Why the BBC should make its recipes database #opendata

The BBC have announced that they are cutting their popular recipe service. Could open data be the key to retaining its value

The BBC have announced that it will mothball its database of over 11,000 recipes, as part of a plan to cut £15 million from its website budget. The idea is to focus on distinctive content which you can read in a number of ways including ‘stop doing things that are commercially attractive’.

As you may imagine the announcement has not gone down well with users who see it as exactly the kind of distinct content the BBC do so well . There’s a petition to keep the archive calling it a “precious resource for people across the country providing easy, free and importantly independent information on a vast range of foods and recipe options.”. But its unlikely that the recipes will remain. In the wake of the BBC white paper there are sacrifices to the market that need to be made.

But, maybe there is a middle ground.

I think the BBC should make the data for its recipes open data

Why open data

Open data means making data available to re-use with no limitation (technical or legal). The principle is that if you make data open then you create value. People come up with innovative new products and services that help people and also (sometimes) make money. Social and economic innovation all from making a CSV file available!

There’s a growing and active community around open data. Some of that community likes the challenge of doing good things with data. Some see the commercial opportunities, but everyone is committed to making it work — it should be a virtuous circle.

The BBC making their recipe data open would have a few benefits

  • the data wouldn’t be lost — the crowd would take care of archiving and developing the content UPDATE: The data won’t be lost just moved to the commercial Food pages.
  • the data would be kept alive — an active community might contribute other recipes, improvements or corrections.
  • data could be linked for better value — making the data open means that practically it would become easier to integrate other data sources like the ‘Composition of Foods Integrated Dataset’ (CoFID) or even retail pricing data etc.
  • a market would be created (and sustained) — anyone can use open data, even companies looking for commercial applications.

That last one is the key one here for me. You don’t need House of Cards levels of political insight to see the political context of this decision. There’s a hefty dose of liberal market reform being stirred into the pot. But I think going open data would support that — make the data open; retain the value created; level the playing field and let the market compete.

The arguments against it fall into well worn paths for those involved in open data. I’m thinking they would fall into one of couple of areas:

  • This is commercially valuable information — yes it is (The cynic in me would say that’s why the BBC have had to make this move). But the BBC are paid for by a license fee. A licence fee the public pay. We get a great service and I’m not saying we should have it just because we pay a licence fee (It’s not quite Free our Data). But if we are prepared to crowdsource that provision, why not?
  • It’s not commercially easy to make it all open — Obviously some of the recipes may not belong to the BBC, so there are licensing issues (I’d argue that those commercial entities that have provided the recipes have had a fair share of value already) but that would take time.
  • It’s not technically easy to make it all open — This is also true .It’s isn’t just a case of dumping a database. But others have done it to some degree. Take a look at the NYTimes and their recipe datasets as great example of the way value can be created by taking the time to structure the data. But by making it opendata, you almost bake in the tech support from a broader community.

This is a great opportunity. It’s a chance for the BBC to move gracefully out of a market place without leaving the consumer high and dry. It’s a great chance to retain the value whilst giving the market reformers a chance to put their money where their mouth is and compete. It’s also a great chance to reach beyond the dominant discourse of government accountability and transparency and explore the way open data can create social and economic value outside of the open government data value chain.

So come on, BBC, Government and open data community. Lets make this stuff open data

UPDATE: The BBC are making the point that they aren’t closing the site as much as one of the ways you can access the recipes.