Lessons learned from an experiment to transform Manchester’s local news

How to, video, Manchester

Martin BryantMartin Bryant, August 15, 2017

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

In recent weeks, people in Manchester city centre have noticed unexpected messages popping up on their phones. From police appealing for information, to a gallery sharing news of its latest exhibition, these messages were unsolicited, but very relevant to the immediate surroundings of their recipients.

What’s going on? Backed by Google’s Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund, the OtherWorld project aims to reimagine local news. It uses Bluetooth beacons placed around the city centre to ping locally relevant information to nearby mobile phones. Locals don’t need to install a dedicated app to receive the messages. It uses Google’s Physical Web technology, which is simple to set up on Android phones (and will work by default on many recent devices), and on iOS just requires Chrome to be installed and a setting to be switched on.

“It’s an untested idea,” says the man behind OtherWorld, Stuart Goulden. “I’m thinking a few years ahead – it’s lots of experiments in one big experiment.”

Doing it all

Goulden certainly has his hands full. From placing the physical beacons, to arranging partnerships, to deciding exactly what content pops in which locations, to dealing with user support and stolen beacons – he does it all. His background is as a consultant, who through his company Like No Other, offers an outside perspective on established industries. As he lacks a news background, OtherWorld is no different.

“I’ve always thought there was potential in local news, but it needs to change quickly,” says Goulden.

As print declines, along with all that juicy print advertising revenue, local news outlets are struggling to adapt to the digital world. Goulden sees OtherWorld as a chance to get a “generation who never pick up a local newspaper involved with local news, through their mobile phones.”

OtherWorld’s promotional video

“This is not just about testing beacons for news, it’s about testing location-based story telling… Freeing local news of the 24-hour news cycle,” says Goulden. He believes being tied to long-established processes makes it hard for local news outlets to innovate. OtherWorld can help them experiment with a new approach, he says.

The theory is that if you learn about some news in the vicinity of where it’s relevant, it’s more immediately valuable to you. For example, OtherWorld recently alerted people walking past the Great Northern Warehouse that a public consultation was underway for development work there. If you use that physical space, you’re more likely to find that news relevant than the many more people who might read about it online. “It’s about encouraging people to take an active role in their cities,” says Goulden.

Mr Editor

One of Goulden’s most important ‘hats’ for the OtherWorld project is that of editor. The service has over 60 content partners, from traditional news organisations to local government bodies and the NHS. It would get very spammy very quickly if they could all publish whatever they liked at any time. He uses Slack and Trello to manage incoming content, and then picks the most relevant news to broadcast to the most relevant locations.

“Some partners are more active than others,” says Goulden. “It’s new to all of us. I expect as the weeks go on, we’ll find a flow that works for us all.”

Lessons learned

OtherWorld has funds to run as an experiment in Manchester until the end of the year. It only launched on the 25th of July, but Goulden has already learned lots about location-based news distribution.

Here are some of the takeaways anyone else trying a similar project should bear in mind:

  • Keep your beacons away from ground level: Goulden positioned some of the beacons in places like underneath benches. That’s convenient if you don’t have permission to place them higher up on a building, but curious passersby may well steal them. Indeed, a few beacons went missing in the first week.
  • Shine beats rain: This type of mobile news distribution works best when it’s not raining. Goulden has found that usage all but stops during showers and then picks up as soon as they stop. People don’t look at their phones as much when it’s wet.
  • Busy areas = more usage: You’d assume busy areas would yield best results, and you’d be right. Goulden says the best performing beacon so far saw 500 link ‘clicks’ in a day. It was at Spinningfields, a popular area for work and leisure, with heavy footfall almost 24 hours per day. The link in question was to information about an upcoming retro gaming festival, which perhaps says something about the kind of early adopters embracing the service.

Goulden says the early public reaction has been positive. That’s despite the fact only a limited number of people have phones that can receive the messages without any tinkering. That skews towards natural early adopters of new technology, and Goulden hasn’t started promoting the service to a more mainstream local crowd yet.

In fact, OtherWorld has had more media attention outside the city than in it, with coverage from The Next Web, Journalism.co.uk and beyond. Now early teething problems are out of the way, Goulden intends to spread the word locally in a more organised way, with the help of his content partners.

As for the future after OtherWorld’s Google funding runs out in December, Goulden is keeping his options open. The technology underpinning OtherWorld isn’t his, but there’s very little documentation on how to use it. There’s value in his experience of working with it and he says he’s already been contacted by some of the world’s biggest publishers. And he’d like to keep the service running in Manchester. “I’m exploring opportunities as they come up,” he says.

OtherWorld is live now in Manchester city centre. The Google Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund is open to new applicants in September 2017.

Featured image: Samuel Zeller on Unsplash