Will Sullivan's guide to global mobile, tablet & emerging tech ideas

June 29, 2014
by Will Sullivan
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Building the Radio Sawa mobile app to reach youth in closed, censored Middle East markets

Today we’re starting the promotional campaign for a new Android and IOS apps for Radio Sawa, one of our broadcast networks focused on music and pop-culture in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It’s quite a unique experience and while building the product our technology, design and editorial teams were very focused on making a rich, mobile-first experience by doing less things better (rather than trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink in). The core product development and user experience values we focused on to achieve this were:

Streaming radio on the mobile phone is by far the most popular content format, even beating out gaming and social media.

Streaming radio on the mobile phone is by far the most popular content format, even beating out gaming and social media.

Across all demographics, especially young adults, streaming radio is dominantly used on the smartphone form factor.

Across all demographics, especially young adults, streaming radio used most on the smartphone platform.

Build products with data-driven decisions.

Streaming radio is consistently the most used content format on mobile phones — even beating out Games and Social Media. We built Radio Sawa around that experience with our seven 24/7 Middle East and North Africa music streams front-and-center in the application to optimize for this.

Harness technology to get around broadcast censorship and circumvention.

Many of the MENA countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria have very tight restrictions on their media and broadcasting licenses from the government, so it’s impossible to get FM transmitters approved for our broadcast stations and instead we went pure digital and mobile-focused to offer multiple country-specific streams in countries where users can’t receive get our broadcasts.

Empower censored citizen voices through technology.

Sawa Chat is one of the most popular programs on Radio Sawa’s network — it’s a conversational, community voice program discussing opinions on popular issues of the day. We also built in robust tools for Radio Sawa listeners to voice their thoughts through the app and send them directly into our production staff and CMS to be published on air quickly.

Create mobile-first and social-first content.

While my product teams worked on the design and development, Radio Sawa’s editorial teams retooled their reporting workflow and style around the mobile app content, evolving to focus on digital/mobile-first and social-first content to appeal to a younger, mobile-only audience. The content is quick, talkative and filled with social media embeds, polls, tweets and videos about the popular sports, tech and cultural news of the day and there’s deep social integration to share out of the app with friends.

Make the design gorgeous and mobile-native

When showing the app to people for the first time, we consistently get the most passionate feedback about the design; it’s a totally mobile-focused, touch and swipe-driven experience that is more gorgeous than any streaming music app in the world. (We did exhaustive product research and couldn’t find anything that’s nearly as beautiful as this experience from Pandora, to iHeart Radio to Swell to Spotify.) I personally don’t really understand much Arabic, but I can’t stop staring at this breath-taking application. It’s beautiful.

Give it a try yourself, Radio Sawa is available on Android 4.0 and above and Apple IOS 6 and above. We’d love to hear your feedback.

June 29, 2014
by Will Sullivan
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Thanks to my team for creating excellence, despite facing of absurd impossibilities.


Throughout my career working as a catalyst and digital change agent at legacy organizations, I’ve faced a lot of adversity, sometimes pure absurdity…  At one gig, I had to battle with the IT department for more than three months to get them to unblock search engines from crawling our sites. (I eventually won them over and we saw a 37 percent increase in traffic soon after the change.)

At another job, when data journalism was exploding and becoming a fantastic new opportunity for more interactive, digital journalism and I ended up having many challenging discussions with the top leadership, including the Editor in Chief of the paper, over whether it should be embraced as part of our newsroom reporting efforts. (History was on my side and they slowly they came around to see my vision and now that EIC is actually working for a journalism organization that relies heavily on data reporting.)

Sometimes I really wonder why I keep doing this… beating my head against walls that don’t want to be broken down but I take a lot of pride in changing institutions that are lost and sometimes dysfunctional to help them build a new legacy and tradition of digital excellence and innovation.

This is one of the things I admired about Steve Jobs; as much of a raging jerk he may have been (from many accounts, including the famous biography by former BBG Board Director, Walter Isaacson), I was inspired how — multiple times — he took massive, monolithic legacy organizations (Apple and Pixar) with raw talent and potential — and rebuilt them, establishing standards of excellence and bringing them to become digital pioneers of their industry for years after his legacy.

When I accepted this gig at the BBG, I knew there was going to be huge challenges building digital products for our audiences and there was not going to be any simple solutions since our users are so diverse with polar opposite technological capabilities… From Cuba with little to no bandwidth to Asian countries with the latest Phablets and high-speed networks that would make a U.S. tween weep with envy to African countries with unstable infrastructure and limited personal digital hardware but amazing mobile innovation going on that’s lead them to be the world pioneers in mobile money and health products.

I was so fixated on external challenges, I underestimated the internal, organizational challenges that would make things exponentially more difficult, including; frozen budgets with federal sequestration; an absentee board (who have heavy control the direction of the organization) that couldn’t get a quorum, including an empty board chair vacancy for almost a year; some of the lowest organizational morale in the entire Federal Government; an entrenched, often technology-fearing staff of journalists (a special flavor of curmudgeon); territorial technology teams at multiple levels in the organization; general government bureaucracy ; the antiquated Federal procurement process — especially for technology resources — that needs immediate and swift reform ( was no surprise after spending 6 months in the government.); three different bosses in less than a year and a half (including the first who proved to be especially challenging) and also freaking Federal shutdown for a couple weeks (and the immense time and resources to takes to shut down and then re-start work and contracts).

