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Algorithms For The People

The BBC is developing a “public service algorithm” to deliver users more varied recommendations in its BBC Sounds app, according to a speech given by James Purnell, the corporation’s director of radio and education. Huh.

The BBC is developing a “public service algorithm” to deliver users more varied recommendations in its BBC Sounds app, according to a speech given by James Purnell, the corporation’s director of radio and education at the 2019 Radio Festival in London this week. The aim of it is to broaden horizons, not just serve more of the same content. It’s not super detailed yet, but here’s Purnell’s explanation of what it is:

This is not an algorithm that just gives you more of the same, but an algorithm built to surprise you, to direct your attention to new information, to different points of view, to pop your bubble. Algorithms are made in the image of their designers and can be biased against people who are different. But when they are designed with a public service purpose, they do not have to be biased and they do not have to create echo chambers — they can open them up.

As previously I’ve written previously, BBC Sounds is very interested in capturing data on how listeners navigate the app and what they listen to, for the stated purpose of making better content recommendations. This algorithm project sounds like an extension of this: using that data to feed an automatic process that in some ways mirrors what Purnell calls “the experience of a linear schedule that allows listeners to stumble on something new, entirely unrelated to what they initially tuned in to.”

I’m intrigued by this as an idea, since one of the things I like most about listening to live radio is the opportunity to encounter and enjoy something I would never have chosen to click on if it were presented to me in a podcast app. Of course, the way this effect has been traditionally delivered to users is by giving radio stations a really strong and discernable brand — I know that I generally enjoy the spoken word programmes on BBC Radio 4, for instance, so even tuning in without any knowledge of the schedule I can be fairly sure I’ll hear something I can tolerate or even enjoy.

Bubble-bursting is something the BBC seems quite preoccupied with at the moment. The corporation is mandated by its charter and regulator to be politically neutral and unbiased; a hard task in the polarised post-Brexit environment. There has already been one set of elections this month (local and municipal) and another lot coming up in ten days’ time (European, ironically, because there’s no EU exit deal yet). During campaigns, the BBC has to time precisely how much airtime it gives to each party and balance views precisely. They’re also commissioning more programmes like this one, where two social media users of different political persuasions swap accounts, and giving whole stations over to a different demographic in an attempt to expose listeners to a more diverse set of perspectives.

If this public service algorithm is going to work, it’ll have to work on the most subtle of associations between shows to avoid the appearance of utter randomness. I do wonder whether it will be possible to tell the difference between a completely unpersonalised set of recommendations and this algorithm. I reckon those near intangible connections of taste and style will be difficult to programme, but I’m looking forward to testing it out, nonetheless.

There are other aspects of Purnell’s speech that concern me, though, and chief among them is his heavily nostalgic focus on the old-fashioned joys of radio. Part of that will be down to the audience he was speaking to — it was the Radio Festival, after all — but it still strikes me oddly that he’s ending a speech that’s supposedly about digital innovation with the line “changing for things to stay the same”. (This line, by the way, sounds to me exactly like something from the iconic British TV programme The Thick of It, which incidentally originally aired on. . . the BBC. See here and here if you’re not familiar.)

The BBC is losing market share among younger people and urgently needs to reverse that trend if it is to fulfil the obligations that come with its public funding. I’m not sure that an approach rooted in harking back to the “good old days” is going to really cut through to a demographic who might never have owned a physical radio or remember a time with the internet didn’t exist.