(I’ve written these words to provide some material for a meeting with senior managers and creators here at the BBC on Friday).
There’s a vast social and economic experiment – centred on the Internet – that’s been going on for ten or fifteen years: it’s called ‘open source‘. The evidence is accummulating that the open source approach to creation of all kinds is very productive of what the BBC would call ‘public value’. Here are five example of open source in action in places far removed from its origins in software.
Last month Trent Reznor’s outfit released onto the net over 400GB of raw HD video shot on several dates during the band’s most recent tour. All footage shot from multiple camera angles plus separated sound were provided with no restriction as to use. Everything necessary to produce a commercial-quality tour DVD was provided. What was fascinating about the stunt was that wannabe remixers had to be really serious about the project: even downloading 400GB of video is a big deal, let alone organising it and cutting it to a professional standard. This sheer scale of the enterprise favoured organised teams with a mix of skills and lots of ambition. The experiment produced a small number of highly-organised projects and not a free-for-all of trashy mashups.
Open source originated in software development where there’s a clear separation between the source code and the shipped application but wherever it’s possible to separate the ‘recipe’ from the ‘finished product’ the idea works well. This beer recipe is published under an open source licence. Anyone is free to use it to make beer, provided they attribute the final brew to its ‘author’: the brewing company that published the recipe.
When the BBC Creative Archive crashed and burned its specially designed Creative Archive Licence survived and is now in use by, among others, the British Library, The Open University and Teachers TV. Everything aired on Teachers TV is available for free download at the channel’s web site. I’m a school governor and at several governor training courses I’ve watched videos made by Teachers TV. A generous, unrestricted licence is spreading TTV content widely and producing a huge amount of ‘public value’ (like better-trained school governors), amplifying the content’s underlying value substantially.
Artists of a certain age just don’t understand why they shouldn’t put their music up at one of the big music hubs for free use. Many are going further and encouraging fans to download and remix audio. There are thousands of explicitly open source bands on MySpace and YouTube already but even artists with no interest in open source as an idea are giving their music away to promote tours and to generate interest from labels. It’s pretty clear that many of these artists are embarking on long and happy careers during which they will never sell a single recording.
Progress in science happens largely in secret. Experiments are planned and executed in closed laboratories. Results remain secret until publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Many important results are never published because they fail the peer-review test. Precious laboratory resources are wasted in duplicated effort and millions are invested in journal subscriptions that could be spent on primary research. Scientists like Jean-Claude Bradley , a chemist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, are impatient with the closed regime and many have opened their laboratory notebooks: publishing them on the web where they can be read and annotated by other practitioners throughout the research and publication cycle. The result is faster progress, better research and less waste. The impact on science will be immeasurable.
Picture by Tom Scott.
Some people put a line of checkboxes like this in their email sig files:
Private [ ] Ask [ ] Bloggable [ ]
Do you think that a properly open organisation might do something similar in meetings? A red flag on the conference table would mean “private (no blogging, no nothing, don’t even think about it)”, an amber flag “ask (Some material might be public, some not, or some participants might not be comfortable sharing)” and a green flag “public (nothing to hide here)”. As with the email convention this is the kind of thing that might make people think and challenge the default secrecy of organisational decision making. I can also imagine some fairlly entertaining flag fights when the sensitivity of a meeting is disputed. Maybe they should have spikes on the end.
Pretty much as soon as I got my Wikipedia blog post up on Friday Roo Reynolds, who looks after social media at BBC Vision (which is what they used to call Television), posted on his own blog some guidance he’s written for Wikipedia wannabes at the BBC. His guidance was originally available on an internal BBC wiki but Roo thinks there’s no harm having it available to the rest of the world on his blog.
We had a chat about this today and discussed turning it into a more formal document and posting it at the BBC’s Future Media Standards & Guidelines web site. Roo might consider that but, since it’s now visible to the world there’s probably no need for the time being.
It might be more interesting – and certainly more useful to other organisations who want to make a positive contribution to the Wikipedia project – to package Roo’s guidance and publish it under a creative commons licence so that it can be used and extended by others. That’s exactly the kind of openness I’m talking about here.
