BBC R&D

Posted by Bill Thompson, Rhianne Jones on , last updated

As part of our research into the future development of the Internet and ways it can be enhanced to deliver public value, BBC R&D is exploring new ways of storing and using data, especially personal data, and the potential benefits they could bring.

One project we’re working on is to define, build, and test what we’re internally calling a BBC Box. This is our working name of a prototype device that pulls together data about yourself into one place. It is powered by a Raspberry Pi computer and runs using the Databox personal data management system.

We’re using the BBC Box experiment - as well as other projects within the BBC (and with our partners), to explore what potential services the BBC (and others) could provide people in the future linked to their personal data. An important part of these experiments includes the ability for people to move their personal data around and use it in different ways. - something the new data protection law, GDPR, makes possible. We want to see what it could mean in practice.

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The storage and use of personal data is rightly, a topic of enormous interest and people are concerned about what their data is and isn’t used for. Participants in this project have actively chosen to be part of the trial and they are at the centre of the service, with full control of what data is stored about them and how it is used.

With a secure Databox at its heart, BBC Box offers something very unusual and potentially important: it is a physical device in the person’s home onto which personal data is gathered from a range of sources, although of course (and as mentioned above) it is only collected with the participants explicit permission, and processed under the person’s control.

Personal data is stored locally on the box’s hardware and once there, it can be processed and added to by other programmes running on the box - much like apps on a smartphone. The results of this processing might, for example be a profile of the sort of TV programmes someone might like or the sort of theatre they would enjoy. This is stored locally on the box - unless the person explicitly chooses to share it. No third party, not even the BBC itself, can access any data in ‘the box’ unless it is authorised by the person using it, offering a secure alternative to existing services which rely on bringing large quantities of personal data together in one place - with limited control by the person using it.

The BBC Box and accompanying app on a tablet.

The stores of personal data on the box can, with the participants permission, be queried and processed together - potentially helping generate otherwise unattainable insights by, for example, combining data from TV viewing history, social media activity, and a fitness tracker. Because all data about the user stored on the box device is processed locally, without ever leaving the box, it is a secure space for exploration and discovery.

What have we been using this for?

Our first two BBC Box apps explore different ways in which personal data could be used to deliver value to people.  In the first, participants store a copy of their data from various internet services such as BBC iPlayer, Spotify, and Instagram on their local, physical BBC Box. Having this data under a participant's control on one device is highly unusual and potentially disruptive, since this particular aggregation of data about the person exists nowhere else in the world – just on their BBC Box. It is also unusual because the data can only be processed on the BBC Box, and no third parties can access it without permission - not even the BBC.

A screenshot of the Box app showing a variety of services available on it.

Once this data has been gathered, the participant can run apps on the BBC Box to process it locally, which creates insightful visualisations for the participant to reflect on. We have developed a Profiler app that uses this data to create an anonymised profile of the person using the BBC Box that indicates what sort of cultural activities they might enjoy.

This profile can be exported from the BBC Box - if the person allows it - to a recommendations system that uses this unique, local, aggregation of data about a person to offer them a series of “You might like…” recommendations, including programmes on BBC iPlayer and interesting upcoming events from the local area.

A second BBC Box app - a travel companion, uses open data together with personal data to deliver on-demand and tailored content and information about places you might want to visit in the world. This app goes one step further than our first pilot, by exploring how two BBC Box participants could collaborate with one another to decide on a joint holiday destination in a way that still protects their privacy.

Screenshot of the travel companion app which is showing locations two people are interested in visiting for holiday.

Each person enters their own preferences into their individual BBC Box to generate a list of potential holidays. Two or more sets of preferences can then be combined to create shared options for consideration. You may not want to share the reason you don’t want to visit a particular country or city - perhaps you went there with a former partner or don’t agree with its policies - and with this service you don’t need to.

These are just modest first steps. We plan to explore additional use cases with BBC Box. For example, what about health and fitness data? Or a BBC Box-based video and text messenger for parents and their children? Or real-time quizzes and polls that support new types of public participation with BBC programming?" Perhaps even the ability to share some of your data with charities that you support to help them in their work?

A screenshot of a health app.

We want to understand more about how data science techniques that currently require the use of data aggregated from multiple people can be delivered via the BBC Box approach, which emphasises local processing - and puts the person at the heart of it. And we want to know about the pros and cons of an in-home, physical device approach to the personal data store, versus cloud-based approaches.

Could new public services based on data portability, reflection, active mediation of the open Internet, and secure, decentralised communication persuade the public that it's worth investing time into an alternative future which uses data, ones which provide greater visibility and control over data along with greater value?

It’s a huge challenge, but one we’re keen to explore.

With additional material from Chris Sizemore

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This post is part of the Future Experience Technologies section

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