Yesterday’s news that the Financial Times is moving to a single, daily global edition of its newspaper, based on content written primarily for online consumption, is the latest bold move from a news organisation that has become a digital leader among its peers.
In recent years we’ve reported on the FT’s move away from native apps to HTML5, not to mention innovations like FastFT and the impressive growth of its digital subscriptions. We recently had an opportunity to quiz the FT’s CTO, John O’Donovan about his work and what occupies the time of the Chief Technical Officer of a modern, major news organization
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You’ve been the FT’s CTO since March. How are you finding the job?
I think it is important to blend product and business opportunities into the technology investments we make, helping drive strategy. The FT is an organisation that understands the importance of this and people here in all areas are thinking about how technology influences what comes next and how to adapt to it. Being product and output focussed is important because technology is not just an enabler, in a digital age technology fundamentally shapes the product.
This shows in the innovations made by the FT, from being the first newspaper to implement a Paywall through to using technologies like HTML5 for the FT Web app and starting to change the publishing model with services like FastFT, which is blending our traditional insight with bite size chunks delivered 24 hours a day.
Everyone wants to do new stuff, I just also have to make sure we sweep up behind us to ensure we don’t leave a legacy trail of technology which can be expensive to run and holds you back.
Ultimately, great products are built on great platforms and it’s my job to make sure the platform is fit for purpose.
When you joined, it was said that you would be improving the FT’s use of data. What are the opportunities there?
There are two parts to this.
One is in how we use data from our services to deliver value. This business intelligence helps us understand how people use our services, plus deliver more appropriate content and advertising to our audiences.
The FT is 125 years old and for most of that history the feedback on what our audience did with our content was practically zero. Now we have a wealth of information that allows us to see much better what is and isn’t working. It helps inform strategic decisions from editorial choices through to how we market and position a product and where we focus our product strategy.
We are making investments to support our data strategy, such as moving to Amazon Redshift to deliver maximum value from our data warehouse. SQL has been perceived as a little uncool for a while now and we considered using Hadoop, but Redshift addresses cost, performance and data size constraints well. Compared to Hadoop it is much easier for analysts to use. What may have been a Hadoop project can become just a query in Redshift.
Our goal is to move away from getting reports in batches which take a long time to produce to being able to analyse data as close as possible to real time.
The second part is in using Metadata better.
I am a huge supporter of using linked and semantic data to build better IT systems, which can use the intelligent frameworks these technologies create to make clever service decisions. This is something I did starting with BBC iPlayer and for major events like the World Cup, which set an effective architectural pattern which led to the vast BBC Olympic site and other BBC services following the same pattern.
We also used this architecture extensively at the Press Association to rebuild the content management system and deliver the Olympics API, content for Locog website and services used on a range of sites from MSN to the Daily Mail.
It’s a great architectural pattern, and semantic technologies have widespread applications to bring intelligence (or at least common sense) to computer systems. Many other companies picked up on the potential of this approach when I presented the BBC case study at the Semtech conference in 2011
When it comes to a modern content management system (CMS), how have things evolved? What does the FT need in this respect?
Most people hate their CMS. Some work around it. Often it gets in the way.
The key challenge is that to create the flexibility you need in a fast-moving media landscape, you do not want someone else’s view of your content model baked into your workflow and products.
This brings me back to the Semantic Metadata and architecture pattern mentioned above. In essence, you are trying to create a sea of content assets that can be pulled together by metadata in as flexible a way as possible to build products. It’s that simple.
Anything that gets in the way of this will make your job harder and slow down your innovation. I’ve learnt this from looking really hard over recent years at why people have so many issues with CMS systems and why they seem to stop you from doing what you want to do. NoSQL systems play nicely into this because they allow you to create a content store which has very few restrictions for storing your content in an efficient manner. Pair this with really good metadata and you have all you need to build products.
There is still a role for a CMS and this pattern does still allow you to use your CMS, DAM, blogging tool or other existing system to create content. The beauty of the pattern is not in trying to replace everything. It’s how you store and manage content that changes and most importantly how you use and value metadata. You can’t monetise your assets properly without good metadata.
In general, when you think about how you want to expose your content, then you start thinking about an API that should reflect how you want to represent your services, not the internal structure or limitations of your CMS.
The FT is well-known for its focus on HTML5 over native apps – how is that going?
It’s going well and we continue to update and roll out the HTML5 web app over more devices.
Mobile devices drive over half of all FT.com subscriber consumption, more than a third of total traffic and a quarter of new digital subscriptions.The web app has seen over 4m users since launch in June 2011. A redesign in April this year has powered a 33% increase in the amount of content subscribers consume in the app, so it feels like it is delivering.
We’re now looking at how we more widely utilise HTML5 and responsive design principles for the mobile and desktop site as well, creating more consistency across all the devices FT customers use to access our content. This is highly desirable.
We have overcome the challenges in using HTML5 and set up the Edge conference with FT Labs, which drives forward conversations on how client side services can address some of these. We’d like others to learn from our experience. As you look at the number of platforms being supported and the issues in managing them, HTML5 becomes the best bet for a cross platform approach.
Anything else you can tell us about what you’re working on?
Our editorial team are continually exploring different ways to tell a story using data, providing a richer level of analysis by proving it or disproving it with data, interactive or graphics. We second some of our front-end developers from the IT department to the newsroom, allowing us to support our editorial skillset.
Community and social is of course an area we want to do more in. The FT uses social media to build communities and deeper relationship with readers, for example using Facebook to ask followers in Brazil what they thought would stop the protests there and selecting some of their answers for use on ft.com. We encourage readers to connect with our content and our journalists to reply to readers comments. We run polls on ft.com, host Twitter chats and choose readers’ comments to appear in a dedicated box on the ft.com homepage.
Technically we are investing in hybrid models for using cloud in a sensible and sustainable way. I’ve used a lot of cloud services and am now into a mature phase of looking at what works best in a way that spans the infrastructure options available. It is still an immature market.
There are also some exciting opportunities in working closer with (FT parent company) Pearson which are playing to the strengths of both brands.
You’re speaking at Apps World Europe in London this month. What will your talk be about?
I’m talking about the future of publishing. We are not building websites any more, and ‘what is an app?’ is a moving target so you have to think about distribution, access points and mechanisms like APIs. Take our content being presented through Flipboard as an example.
We need to be using all the tools we have to make this type of opportunity possible and build access to our services in a way that can deliver and respect our content through any platform or medium, whether we own and control the platform or not.
John O’Donovan is speaking at Apps World Europe, which takes place on 22-23 October 2013 in London. TNW Editor in Chief Martin Bryant is chairing the Developer Stage on day one of the conference. Tickets are available now.
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