Tag nature

Publishing to the iPad

NPG recently launched a new iPad app Nature Journals – an app that allows us to distribute journal content to iPad users. I thought it might be interesting to highlight a few of the design decisions we took and discuss why we took them.

"Magazines to Read" by Long Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

“Magazines to Read” by Long Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

Most publishers when they make an iPad magazine tend to design a skeuomorphic digital facsimile of their printed magazine – they build in lots of interactive features but build it using similar production processes as for print and make it feel like a print magazine. They layout each page (actually they need to layout each page twice one for landscape and one for portrait view) and then produce a big file to be distributed via Apple’s app store.

This approach feels very wrong to me. For starters it doesn’t scale well – every issue needs a bunch of people to layout and produce it; from an end users point of view they get a very big file and I’ve seen nothing to convince me most people want all the extra stuff; and from an engineering point of view the lack of separation of concerns worries me. I just think most iPad Magazines are doing it wrong.

Now to be clear I’m not for a moment suggesting that what we’ve built is perfect – I know its not – but I think, I hope we’re on the right track.

So what did we do?

Our overarching focus was to create a clean, uncluttered user experience. We didn’t want to replicate print nor replicate the Website instead we wanted to take a path that focused on the content at the expense of ‘features’ while giving the reader the essence of the printed journals.

This meant we wanted decent typography, enough branding to connect the user to the journal but no more and the features we did build had to be justified in terms of benefits to a scientist’s understanding of the article. And even then we pushed most of the functionality away from the forefront of the interface so that the reader hopefully isn’t too aware of the app. The best app after all is no app.

In my experience most publishers tend to go the other way (although there are notable exceptions) – most iPad Magazines have a lot of app and a lot of bells and whistles, so many features in fact that many magazines need an instruction manual to help you navigate them! That can’t be right.

As Craig Mod put it – many publishers build a Homer.

TheHomer

When Homer Simpson was asked to design his ideal car, he made The Homer. Given free reign, Homer’s process was additive. He added three horns and a special sound-proof bubble for the children. He layered more atop everything cars had been. More horns, more cup holders.

We didn’t want to build a Homer! We tried to only include features where they really benefit the reader or their community. For example, we built a figure viewer which lets the reader see the figures within the article at any point and tap through to higher resolution images because that’s useful.

You can also bookmark or share an article, download the PDF but these are only there if you need them. The normal reading behaviour assumes you don’t need this stuff and so they are hidden away (until you tap the screen to pull then into focus).

Back to the content…

It’s hard to build good automated pagination unless the content is very simple and homogenous. Beautiful, fast pagination for most content is simply too hard unless you build each page by hand. Nasty, poorly designed and implemented pagination doesn’t help anyone. We therefore decided to go with scrolling within an article and pagination between articles.

Under the hood we wanted to build a system that would scale, could be automated and ensured separation of concerns.

On the server we therefore render EPUB files from the raw XML documents in MarkLogic and bundle those files along with all the images and other assets into a zip file and serve them to the iPad app.

From the readers point of view this means they can download whole issues for offline reading  and the total package is quite small – an issue of Nature is c. 30MB, the Review Journals can be as small as 5MB by way of comparison Wired is c. 250MB.

From our point of view the entire production is automated – we don’t need to have people laying out every page or issue. This also means that as we improve the layout so we can rollout those improvements to all the articles – both new content and the archive (although users would need to re download the content).

Opening up the BBC’s natural history archive

The BBC’s Natural History Unit is responsible for some of the BBC’s most loved TV and radio programming — unfortunately until now it’s only been accessible as part of the regular schedule or via iPlayer. I say until now because today we launched the first phase of a new project which brings clips from the best of the NHU’s programmes online.

Pages for habitats, taxa and adaptations

URIs for habitats, taxa and adaptations

Over the last few months we’ve been plundering the NHU’s archive to find the best bits — segmenting the TV programmes, tagging them (with DBpedia terms) and then aggregating them around URIs for the key concepts within the natural history domain; so that you can discover those programme segments via both the originating programme and via concepts within the natural history domain — species, habitats, adaptations and the like.

The segments/ clips ‘belong’ to their originating programme — and as a result we’ve been adding information, about a bunch of programmes from the archive, to PIPs (the underlying database behind iPlayer and /programmes). The clip pages aren’t yet linked in with their owning episode, but they will be soon.

In addition to being able to discover these clips from within the context of the programme we are also providing URIs to aggregate information around the natural history domain, that is URIs for species, habitats, adaptations and ecozones.

URIs for species such as the Bush Elephant

URIs for species such as the Bush Elephant

Our hope is that by providing highly inter-linked, URIs we can help people gain a greater understanding of the natural world. For example, by being able to see the different animals and habitats that live within different ecozones you can gain an understanding of the diversity of of life in different parts of the world; or what different animals make up the Mammal or Bird Class; or more about a particular adaptation.

Ovoviviparous - what it is, what animals do it and BBC archived content about it

Ovoviviparous - what it is, what animals do it and BBC archived content about it

Of course we are doing more than providing access to programme segments, we have also plundered our sound archive so you can hear what the different habitats and species sound like (and obviously those sounds are separately addressable), we are then aggregating content from the other ‘BBC Earth’ projectsEarth News and Out of the Wild and elsewhere on the web.

It’s not just about BBC content.

You might have noticed that the slugs for our URIs (the last bit of the URL) are the same as those used by Wikipedia and DBpedia that’s because I believe in the simple joy of webscale identifiers, you will also see that much like the BBC’s music site we are transcluding the introductory text from Wikipedia to provide background information for most things. This also means that we are creating and editing Wikipedia articles where they need improving (of course you are also more than welcome to improve upon the articles).

We are also publishing data from bunch of other organisations. Information about habitats, ecozones and species distribution is provided by WWF’s Wildfinder; the species conservation status by IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species and (where available) information about why a species is at threat coming for Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence programme. Finally information about a species adaptations and behaviours are provided by Animal Diversity Web.

Adopting this approach means that we are able to contribute distinctive content to the Web while at the same time helping people find what is already there.

There is a lot more we need to do, including linking in with current programmes and making everything available as RDF, JSON and for mobile devices. That’s all on it’s way but in the meantime I hope you find what’s there useful, informative and entertaining.

First steps towards a more coherent online natural history offer at the BBC

For the last five or so months I’ve been working on a new set of sites under the umbrella of “BBC Earth” — a programme of work aimed at giving everyone access to some of the best natural history content in the world. The project is made up of three complementary and interlinked projects, the first couple of which recently went live.

Out of the wild

Kakpo -- Out of the wild

The first site to go live, “Out of the Wild” aims to bring you a view on the natural world from the perspective of our crews while on location; a sort of “From our correspondent” for the natural world. The stories — a mix of short video clips, slideshows and text based stories — are all grouped around the expeditions, the people on location and the originating programmes. Our hope is that you will enjoy this more personal view of the natural world brought to you from some of the most amazing part of the world by the worlds best wildlife documentaries makers.

We then launched “Earth News” which does pretty much what is says on the tin — news about the natural world.

We’re both aggregating natural history news articles from elsewhere on the BBC news site as well as new articles (some unique) written for Earth News, such as the story of the adult king penguin which kidnapped a skua chick and then attempted to raise it.

The final part of BBC Earth will see us starting to open up the BBC archive in, what I hope, will be interesting and useful ways.

We then, of course, need to make all of this available in nice machine representation so that others can start to hack with the data.

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