The BBC’s programme catalogue (on Rails)

October 31st, 2005  |  Published in rails

UPDATE: The BBC Programme Catalogue has launched at

“The BBC plans to open up its archive to make a treasure trove of material available to everyone.”BBC Press Release, August 2003

Ever wondered what’s in that archive? Who looks after it? It turns out there’s a huge database that’s been carefully tended by a gang of crack BBC librarians for decades. Nearly a million programmes are catalogued, with descriptions, contributor details and annotations drawn from a wonderfully detailed controlled vocabulary.

I’m the lucky developer who gets to turn this hidden treasure into a public website. No programme downloads yet, but a massive searchable programme catalogue.

In the early part of next year, you can look forward to a public beta with extensive programme details and broadcast histories. There are “On This Day” schedules that go back to 1933. It’s got full contributor histories, and Really Good Search. I can’t begin to describe the depth of this dataset – it had an entry for the one time in the 1990s when my dad was on local TV news as a spokesman for Oxfordshire County Council. The cataloguers have worked hard on this stuff for years, and it deserves a wide audience.

Here are some early screenshots: searching for John Peel; John Peel’s contributor page. The design’s not finished yet, but they give you a flavour of the data.

Oh yes, there’s also plenty of web 2.0 goodness: Ajax, feeds for everything, tags, full read-only REST API including FOAF for all contributors, and it’s all run with Ruby on Rails. Yes, the BBC have allowed me (after some persuasion) to rapidly prototype and deploy this 7,000,000-row database-backed site in everyone’s new favourite web framework. This first version is really just a prototype; wisely, the BBC have decided to get it out there quick and see the public reaction.

We’ve got Ben Hammersley on board working on layout, CSS and feed design. Murray Walker is our BBC developer on the inside. This is the most fun I’ve had on a project for a long time. If you want to hear more about it, come and see me talk on Rails at the London Web Frameworks Night in November. If you’ve got ideas on how you’d want to track down an obscure sci-fi drama from the 80s or a radio play from 1962, drop me a mail.

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