Nick Reynolds, BBC Internet blog editor, also chipped in with some words on this topic written earlier in the year. Nick says “Wikipedia’s values are the BBC’s values”. I agree with him, with some reservations. In particular, Wikipedia’s values are not necessarily those of the BBC because Wikipedia’s values are not necessarily very clear at all. And they’re certainly not locked down and defined in a forest of foundation documents like a Royal Charter and dozens of policies and guidelines.
And, to finish, I think it’s definitely worth linking to the opinions of an interesting Wikipedia dissident, Carl Hewitt, information scientist, who thinks that Wikipedia’s dictatorial structure and deliberate exclusion of all but ‘conventional wisdom’ makes it essentially corrupt. He says that Wikipedia is “an infoCommune and not an encyclopaedia” and wants reform.
Hewitt’s a bit kooky but objections like his are going to keep coming up—and they’re going to get more coherent and better organised—as long as Wikipedia is run essentially by an individual (Jimmy Wales) and his circle of pals. This is exactly why I want the BBC involved: not with an eye to taking it over or changing its direction or even, conversely, as a statement of support for Wales and his eccentric system of governance but as an engaged contributor and an opinionated stakeholder, alongside thousands of others.
Wikipedia has already become the backbone of the semantic web and the number-one resource for learners on the Internet. For the BBC to stand aside from the evolution of the biggest public service knowledge store in history would be a real abdication of its network-era responsibilities. Wikipedia needs the BBC, and not just at arm’s length via the API but up close, in the database, as a contributor and co-builder.
Let me be clear: the BBC already makes use of Wikipedia‘s content and its structure (see this entry about search at the BBC) but there’s a real reticence about getting stuck in and making a useful contribution to the project itself (Nick Reynolds, who knows what he’s talking about, explains why here). Semantic web advocates at the BBC are busy building quite deep links into Wikipedia at the API level (see this fascinating post by Tom Scott about the way the BBC’s /music pages now make use of open content from Wikipedia and MusicBrainz).
There’s no shortage of collective and individual enthusiasm for Wikipedia but Wikipedia has become the backbone of the semantic web so it’s time for the Corporation to directly support the project by encouraging staff to become contributors or editors, by making the case for open learning content and by using the BBC’s resources and authority to improve its content. This is a direct and cost-effective way of using the licence fee to improve a vital piece of the global information infrastructure.
(updated this post a bit at 15:22 on 12 January).
Andy Parfitt, enduring and super-successful Controller of Radio 1, sits at a small desk in amongst his team. No egomaniac then. But is he interested in openness? Well, on the face of it, yes. I asked him for some examples from Radio 1’s recent past and the two he came up with were BeckyCam and ScottCam (read about them both in Scott Mills’ Wikipedia entry, watch the ScottCam highlights here and the BeckyCam highlights here).
The first, in case you’ve forgotten, involved setting up a webcam (at Becky’s computer, obviously) in the Radio 1 production office and having various important people (including Andy) drop by to answer questions from listeners.
The second was a kind of elaboration of the first: multiple cameras in DJ Scott Mills’ flat and a week of fun and games. Both were successful and entertaining and groundbreaking programming: the kind of stuff that wins Sony Awards and gets written up in trade mags and conference presentations.
ScottCam in particular was very successful, producing huge listener engagement and providing opportunities across the whole week and outside of Mills’ scheduled slot for lots of spontaneous fun and games: the kind of stuff that simply wouldn’t have been possible during an ordinary week.
Here comes the ‘but’.
But, let’s face it, they were both editorial wheezes. They were risky and clever and full of editorial potential but they did nothing to expose underlying processes, to genuinely involve outsiders or to share resources and assets.
First, the challenge for the BBC is to conduct its business in a fundamentally different way, at all levels and not just up at the top in the thin sliver of editorial that the public can see. Radio 1’s cheeky experiments are cool and funny and will probably do all the right things in terms of growing the audience and shifting the demographic but they’re not in any real way open.
Second, these are one-offs. They’ll inevitably produce lots of learning and plenty of interesting new programming but they’re not sustainable and they don’t contribute to a new way of doing things. What the BBC needs now is to speed up the evolution of a whole new framework for openness that makes it integral to the creative and operational machinery of the Corporation. Openness for Radio 1 needs to become a reflex—just part of the workflow—like it is for the geeks (and increasingly for the creatives).
