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BBC World Service future-proofs its news apps to match tech boom in Africa

BBC World Service future-proofs its news apps to match tech boom in Africa

Ashley Nguyen | June 17, 2015

Updated 6/17/2015 at 9:20 a.m. EST

In August 2014, a BBC Connected Studio team traveled to four countries in Africa with one goal in mind: To future-proof BBC for the changes happening in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The group set out to find local tech partners who could help organize hackathon-like events to expand BBC’s Connected Studio into Africa. Connected Studio, the news outlet’s innovation program for digital media, works with tech companies to develop and pilot products with potential for use within the BBC ecosystem.

But with 100 events under its belt, the Connected Studio hadn’t gone beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Africa, with its evolving tech landscape and large BBC audience, seemed like a good place to start outside the U.K.

“Africa is currently the biggest continent in terms of being the biggest audience driver for the BBC internationally,” BBC World Service Digital Development Editor Dmitry Shishkin told IJNet. “We obviously want to keep that audience, but also want to grow the audience. We realize that the audience is undergoing huge technological change. Currently we’re reaching these audiences through TV, radio and online, but we know the growth will be online.”

BBC World Service has already invested a lot of resources into expanding its digital presence in Africa, where it reaches more than 100.4 million people every week across 48 countries. In January, BBC launched an Africa-facing homepage so that when users visit bbc.com, they’ll see more headlines about their continent. After the change, unique users from Africa rose by 10 percent, Shishkin said. In late March, BBC Africa added a live page where reporters post snippets of the day’s big stories in real time.

The organization also knows that some of Sub-Saharan Africa is moving away from short-wave radio, ignoring the desktop, and relying on their mobile phones to access BBC content.

To reach the African population on the platforms where they’re migrating, the BBC needed help from the continent's news consumers. Connected Studio hosted two events with local support in Nairobi, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa with hopes of tackling three issues: Language technology, the distribution of news on social and mobile platforms and the distribution of audio.

At each event, participants were given a challenge along with access to various BBC APIs (application programming interfaces), which enables the participants to build upon existing BBC tech. 

In February at the World Service Nairobi Hack, 13 teams were tasked with developing ways of reaching younger mobile users throughout Kenya. Judges at the event, held at the local at iHubselected two winning teams: Go Sheng Services, an organization that safeguards Kenya’s Sheng language and culture, and Ongair, a company that helps businesses communicate using messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

Later, in April, BBC held a Development Studio in Cape Town in collaboration with RLabs, a skills and training studio based in a city suburb called Athlone. This time, teams focused on how to distribute audio in a cost-effective way. (Mobile news consumption is growing in South Africa but data remains expensive.) The winning team, RLabs Catch Up, developed a “widget which allows you to distribute BBC Minute in a very seamless way,” Shishkin explained.

The winning teams from both events will spend six months developing and prototyping their ideas while receiving funding and guidance from BBC. Shishkin said a few other projects produced in Nairobi and Cape Town were selected as feasibility studies, meaning the organization will explore the potential of the proposals before deciding whether or not to go forward with the ideas. Shishkin said one measure of success will be how scalable the projects are to other countries.

Jacqui Maher, an interactive journalist working with BBC News Labs who helped out with Cape Town’s Development Studio, noted the importance of where these prototypes are being created.

“Instead of having a bunch of people in London sitting around a boardroom thinking, ‘Oh, how can we get more eyeballs or ears on our stuff in Sub-Saharan Africa,’ [we’re] actually going to Sub-Saharan Africa and working with people who live there,” Maher said.

Main image of winning contestant Kurt Appolis of RLabs Catch Up courtesy BBC World News Service.

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