Digital 'footnotes' for TV viewers
an interview with Daan Odijk
Serving up the right information at the right moment – that’s what’s Daan Odijk’s PhD research is about. He and his research group have designed a second screen for television audiences. Daan Odijk’s area of expertise is proactive software – in other words, programs that don’t need to be told what you are looking for, but anticipate your needs. Odijk explains, ‘I’d like to see this field continue to grow in the future. People spend so much time trying to find the right information’.
There is a lot of relevant information which is available digitally but is used only rarely. Dutch public broadcaster NOS’s video archive, for example. After a news item has been aired, people are unlikely to ever view it again, even though all those video segments are a rich source of information. Or take the digital newspaper archive of the National Library of the Netherlands – a wealth of information that is gathering dust on their servers, so to speak. Reusing this information is very easy, the only problem is that most of these diverse data sources are not linked together. Daan Odijk is the missing link that brings various sources together. Once that’s been taken care of, the next challenge is to offer users the right video or newspaper article at the right time.
Interactive live broadcast
Odijk’s research group was contacted by the VARA Broadcasting Association with the question whether they could design an interactive video player that would provide viewers with additional information about what is on TV in that moment. It’s a groundbreaking idea. ‘We sat down with VARA to do some brainstorming’, says Odijk. ‘What additional information might viewers want? What people, places and terms would they want to know more about? We then checked whether there were Wikipedia articles on those topics. We developed an automatic algorithm for this which is able to detect the topics being discussed from a programme’s closed captioning as it is being aired.’
Odijk continues, ‘Wikipedia covers a lot of bases. That’s why we chose to link to Wiki pages as our information source. And Wikipedia pages are also good at providing links to further sources of information, by linking to Google Maps, for example. Wikipedia has become a bridge between different sources of information. We were able to find a Wiki page in Dutch for 90% of all the topics we wanted to link to’.
The collaboration with VARA resulted in the introduction of a ‘second screen’. Viewers who are watching TV on a smart TV or laptop will see the programme they’re watching on the left side of their screen, with links to background information displayed on the right. ‘What’s innovative about this initiative’, explains Odijk, ‘is that you get information right when you need it – and that we’re able to offer it live, while a programme is being aired. The first version of the prototype worked in a very roundabout way. The closed captioning that you can turn on during live broadcasts is entered by someone in real time, and then goes onto Teletext. The first beta version took the closed captioning from Teletext. It took over a year before we were able to tap directly into the closed captioning data traffic. Of course, broadcasters aren’t tech companies’, Odijk chuckles. ‘Ultimately, however, the second screen worked surprisingly well. The links we create during a live broadcast are of fairly high quality. Analytics revealed that about three-quarters of the links we generate are of interest to a wide audience, and the remaining one-quarter are still there for a logical reason, even if they may not appeal to everyone. During a live broadcast, we generate around 2.5 links per minute on average. That’s a manageable amount of information for viewers.’
Once introduced, a number of other TV channels got interested in interactive applications too. ‘The public broadcasters are trying to compete with each other a little when it comes to launching new innovations’, according to Odijk. For the NOS he developed a smart TV app that lets you push a red button during the eight o’clock news to see a list of videos about the same topic, enabling you to view background information later on about items on the news. Currently about half of Dutch TV viewers have access to this smart TV app.
Built by human hands
Odijk has an eclectic CV spanning a wide range of areas. ‘What can I say? I’ve got too many interests’, he laughs. One of the detours in his career path was an internship at Microsoft, where he assisted in a study of online search engines and the frustrations encountered by searchers, for which he and his team received a best paper award. He also won a best paper award for another study on a completely different topic – the framing of news – on which he collaborated with communications scientists.
‘I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things’, says Odijk, ‘though the focus has always been on computers in one way or another. From the age of ten I had a computer in my room – against my parents’ wishes – with all the wiring exposed so I could switch things around. And while I was in secondary school I ran my own web design company.’
‘IT is very creative, that’s what I love about it. You’re truly building something. Before I started my PhD research, I taught computer science at a secondary school for a while. The main thing I wanted to convey to my students was that everything they see – websites, computer programs – has actually been built by human hands, and that they, too, can learn those skills.’
Daan Odijk at Blendle
After having defended his PhD thesis last June, Odijk started a new job at Blendle, a company that seeks to make news more accessible by charging a small fee. He will be looking into ways to make that more fun and personalised for people, for example by putting interesting links within the body of an article. Isn’t there a risk of people having things spoon-fed to them too much? ‘No way’, Odijk says decisively. ‘It’s the search that gets easier, so people can focus more on the information. And watching TV is actually becoming less passive, because people can engage with information surrounding the programme.’
The PhD thesis of Daan Odijk 'Context & Semantics in News & Web Search' is now available for download at his website: