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How the BBC creates relevant content through an open data model

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robin pembrookeRobin Pembrooke, Head of Product, BBC News & Weather Online, discusses how the world’s leading public broadcaster is aiming to deliver a multimedia news experience to the vast array of devices in use across the world.

Tony Hall, the new Director General of the BBC, has called on BBC News to double its global audience by 2022 to half a billion. Robin Pembrooke, Head of Product, BBC News & Weather Online, is one of the team charged with delivering on that vision. As the former Managing Director of Online and On-Demand at ITV and a former senior executive at Global Radio and Yahoo!, Pembrooke has been living and breathing the intense online battle for eyeballs for the best part of a decade.

To hit that half a billion target, BBC News needs to offer a great experience on a enormous array of mobile devices, juggling video, text and images everywhere from Mombasa to Mumbai to Melbourne. Pembrooke acknowledges this is a tough challenge. “Because we are delivering news across so many different territories, we are dealing with a vast array of different devices and connectivity speeds,” he says. “Our strategy is to offer a really rich baseline offer that is fully responsive and can be served in any of 30 languages and on any mainstream mobile device.”

That “rich baseline offer” is essentially all of the BBC’s top stories and articles in that region in the recipient’s language, embellished with video and image galleries, plus the ability to listen to the World Service live or watch the BBC’s live news channels.

By a “responsive solution”, Pembrooke means a web page that adapts on-the-fly to the viewer’s device and the browser, so images fit neatly on the screen and video plays at an appropriate resolution.  Much of the BBC’s prospective audience won’t have a 3G connection, let alone WiFi or 4G, so the broadcaster’s vast array of video content needs to be deployed judiciously.

“The thing we really hone in on is to make the core offering as lightweight and high performance as possible,” says Pembrooke. “We don’t send the high-res images all at once to the page, we progressively download them based on the device and the connection. Although video is a core part of the proposition, it is integrated into a responsive embedded player that scales to the size of the browser.” This task is far from trivial, particularly as BBC News’ ambition is to serve everything from mobile phones to desktop PCs from a single responsive code base.

Joined-up thinking

One of the BBC’s key advantages over many online media operations is its vast arsenal of original video and audio content. But, historically, this multimedia content has been produced by specialist teams focused on specific media, such as television or radio. “We know we can do a better job at surfacing the video and audio content produced for radio and TV broadcasts on our online products,” acknowledges Pembrooke. The BBC is using linked data and tagging tools to enable reporters to surface their work across radio, TV and online. “One of the first things we joined up was the breaking news tool, four months ago, so that we can send breaking news alerts to Twitter, Facebook and users of our app simultaneously”. In time, that tool could also drive the breaking news text that appears on the screen on the news channels.

At the same time, the BBC is tagging related content across radio, television and online. “We have got some trials running at the moment in Birmingham, which look at ways in which we can aggregate content from inside the BBC and outside the BBC around certain storylines,” says Pembrooke. “For example, when there were job cuts by Birmingham City Council and large employers in the region, we were able to create a storyline that aggregated the articles that had been written for the web site, using linked data, with the content that had been on Midlands Today, Birmingham WM, links from local press and opinions from social media.”

Although you can simply do a Google search to find related new stories, Pembrooke believes there is strong demand for curated storylines. “For breaking news and live events where the story is evolving, a storyline really works,” he says. “Where there is a lot going on in a compressed period of time, such as a helicopter crash, Mandela’s funeral or riots, we know that users really like a storyline as a way of tracking developments.”

An open data model

Working with other news organisations, such as PA, The Guardian and Google News, the BBC has published an “open data model” of the news, which it calls Storyline. “It provides a logical structure for how you associate storylines to different topics, but it also maps out how within storylines certain events happen, how a storyline changes over time and how storylines can relate to other storylines,” says Pembrooke.  “We have published it on the web and we ran a news hack day event where teams from organisations, such as Sky and the FT, were able to experiment with the tool. A lot of the ideas were around how you can use that data model to create experiences that join up TV and news consumption on mobile or tablet devices.”

That hack day confirmed Pembrooke’s belief that most people will prefer to interact with a personal device, such as a phone or a tablet, rather than the TV itself. “The direction of travel here is not a direct person-to-connected TV experience, but more around the way in which your personal device, using linked data, allows you to have joined up experiences across the two,” he says.

The BBC is experimenting with mobile apps that use its schedules to show content directly related to the live broadcast feed. “If I know, through the running order, that BBC News is currently talking about Syria, why couldn’t my BBC news app show me related content?” he says. “And, if I am listening to someone on the radio talking about the NHS is there a way in which I can use my app to choose to follow that story with the BBC?”