In May 2005 the BBC launched a new developer network site initially called BBC Backstage, since re-named
backstage.bbc.co.uk. In doing so they put the call out for people to remix their content,
using their content RSS feeds and in future APIs. It marked a turning point for the BBC’s
already impressive online efforts, because with backstage.bbc.co.uk they effectively loosened their control over some BBC content.
As with the vast majority of feeds or APIs from big companies, the BBC’s come with
certain restrictions. For example, backstage.bbc.co.uk is
specifically for non-commercial use:
“backstage.bbc.co.uk is for individual developers and designers to build things
using BBC content and anyone who has an idea for how to use BBC content in new ways. It
is not for big corporates to play around with. backstage.bbc.co.uk is for non-commercial
use by the little people.”
It’s also worth noting that the reason BBC was able to release some of their
content to external developers is because of their government remit to “build public
Nevertheless, backstage.bbc.co.uk is a pointer to how big companies will open up their
data in future. So it’s a great case study for what I’m calling Microcontent
Low barriers to adoption and RSS
The first lesson from backstage.bbc.co.uk is to follow existing standards and make it
was easy as possible for developers to use their content. The main method that
backstage.bbc.co.uk uses to expose its data is RSS feeds. Here is the selection of RSS
feeds available at time of writing:
- News Feeds
- Sport Feeds
- BBC Community Feeds
- Travel Feeds
- Weather Feeds
- Entertainment Feeds
- Radio and Music feeds
- TV Channel Feeds
Note though that all of the RSS feeds have only excerpts, not full text. So this is
another restriction to backstage.bbc.co.uk. Nevertheless it’s a significant body of
content that has been made available, because there are around 500 unique pieces of news
posted each and every day from its network of over 5000 journalists.
One of the more interesting mashups that has been developed so far using backstage
data is a BBC News/Wikipedia mashup, which
mixes BBC news with links to Wikipedia articles. Its developer Stef Magdalinski
described it as “a more open [BBC] News Online”. The two main features
are that it “regexes out” capitalised phrases and acronyms, tests them
against a database of wikipedia topic titles, and if the phrase is a topic in wikipedia
then it’s turned into a hyperlink. It also “uses the technorati API to add a
sidebar of links to blogs referencing the story”, enabling users to see who else in
the blogosphere is talking about the story.
The BBC knows it’s important to release a wide set of APIs that reflect the range of
content on bbc.co.uk. At time of writing they have plans for two APIs: Search (BBC
Search, best links etc) and Postcoder (Query by geo-location data).
The Postcoder API actually brings to light an interesting fact about the BBC and their
content. The geo-location data for the Postcoder API is provided by a third party, the
Royal Mail. The problem is if the BBC provides co-ordinates of postcodes, then that would
undercut commercial services the Royal Mail has with other parties. This is an issue in
Britain, because geo-location is owned by various companies in the UK – whereas in
other countries that data is freely available to the public. So the BBC licences the
geo-location data and at the time of writing was unable to resyndicate it to third
parties via backstage.
Data ownership affects the BBC too
Just as mashup developers are ultimately at the whim of API providers, it’s
worth noting that sometimes API providers aren’t the ultimate data owner. In the
case of backstage.bbc.co.uk, its inability to license geo-location data has meant delays
in rolling out their Postcoder API.
And it’s not only APIs that are affected. A lot of the data on backstage,
including RSS feeds like Travel data, is actually provided by third parties. The BBC has
to license that data, in a way that lets them resyndicate it via backstage. Indeed a lot
of public-facing companies like BBC and Google often don’t own the data they
So ultimately, a lot of times the data owner needs to be convinced of the value of
opening up their data via APIs and web services.
BBC backstage Project Leader Ben Metcalfe
explained to me how they’ve been able to get data from third parties by
outlining the benefits to them of opening data up to backstage. He tells them it
will create innovation around their data. Plus with Intellectual Property rights staying
with the data owners, they are free to contact a successful mashup producer directly. For
example, Ben said that he’s pretty sure TeleAtlas (which owns some of the data used
in Google Maps) is keeping tabs on what people are doing with Google Maps.
Ben also told me this is the reason why almost all backstage data is provided to
developers on the condition it is used in a non-commercial manner. It’s so the actual
data owner does not miss out on commercial contracts directly.
As Ben noted:
“A lot of this stems from the fact we are a media organization and not a
technology company. Media, in the 21st centuary is about aggregating and buying in
content and that’s the case with the BBC. We buy in more and more and do in-house less
and less. And that’s reflected in our APIs – or feeds at least, for the time
So even though the aim is for BBC to create low barriers for adoption, this
isn’t as easy as it sounds! A lot of work has to be done to convince data owners of
the value of releasing their data into the Web 2.0 world, outside their control.
Second pic: Ben Metcalfe
To be continued…