My first week as blogger in residence…

posted by Steve Bowbrick

I think this is my fourth full day at the BBC. I’ve got a Staff Pass (temporary) and I’m just getting used to the idea that I’m allowed in the building at all. Here are my notes from a few interesting presentations and meetings I attended last week:

Linked Open Music. First, Matthew Shorter and Tom Scott gave a short talk about /music, which is a big, strategically important effort to open up the BBC’s music assets and to get the BBC onto the Linked Open Data map (and here’s a magisterial but slightly opaque talk by TBL about Linked Open Data). The centrepiece of the project is the adoption of MusicBrainz, a vast community-maintained structured database (real semantic web stuff) of music info which is published under various permissive licences (including CC).

This is all good: the BBC doing the right thing in a very public way and lending authority and credibility to an open data project as they do so. /music is going to become an important destination for fans everywhere but also an important source of authoritative content. Tom showed a page from the Channel 4 web site which (legitimately) lifts BBC CC content – now there’s an intellectual challenge for the defenders of rights and brand values.

While we’re at it, I want it written into the record that during the presentation I suggested an iTunes plug-in for /music. Wouldn’t it be cool if iTunes could wrap your music in all the rich metadata (historic context, artists’ biographies, pictures and archive etc. etc.) from /music?

Enhancing news. Jonathan Austin and Kevin Hinde presented two fascinating trial projects from BBC News Online. Muddy Boots uses code developed by a company called Rattle to embed floating links to Wikipedia entries in news stories. Apture does something similar but also allows users to click on any word in the text for a definition. Both tools depend on journalists to select links so this is an editorial-driven innovation – also a controversial one, if the standards hardliners are to be believed. Of course, any self-respecting social media web site would have had the audience (or an algorithm) providing the links but I guess that’s an option that’s really not available at BBC News.

Next generation video. I went along to a quite mind-expanding demonstration of next generation Ultra-High Definition video not really knowing what to expect. Engineers from Kingswood Warren and the system’s Japanese inventors (NHK) were on hand and they were real old-school engineers – proper jacket-and-tie engineers. When the six metre screen in White City lit up with images of sunflowers, children dancing, snow-covered landscapes and so on, the resolution (which I understand is nearly ten times greater than current HD) was so immense, the experience so engulfing… I don’t want to gush but it was the kind of hyper-real sensory rush that leaves you crying without quite knowing why.

Kingswood Warren had arranged the demonstration in part to show off their equally mind-blowing Dirac open source compresson technology which took the Ultra-HD signal’s 28 Gigabits/second and squished it down to 128 Megabits/second with no noticeable loss of quality. Dirac is an example of what James Cridland calls ‘cooperating on technology, competing on content’: a real technological advance made available to the broadcast/new media community at no charge and unencumbered by restrictive licences. It’s also a candidate for inclusion in a future version of HTML.

Top secret! I’m going to be keeping most of my fascinating meeting with Madhav Chinnappa to myself, I’m afraid. He’s on attachment from BBC News as Head of Business Development for Journalism and he’s responsible for doing the kind of deal that gets BBC news content onto third party web sites and services. His primary concern is nudging the BBC’s online reach upwards to bring it into line with the numbers for TV and radio. A tall order, I’d say.

Anyway, although I’d love to be able to tell you what we talked about, Madhav’s involvement with gnarly issues like rights and commercial deals make that impossible for the time being. I don’t quite know how to reconcile my mission to open up the BBC with confidentiality issues like this but my judgment is that telling you who I’m meeting but not what I’m talking about is better than saying nothing at all. What do you think?


Comments so far.

  1. Posted by Bill Lee on Tuesday 7th October

    If not rights, what about the issues of rights, and those around the world?

    Music rights are different around the world, and some countries have quotas on local content such as Canada with their MAPL (Music, Artist, Producer, Lyrics) points for local content.

    What are the metatags for BBC content(s)? Can we use them in more narrow national contexts such as all the stuff from Ghana rather than Kenya this week?

    What about the 1920s stuff? How much is now public domain and should be featured?

    If sound or sound track are there transcripts, better yet coded by linguists for meaning and later analysis by labeling it?

    Can we say that you lowered your voice when you said the word “confidentiality” and so on?

  2. Posted by JackP on Tuesday 7th October

    Well hello there Steve, from a “standards hardliner”.

    Firstly, I’d just like to say that I’m right behind the idea of the BBC looking to “open its bank of content, code and talent” to the world at large. I also agree with your judgement that telling us who you’re meeting is better than nothing, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog.

    However, I would posit (well, as a standards zealot, I am no doubt contactually obliged to) that there is generally a very good reason for adhering to standards: the content is more accessible and more usable to more people, is better understood by bots, browsers, assistive technology and so on. However, I am totally behind the idea of including links to relevant items in news stories, I just think the mechanism used was wrong.

    But enough of these arguments which you’ve already read anyway: I’ll just look forward to reading more of what you’re up to!

  3. Posted by Scot on Wednesday 8th October

    “Wouldn’t it be cool if iTunes could wrap your music in all the rich metadata”

    Yes, but it wouldn’t be very open, would it? iTunes is a fairly proprietary thing.

  4. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Wednesday 8th October

    Well Scot, I think that’s a total red herring. Surely many of the platforms the BBC supports are (and will be) 100% proprietary (Virgin’s set-top boxes, Nokia’s N96, Sky’s satellite set-up etc. etc.). Providing content that plays out in closed environments is fine provided the source content is open and accessible by other (open) means, if you ask me! Besides: an iTunes plugin would be totally awesome. Imagine clicking a Bartok track and getting a swathe of fascinating historic context, pics, Hungarian history, biogs etc. etc. right there in iTunes or on your iPod!

  5. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Wednesday 8th October

    Bill, you ask many good questions about the detail of metadata etc. I don’t have answers for any of them but I’ve met people here who seem todo nothing but worry about metadata, rights etc. so I hope that one or more of them might chip in here and answer your questions…

  6. Posted by Steve Bowbrick on Wednesday 8th October

    JackP, I actually think your hardline approach is totally justified but I’d also note that the BBC people presenting the trial felt that running the trial even with a non-optimal, non-compliant implementation would yield good learning that could be applied in a production version later (and they were very conscious af accessibility issues). Where I disagree with your analysis is in the adherence to what are essentially ten year-old orthodoxies like always loading linked pages into the same window and so on. Surel the web is mature enough and rich enough now to at least contemplate useful innovations like in-line rendering etc. As a 45 year-old I can confirm that a link that takes me away from the current page is essentially ‘Goodbye’ for a man with a memory like mine!

  7. Posted by Tom Scott on Wednesday 8th October

    If you are interested in more info on our work on the music site here’s a copy of our presentation on SlideShare.

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