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The BBC’s radical new data plan takes aim at Netflix

Young people are watching much less of the BBC – less than an hour a day, according to data from Ofcom. They prefer streaming content, and Netflix is used weekly by 66 per cent of 15-24 year-olds in the UK. Just 28 per cent of them use BBC iPlayer.

The BBC has pledged to take action, and better, more secure, personalisation might be the key. The broadcaster has been placing greater emphasis on data-driven personalisation for its online services since 2017, when it began requiring users to be logged in to use iPlayer. More recently it has been pushing people to login to the BBC website to personalise the news they see.

Now the BBC has built an experimental system that allows BBC, Netflix and Spotify data to be combined to present people with personalised music, podcast and gig recommendations based on data they control. It’s hoped that, in the future, similar technologies could encourage younger people to engage with more BBC content.

Building new technology to drive views is a priority in online media. Netflix spent about $1.8 billion (£1.3bn) on tech development last year. The BBC has just £236 million allocated across all of its online services, including tech development for iPlayer. And while the national broadcaster isn’t subject to quite the same competitive commercial pressures as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, its recommendation engine has a more complicated job. As well as presenting quality entertainment, it’s in the BBC’s remit to expose its audience to a broad range of content. “If personalisation or recommendations are making people's access to any content difficult,” says Tom Harrington, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis, ”and therefore [limiting their exposure to] new ideas, programmes that are socially important … the BBC is failing at one of its core jobs.”

But the BBC has bigger ambitions. A crack team of BBC researchers has been working on a project that would allow you to save and import everything online services know about your viewing and listening habits, and use that data to create customised recommendations of series to watch, music to listen to and gigs to go to.

Specifically, they’ve been building technologies on top of Solid, an open-source Personal Data Store (PDS) developed by Inrupt, to provide a model of how you can have personalised services based on shared data that you control. The work has been led by BBC Research and Development’s personal data products lead Eleni Sharp and principal engineer Bill Thompson.

Solid is built around personal ‘pods’, controlled by a user, who grants permission to external apps and services to read and write data to them. Pods can be set up on a specialist hosting service, or self-hosted by more tech-savvy users. The BBC has called its project My PDS. 

Sharp says people in focus groups repeatedly said that they were “in too deep with the data, that they didn't know what to do, they felt like it was out of control.” “Holding people's personal data in order to be able to shape your services carries regulatory risk,” Thompson adds. “The security model that we are implementing around the demo of My PDS, we think, reduces that level of risk.”

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The main benefit users identified from the My PDS project was that it gave the ability to see and organise the data services held on them. To the team’s surprise, the user groups immediately understood the benefits of the data store model.

My PDS pulls in viewing data from Netflix, your listening data from Spotify, and iPlayer and Sounds history from the BBC and. It gives users control over how they share and use very specific sets of personal data, but the original copies of that data are still held by Netflix, Spotify and the BBC. The experimental app invites users to create a Solid pod or sign into an existing one, and grant My PDS permission to read and write data to your pod. Using existing APIs, the team built connectors to pull in data from Spotify and BBC online accounts, and provide an option to manually import a Netflix viewing history.

This is used to create a media profile. At the backend, the user’s imported media consumption is stored in the user’s pod as a series of datasets for different types of media and their interactions with it. At the My PDS app’s frontend, you’re then prompted to give the BBC Sounds app access to your media profile. Tweak its access to your profile to exclude anything you don’t want it to use, launch it, and the BBC Sounds recommendation tool pops up with some suggested radio streams and even forthcoming gigs you might like to attend.

If all services, from Twitter to Amazon, were only able to store and access data by and about you in a pod that you controlled, using open standards, this would make your user history more portable, and far easier to revoke access rights to. As it stands, the My PDS proof-of-concept demo does not do that. My PDS has a number of different profiles – media, health, finance – where you can see your own stored data. There’s also a dashboard providing an overview of what data is accessed by which services and some user insights based on that data – your bank balance, a step counter – and an app store full of tools that can use the data you keep about yourself.

Almost all of this is hypothetical set dressing, an idea of what an app acting as a single point of control for your personal data store could be like. My PDS is really home to a functional vertical slice of what our interactions with online services could become: a recommendation engine that suggests BBC Sounds content a user might be interested in, based on their viewing and listening habits, while leaving the user in control of how their data is used.

Thompson says that exploring better ways to tackle personalisation and user data management is core to the BBC’s mission. Not to just accept the online environment as it is, but to shape it around public service needs. My PDS is never going to be a real, public-facing app, but we might get to use its successors. By showing that the technology works and that the audience both understands and needs it, Thompson says, the team is hoping to stimulate other people to get involved in developing for the personal data store space.

And for the BBC, it could mean gathering more data about what people are interested in. "It's an opportunity to know a lot more about the audience,” Sharp says. “With something like this, we can get much more granular.”

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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