When he’s evaluating the BBC’s ongoing expansion efforts into Asia and Africa, BBC digital development editor Dmitry Shishkin finds himself returning to one question: “Is our content good enough for someone to skip lunch for?”
The line emerged after a conversation he learned that people Kenya regularly skip meals in an effort to save money to spend on internet data. For Shishkin, the concern gets at the heart of one of the central questions for the BBC World Service as it ramps up expansion into Africa and southern Asia: How can the BBC create content for these markets while being conscious of the on-the-ground realities of people’s lives there, particularly those that relate to money, internet access, language and cultural differences?
To ensure that the BBC gets things right in India, where the first of its new sites went live in October, BBC Connected Studio, the organization’s innovation unit, is partnering with local technology companies to come up with solutions to some of its biggest technology challenges — specifically those that relate to personalization and what it calls “anytime content.” In November, the BBC made a call-out to local tech companies, requesting proposals for project ideas that would help it serve more relevant content to smartphone users across South Asia. Beyond geographic personalization, the BBC is also looking for tools that would let it curate content for users, as well as other ways of personalizing content based on users’ habits and reading routines. (It isn’t, however, interested in apps or editorial ideas.) Ideally, these solutions would be ones that the BBC could deploy more broadly in other markets.
“Ultimately, what we’re looking for are technical solutions that our journalists and producers can reuse in other languages all around the world,” Shishkin said. “It’s mainly about ways of delivery and of packaging that are smart and that we don’t have as part of our product portfolio right now.”
The project is a product of the BBC’s GBP289 million expansion — its biggest since the 1940s — which it announced last November. As part of the growth, BBC World Service will launch 11 new language services in India and Africa (and one in South Korea) and hire more than 1,300 new staff members — all in an effort to help the organization reach 500 million people weekly on all platforms by 2022. The BBC’s focus on India and Africa is a recognition that the future growth in its readership will be dominated by non-English speakers consuming content on mobile devices.
Shishkin has high hopes for the India project, in large part because India is the most developed market his team has expanded to so far. “We are hoping that, by getting deep into the local tech scene, we will find interesting companies that will be interested in helping,” he said.
With its India experiment, BBC is learning from its experiences in Cape Town and Nairobi, where it ran 36-hour hackathons to help inspire the creation of new products. While the events in those two countries birthed BBC Minute CatchUP (an embeddable radio summary widget) and BBC Drop (a Tinder-like customizable responsive site), respectively, Shishkin and his team quickly realized that hackathons weren’t “the right way of doing it because it’s hard to come up with something brilliant and coded in that time. There’s just no point.”
Connected Studio switched things up with its third effort in Nigeria, where it piloted the process that it’s currently employing in India. There, the pitching process was more protracted: Companies first got a month to submit some initial questions and ideas. Those with the best ideas got access to some BBC systems and APIs, after which they submitted some project proposals. Shishkin said that the latter efforts resulted in higher quality submissions. In Nigeria and South Africa, the BBC highlighted just two out of 10 ideas that emerged from each country; in Nigeria, it developed three ideas.
Connected Studio hopes that its new proposal process will produce similar results in India, a country with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Language poses one big roadblock. While the country is home to 250 million people, 10 languages are spoken by more than 25 million people each. This diversity explains why personalization is core to what BBC is trying to do in India. While he was reluctant to preempt potential proposal ideas, Shishkin said that he could imagine developers pitching technology that could present readers content in different languages depending on where they’re reading from. “If we know that a reader is in the state of Maharashtra but they’re reading the BBC Hindi site, would it be possible to prompt them with something that says, ‘We also have content in Marathi’?” Shishkin said. “It’s all about providing audience with different types of content depending on where they are and what kind of mood they’re in.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via lau rey