Radio 1’s in a great position to pioneer this kind of work. Parfitt’s got a young and receptive audience and good-will to spare. I’d love to see Radio 1 try some really open new methods: in commissioning and production, in sharing and in new licencing models.
Parfitt wants to push forward and find ways to be more genuinely open at Radio 1. He’s keen to learn more and in the New Year I’ll be joining him on a tour of the most interesting examples of BBC openness we can find. I’ll document our tour here and, in the meantime, add a comment here if you have an example of the kind of openness that Andy Parfitt ought to know about, particularly if it’s in radio.
The BBC’s always been in the platform business. It was BBC engineers who designed and built the broadcast platforms of your analogue youth. They built them without the slightest expectation of remuneration from competing broadcasters and usually did so in the spirit of international collaboration that spread these standards around the planet at a remarkable speed via organisations like the EBU.
And now, on the Internet, the platforms keep coming. Here’s a round-up of the three IPTV platforms the BBC is currently developing (and if you count Kangaroo you might reasonably make that four).
iPlayer’s an industrial-grade chunk of engineering if I’ve ever seen one. It’s in the tradition of heavyweight BBC engineering projects of the past, like the national network of transmission masts and the whole outside broadcast infrastructure. It couldn’t have been otherwise: there’s no room for a secondary distribution channel at the BBC. It’s all primary. iPlayer knits together the big iron in the BBC’s playout and transmission facilities and the servers, storage arrays, switches and load sharing kit in the BBC’s data centres with the PCs and browsers in licence fee-payers’ homes. It’s this end-to-end package of broadcast and Internet engineering that’s on offer to the UK’s commercial PSBs in last week’s Public Service Partnerships (PDF).
It’s important to remember this: if ITV, C4 and Five jump at the chance to share the iPlayer it won’t be because they don’t think they can design their own Flash player, it’ll be because the challenge of designing and engineering (let alone maintaining) a large-scale IPTV platform is frankly beyond their means. If any significant proportion of TV viewing switches to IP in the next few years, the costs of maintaining a really robust (‘broadcast-quality’) platform will be enormous.
The implications of a shared platform for UK IPTV, of course, are also potentially enormous. It’s not a million miles from the moment during the 1920s when the early radio broadcasters agreed to use a single transmission standard. And there’ll be political fall-out. How will competition issues be resolved if, in five years time, four (or a dozen, or fifty) competing public service outlets are sharing a single IPTV infrastructure? And will there be a ‘Sky moment’ when Murdoch launches a competing infrastructure, perhaps hosted off-shore to avoid UK regulatory clearance? Fascinating.
Update: The iPlayer product roadmap must be the most comprehensive in the short history of IPTV—or in the long history of TV for that matter. The dreadnought of British on-demand TV apparently knows no limits. No platform will be left behind! No audience unserved! No delivery method unused! I was pretty sure the download iPlayer was going to be left to whither in the shadow of its more popular little brother the streaming iPlayer. I was wrong.
Last week’s announcement that Mac and Linux support have been added to the original download iPlayer sets me straight nicely. And in case you’ve been going round thinking that adding support for those two OSs might actually have been quite easy, you probably need to read Anthony Rose’s post at the BBC Internet blog. Getting downloading working on Mac and Linux required months of work, the testing and adoption of a new parallel DRM scheme and a brand new Flash rendering engine. Blimey.
The download iPlayer clearly retains its role for the BBC – in particular, I think, as the most direct way to serve non-connected platforms (handheld media palyers) and platforms where bandwidth is still expensive (mobile phones). This is an interesting extension of the idea of a platform (iPlayer already supports at least half a dozen platforms officially, more unofficially) and an equally intriguing definition of the obligations of a public service media owner.
Totem is a different kind of player. It’s an application packaged as a plug-in for various UNIX distributions (starting with Ubuntu). Totem doesn’t concern itself—unlike iPlayer—with the infrastructure. Totem piggy-backs the stores of content already provided by the BBC (and by anyone else, in principle). It takes care of discovery (what’s on) and playback and it makes use of another experimental BBC product, URIPlay, to identify accessible content. It can’t presently play back iPlayer content – although there’s nothing to stop the BBC from permitting this, perhaps in a later release.
