Radio 1 launched their redesigned site last night. What's most exciting for me, apart from its excellent new design and implementation, is the inclusion of the SMS cloud (in the panel at the bottom of the page). As listeners send in text messages from their mobile phones the cloud shows the incoming words waxing and waning throughout the day. It's particularly exciting because it's the first time that my R&D team at R&Mi have taken something all the way from idea to prototype to live.
I've written a bit before about my initial thinking and prototyping of this but here's a quick recap:
Many BBC radio networks have numbers that listeners can text in to using SMS. DJs and producers have a "text console" web application which they can use to view the incoming messages and either respond to them on air or select messages to publish to the website. Radio 1 in particular get a large number of incoming messages, between 500 and 1000 messages an hour on average during the daytime, and they've used this in the past for features like the 10-hour takeover. But what I wanted to do was to somehow use all of the incoming messages without needing any human moderation. And we can't just publish all the messages without moderation because there is offensive, private or otherwise dodgy information in some of them. The solution was to try to extract the collective wisdom from all the incoming messages. We do this by filtering the incoming messages to remove any common or offensive words, identify the most popular words at any one time and visualise the top words in a tag cloud. I built a live internal prototype using Processing, you can see a timelapse video of it in my previous post, and showed it around the department.
Since then, the always forward looking Radio 1 interactive team picked up on it, Chris and Lee have implemented it properly (Chris writes about his Flash client here)and it's now on the live site. It's basically the same as my original prototype but a lot nicer and with click-through links on a set of Radio 1-related keywords. Have a look.
It's really interesting how you can get the general idea of what is being talked about on the radio just by looking at these few words; from the weather to the Hoff's new single to football to shopping and so on. I'm slightly worried about what the listeners will do with it once they see they can affect it and I'm expecting some creative combinations of words and some tweaking of the code. But it will also be fascinating to see if and how the DJs interact with the audience using the SMS cloud as a medium. The words also have potential to generate useful metadata describing programmes - particularly around subjects that are talked about, songs that were liked and maybe even moods. I'm sure you can imagine ways to navigate around programmes using these facets. But most of all I like the live feeling of it, how it represents all the listeners out there and how these things are now reflected better on the website.
We're also hoping to get it onto a big plasma screen in the reception of Yalding House (Radio 1's home) and, when we have time, we'll experiment with some other visualisations like timelines and maybe do some more processing of the data. I also intend to provide the raw XML of the popular words for other developers to play with (via BBC Backstage), I'm just trying to overcome the technical hurdles to providing this in some vaguely live manner. Also next is to think about what we could do with incoming picture messages - though I suspect that's several order of magnitudes harder.
Finally, there should be a few more interesting releases from R&Mi R&D before the year is over so keep coming back...