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Experiments with location-based content: BBC Open Air

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Dominic Tinley | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 26 August 2009

openair_home.jpgBBC Learning Innovations has been looking at new ways of providing location-based content on mobile phones. Under the working title BBC Open Air we've recently finished a demo website that combines events listings from the campaign Breathing Places with information from BBC Weather.

We first started looking at informal learning applications for mobile phones in 2004. At the time the technology was not widely available for any one of our ideas to become a reality. Skip forward to 2009 and not only can phones tell you where they are but on some newer phones this can all be done through the standard web browser.

The BBC Open Air demo uses the open source Gears software offered by Google to find out your location and pass this back as a search term to find relevant local information. At the moment Gears is supported on all phones running the open source Android operating system as well as newer Windows Mobile handsets. It's also available as a plug-in for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari on desktops, laptops and netbooks.

summary_openair.jpgIf you have one of these newer phones with built-in Gears support you don't need to install any additional applications to find content for where you are. The BBC Open Air demo is not like an iPhone app, it's a standard web page you can visit from any browser. And as we appreciate not all users have the latest phones it should degrade elegantly and let you search by postcode or place name.

Providing location-based content has long been a chicken and egg problem. There's not much incentive for a content producer to geotag new web pages when most search engines do very little with this extra detail. Similarly, there's not much incentive to create a pan-BBC site that enables users to search for content by location when there aren't many geotagged pages.

With BBC Open Air we wanted to build a complete demo with a location-based search at one end backed up with some useful content at the other. We considered various datasets and decided on combining Breathing Places, encouraging people to get closer to nature, with a local Weather result, essential related information for anyone venturing outdoors.

The user proposition is simple: go to www.bbcopenair.co.uk wherever you are and find the nearest relevant BBC content. At the moment that means the nearest places where you can get closer to nature but potentially we can add data from other learning campaigns or other bits of the BBC. We've designed the site with this in mind:

The first results page will give one result from each data set. You can then select 'more like this' to see just one type of result sorted by distance, or you can select 'all local results' to see all types of result in one list (which will obviously make more sense as we add more types of data to the site). For any given result you can click on 'details' for further info and a link to the original data.

Building this demo allows us to test and demonstrate the technical feasibility of finding a location using the core capabilities of new mobile devices rather than having to develop bespoke applications that a user must install. We can also test the overall concept and interface on potential users.

We've run some trials, found some bugs that need fixing, and already have good ideas about what should come next. For one thing since we built the demo Apple have added geolocation to the Safari browser on the iPhone so we want to add support for this.

We're collating all the feedback we receive which will inform recommendations about the further development of the demo into a fully-scalable live service and the future development of similar websites and mobile services. Please give it a try and send any feedback through the Open Air site.

Dominic Tinley is a Development Producer for BBC Learning Innovations

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