BBC R&D is exploring how the BBC can deliver additional benefits to licence fee payers in the Internet era, beyond the current suite of broadcast, online and mobile products, by providing novel services underpinned by the BBC’s values and the trusted management of personal data.
Project from - present
When the BBC was created in 1926, the first Charter said: "We deem it desirable that the service should be developed and exploited to the best advantage and in the national interest." Since then the BBC has been integral to everything from the development of a UK broadcasting infrastructure that ensures universal accessibility to radio and television, to the creation of services like CEEFAX, bbc.co.uk, Bitesize, Weather Watchers, and mobile apps for News, Sport and a range of children's games.
The first wave of innovation was in radio, where BBC engineers turned a technology capable of transmitting audio over the airwaves into a medium for entertainment, information and education. This was followed by a major contribution to the development of television, first as a technology for reliably transmitting sound and vision and then to its emergence as a complementary medium to film, theatre and radio.
The third wave of technical innovation began in 1997 with the launch of BBC Online. The BBC's online activity now includes a world-beating website; streaming audio and video through BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds; and a wide range of online services and mobile apps that reach very large audiences and help to inform, educate, and entertain.
Within BBC R&D we are looking forward, in line with the obligation in the current (2017) Charter to "promote technological innovation, and maintain a leading role in research and development, that supports the effective fulfilment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purposes."
That means continuing our transformative work to explore how the BBC can make most effective use of the internet to support programme distribution while also looking at ways the BBC and other organisations with public service remits could provide 'data services'. These 'data services' are things the BBC could do that work only online, and not just as a way to deliver programmes over the network, and allow the development of a new generation of online applications with the safe stewardship of personal data at their centre.
Our research agenda focuses on services that would be distinct from BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds. We want to determine what they might look like, how they could be supported, and what value they could offer to audiences and the broader digital economy, in the UK and worldwide. We are especially interested in how we translate the BBC's impact as a broadcaster into the design of effective online services that have widespread appeal.
We believe these services will need a platform to host them and a set of tools to create them. To offer real value, they will need to work with data of many different types and sensitivities. They will also require a path to audiences over the internet and the devices attached to it, and we want to understand what that might be and how it might operate at scale.
We are also interested in the range of creative design and engineering skills that would be needed to deliver services that meet the BBC's obligations to public service while safeguarding public trust in the BBC. We want to understand what this would entail and what overlap there could be with existing broadcasting systems.
The New Forms of Value research programme is looking at all of these aspects. The impetus to do this derives from the BBC's responsibility to deliver a universal service that meets its public service goals and counters the negative traits that today's internet pervades, ultimately creating safe spaces online for audiences.
What do we mean by 'Value'?
Our approach to value goes beyond simply measuring how many people use BBC programmes and for how long. That current approach to measurement may work in the broadcast world, but it cannot be assumed to apply to online services where interactivity and engagement are key. How, then, can we measure the value of the things that the BBC does online?
Our central hypothesis is that we can develop technologies that bring together both individual and societal value in ways that respect the BBC's values as an organisation and wider human values; ways that benefit the public and support the BBC's mission. These new technologies may result in new forms of user experience or enhance current forms.
We are addressing this question from three different perspectives: personal, societal, and industrial. This requires research across a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, anthropology and engineering; each addressed by different workstreams within the programme. This work is brought together to provide us with a means to measure and articulate the value of our interventions to individuals, society and industry respectively.
How it works
The New Forms of Value programme currently has five workstreams:
1. Human Data Interaction (services, platform, and partnership):
Exploring how the BBC might develop a data platform that can combine personal data held in a user-controlled secure repository with other non-personal data from a variety of sources; plus user testing a range of applications built for that platform. Through this, we intend to develop models for trusted participation and privacy-preserving exchange of data through a variety of demonstrators and partnerships.
2. Human Data Interaction (research agenda):
An emerging interdisciplinary area of research that aims to put humans at the centre of the data flows in their lives by providing clear mechanisms through which people can interact with these systems. BBC R&D's programme of research is committed to developing technologies that support digital rights concerning personal data and creating meaningful and accountable interactions between people, data, and digital systems.
3. Public Service Augmented Reality:
The BBC needs to keep abreast of potentially disruptive technology like Augmented Reality headsets; explore the possible applications for our current media output and look to push the bounds of what 'Public Service' may look like in a fully mediated world. This work exists to help the BBC make an informed and pragmatic decision on the application of 'reality' technologies. By generating, consolidating and sharing expertise, fostering relationships and supporting cutting-edge exemplars of use cases for this technology, we look to explore the adjacent possible of Public Service in a fully mediated world.
4. Digital Wellbeing - a Human Values Framework:
This research casts the BBC's existing public purposes in a form that can be understood within the context of people's everyday lives and personal journeys. BBC R&D aims to develop tools that use the vocabulary of individual needs and values to help inform the design of future services. Re-thinking the way our audiences are informed, educated and entertained, we aim to inform the creation of value-driven metrics that are valid and reliable for demonstrating the success of delivering the public purposes in an internet age. In doing so, we can create and characterise services in terms of the values they satisfy, rather than relying on conventional metrics.
5. Designing for Public Value:
We are aiming to discover what "New Forms of Value" might be in concert with our users, particularly aiming to develop services, products and experiences that enhance audience well-being. Our initial areas of focus will be: shared, communal and mutual experiences (something the BBC has traditionally done with broadcast); new ways of making technology legible and controllable (again, the BBC attempts to explain the world); and looking beyond the average user and embracing the outliers (to reflect the diversity found in today's society).
More workstreams are being developed through our extensive partnerships network of universities and other public organisations, and we are collaborating closely with other parts of the BBC that are interested in these areas, especially around the impact of new technologies on our audiences.
Why it matters
The Internet, in its early days, was considered a place for innovation and seen as a neutral environment where anyone could play. Over the years its ability to host and carry a wide variety of services has resulted in many essential amenities moving online, and we now rely on the network in our daily lives.
However, the academic internet has evolved into a commercial marketplace that uses personal data as a commodity to be traded. There are many examples where people's trust in the network, or what they find there, has been betrayed. We see online fraud, abuse, toxic social media, misinformation and disinformation, and widespread surveillance, along with a growing concern over the harm that can come to those who spend time online.
As a non-commercial research department with an obligation to explore emerging technologies for the good of licence fee payers, the UK and the world, BBC R&D is well-placed to apply public service considerations to the online environment for the betterment of society and to develop a new range of tools and services that provide real value to audiences.
People & Partners
Principal Research Engineer
Head of North Lab and Connected Studio
Executive Product Manager
User Experience Principal
Senior "firestarter" Producer