ASU students build new Alexa 'skills' at Audio Hackathon

Alexa — Amazon’s voice-activated smart assistant — has quickly risen in popularity as a household name for individuals and families across the world. 

From providing news and updates to setting the kitchen timer, sharing the latest weather report and more, Alexa can complete over 100,000 voice-driven capabilities, which Amazon brands as skills. And today, one of the most commonly used type of skills are flash briefings.

'Alexa, play my flash briefing'

Defined by Amazon as “a quick overview of news and other content such as comedy, interviews and lists,” flash briefings are growing in popularity among news outlets as a way to deliver top stories in short, audio formats. Leading news outlets with flash briefings include CNN, The New York Times, NPR and Arizona State University's own Cronkite News 2 Go.

To help journalism students learn similar skills to better prepare them for the evolving workforce, Cronkite News, part of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, teamed up with the University Technology Office to host the university's first Audio Hackathon.

To kick off the hackathon, students were invited to an Alexa skill-building workshop, led by UTO’s Carter Kwon. During the 45-minute workshop, students were provided an in-depth overview of flash briefings and listened to examples played through an Echo device. Students were then given a tutorial on how to create their own flash briefing skill using Amazon’s Skills Blueprints, which provides an easy-to-use template to build, record and publish a flash briefing. 

Video of Cronkite Audio Hackathon creates new Flash Briefings for Alexa

Christina Leonard, the executive editor of Cronkite News, joined the workshop and shared her recommendation for story building, noting, “We had a graduate student do a project that looked specifically at flash briefings and the recommendations (given) were to keep them to three to five minutes.”

Leonard answered other students’ questions and shared how Cronkite News is exploring adding video elements to their flash briefing that will be avilable on the Echo Show. 

'Skill' building for the future of work 

Students were given a week to develop their own flash briefing. 

Alexis Cortez, a senior studying sports journalism, knows that Arizona has no shortage of sports for fans to enjoy. However, between busy schedules, there isn’t always time to keep up, so she created a "Cronkite Sports AZ" flash briefing to provide sport highlights of the day for fans across Arizona.

"Exploring the flash briefings with the Alexa skills helped me to try something new that I had never done before. It was a great experience and I am open to doing more flash briefings in the future,” Cortez said.

Emma VandenEinde, a senior studying journalism, recognizes that people are constantly bombarded with endless news cycles. So she created a "Good News of the Day" flash briefing to highlight short, 400-word positive stories across a variety of topics for listeners to enjoy while also learning something new.

In her example, listeners learn about one photographer's efforts to save the Polymita snails using photographs to educate farmers in the area to spot the snails and leave them unharmed.

Winners of the Audio Hackathon will be announced on March 19 and will receive an Echo Show.

Annie Davis
adavi111@asu.edu