Alfie: The Audio Butler

(Team: Brittany, Sravanti, Ashley D.)

As avid listeners of public radio and podcasts, we found ourselves wondering why it would be easier to book a trip to Timbuktu from our phones than to share an interesting clip from the latest episode of This American Life on Twitter. Most of the media we consume doesn’t have this problem. You read or watch, you export a link directly to social media with your comment and call it a day.

We have watched with interest as several notable names in audio – This American Life included – have taken steps to address this shareability gap with mixed success. Whether it’s klpr or Clammr, audiograms or Audible or Anchor, there does not yet appear to be a complete solution to sharing audio content with your networks. Either it isn’t user-driven or it isn’t integrated with the social media platforms people are actually using.

Part of the problem, we learned, is the internet itself – it simply wasn’t built with audio in mind. And the user experience for audio often remains laborious, even if the listening experience can also be serendipitous and the friend of multitaskers everywhere. Several knowledgeable people have explored why audio doesn’t tend to go viral (and when it might) – but we aren’t necessarily looking for virality. We’re looking for something deeper, something that befits the level of engagement that makes this medium uniquely valuable.

If podcasts are truly the last undiscovered country, the media market poised for continued growth rather than decline, we deserve a set of tools that allows us to easily and readily build a community – a conversation – around that content. Especially for those citizen journalist podcasters out there, all around the world, who are trying to build an audience and generate some dialogue around their grassroots endeavor.

So we set out to prototype a mobile application that would act like a sharing plug-in, overlaid on top of existing listening platforms. (Of course, this would require those platforms to integrate such an app, and while we feel it would be in their best interest to do so, let’s agree to suspend disbelief for a few minutes.) This application, which we’re calling Alfie the Audio Butler, allows the user to 1) export a cool clip to Facebook or Twitter, 2) annotate as they listen and see what their existing social networks have to say about the same content, and/or 3) leave a comment with their own voice. It’s immediate, it’s simple, and it’s on-the-go.

You can check out the interactive prototype below (thanks to Ally Palanzi’s Clipper on github for getting us started with the code), including some demos geared toward this audio story we reported on the subject:

Demo “Alfie” here.




I analyzed all of Taylor Swift’s lyrics so you don’t have to.

At the 58th Grammy Awards earlier this year, Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice for a solo album.

By the numbers, this shouldn’t come as a shock. Swift — an objectively gifted singer, songwriter, and performer — has had a wildly successful career by any metric. That said, if I had to list the top 10 female performers of my lifetime I’m not sure Swift would make the cut. As culture critic Camille Paglia so delicately put it for The Hollywood Reporter, I find her music to be “mainly complaints about boyfriends, faceless louts who blur in her mind as well as ours.”

While the internet is rife with Taylor Swift listicles analyzing the lyrics of her songs, data-driven analysis is scarce (or, more likely, just private). So, in the spirit of collect and verify, I decided to do a textual analysis of TSwift’s work using Word Counter to see just how boy-centric her lyrics actually were.

True to Sands prediction from last class: 80% of my time was spent on data collection, 15% was spent sifting through said data, and I’m wrapping up the remaining 5% now. Using the database AZLyrics,  I combed through the many, many songs of Taylor Swift. To date, she has released five studio albums, two live albums, two video albums, two extended plays (EPs), 37 singles, three featured singles, and eleven promotional singles To keep things simple, I decided to stick with her five studio albums, Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), and 1989 (2014).

Word Counter is a pretty straightforward tool: it counts the words, bigrams, and trigrams in a plain text document which you can either paste directly into the browser or upload to the site. From there, you can download the single word counts, bigrams (2 contiguous words), and trigrams (3 contiguous words) into .csv format. Between the five albums, I copied in text from 69 songs and then downloaded the data.

Then the process became a bit less straightforward. Comparing single word-counts of individual songs and albums side by side didn’t really give me a ton of useful insight — not to mention, it’s a fairly boring way to see the data. I decided to compare Swift’s two “Albums of the Year” — 1989 (in blue) and Fearless (magenta) — by plugging the songs’ text into Tagul, a very user friendly word cloud art generator.


Other than showing Ms. Swift is a thematically consistent songwriter, this didn’t give me much to go by. Perhaps, if I compared the two albums’ most frequently used trigrams?


Aha — now we were getting somewhere. Where Fearless (right) reinforces my earlier criticism, the trigrams from 1989 — namely, the song “Shake it off” -focus more intensely on Swift herself. As she explained to Rolling Stone in 2014: “When you live your life under that kind of scrutiny, you can either let it break you, or you can get really good at dodging punches. And when one lands, you know how to deal with it. And I guess the way that I deal with it is to shake it off.”

Ultimately, my textual investigation should have supplemented a broader investigation which also examined songs Swift wrote vs. co-produced and weighted the popularity of the songs. From the data I did collect, it seems Camilla Pagalia and I should maybe give Swift another chance: the pop star is shifting tone, however incrementally, from the lovestruck ballads of albums past.   


It’s low cost energy, stupid.

Recently, the Department of Energy announced it will participate in the development of the Plains & Eastern Clean Line Project (Clean Line), a major clean energy infrastructure project which will bring low-cost renewable power to my home state of Arkansas, Tennessee and other markets in the Mid-South and Southeast. The approximately 700-mile, high voltage direct current transmission line and associated facilities has the capacity to deliver 4,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power from the Oklahoma Panhandle region.