What’s really fascinating here is the way Totem is knitted into the Operating System: it’ll ship as part of the leading UNIX distribution so users will find it pre-installed. Contrast this with the way the streaming iPlayer runs—with no install—further up in the stack, inside a browser. There’s no doubting where the investment is going at the BBC right now so it’s unlikely that we’ll see Totem going mainstream any time soon but as a way of getting into the software stack on consumer devices I can’t think of a better approach – and one that might be very fruitful on other devices, such as mobile phones (where iPlayer is already pre-installed on some handsets) and games consoles.
Erik Huggers at MIPCOM 2008 from James Martin on Vimeo.
Canvas is a much larger effort (to be delivered via a partnership with other VOD providers) to hook broadband provision and television together. It will—if it makes it into production—blend iPlayer and other playback technologies with a hardware platform (a set-top box) and some new content delivery protocols. The result will be a new box you can buy from Dixons—not unlike your Freeview box—that will bring the wonders of telly on the web to your living room.
The Canvas box will almost certainly violate the BBC’s principle that set-tops should be available for a one-off fee and no monthly charge. Internet Service Prividers will be obliged to charge for access and some will inevitably bundle a Canvas box with your monthly broadband contract. The additional fee the ISPs will be able to charge customers for Canvas may even make them feel a better about subsidising the delivery of bandwidth-hungry UK TV content to their subscribers.
The partners in Canvas think they can unlock a new market for IPTV delivered to the living room. Canvas could replace the mosaic of devices (Media Center PCs, Apple TV, IP-equipped games consoles, specialist video rental boxes and a handful of proprietary IP-ready PVRs) that can already deliver IPTV to your flat-screen. Manufacturers will licence the Canvas chipset and OS (for nothing) and wrap their own additional services around it. They might add PVR functionality, a wifi connection or a home media hub that plays back other media types, for instance. Canvas will inevitably also show up built-in to digital TVs and TV tuner cards for PCs. There’ll be a logo, a ‘Canvas-ready’ sticker and an awareness campaign.
By the time Canvas arrives some of those other platforms will be pretty mature and some will be aiming for inclusion in combo devices and TVs. Cable and Satellite will also be bidding for ownership of IPTV to the living room. Expect a competitive/regulatory punch-up in the UK, most likely led by Sky and Virgin as in the Kangaroo case. It should be quite exciting. Update: Virgin Media this week announced a potential competitor for Canvas: a unified IPTV platform that will run across cable, Internet and mobile.
Some useful links: fascinating post by George Wright about Totem from the BBC Internet blog. Also from the BBC Internet blog, lots of useful posts from iPlayer Day. Rory Cellan-Jones on Canvas from his blog at BBC News. Kate Bulkley on the ISPs’ fears for Canvas from Broadcast (UK TV trade mag), Erik Huggers discussing Canvas (and iPlayer etc.) at MIPCOM.
(I wrote this piece for iPlayer day over at the BBC Internet Blog but it was judged to be a bit ‘edgy’ for use there)
He’s an unlikely saviour for the creaking edifice we call public service broadcasting isn’t he? I mean Anthony Rose, of course: wiry South African firebrand and one-time buccaneering pirate-in-chief at Kazaa. Rose strides around the fourth floor at the BBC’s White City technology building at high speed and with evident purpose, often trailing a small cloud of geeks in his wake. He’s charismatic, almost Byronic. He’s not very BBC.
I find myself wondering what a foreigner like Rose makes of the weird and often arbitrary structures that sustain Britain’s public service media. I mean it is weird isn’t it? One big public service outlet funded from a compulsory levy and a short list of broadly commercial outlets funded by means of mysterious subsidies (of uncertain value) and advertising—oh, and some money from The Foreign Office. The whole thing held together by a quasi-religious value system handed down from an apparently tormented Scottish Baron who’s been dead for nearly forty years (sometimes I think the BBC’s a bit like Scientology).
And on Thursday we were handed the latest in a long series of proclamations from the BBC’s strategic priesthood: ‘Public Service Partnerships‘ (PDF here). This one’s short (18 pages plus footnotes) and rather nicely written but still has the impenetrable secret logic of a Papal bull. As with all important BBC documents, there’s a lot going on here—just under the surface—that it’s impossible for a mere mortal to interpret. The kind of carefully weighed political language that you know is delivering a message to someone somewhere but probably not you.
