Each year, Leeds hosts 1.5 million tourists who add an estimated £654m ($1.1 billion) to the local economy. While Leeds has plenty to offer to tourists, relying on the traditional city guides for recommendations is a hit-and-miss affair. The Leeds Living team, thus, saw an opportunity to build a more spontaneous guide by tapping into location data. The primary challenge the team faced was how to build a full-fledged location-based service under tight deadlines and with a limited budget. After creating a short-list of potential tools, Leeds Living selected Contentful to power its app.
Immediately after kickoff, We Are Living assembled a team of editors and freelance photographers to work on content for the guide. The number one question the editorial team had was how to handle the data entry. “The logic of the Leeds Living app required each entry to have precise location data, but expecting editors to fiddle with longitudes and latitudes was unrealistic,” says Paul Simon, the founder of We Are Living.
To deal with the problem, the tech team added a native location field to the 'places' entries, enabling editors to enter location in very intuitive ways: by searching for an address, entering a postal code, or dropping a pin on a map. The underlying data is then converted to the corresponding geo-coordinates and stored in the database. “Discovering location fields in Contentful was such a relief” admits Simon. “It allowed us to shift focus to customer-facing features rather than tinker with the administrative interface.”
While location data figures prominently in the guide, visitors also expect to filter recommendations by categories. This poses a challenge. As Kam Jayathilaka, Leeds living editor, describes it, “to provide users with the most useful information, we need to vary the data we include for different types of places.” For example, a restaurant description should include the type of cuisine, drink options, and payment types. By contrast, a design studio wants to advertise the types of services it provides and showcase its past work.
The logic of the Leeds Living app required each entry to have precise location data, but expecting editors to fiddle with longitudes and latitudes was unrealistic
Paul Simon, Founder of We Are Living
Most CMS vendors tackle the problem by cramming a myriad of optional fields into one entry or defining separate content types for each category. Both approaches suffer from serious shortcomings, be it a bloated entry editor or programmatic overhead in querying entries. “Contentful, meanwhile, offered an elegant third way: our ‘places’ entries are configured to hold essential information like name, address and location. Editors then use sub-entries to attach specific details to each category,” explains Rich Cooper, a lead developer on the project.
With traditional city guides using algorithms powered by staff’s picks and a few ‘star’ venues, their recommendations can quickly turn stale or feel needlessly repetitive. We Are Living’s focus on visitors’ actual location, however, encourages actual exploration. Whenever a visitor looks at a new entry in the guide, she is presented with a unique set of related places.
According to Cooper, “the most remarkable thing about the diversity of our recommendations is that we didn’t have to invest in complex algorithms or massive data crunching infrastructure. Instead, we exploit the sophisticated features of the Contentful API to do the necessary computations.”
More specifically, the Leeds Living guide utilizes location-based search when querying the API. “With Contentful providing options to find entries located near me, within a predefined perimeter or around a given point, fetching a fresh set of recommendations is easier than publishing ‘Hello World’ in Wordpress,” says Cooper, tongue in cheek.
In yet another departure from business as usual, the Leeds Living guide plans to supplement its place recommendations with special offers and promotions run by local businesses. Valid only for a limited period, offers are beamed to visitors who are near a participating business via iBeacons.
According to Cooper, “having one CMS to manage both - the guide entries and iBeacon promotions brings considerable advantages”. He continues, “Since all entries come with location data, setting up iBeacon campaigns is trivially simple. All one needs to do is link the campaign to a specific business and describe the terms of a deal”.
Again, the modular content structure permits varying deal templates between different categories. And with the ability to configure validations for each template, “we can ensure that all promotions conform to the necessary technical and business requirements”, adds Cooper.
The team's ambitions do not stop at iBeacons. With 7 out of 10 Britons carrying a smartphone, We Are Living is busy developing iOS and Android versions of the guide. According to the project leader Simon, Contentful support for cross-platform publishing significantly lowers the implementation costs of these follow-on projects.
“One should never underestimate the amount of work involved in migrating thousands of entries to a mobile app” he says. “The fact that we can skip a migration entirely by relying on the Contentful API to deliver the same content also to mobile apps helps me sleep better at night.”
The advantage of using Contentful goes well beyond reusing the same content. Thanks to features like the sync API fetching incremental changes, a CDN for caching popular content, and intelligent image scaling, the technical team can optimize the guide to answer visitors’ queries without blowing a hole in their mobile data plan.
“It’s amazing how much smart mobile delivery functionality is baked right into Contentful API,” says Simon. “It simplifies the task of building interactive, cross-platform apps to the point where a five person team could easily power a service attracting a million visitors.”
We Are Living has set out to build a brand new type of city guide, one that possesses spatial awareness and encourages spontaneity. To bring this vision to life, the team leveraged Contentful's capabilities to simplify entry of geo-data, define a modular content structure, and shift heavy computational tasks to the storage layer. The platform-agnostic nature of the CMS also helps the team reuse existing content on new platforms, such as iBeacons and native mobile apps.
Summarizing his experience, Rich Cooper has remarked: “Contentful has propelled our development process into a completely different level. We would have never achieved the degree of polish and sophistication in our service, if it was not for the capabilities afforded by this Platform.”