Our development manifesto

Our development manifesto

Manifesto’s are quite popular in the tech community — obviously there’s the agile manifesto and I’ve written before about the kaizen manifesto and then there’s the Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship. They all try to put forward a way of working, a way of raising professionalism and a way of improving the quality of what you do and build.

Anyway when we started work on on the BBC’s Nature site we set out our development manifesto. I thought you might be interested in it:

  1. Peristence — only mint a new URIs if one doesn’t already exist: once minted, never delete it
  2. Linked open data — data and documents describe the real world; things in the real world are identified via HTTP URIs; links describe how those things are related to each other.
  3. The website is the API
  4. RESTful — the Web is stateless, work with this architecture, not against it.
  5. One Web – one canonical URI for each resource (thing), dereferenced to the appropriate representation (HTML, JSON, RDF, etc.).
  6. Fix the data don’t hack the code
  7. Books have pages, the web has links
  8. Do it right or don’t do it at all — don’t hack in quick fixes or ‘tactical solutions’ they are bad for users and bad for the code.
  9. Release early, release often — small, incremental changes are easy to test and proof.

It’s worth noting that we didn’t always live up to these standards — but at least when we broke our rules we did so knowingly and had a chance of fixing them at a later date.

One BBC nature

A few weeks ago we merged Wildlife Finder into the nature site and launched a new blog – and today we’ve taken the final step and brought Earth News into the fold to create a consolidated BBC nature site.

From a certain perspective this doesn’t represent a big change – after all we’re still publishing exclusive natural history news stories, video collections and video clips and information about: animals, plants, habitats (and the ancient earth’s habitats, such as Snowball Earth), adaptations & behaviours, places and ecozones, the geological time periods when they lived, the major mass extinction events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs, in fact lots of information on the history of life on earth and the fossil record. We even have a page about fish – and they don’t really exist!

However, from another perspective this is a really big change. It’s a big change because we’ve (hopefully) made everything so much simpler.

Screen grab of the new BBC nature site - features section

We’ve made it simpler by bringing everything together into one site and removed the various sub brands – if you love nature and natural history everything is now in one place: news stories, video clips from the archive, opinion pieces and more.

Bringing everything together has also allowed us to make a few additional changes which should help us more easily publish the content.

In addition to natural history news we have a features section where we can bring together articles and photo galleries (like this one) and a new blog Wonder Monkey written by Matt Walker. Matt has written a few posts so far including this one on the oddball midge that shouldn’t exist.

I really hope you like it. It represents the culmination of two years of work, during which time we launched and evolved both the site itself and the editorial proposition – there now are c.3,000 clips available online (many of which are available worldwide) about almost 900 animals (both prehistoric and living), 50 plants etc.

And of course wildlife data is for machines too.

However, after two years of development this represents the last major release, for a while at least. The site will continue to grow because we are continuing to create great new content as well as digging out the best bits from the archive – like this video collection looking back at David Attenborough’s Madagascar (starting with Zoo Quest 50 years ago). But there won’t be any major new features for a while, not that that’s a major problem – the site should offer a rich experience with amazing content.

As I said yesterday, I’m very proud of what we’ve produced and if I can marshal my thoughts I’ll try and write a post or two about how we went about building the site and the lessons I learnt on the way, until then enjoy the site.

Meet the relatives

It is an interesting fact that, to the best of our knowledge, all life on Earth is related, we are all part of the same family tree (yes, even arsenic munching bacteria from California). So when we looked at publishing content about Dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties it seemed obvious, and far more useful and interesting, to extend Wildlife Finder rather than build a whole new site. And that’s just what we’ve done.

Hillis Plot

You can now watch video clips and discover BBC news stories about prehistoric life on Earth. We’ve published the best bits from TV series such as Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts as well as episodes from Horizon and of course we’re also linking to relevant radio programmes and news stories. Continue reading “Meet the relatives”

Some thoughts on curation – adding context and telling stories

Just over two years ago I wrote a post about the importance of the resource and the URL — and I still stand by what I said there: the core of a website should be the resource and its URL. And if those resources describe real world things and they are linked together in the way people think about the world then you can navigate the site by hopping from resource to resource in an intuitive fashion. But I think I missed something important in that post — the role of curation, the role of storytelling.