GSMA & Appy Award finalistsIn spite all of this, our mobile team which started from nothing less than two years ago, has expanded to dozens of innovative champions over multiple product multiple teams, doing some amazing work that’s been internationally recognized as finalists for its innovative and high-quality experiences from organizations like the GSMA for “Best Mobile Publishing Product or Service”  and the Appy Award for “Best Multicultural App.” I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished and so excited about the future now that we’ve kind of laid the foundation for our mobile strategy (Including mobile-optimized sites for all entities with more than 90 language services; mobile apps for the entities it made sense for supporting more than 87 language services and 61 languages; experiments in digital messaging, SMS and IVR systems for low-bandwidth, low-tech information dispersal; and an in-progress redesign and responsive relaunch of all sites).

Thank you to Shakespeare and her analytics rockstars who help us make data-driven decisions; Steve, Lynne, Erica and Ahran for their support pitching in on graphics and helping us frequently launch and administer rapid usability testing for our products; thanks to our departed Scrummasters Rebecca and Son and our brief QA support from Marlene; thanks to our supportive leaders Rob and Adam; thanks to the Pangea tech team that has collaborated with us including Alena, Kim, Arkady P., Arkady B., Aladin, Ljubo, Mischa, Victor, Jarda; thanks to our design and development teams including Michael, David, Kassim, Marian, Marek, Pavol, Pauli, Stan, Marian, Ivan, Cindy, Sandra, and perhaps most important, thanks to our core product launch team: Mo, Danish, Ashok and especially Bo, who’s been with me on this project from the start when we were just a team of 3. We obviously couldn’t have done with without the hundreds of language service entity stakeholders and digital leaders that share our passion and drive to create excellent products and the more than four thousand BBG journalists and stringers that risk their lives daily to make a difference in the world providing independent journalism for audiences that need it the most. Thank you all.

…But we’re not done yet. The garden is never finished and we have a lot of seeds that we’ve planted, just starting to crack through the cement and seeing daylight. The developing world is just starting to get lit up and the revolution of free and open information being provided where there was none before is going to continuously and rapidly change the world. Stay tuned for more amazing, innovative, award-winning work from this team with an indomitable spirit, passion, creativity and grit to create excellent products and user experiences in the face of absurd impossibilities.

Our work is not easy for both many, many internal and external challenges, but it’s very important and literally changing lives around the world. So thank you for your service and here’s to you:

June 15, 2014
by Will Sullivan
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Web push notifications coming to a web browser near you (and now live on

Web push notifications fall far on the left side of this curve currently, but will soon swing to the middle.

Web push notifications fall far on the left side of this curve currently, but will soon swing to the middle.

If you’re using the Safari web browser on Apple OSX Mavericks, you may have noticed something new on the site recently — a pop up notification about getting web browser push notifications for new entries on Journerdism. (If you’ve opted in and have any feedback, I’d love to hear it). If you’re unfamiliar with web browser push notifications, here’s a quick video breakdown from the RJI Futures Lab that talks about them and how the NY Times and Roost uses them.

I’m advising (and recently on the weekends and evenings) part-time working for a start-up called Roost that builds technology for publishing, segmenting and tracking web push notifications. The team is fantastic and they recently announced their selection to the summer 2014 class of Y Combinator (probably the most prestigious and successful tech incubator in the world) and were featured in TechCrunch as providing a possible solution to replace the ailing RSS market.

Don’t get me wrong, this is currently bleeding-edge technology — Safari is the only web browser supporting it live — but Firefox and Chrome have been working on their standards publicly and are both adding push notification support this year (and Roost has been working closely with them so it’ll be integrated quickly into the platform) and as William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Once these browser standards go public this year, it’s going to be a kind of a big deal — especially for news orgs — since:

  • Push notifications are one of the big features that news orgs frequently use on mobile apps that they can’t get with a website
  • News junkies love the immediacy of push notifications, especially in niches like sports, business and breaking news
  • RSS is slowly dying in favor of social media, but we’ve seen better engagement rates than sites like Twitter or even email messaging (one of the old school, unsexy, but still most effective messaging platforms) by using web push notifications
  • There’s a ton of ways to customize and segment to users by interests, geolocation, technology, etc. (and more coming in the future)

If you’re interested in learning more about Roost for your site or trying it out yourself, holler at me, or go ahead and sign up to give it a try for free. It takes about 3 minutes to get set up, no credit card required or anything, and they even have plugins for quick integration on WordPress, Drupal and Joomla to make it super easy, as well as a quick javascript snippet that you can drop on any website to install quickly.

Also, there’s a handful of useful guides slowly rolling out that I’ve helped create on web push notification best practices including aggregate data from publishers and pro tips available, such as this handy chart showing more pushes aren’t necessarily better (a big part doing web push notifications well is not abusing the technology or spamming users):


There’s also several ways you can learn more and follow news about web push notifications and Roost: