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a journey through data: exploring the digital public space

It’s time to spill the beans on something we’ve been up to recently for the BBC. We’ve been helping them with their Digital Public Space project, a partnership between the BBC and other public institutions to provide a single access point for the UK’s public archives.

This is an ambitious and worthy goal. It’s also something that will of course take some time to achieve. The BBC asked us to build a prototype that could be used to help understand the data and how it all links together. This will then help inform the project as it evolves.

In the BBC blog post linked above, Mo from the BBC makes it clear that one goal is to have one set of data and many prototype user interfaces. We knew the BBC would do a great job of making a BBC-style interface that follows their Global Experience Language, so we decided to do something a little bit different and approach it from a totally different angle.

What we’ve therefore built is not a web site, but a data browser. A fun, colourful and fluid one though. This is MetaBroadcast ;)

In so doing we’ve emphasised the connections between data, which will prove useful to the BBC and its partners in exploring, visualising and understanding what data exists and what connections exist between the data sets provided by the different institutions. This is not something that will be immediately available to a general audience, so we’ve focussed on things that we think are of use to those trying to get a feel for and understand the underlying data, from those who produce it (e.g. librarians, archivists) to those who use it frequently (e.g. researchers, curators).

In common with much of its archive explorations to date, the BBC supplied a core data model based around collections, people, places, events and things. They also mapped a number of data sets to this model, provided an API to get at the data and a set of user stories. We then integrated this with our Atlas video and audio index to find related videos.

dps prototype: people pages

Around the core data browser, we built a search interface, a way for users to put together lists of their favourite things and ways to navigate through the data by time. Search is a little bit clever. Not only does it show things that match your search term, it also shows you other items related to those directly matching items. This way search results are no longer flat but, together with connected items, show context two levels deep. It is our bet that peeking at the universe around a search result is truer to real life and its patterns. We think it will help people to better navigate increasingly overwhelming amounts of data, ultimately enabling them to take better decisions.

dps prototype: 2 levels search results

Lists can be used to collect your favourite items so that you can always find them again quickly. You could create a list on a certain topic or theme, say to help curate an exhibition, write a research paper or, perhaps one day, plan a school lesson. We also show lists from other users of the prototype and a list of items liked by other people. This is potentially a great mechanism for storytelling, both by a future audience and by the partner institutions themselves. The ability to pull together seemingly unrelated concepts into user-definable narrative strands could provide a limitless variety of quality journeys through the content, helping people explore and discover what’s there, hopefully learning something new in the process. We think this is a really important area and one that would be fascinating to explore further.

dps prototype: lists curated by users

As mentioned above, you can also browse the data by time. Though not the only way to browse through archives, and perhaps an obvious one, we believe that time is still an important navigation metaphor for browsing through large archive data sets. It provides not only great context, but also exposes many surprising juxtapositions. Things you didn’t know both happened “around this time”, allowing for pages similar to Wikipedia’s 1963 in the United Kingdom and 1963 in the United Kingdom, May – August.

dps prototype: time-based navigation

It’s been great to work with the BBC on this. As a project it’s right in our sweet spot, aggregating large amounts of data and devising novel ways present it back in an engaging fashion. Speaking personally, it’s also been a treat. As you may know, I recently left the BBC to join MetaBroadcast. It’s incredible that my first project turned out to be something so closely related to the work I had been doing at the BBC. Making the most of the BBC’s archive is still something very close my heart and so it’s great to have worked on this forward-looking prototype. It’s a project with an exciting future and we’re delighted to have been involved at this early stage.

For more info about the BBC’s Digital Public Space, contact Jake Berger: jake dot berger at bbc dot co dot uk

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