Audio data & Assange

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One of the so-called “passion projects” I’m currently working on involves tagging and organizing a vast number of audio clips – almost all of them in Hindi and various regional dialects.  These clips were recorded by rural folks for whom Internet and smartphones are still several years away, but whose mobile phones are already a big part of their lives.

Several social enterprises have come up recently that build audio networks over mobile phones (Imagine an all-audio and stripped-down version of Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll get the idea).  Audio eliminates the pesky problem of language, and it can be straightforward to administer.  Allowing people in rural areas to dial into central phone banks could also help track the delivery of goods, services and government transfers.

Unfortunately, tagging, translating and verifying this data is a monumental task, as we’ve discovered.  Existing technologies and apps are all made for English-speakers.  Basic phones don’t have GPS-tagging ability, and anyway, as the controversy over Arun Jaitley’s phone tapping shows, the Indian government might not take kindly to people tracking users’ phones without their written consent.

Finally, one of the big areas where we want to provide value is by comparing some of this data to official figures.  Official figures on government transfer programs are hard to get hold of, and when they do exist, they’re rarely organized in the neat csv format that developers apparently prefer.  (Cleaning and organizing a data set can take forever.  To be fair, efforts to release govt data in a more usable form are ongoing.)

It’s interesting how many people – particularly young ones – now see the access to data and information as part of their political rights.  As part of a story I’m working on, I recently read an article in the Economist that tracks the emergence of “open source” and “pirating” as a political movement.  Everyone’s favorite leaker, Assange, is mulling a Senate bid in Australia (which I personally find absurd, but people might actually vote for him.)  With the passing of Aaron Swartz, the proponents of the open source movement found a very visible symbol of everything that is wrong with the system. The Internet has changed people’s attitude towards knowledge and data.  Increasingly, people feel entitled to information, and  governments and institutions will have an ever harder time justifying withholding it.

Ads and the Internet, ComScore edition

Comscore

Happy belated Valentine’s Day – let’s celebrate with ComScore’s digital future in focus report, which you can download for free (with a corporate email address) here.

Big caveat: the report is US-centric.  But it sheds some light on big trends in the digital future.  Highlights below:

  • Mobile commerce is now 11% of online commerce and growing, via Quartz.  Interestingly, e-commerce overall is growing more slowly than in the past.
  • Three out of every ten online ads never reach the consumer, which advertisers might want to take into account, via TechCrunch.
  • Nearly 6 trillion display ads were delivered to US consumers in 2012. That comes to something like 17,000 ads per person.  No wonder display ads are so cheap.  Via Red Herring.  (Also suggests that the viability of a display ad-funded revenue model is not going to improve anytime soon)
  • Google has 5 of the 6 most popular mobile apps in America.  Top spot goes to Facebook, duh.  Via Venture Beat.  (More cool stuff buried in the slideshow at the bottom of their article)
  • 182 million American users watched 38.7 billion online videos in December 2012, coming to about 212 videos per person.  (That number seems unbelievably high, but might have something to do with how they defined a “video”.) An increasing number of these videos had ads attached to them, especially on YouTube.  Over at Business Insider.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell if these same broad trends are true for India.  A few thoughts on that, though: mobile commerce in India is a challenge for the same reason that online commerce is a challenge: online payments are broken, and no one seems to have a great fix.  (A few companies are experimenting with mobile wallets, no one’s really made a big splash with that yet.)  Display ads are rampant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rates (per connected consumer) were roughly the same as for the United States.  The popularity of apps is probably somewhat global, and Facebook has made huge inroads in India.  Online videos are happening in India, but connection speeds remain slow, esp on mobile.

The Editor vs. the Product Manager

This is in response to a line by Jay Rosen in his recent blog post on Press Think.  The post is worth reading in its entirety mainly because he covers years of online media learning in a few short paragraphs.

He writes, “Being ignorant and uninvolved in “the business side” has been a disaster for the newsroom. For all its strengths, separation of church and state also meant no seat at the table when the big decisions were made. Anyone who doesn’t want to know what the numbers say should not be trusted with editorial decisions. Listening to demand is smart journalism, so is giving people what they have no way to demand because they don’t know about it yet. If you are good at one, the other goes better.”

Being involved in the business side isn’t the only way to listen to demand, but it is true that the editors of yesteryear were woefully out of touch with their readers and pretty smug about it, to boot. The smugness has gone out the window.

