Monthly Archives: November 2002

NHS Obscure

Is this Britain’s worst web site? No. That would be an exaggeration. NHS Direct Online could be Britain’s least useful web site, though.

Trying to find out what the normal temperature range for a two year-old is, I search for a lot of different terms with no luck. Searching for ‘temperature child’ brings me 461 results, the first 55 of which are the same entry (about vomiting) repeated over and over again. The FAQ section, which sounds promising, is risible. The section labelled ‘First Aid’ contains one question (‘what should I keep in a first aid kit?’). The section on Ambulances, one question (‘when should I call an ambulance?’). I could go on… The telephone service is good. We’ve used it lots of times when the kids have been ill. It’s dreadful that it’s let down so badly by the web site, especially when the site could really lift the load for the qualified nurses who staff the phone line by handling routine enquiries like ‘what’s the normal temperature range for a two year-old?’. By the way, what is the normal temperature range for a two year-old?

Previewing books

The thing with book reviews is you’re supposed to wait until you’ve finished reading the book before you review it but sometimes I just can’t wait! The latest exciting volume to hit my desk is Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe – a big, beautifully-illustrated survey of economics, trade, infrastructure, manufacture and custom in the middle ages – all the stuff that came together to make what we now call capitalism.

A blogging injury

I’ve got some kind of RSI – pressure on a nerve in my neck makes my left arm numb (I’ve pretty much ruled out a stroke). My neck hurts and I can’t pick anything up (although my 28Kg son begs to differ). I’ve sort of fixed my stupid working posture and now I’m just waiting for it to get better. In the meantime, these things don’t work. They’re supposed to be mega-painkillers but they give me about an hour of relief maximum. This would be fine except I’m supposed to take them every eight hours. Worst of all, I think this might be a blogging injury. Incidentally, if you search for the words blogging injury at Google, you’ll learn quite a lot about Robert Schumann’s perplexing 1832 injury to his hand, caused by a ‘home-made mechanical contraption’ designed to strengthen his hands. The injury prevented him from becoming a concert pianist.

Are you a Baconian or a Cartesian?

Freeman Dyson quotes Bacon in his NYRB review of a book about the importance of amateur astronomers:

“All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature, and so receiving their images as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.”

He contrasts the Baconian amateurs – focused on systematic exploration and minute observation – with the Cartesian professionals – always with their eye on the grand theory and the cosmic problem. By the way, did you know that Patrick Moore discovered Mare Orientale, “the biggest and most beautiful impact crater on the moon”?

Problems with Azeem’s BPL idea

Azeem’s BPL idea will encounter many obstacles on its way to the mainstream:

1. How far downstream does the BPL go? If you require content and app developers to embed the BPL in all derivitive product (as the pure GPL requires), there is no limit. This will alienate businesses who don’t want their work to inherit the BPL. It would be better to allow developers to use BBC material without publishing their own source – a sort of one-way GPL that would permit bigger, more conservative organisations to play.

2. The whole thing is going to be extremely hard to explain to almost anyone, let alone to BBC Governors, management, regulators and media. It’s easy to imagine the project going nowhere if entrenched interests succeed in characterising it as something geeky, something to do with computers – or, worse, as some kind of weirdo collectivism, detached from reality – “meanwhile, back in the real world.” How would it play in The Daily Mail and the rest of the Conservative media, already hostile to the Beeb?

3. Competitors – many badly knocked around by the crash – will only approve if the effect of the BPL is to reduce the BBC’s overall share of audience. The scheme should be engineered to achieve this, not to cement the BBC as the sole source of quality content and code in the UK or as the hub of an emerging content network.

4. As a starting project Digital IDs are tricky. Anyone issuing hard IDs like the ones envisaged by Azeem will be perceived as an arm of government. No one would believe for a minute that there were no Government-mandated back doors. It might be better to stop short of hard authentication and start with credentials: ‘I’m over 18’, ‘I live in the UK so I’m entitled to get BBCi content for nothing’, ‘I’m under 14 so I can enter the CBBC Chat Rooms’… These simpler IDs, if widely adopted, would be a trojan horse for the real thing.

Redefining ‘Public Service’ at BBCi

Azeem thinks we should try to apply open source thinking to the BBC. He thinks the Beeb?s online content and code should be freely published under the GPL – the radical constitution of the copyleft movement. The effect of this – if it worked – would be to bring into being a thriving new ?creative commons? downstream of the beeb, built on the BBC?s stock of content and application logic. This might just be the boost that UK Online needs to beat the bust and overcome the natural pessimism produced by nearly three years of market misery. More important, it might also represent the first serious attempt to update the definition of ?public service? for the networked era.

So why is this interesting? Isn?t open source just a geek fad? Actually, I think it might help us advance the debate about the BBC in the digital era. Arguments about the BBC?s role – the charter, the license fee, public service vs ratings etc. – are especially dry and boring these days. With Dyke in charge, Labour in power and OfCom barred from regulating the Beeb directly, the corporation is more-or-less bulletproof. Even Rupert Murdoch?s ?untouchable? outburst struck a plaintive note. Open source might short-circuit these old-world arguments and help us get a productive argument about public service in the twenty-first century going again.

Azeem?s idea is focused not on ownership (privatise it, usually – yawn) or on output (cut it back to an explicitly public service core, privatise the rest – double yawn) but on creation. By promising to stimulate the online creative economy in the middle of the nastiest crash in recent history, an Open Source BBCi might bring to life a whole new ecosystem – like the independent TV production sector that rallied around the new Channel 4 in the eighties. If it works, we?ll have ourselves a useful model for the redefinition of public service in other areas of the Beeb?s output and perhaps for Government investment in interactivity – ?Broadband Britain?, UK Online and so on – in general.