The all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation has already issued a statement against the decision, citing executive overreach. Yet, in a state whose per capita GDP of $40,924 trails well below the US average of $54,307 and where access to inexpensive energy is hard to come by, I thought the case for the project deserved to be made.

For this assignment, I designed the following graphic for the Arkansas Times, the state’s go-to alternative news source.

Clean Line Energy (2)



Media crackdown in Turkey continues following Ankara attack

A car bomb ripped through the Turkish capital of Ankara on Sunday, killing at least 37 people in a massive explosion not far from parliament. The attack, which comes less than a month after another car bomb in the city left 29 dead, is the latest escalation in violence since a cease-fire between Turkish forces and Kurdish militants broke down in July of last year.

Fighting had been mostly constrained to the southeast, but citizens and outside observers alike fear this is only the beginning on widespread attacks on Turkey’s urban centers. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, however, they found information hard to come by:


Reporters on the ground also had challenges getting information out:

A court order was allegedly given to restrict social media access after images of the bombing were shared online.

While Turkey’s media conditions have been in decline for years, some observers found the lack of information during a crisis particularly galling:

Still, some observers did sound a note of caution against the use of social media during a crisis.

That’s not fair. Social media can whip up a terrible panic unnecessarily. Having been involved in the Great Japan Earthquake I know first hand how unhelpful misinformation is.


Experts say that the question of the next terror attack in Turkey is not if, but when. As the long shadow of violence from Syria and Iraq continues its spread inward, access to independent, verified information will remain critical — even as it continues to deteriorate.

A Community Tackles Diversity

For my four hour challenge, I decided to kill two birds with one stone by covering an event using the tool Audacity — a platform I’ve been wanting to try out for a while. Knowing I would need as much of that time as possible for editing, I stayed close to home for this assignment to speak to my fellow students and colleagues about ongoing efforts to promote an inclusive community at The Fletcher School.



The Art of Media, A Diary

As others have noted in previous classes, RescueTime is big on data, slim on details. That said, the app has its advantages — and is certainly more sophisticated than my other fallback:
Luddite media tracker

After the first full day of auto-assisted tracking on my laptop, phone and iPad, my stats looked something like this:

Minutes spent, February 11

Concern over my social life aside, I wondered: how much of that time was voluntarily given? Or, to put another way, how much of my media consumption was I opting into?

Turns out, not as much as I’d like.

Email use Feb 11 - 16

The chart above shows the number of emails in my inbox that I interacted with in some way during the last week. Overwhelmingly, I am a passive consumer of media: taking in far more content than I create. This extends to all the social media platforms I used for more than three hours a day.Social Media Use

I can’t say I’m very surprised to find out that of the 12 or so hours of “entertainment” RescueTime tells me I consumed, 11 of those hours were spent half-listening to podcasts from Radio Lab or music from Spotify as I went about other tasks. Media has been part of the background noise in some shape or form for most of my life. That said, I wonder at the implications of such a wide margin of consumption to creation — particularly as we continue to explore how media can serve in a civic capacity.

My [future] tool: Uliza

I heard the phrase “digital divide” for the first time about six months ago. As someone just sticking their toe in to the larger debate around ICTs, net neutrality, and zero-rating products, it’s been a slightly overwhelming dive down the rabbit hole to say the least. It has also lead me to the tool I’ll be introducing today: Uliza.

What is it?

Uliza, which means “ask” in Swahili, is a telephone service that leverages existing technologies in voice recognition, cloud-computing, and translation to provide access to information for the 4.5 billion people who are off-net or illiterate in a major internet language. It is currently being developed for market in East Africa by a team of graduate students at The Fletcher School, MIT, and UC Berkeley.

How does it work?

Anyone with a phone can call a toll-free number, ask a question in their own language, and receive an answer through an automated service, at no cost.

Caller experience:Uliza caller process Back-end experience:Uliza backend process

Why does it matter?

With only 5% of the world’s languages available on the internet, representing linguistic diversity online continues to be a major challenge. Uliza is one product in growing suite of tools which seek to bridge the information divide between networked and un-networked communities. The original three-person team behind Uliza — who collectively have more than a decade’s worth of experience working in East Africa — chose to roll out Uliza in Kenya due to the high adoption of mobile technology, even among low-income population, growing telecom industry, and a need to scale Swahili-language resources.   



Brittany Parker

Brittany Parker At the risk of outing herself as a flack among hacks, Brittany Parker comes to #PartNews from the world of strategic communications where she once managed “spontaneous tweets” for a group of former congressman on budget reform. A recovering campaign staffer, she has worked on local, statewide, and national races from Arkansas to Tel Aviv. Most recently, she served as press secretary for a think tank on US policy in the Middle East — which was the straw that broke the camel’s back into graduate school.

Now at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy, Brittany studies communications and civic participation, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to learning and working with with the impressive collective of MAS 700, she looks forward to telling her mother — a former reporter — about the future of news.

Brittany is a StartingBloc fellow and holds a BA in International Relations and Arabic from Washington University in St. Louis. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.