The highly measurable, results-driven world of online “content” has closed the traditional gap between the consumers and producers of media. Being able to listen to demand is a key skill for any editor looking to launch a digital “product,” and more orgs seem to want editors who can think like product managers.

If an editor looks after a set of stories, the product manager traditionally looks at the business side of any particular offering.  He/she tracks the evolution of a product over time and adjusts commercial strategy in response.  A product manager is concerned with profit maximization, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the integrity of a brand or selling out to advertisers. Rather, it means evolving a strong monetization strategy that takes, as a starting point, the strengths and purpose of the particular content being considered.

Of course, good journalism shouldn’t be measured solely in terms of Profit & Loss.  But an understanding of what these terms mean, and their importance, will (as Rosen says) give editors the necessary tools to continue to fight for stories that need telling.

The inferior goods trap?

Hudson News and Books, the staple of every American airport, recently opened branches in Indian metro stations

Hudson News, familiar to anyone who’s been through an American airport, recently opened branches in Indian metro stations

I say this a lot to my friends in media, who seem not to have realized it: Indian-native media brands have to be careful not fall into the inferior goods trap when it comes to the way they handle foreign competition.

Here’s what I mean.  Almost every foreign media brand has in recent years thought about an India play.  Many have held off, perhaps because they don’t know how to target an amorphous and price-sensitive consumer, perhaps because they’re uncertain about the still-complex regulatory regime, perhaps because revenue expectations are still not quite high enough, perhaps because they’d rather tie up with local players.  And maybe this last is a trend towards greater conglomeration.  (Look at the Times of India-Gawker deal as an example.)

But, as someone who previously worked at a business magazine, I increasingly felt that our print product faced serious competition from Forbes India and Fortune India, as well as local brands.  Indian brands traditionally point to a few things to explain why Indians prefer them:  1) the fact that their products are customized to the Indian market.  2) the fact that their products are almost always cheaper.

The average Indian biz mag retails for about Rs. 25 to 35 on the newsstand, while both Forbes and Fortune retail for a far heftier Rs. 125.  That’s out of reach for a lot of people, except as a very occasional purchase.  Fair enough.

But what about in the digital space?  The cost of access is often much lower, and foreign brands have a long history of developing strong digital offerings.  I promise you that the average Indian businessman and MBA student has accessed – at least once – articles from the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – online.

Traditionally, Indians have shown a strong and enduring preference for homegrown brands, even when foreign options become available.  But in an information-dense age, can we take that loyalty for granted?  If non-Indian brands decide to make a serious attempt at this market, hire the best local writers (at salaries equivalent to or slightly higher than what these people make at Indian employers) and bring their digital expertise to bear, there is absolutely no reason they could not seriously disrupt the landscape and take a greater share.  So far, the economics of it have not made sense (the US media model is costly, and Indians historically don’t pay) but if Indians start to pay a little more, and they have richer, stronger digital offerings available to them, why wouldn’t they choose those?  (The cost of software development is lower in India also, and that arbitrage is likely to remain for at least a little while)

Traditionally, Indian media houses seem to lag their American counterparts in two key areas: 1) investment in talent and  2) investment in R&D.

Both of these things are investments in the future of your product.  There is nothing worse than reaching a point – which I could foresee – where the only thing that differentiates your product in a consumer’s eyes is its lower price.  Then, you’re stuck in the position of hoping that people stay poor, and that’s not a position that feels very good.

Next-Gen Paywalls, India Edition

paywall

I met a friend for lunch the other day who runs digital initiatives at an Indian media house.  Every time I meet him he has the same question: how to make money off Indian digital users?

No one seems to have a perfect answer to this yet.  In the United States, the switch from print to digital advertising saw a corresponding drop in ad rates, as advertisers got a lot more granular about the return they expected on an ad.  (It wasn’t just about “impressions” anymore, it was also about “clicks” – which could be measured.)  Digital content producers, in an effort to feed advertisers, started using techniques like hot-linking to pick up users.  Of course, Google eventually wised up to these tactics, changed their algorithms and put a bunch of these content farms underwater.

Back to my friend’s dilemma.  Does he go for advertising? If so, does he use banner ads? Sponsored content?   Banner ads are uniformly annoying, and sponsored content can seriously backfire, as the Atlantic discovered when a Scientology advertorial did some serious damage to the magazine’s brand.  That said, many people seem to be using some form of sponsored content these days.  (The barrier between edit and advert is a bit of a tricky one in India anyway.)

