Update: The Voice of America app is a nominee for the 2014 Global Mobile Awards organized by the Global Systems Mobile Association (GSMA) Mobile World Congress to be held February 24-27 in Barcelona, Spain. The app has been nomimated for the "Best Publishing Product or Service" Award.

Americans are growing accustomed to hearing the term “mobile first,” which describes the strategy of optimizing news products for mobile devices before other platforms. Imagine if your news product could only be read on a mobile device. For audiences in Africa, that’s how many get their digital news, says Will Sullivan, 2010-2011 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow.

“They are kind of a ‘mobile-only’ continent,” Sullivan says. “Most Africans don’t have home computers and high-speed, wired Internet in their homes like we do in America. Mobile devices are the first places they regularly engage with digital content.” There are also areas that don't have landline phones because of too much distance between towns to put up poles and wires.

Will SullivanSullivan, director of mobile for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is traveling to Africa for two weeks this month to help expand BBG’s reach and its mobile and digital product offerings in Africa.

The BBG is an independent federal agency that oversees U.S. civilian international media including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa. Sullivan has worked for BBG since 2012. He previously served as the mobile product manager until he was named director of mobile in December 2013.

While in Africa, Sullivan plans to meet with affiliate partners who broadcast radio and TV shows for BBG, mobile phone companies, and innovation labs that are experimenting in mobile and news technologies. His goal: learn more about the “mobile-only” continent and its unique needs for news and information content.

At the BBG, Sullivan builds mobile apps and responsive and adaptive websites, and develops new mobile products focused on emerging markets. As a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Sullivan researched mobile content strategies for global organizations and also created a popular mobile reporting tools guide. This research work helped him grasp the importance of user experience and optimizing content for mobile, he says."

My time at RJI allowed me to explore mobile journalism deeply at the time when it was just an emerging trend and now just a few years later mobile is becoming the dominate way audiences interact with content."

Work at BBG

One app Sullivan helped develop was the VOA mobile app, which can be viewed in 43 different languages – including Swahili and Afan Oromo – on both phones and tablets on the Android and iOS platforms.

According to Sullivan, the VOA app launched about five months ago and has done well – breaking into the top 20 news apps for most of Africa, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. It has surged to number one in countries including Cambodia (iOS and Android) and ninth in China (Android).

Next on his plate is updating the BBG’s apps, including VOA to a magazine-style design. This will not be an easy task, says Sullivan, because he’ll be working with nearly 40 typographic sets with different character widths. What looks good in English could break the design in Arabic, he says. Also, designing touch interactions for both left-to-right and right-to-left languages provides unique user-experience challenges.

Despite the challenges, the BBG’s work to provide news and information for these emerging markets is important, says Sullivan.

“We’re helping bridge the digital divide and provide news and information to audiences in countries that don’t have a free or established press,” he says. “Getting timely, accurate news is a daily struggle.”

Jennifer Nelson-Pallikkathayil  
Senior Information Specialist


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