When we started work on Wildlife Finder we designed the site around the core concepts that we knew people cared about and those that we had content about i.e. species, their habitats and adaptations, and we’ve been publishing resources about those concepts since last September. We’ve since published the model (Wildlife Ontology) describing how those concepts relate together. I’ve talked about this work as providing us with the Lego bricks because I also realised that we needed to use those Lego bricks to build stories, to help guide people through the content. Our first foray into online story telling with these Lego bricks are the Collections.

Collections allow us to curate a set of resources – to group and sequence clips and other resources to tell stories like the plight of the tiger or the years work of the BBC’s natural history unit. Silver Oliver has recently written about why he thinks this approach is important, why curation in a metadata driven information architecture — it’s a very good post — you should read it. But I thought I would share a bit about the intellectual framework behind how I think of this stuff. As with most of my ideas it’s not my ideas but one I’ve borrowed from someone brighter than me, in this case Nathan Shedroff who proposed a framework to think about how to build Lego bricks and then things with those bricks. A framework I’ve been using for few years now.

Wildlife Finder provides information by repackaging data from elsewhere – by organising programme clips, news stories etc. around natural history resources and concepts. This is good (I hope) because it provides useful additional context; but it’s not the whole story. In Shedroff’s model this process creates information — by adding context to data by presenting and organising it in a new, useful way. This is really what encyclopedias provide — structured information presented and organised in useful ways.  The next step is to take this information and build stories with it to build knowledge and facilitate conversations.

As I say, with Wildlife Finder, we have started to tell stories by localising the information into Collections, but of course, now we have a unified domain model (which links together programmes and concepts within the natural world) there are other ways in which we can add context and build knowledge on top these resources — in addition to collections. There are lots of ways we can create new experiences, but as you can see from the diagram above, we don’t hold a monopoly in terms of story telling — those that consume the information, our audiences and ‘users’ could also build stories. Although the BBC doesn’t really let people build their own stories other sites and organisations do, notably  Flickr who have a series of interesting approaches to let its users add context to photos through Groups, Galleries, Sets and Collections.

Apis and APIS a wildlife ontology

By a mile the highlight of last week or so was the 2nd Linked Data meet-up. Silver and Georgi did a great job of organising the day and I came away with a real sense that not only are we on the cusp of seeing a lot of data on the web but also that the UK is at the centre of this particular revolution. All very exciting.

For my part I presented the work we’ve been doing on Wildlife Finder – how we’re starting to publish and consume data on the web. Ed Summers has a great write up of what we’re doing I’ve also published my slides here:

I also joined Paul Miller, Jeni Tennison, Ian Davis and Timo Hannay on a panel session discussing Linked Data in the enterprise.

In terms of Wildlife Finder there are a few things that I wanted to highlight:

  1. If you’re interested in the RDF and how we’re modelling the data we’ve documented the wildlife ontology here. In addition to the ontology itself we’ve also included some background on why we modelled the information in the way we have.
  2. If you want to get you’re hands on the RDF/XML then either add .rdf to the end of most of our URLs (more on this later) or configure your client to request RDF/XML – we’ve implemented content negotiation so you’ll just get the data.
  3. But… we’ve not implemented everything just yet. Specifically the adaptations aren’t published as RDF – this is because we’re making a few changes to the structure of this information and I didn’t want to publish the data and then change it. Nor have we published information on the species conservation status that’s simply because we’ve not finish yet (sorry).
  4. It’s not all RDF – we are also marking-up our taxa pages with the species microformat which gives more structure to the common and scientific names.

Anyway I hope you find this useful.

Online information conference

I’ve really been neglecting this blog recently – apologies but my attention has been elsewhere recently. Anyway, while I get round to actually writing something here’s a presentation I gave at the Online Information Conference recently.

The presentation is largely based upon the article Michael and I wrote for Nodalities this time last year.

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.