Should he use a paywall?  Most Indian newspapers draw about a third of their online traffic from diaspora readers (Indians based outside of India). Some Indian newspapers are experimenting with creating separate paywalls based on location.  Another option is to create a special app for international users, although that can cost a publisher more money.  One of the big problems with a standard paywall – like the NYT paywall – is that it doesn’t allow for much price discrimination.  The best solution is probably some form of customized paywall, or even ala carte payments, that allow people to pick up stories at will.  (Some sites do allow users to buy single articles, but perhaps batch subscriptions of x articles/month could also work?)  Or better yet, design a fun iTunes-like interface.  After all, this is essentially what iTunes did to CDs.  “Pay for the news you want.”  If the NYT did this, they could bundle certain long-form investigative economy pieces with Paul Krugman’s column, for example, so that lesser-known but great stories still get some exposure.  (Of course, it remains to be seen whether Paul would be ok with this, or if he would strike out on his own ala Andrew Sullivan.)

The reason that Indians might go for this news a la carte approach is that historically, as we’ve observed with apps, they’re more comfortable with micro-payments than with bulk payments.  They’re also familiar with making micro payments through their phones, so “pay for the news you want” might work.  There could even be an audio version of the interface for people in more rural areas.

Finally, another mutual friend of ours suggested that my friend give the entire digital newspaper to a digital advertising shop and let them chop it up and find new ways to package/sell it.  First the shop would put together some audience metrics, then they’d start designing.  A lot of interesting and engaging stories these days are being told by advertisers, not news outlets.  (Esp when you’re looking at content that goes viral)  This is an audience measurement and design problem, though.

Formulas for Blog Success

Blogstutorial

I was digging through some old documents and found a “Blog Tutorial” document I’d put together for one of the magazines I’d worked for.  In this doc, I suggested several formulas for blog success and gave examples of successful blogs.  The doc is still useful, although not comprehensive.  There’s even an exercise at the end.  Interestingly, I made this a couple of years ago and all the blogs I used as examples are still around!

Formula 1: Think Critically about News and Numbers

Formula 2: Make a List (Of Anything, Really)

Formula 3: Be an expert about something that has a small but fanatical following

Formula 4: Follow a popular subject closely and update many times a day

Formula 5: Educate people about a very specific topic

Formula 6: Be clever – coin terms that riff on trends (but be brief)

Formula 7: Break news

Blog Focus Exercise:

Who is my typical reader?  What does he/she do for a living?  Where does he/she live?

Why does he/she read my blog?  What do they get out of it?

What are some other blogs that they also read? (Make a list of four or five and follow them regularly)

  • You can critique these bloggers’ opinions and provide links to their content

What news would they care about? (Go through the newspaper and pick three stories that your target reader would be interested in, whether or not he/she read the news today)

  • You can publish this list straightaway on your blog, without much elaboration
  • Or you can critique one of these stories on your blog

Where Have All the Good Data Gone?

2013-02-03 14.18.03

One big problem that everyone seemed to have at last Sunday’s Hacks/Hackers New Delhi hackathon: finding good data sets about India.

Some friends dropped by from Google Open Data in Bangalore, who are doing cool stuff around building a data ecosystem in that city.  They suggested a few lists to add to the World Bank/etc lists that we already had.  But it wasn’t enough.  When I think about the treasure trove of data available in the US, it’s so much more robust.  And in order to create deep, informative data visualizations for news (or whatever) you need good data sets.

Maybe there’s a link between open data and good government, too.  Rudi MK summed it up perfectly when he said, “if we don’t become more transparent about our data, we [India] will be left behind.”  At least data related to public programs and development should be fair game.  Why is the Census data from 2011 so hard to find?  (Or am I looking for it wrong?)

Of course, a friend over at India Spend, India’s first data journalism initiative, said they get a lot of the data they need by knocking on government agencies’ doors.  Fair point.  I’ve been a journalist in India and I know that’s how you get all your info, from data to quotes.  But is that enough if we want to get more people working with this data?

Another tool – are we taking full advantage of RTI?  My friend Nikhil Pahwa over at MediaNama is working a ton of stuff through RTI, and he swears by it for pulling out some good scoops about digital media and news in India.

Interesting…anyway, despite that, people seemed to have a good time. Check out Pierre Fitter’s post for an example of the kind of data visualization that people made.

Shout out in the comments with data sets, suggestions, or opinions about what we should be doing with our data in India.

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