What is PIPs?
PIPs (Programme Information Platform) is the programme metadata system behind all of the BBC's online offerings, including BBC iPlayer, BBC Programmes and BBC Search. It is also used to supply programme metadata to the eRadio application on Red Button and going forward will be the source for all audience facing programme metadata distributed by the BBC.
As an aggregation platform for programme metadata, PIPs sits at the heart of the publishing chain, pulling together metadata from multiple sources both inside and outside the BBC. It might seem strange that the BBC should need to aggregate its own metadata, but the reality of separate divisions, platforms and processes means that everyone does things differently.
Most of our data (all TV and national and nations radio) is provided by Red Bee Media, but other parts of the BBC, such as World Service, self provide their own metadata. English local radio is another interesting example. For local radio the schedules are entered by a BBC team in Birmingham, using a scheduling system provided by Unique Interactive. In each case the metadata is then further embellished directly in PIPs by interactive production teams, who add things such as images, related links and other supporting content using the Programme Information Tool - an editor for PIPs data.
As you can imagine, with this many sources and destinations for the data if everyone talked directly to everyone else things would quickly become unmanageable and fragmented. PIPs takes the strain to simplify life for everyone else. We ingest data in multiple formats (TV-Anytime, DAB EPG and our own XML format) and over multiple protocols (HTTP and FTP). We then add nice web friendly IDs (the PID that you should recognise from BBC iPlayer and BBC Programmes) and make the data available to downstream systems in a single consistent way: a REST API and our own custom XML format.
As new sources come online, and there are plenty more to integrate - Archive, non-English World Service, Worldwide and News to name just a few - they "just work" downstream, at least from a metadata perspective. For example, when Local Radio was added to PIPs, BBC Programmes and BBC Search started publishing pages and generating results for all 40 stations automatically, with no changes required to their applications. Of course, they subsequently went on to make a few minor tweaks to deliver a better experience for users interested in those services, but they were icing the cake, not baking it again.
By using PIPs everyone has access to the same metadata with the same IDs, ensuring consistency and easy integration between platforms. Data sources can change, data exchange formats can be swapped and new sources can come online and noone needs to know the difference. PIPs adapts and everyone else carries on as normal, the details hidden behind a powerful abstraction.
Each [division] is empowered with the editorial autonomy they need to ensure we end up with a mix of content [...] At the same time, the sheer physical dislocation of these divisions means that they have evolved distinct production and distribution systems. The challenge is stitching these elements together so we don't expose our seams to the audience."
That's what PIPs does.
Jonathan Tweed is Product Manager, PIPs, BBC Future Media & Technology.