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Archive for March, 2010

Building the Mythology Engine

posted by Duncan at 10:06 pm on March 30th, 2010

More than a few weeks ago now, we finished a project called The Mythology Engine. This was a prototype to see if we could build a framework for navigating drama on the BBC. Our first test case was Doctor Who. Mr Ferne has written an excellent post on the subject over on the BBC R&D blog. Rather than repeat what he said there, I advise you to go have a read.

This project was a wonderful experience for me, mainly due to the fact I got to build a lot of it. This post is a bookmark for me, and runs though the technologies we used.

Mythology Engine Prototype

As a prototyping team, we get to make technology decisions that help us build stuff quickly. This affords us a lot of flexibility. So for this project we used a fairly common set of tools paired with bits and pieces to make our lives easier.

Ruby on Rails: This choice was because I have a lot of experience with the framework, and it is an ideal candidate for prototypes. In fact over the years it has been used to build some great internal tools at the BBC. Oh and I know it’s fine for production too incase you were wondering.

MySql database: Again, we have a lot of experience with this, so why change.

Apache WebServer: Familiar, and easy to setup. We run Passenger as well to make Rails deployment a breeze. Because the prototype has streaming media playback, we needed to compile in the ( H264 Streaming Module). This was a fairly simple process with good documentation. I actually think if I did the project again, I would plump for Nginx instead of Apache. Just because it is so lightweight and fast, but Apache worked just fine.

Build for browsers that support CSS3: Here’s an interesting one. So when building the pages, I realised that some of the complex design could be implemented just using CSS3, without the need to chop up images and create complex layouts. This did mean that “browsers” like I.E (at least < 9) and the like would not display the designs as expected. But hey, this is a prototype, so let's just save come complexity and do it the easy way.

As well as the technologies above, we also used Flash for our visualisations and the custom media player. We powered them using an API we built into the main site. We are lucky to have great Flash experts like Mr Bowley to build this stuff, and I even got the chance to dust off my own AS3 skills with one of the visualisations. Oh and finally, we used the jQuery javascript library for any client side trickery.

So, nothing too unusual there, or in the build really. We decided on our data model (which was influenced by the OntoMedia and ideas from the team) and url design up front, and created the database and subsequent models. We initially thought we could populate the database using provided documents (exel etc) but quickly realised this would be inadequate, and needed something quick and easy to allow data entry. Along came Typus. I highly recommend this project. It creates a simple but extendable CMS based on your Rails applications models. You also get user admin for free. We made some change to suit our project (If any of the Typus people are reading, I tried to feed back changes we made but couldn’t get your tests to run). I also wrote some filters for Paperclip so we could get all images sizes and styles from one upload.

Finally we first built an initial basic site. This was to test out initial layouts and get some understanding of how the site felt when we had real data. This layout was then tweaked and polished once we were happy.

So that was a whistle stop tour of how we built the prototype. What we ended up with was a very polished prototype, which we are all rather proud of. Current I only have screenshots to show, but hopefully that will only be temporary.

One final thing to note. We build this with a maximum of 5 people. The majority of the team were cross discipline. This really helps. It means that everyone understands what the other is doing without everyone having to work on the same area of the project. This was especially key on this project, as we built in from scratch in a very short period of time. I have been fortunate enough to work on some recent influential projects within the BBC, and all those projects had around 5 people working on them. 5 is clearly, the magic number.

So that’s a brief overview. Like I say up top, read the proper explanation on the R&D blog.

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