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"Location, location, location": Radio 1 Big Weekend Check-In Experiment

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James Simcock | 06:39 UK time, Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Within BBC Audio & Music Interactive, we've put a lot of effort into repurposing content and services originally created for desktop websites to make them fit for use on a mobile device.

Whilst this work provides for relatively engaging mobile sites, it misses a few of those things that make mobile such a buzz-word right now.

It's the contextual differences that potentially add something more interesting than a streamlined version of a website. Location-awareness is one of those differences.

When a user is 'mobile', i.e. on the move or out and about, offering services tailored to their current location can be a great way of aiding usability by filtering out unnecessary content and showing things that should be relevant in that time and space. It can also save some time and fiddly effort entering postcodes or addresses (predictive text doesn't tend to like postcodes!).

How does this fit with the BBC's radio services you may ask? Well it fits in many ways. We've served localised radio to our audiences via FM for many years, not to mention traffic and travel news tailored to your location. It makes perfect sense that we look to do this with our online services too.

By way of a trial, we looked at the uses of location most popular with mobile audiences right now, noting the numerous 'check-in' services that are really driving use. It may seem a little ego-centric to tell all your social-media contacts that you are somewhere special, but there is a level of kudos to be gained, ("look where I am!") and it can also be a very useful way to quickly find other friends who might be in the same place, without having to contact each one directly.

There are a number of such services available on most of the latest smartphones, including Foursquare, Gowalla, Google Places & Facebook Places - all being used in a similar way; "I just checked in to (insert place here)". By way of an experiment therefore, we decided to see if we could make such a service possible using web-browser functions - bypassing the need for users to download and install an application, which can be prohibitively expensive to develop, and not ideal for something that only exists for a short time.

The Radio 1 Big Weekend offered the perfect opportunity to try this. We know the line-up in detail, and where each stage is located, and we know the audience has an appetite for 'sharing their pride' via social networks. Some research was conducted to see which platform would reach the most users, and somewhat unsurprisingly Facebook was in the top slot.

Working together with Facebook, we managed to find an approach that would work via the browser for a large number of the latest smartphones (iPhones and Android devices primarily, more will support this type of function in the very near future). Being something very new for the BBC, we invited a few external mobile experts to tender for the build, eventually selecting Future Platforms to assist with the technical execution of this experiment.

Here's a quote from Client Services Director at Future Platforms, Sergio Falletti:

We built the Check In product as an HTML5 web app because it gave us the best compromise between the flexibility and client-side functionality. Given the project's timescales and experimental nature, iterating native apps for iPhone and Android would have been too inflexible and time consuming - HTML5 allowed us to target both platforms with the same code-base... We however needed access to client-side APIs for location lookups and to integrate with Facebook's services. The former is well supported in HTML5. The latter (Facebook integration) could have been handled server-side, but performance and data security considerations make client-side processing preferable."

Along the way we've encountered quite a few challenges, not least the data security considerations that Sergio mentions, but also around the technical limitations of the check-in process. As we wanted users to be able to check-in not to the location as such, but the artist currently playing on a specific stage at the event, we needed to find a way to change the 'place' that the user would check into each time the artist on stage changed. This could mean that the user would be checking in repeatedly to the same physical place, but there would be no point adding a status update to their newsfeed saying "I'm here", "I'm here again", "I'm here again".

radio 1 big weekend mobile check in

The way we got around this problem was to have the user check into a URL rather than a physical location. We assign a location to each URL, but have a separate URL for each band/artist that could be performing. This requires some active management of the 'places' throughout the day, so Future Platforms also created a simple web-based interface for us to create/edit those places during the event. Best intentions aside, we can never guarantee that an artist won't change their time slot or not show for some reason - so this flexibility had to be built into the system.

We also had to deal with the graphical challenges of presenting the title 'CHECKIN' without people reading it as 'CHICKEN'. Cue chicken jokes... Why did the Chicken cross the road? To check-in to his favourite artist at the Big Weekend of course!

chicken logo from radio 1 big weekend

Then there's the site itself. We were very pleased to note that several of the mobile network operators have added extra cell-masts to the area to improve mobile reception.

Although that should mean users can access mobile websites no problem, those cell-masts, being temporary, may not have location-information assigned to them, meaning that it might be necessary for users to turn on their device's GPS to accurately locate them. We'll have to wait and see how that works - there's a reason we wanted to experiment with this before considering such services as core to the BBC's mobile offerings.

We hope that a lot of folks in the audience at Radio 1's Big Weekend will try the service, quickly and easily showing their loyalty to their favourite artists to their Facebook friends, sharing links to the wealth of artist and event info on the corresponding desktop and mobile websites and generally spreading the love. Whether they do or not, we'll be monitoring the amount of activity around each stage and reporting back our findings to the rest of the BBC.

If you'd like to see more of this kind of thing, and you're heading to Carlisle for the Big Weekend, then don't forget your smartphone - the BBC needs you!

Richard Morland also talks about creating the Radio1 Big Weekend Check In project.

James Simcock is Executive Producer, Mobile, Audio & Music Interactive

N.B. This post was initially published under the wrong name. This was entirely due to my error. My apologies to James, Richard Morland and readers.

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