NEW APP TO HELP USERS ‘ADVOCATE SMARTER’ FOR ISRAEL by Esther D. Kustanowitz Nov. 5, 2015
from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles (on line)
For those who are connected to “The Israel Conversation,” every event in the Holy Land — and every criticism that follows — can send shockwaves through our world.
Now a new app called Talk Israel hopes to help the pro-Israel community “advocate smarter,” as its App Store description promises, by providing a personal stream of “digital content from dozens of sources tailored to your personal preferences and interests.” The app (available at talkisrael.org/app) launched in September and has a few thousand users, more than 20 percent of whom use the app daily, according to its founders.
The genesis of the idea came about a year ago, according to co-founders Amir Give’on and Gadi Rouache. Talk Israel’s goal is to disperse a broad base of pro-Israel content.
“Our thesis is that everyone advocates for Israel in their own way,” said Rouache, a creative entrepreneur and Talk Israel’s chief creative officer, who lives in Pico-Union. He described the app as “advocacy for the contemporary advocate; there are many lines along which to connect.”
Rouache holds dual American and Israeli citizenship and met Give’on through their participation in BINA LA, a young professionals group now under the auspices of the Israeli-American Council (IAC). He explained the many lenses through which people can view Israel-related content.
“From technology to agriculture, the legal components of international law and human rights, culture ... we don’t want to be proscriptive in giving people content,” Rouache said. “If my interest is in technology, there are things that might be useful to my conversation. The content we’re looking for is content based off of your personal style and interest.”
Personal interest initially is based on information gleaned from users’ Facebook profiles, which indicate which forums or groups they participate in. As users read, save and share content from the app, Talk Israel creates a “personal pocketbook of advocacy,” Rouache said.
Give’on, CEO of Talk Israel and a native Israeli who currently lives in Silver Lake, clarified that the app isn’t meant to be hasbarah, a term for Israel advocacy that he said is mostly reactive, happening when someone needs to defend Israel. Instead, it’s intended as a tool that provides advocates with the content that they care about.
Give’on explained that Talk Israel isn’t interested in what users “tell us they care about, but what they show us they care about.” It uses the data of what type of content and subject matter users share, how far down they read and more to customize the stream. “We measure everything,” he said.
The app acts as an aggregation and distribution channel for pre-existing content. It collects information about users’ preferences, analyzing the data to provide people with the content they want most. Content delivery is based on an algorithm that recommends content, just like Pandora, Netflix and Hulu, Give’on said.
Give’on, an aerospace engineer by training and an entrepreneur by passion (he also is the co-founder and CEO of Jewish crowdfunding site Jewcer), had been working with Rouache on machine learning-based news aggregation for about a year when they realized it could be a great tool to help Israel. This past June, they pitched the project to Hadas Sella, executive director of the Milstein Family Foundation, who understood the app’s potential impact.
“When something happens in Israel, everyone goes to a bunch of websites and tries to find things they can share,” Sella said in a phone interview. “By putting everything in one place, it’s easier to share.”
Talk Israel, she said, would create one place for all the pro-Israel content.
“It is meant to make learning about Israel, the points you need to know, more easy, fun and engaging,” she added.
Sella connected the Talk Israel team with the IAC as the main funder, allowing Rouache and Give’on to begin work in earnest, with the addition of co-founder and chief technology officer Daphna Wegner (who lives in Irvine) doing the programming.
“Ultimately, we want Talk Israel to be a collaboration with as many organizations as possible. It’s not a for-profit venture; it’s just about getting the good content at the right time,” Sella said.
But who decides what content is good or even pro-Israel?
Give’on defines it rather broadly as “anything that is about Israel and shows Israel in a positive way” and that is “not against Israel’s existence.”
Content comes from a list of 60 to 100 resources, including social media channels. Rouache said that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, apartheid and human rights — all hot-button subjects in the conversation on Israel — all are categories on the app, so users can indicate a preference to receive articles on those topics specifically.
Currently, the team has staff members on board who monitor various news and content outlets, but users can recommend additional content sources for inclusion (instructions are available in Talk Israel’s “Submit Content” section).
Next step for the app, its founders say, is a dashboard for content creators. “It’s a living thing,” Give’on said. “We need to know what users want, what publishers want, and what kind of data and analysis they want.”
“The idea is to get it into the hands of advocates and develop it into something that’s useful,” Rouache said. “We launched the minimum viable product to then get answers about what the best features are.”
Give’on assumes that the main starting audience will be anyone who loves to talk about Israel.
“That it’s a mobile, younger generation first is a safe assumption.”