So, to the topic of the day: iPlayer. The document has a fair amount to say about the iPlayer, some of it genuinely new and interesting. The BBC intends to offer the iPlayer to the other Public Service Broadcasters. There aren’t many so I’ve committed them to memory: ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Later, if the scheme goes well, other owners of public service video, like the British Library and the Tate Gallery, will be asked to join. All will be invited to plug the iPlayer into their own web sites or to make use of a single ‘public service player’ where all of the UK’s PSB television will be available in one place.
Public Service Partnerships raises many questions (I predict months of media exegesis) but the most important for me relates to the very existence of a protected ‘public service media’ in Britain. In the broadcast era—the era of spectrum scarcity and Dad’s Army and that dog that said “sausages”—it was possible to defend the idea that public service media came in only one flavour—the broadcast flavour—and that it should come only from a short list of authorised providers.
A more open iPlayer, though, just highlights the absurdity of this artificial line drawn around public service media. An artificiality that can only become more obvious and unsustainable as time passes. People will wonder: if Five (the people who saved Home & Away for the nation) can claim privileged access to a public service video platform with a huge guaranteed audience and public funding, why can’t the secondary school in my area that’s producing media literacy podcasts or the County museum that’s made a documentary about the Diggers or, for that matter, The Telegraph or Penguin Books or me.
So Public Service Partnerships lays out a route to a more open BBC but does so in such a hedged and politically defensive way as to effectively neutralise its intent: sharing iPlayer will only make sense, finally, when anyone who creates content of public service value can use it. When it becomes a hub for the exchange of the nation’s public service genius. Openness at the BBC is surely about more than sharing the vast licence fee dividend with the anointed few. Can a cheeky South African import and impatient tech guru like Rose make a genuinely open iPlayer a reality? I hope so.
Photo by D Begley.
Fascinating gathering last week in the sombre 1932 Council Chamber at Broadcasting House. Hugh Garry – who ‘makes interesting digital things happen’ at Radio 1 – organised a session as part of his mission to popularise Twitter at Radio 1 and elsewhere. He and others in the audience (including me) provided case studies and encouragement to a bunch of (mostly) editorial people: the people charged with inventing interesting online activity to go with the programmes they work on.
It was a successful event but also frankly strange. Something about the fact that the room – built for Lord Reith in the glory days of Wireless engineering – must have seen so many technology demonstrations and so many discussions about new ways of reaching audiences in Britain and around the world. Was an early television wheeled in here to be shown to sceptical BBC Managers? Transistor radios? Computers?
And did those managers’ eyes roll back in their heads or did they instantly grasp the importance of what they were seeing? More interesting: will Hugh’s Twitter demo wind up in the chronologies, remembered as a turning point in the history of the BBC’s effort to embrace new tech or will it just be a footnote to the short history of a pointless microphenomenon called Twitter?
Follow me at twitter.com/bowbrick
Three months into my journey round the BBC I’ve come up with a list of six projects I’d like to tackle in addition to recording stuff here on the blog and generally challenging the BBC to open up. I think it’s safe to say that not all of these projects will materialise. In fact Nick Reynolds, editor of the BBC Internet Blog and my source of wisdom and guidance here at the Beeb, will do one of his big laughs if you suggest otherwise.
If I were to identify the real runners from this list, though – the ones that I think will be picked up by BBC people and turned into real, you know, things - they’d be number 1, the map, number 4, the Rights Lab and maybe number 5, the Openness Group. I’d also like to emphasise that I’m going to get some badges and mugs made whatever happens.
Project 1: Map of Openness at the BBC
Finding and measuring openness at the BBC.
- Visual guide to open assets, resources, content, people etc. at the BBC. A navigation aid.
- Underlying database: one record per asset, contains metadata about the asset and a value (or values) representing the relative openness of the asset (e.g. A big application published under the GPL gets a 5/5 value, a programme with a messageboard gets a 1/5)
- A rating scheme that measures openness and encourages competition for higher ratings.
- Map renders the underlying data in an interesting and useful manner: a Tube map, a heatmap, a poster, a geotagged overlay for a UK map.
