providers and facilitate the development of two-way communications within communities that have traditionally been underprivileged, marginalized and sometimes even stigmatized.

The Freedom Fone platform can be used to assist with education, learning, health care and medical support for chronic diseases like HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Voice menus conveniently provide information on demand services, making them a useful additional channel for community radio stations and emergency response initiatives. It can be used to provide information on a full spectrum of issues, including sanitation, the environment, agriculture, fishing, business, finance, marketing, community, arts and culture news. Its 'leave-a-message' and SMS functionality can also be leveraged for citizen journalism.

Essentially, Freedom Fone is a simple but novel medium for addressing social development. The currency we are working with is knowledge, the tool we are using is the mobile phone, and the mobile function we primarily leverage is audio, through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

Freedom Fone has focused on knowledge sharing because, in a globalized information age, access to relevant information is pivotal to development and vital for survival. Content is king and knowledge is power! However, the people who need information the most are often the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, and they tend to remain on the fringes of society. For instance, in developing countries, information flow is often blocked by restricted infrastructure, lack of resources and limited, unreliable access to computers, email and internet. Other factors such as language barriers and low literacy levels exist. In certain developing countries, this information alienation is further compounded by restrictive and authoritarian governments.

Mobile Phones Are Universal

Freedom Fone has focused on the mobile phone as the medium of communication because, according to a UN report, 60 percent of the world's population has mobile phones. By 2009 there were already over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in circulation -- and developing countries account for over two thirds of these mobile phones.

In contrast, only 25 percent of the world's population has Internet access. In Africa, there is only a 6.8 percent internet penetration rate. Thus the wide use of mobile phones bridges the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Their use cuts across the digital divide and they have the potential to act as information access equalizers. For example, in Zimbabwe, barely 5 percent of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, but there are over 3 million mobile phones contracts in a country of 11 million, which represents a penetration rate of roughly 27 percent. In South Africa -- which offers a good indication of future development patterns in Africa -- only 7 percent of the population has Internet access, but there are approximately 36 million active cell phone users, which is roughly 80 percent of the population.

To address the limited access to, and the high cost of, Internet connectivity in many developing countries, Freedom Fone has been designed so that it does not require any access to the Internet to function. The Freedom Fone server can be connected to mobile phone SIM cards, landlines and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers. Callers can phone in from a landline, basic mobile phone, or soft phone like Skype. If uninterrupted power is provided, the system can be available to callers 24 hours a day, providing a valuable information on demand channel, as well as a vehicle through which the public can contribute information or queries 24/7.

Freedom Fone Features

A number of Freedom Fone's core features focus on interactive voice menus and callback functionality. By consciously marrying the mobile phone with IVR, Freedom Fone extends this previously business-oriented tool into the arena of social development and social media. By simplifying the user interface and minimizing the technical alternatives, we predict information providers will find building voice menu-based information services intuitive rather than intimidating, and cost-effective rather than costly.

Providing an alternative to the limitations imposed by the 160 characters allowed in an SMS is likely to be liberating. Freedom Fone provides a do-it-yourself platform for increased two way communication, facilitating the contribution of rich audio files by both the operator and caller. Its audio orientation offers similarities with radio programming -- however there are dramatic differences in the start up costs, required technical know-how and government regulation.

It is also interactive, as it enables end users to become information providers by contributing questions, audio content and feedback in response to the voice menus. Audio files also have the enormous benefit of surpassing the issues of literacy, going beyond language differences, as people can create and manage information in their own dialect. For deployments in Africa, audio is also strongly aligned with the oral traditions of story-telling.

Importantly, Freedom Fone has been designed to run on (and with) low-powered equipment to facilitate its deployment using solar power.

As Freedom Fone services the BoP, it is essential that deployments offer affordable, cost-effective access to information. Sadly, in Zimbabwe the cost of local mobile calls is $0.25 per minute, making call-in costs a major challenge for local deployment. The same hurdle does not exist for deployments in East Africa, where competition exists between mobile network providers and call costs are minimal. In countries where VoIP is legal, further opportunities exist because VoIP cuts costs and facilitates scalability.

The Freedom Fone platform offers the potential for cost recovery through advertising, which can be incorporated into the voice menus as short audio clips. Another option are premium numbers which can be negotiated with mobile network operators. In time, we hope to source funding to build features that facilitate micro-payments for accessing voice menu content or receiving SMS updates.

Freedom Fone aims to put information in the hands of the public by simplifying and popularizing information outreach via IVR and SMS. It is a tool for content creation, by the people and for the people. It shifts BoP solutions beyond profits by giving the punch of informative power to the people.

January 29 2010


Ofcom revokes Teletext licence

The Teletext goodbyes have already been done, but Ofcom has today revoked the Public Teletext Licence with immediate effect [PDF at this link].

Teletext Limited, which ceased supplying national, international and regional news in December 2009, is now in breach of its public service obligations, so the broadcasting licence has been revoked by the broadcasting regulator. Teletext did not take the remedial steps to comply with the licence.

Ofcom said that Teletext’s subtitling provision and the page 100 index remain unaffected.

In its statement, Ofcom said:

This [ceasing supply of national, international and regional news] is a serious breach of the licence conditions. Teletext Limited was asked for its representations and, following consideration of those representations, the Licence has now been revoked.

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January 22 2010


Poll: What social media is used by journalists in UK and Europe?

The results of an extensive study by media communications intelligence firm Cision and George Washington University suggest that the use of social media sites and networks has become a fundamental part of US journalists’ research when working on stories.

“While this is a survey of North American journalists, we believe the findings mirror behaviour among journalists in the UK, more so than elsewhere in Europe,” says Falk Rehkopf, head of research for Cision Europe, about the study.

“There might be some lag in wider adoption, but media professionals are ahead of the curve when it comes to social media – such that, in many ways, Twitter can be thought of as a de facto social network for the UK media industry.”

As such, below is our own, though less extensive poll for journalists and editors working in the UK and Europe – what social media are you using?

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