- A set of badges that can be carried by qualifying assets (“We’re on the map”).
- Alternative renderings are possible: a game-like interface might be possible: an ARG? Tron-style fly-through. Accessible, public, open…
- An API providing access to the data for others to model and to encourage similar thinking elsewhere.
Project 2: From the future
We solicit stories told in the past tense from the perspective of a time in the future (a fixed time? Ten years? 50?) on the theme of openness.
- No prescribed format: text, comicbook, audio, video…
- No prescribed genre: sci-fi, literary fiction, ‘non-fiction’…
- A published mine of narratives that capture the possibilities, both good and bad, for openness at the BBC.
Project 3: Festival of the Future (Festival of Openness)
- A strand in the Electric Proms for next year.
- A standalone festival of content in all forms that celebrates and exemplifies openness.
- A trial project for an open commissioning model.
Project 4: Rights Lab
BBC rights experts, content creators and geeks from across the corporation working to reinvent rights:
- Researching the value of open (and open-ish) rights models for BBC stakeholders, particularly licence fee-payers.
- Cataloguing and rating the open licencing models that are available. Deciding which are most applicable to the BBC’s public service goals.
- Designing and testing new rights models
- Proposing and helping to design rights frameworks, platforms and tools for use at the BBC
- Communicating findings and best practice to others
- Running a UK ‘open rights forum’ for groups and individuals outside the BBC
Project 5: Openness Group
All the BBC’s openness nuts in one place. A informal group with a monthly forum supported by management but with no formal brief:
- A programme of events: speakers, demos, movies and happenings in support of openness.
- A source of expertise and opinions about openness for the BBC and others.
- A lobbying group, a repository of wisdom and experience.
- A cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary, cross-media meeting place for openness advocates.
- A place where people can argue about openness.
- A web site, a code repository, a library of openness texts and standards.
- A physical space with sofas and beanbags.
Project 6: Promoting openness
Entertaining materials that communicate the openness message and encourage people to get with the programme:
- Desk stuff: mugs, badges and calendars and cards that say: “THINK OPEN” and provide coordinates for further learning.
- Check lists and crib sheets: how to be open. How to incorporate openness into your TV programme/web site/policy/application (delete where not applicable)
- A page on Gateway (natch).
- A blog http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/openness
The BBC Trust has terminated the Corporation’s plans for a big new local news service. Here’s the nub of it:
In the case of the Local Video proposition therefore, we have judged that the proposal would not create enough value to the public to justify the investment of their licence fee monies and that this value is not great enough to offset the adverse market impact. The Trust has therefore rejected the proposal.
The Trust’s remit is clearly to dish out summary judgments, terminate services and generally kick butt. You can understand why: thoughtful touchy-feely judgments are hardly going to wash with the Corporation’s various implacable opponents emboldened by the last couple of months of cock-ups and defensive slips—especially those of them who buy ink by the barrel.
But it’s sad: a more measured response to the proposed video news service, something that acknowledged local media’s present crisis, for instance, might have been more helpful. It might, for instance, have said something like: “we’d like BBC local news management to go away and come up with a revised proposal that addresses the thinning out of local media by providing video, audio and news feeds free of charge to local media groups”, for instance.
Fairly vague ideas about sharing facilities and content were raised by Mark Thompson earlier in the year and there’s a strategic study under way that should report this year. The newsgathering and distribution facilities (studios, newsrooms, personnel, servers, bandwidth, CMS) purchased at wholesale rates by the BBC could be opened up to local players to produce real benefits to communities and struggling media outlets.
Radical thinking in the design of these services could also see them more open, more accessible and more useful than anything else in local media: benefits that should flow to local partners as well as communities. How about a local media toolset with deep links to the BBC’s various open linked data projects, to data and tools from government departments and institutions, to stores of open content and code, to archives from the BBC, museums and universities, to shared community and accountability functions… The list could go on.
So, giving the Trust the benefit of the doubt on this occasion—they were really only doing their job and creativity and flexibility are not in their remit—could Thompson expect a better reception if he came back with a totally reworked ‘Local Video 2.0′ proposal? One that emphasised openness, access to tools and local empowerment through technology. I’d like to think so.