Monthly Archives: June 2008

The BBC common platform debate

Last Wednesday’s common platform debate at Broadcasting House was a hit. We talked for nearly three hours plus time in the pub afterwards. Mike covered it (live) over at Techcrunch UK (and I know the event was recorded in some form) and other bloggers have written it up (although at least one was actually watching the football!).

The topic—the BBC’s role in a post-broadcast public service ecology—is clearly going to be a very rich and productive one. Here is my summary of the event’s interesting bits, organised under useful headings. I was chairing the event so I wasn’t able to take proper notes—this is mostly from memory. Please chip in with your own recollections if you were present.

There’s a lot the BBC could be doing.

We’re ten years+ into the network revolution and the BBC’s impact so far has been a raft of quality content on multiple platforms (like this weekend’s quite awesome Glastonbury coverage) and very little else: hardly any of the kind of gutsy innovation the nation and the economy need. We’ve seen cautious incremental change when the circumstances (demographic and economic change at home, rampant growth in our most important competitor economies, environmental change of unknown scope…) demand courageous leaps in the dark.

The BBC is the nation’s most important machine for the production of consensus: nervous, go-slow adoption of common platform goals just won’t do. Tom Loosemore, who used to work at the BBC and now divides his time between Ofcom and The Cabinet Office, provided a handy seven-item list of things the Corporation ought to be sharing which I will now crudely paraphrase and expand (Tom would want me to point out that I’ve added quite a lot to his list in case any of it is traced back to him, causing him to be thrown from a high window in Downing Street):

1. Research. The Corporation produces (and pays for the production of) huge amounts of proprietary audience research, much of it hardly used. This should be made available to business and community, preferably in a useful, nicely-tabulated form.

2. Code. All code written at the BBC should be published under a suitable Open Source licence (Azeem Azhar was conveniently on hand to rehearse his BBC Public Licence idea from 2002). There’s really no excuse for this. It’s not obvious which licence would apply but if there isn’t one out there, one should be invented.

3. Data. The BBC produces and buys lots of data: from TV listings to electoral data. Sadly, much of it is not owned outright and some has even been stupidly given away (like the TV listings gifted to Red Bee on privatisation). What data the Corporation does own outright, however, should be made available freely.

4. Tools. The BBC should be obliged to give away or at least develop nationally-useful tools. Tom’s examples were geolocation and some kind of UK blog search tool. Others came to us in the pub afterwards but I’ve forgotten them.

5. Incubation and investment. The BBC could ‘do a Channel 4’ and seed a whole layer of productive and profitable new media production and technology businesses. Production quotas should be enlarged and a framework put in place to support startups and small businesses in the sector (analogous, I suppose, to the cost-plus budgeting methods used in TV production).

6. Traffic. This could be huge. The phrase ‘trusted guide’ has been current at the BBC since John Birt discovered the Internet in 1995 but it’s never been given meaning. Institutional caution has stopped the Corporation from linking to more than a handful of external sites, and always via a forest of disclaimers. It was pointed out at the debate that the addition of MusicBrainz to the BBC’s music sites adds something like 3 million external links so that’s a start I guess!

7. The Internet. The BBC shouldn’t attempt to augment, enhance or wall off any part of the Internet. The BBC’s endorsement of net neutrality is vital. The Corporation should build on freely-available net tools and services and avoid duplication at all costs.

Rights are a big deal. And they’re not going away.

Outsiders are impatient with the BBC’s rights regime. They want uncomplicated one-stop access to BBC content (and not necessarily for free) but instead they get a spaghetti of overlapping rights owners and regimes. Only the simplest and most directly-owned content can be shared easily: one example cited was Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: live speech recorded in a BBC studio with expert contributions paid-for outright and no music. But a tiny proportion of the Corporation’s daily output belongs in the In Our Time category. Even historic and archive material is often encumbered by multiple rights owners (or potential rights owners) and the BBC’s own commercial arm has its own agenda and often has first call on original content.

Two lessons. First: if you’re a tech or media entrepreneur and your business idea needs access to BBC content, think again. Building-in any kind of dependency on the BBC’s rights regime will scare away investors faster than bird flu. Second: the BBC could simplify the regime and persuade (read: force) rights owners to participate, especially for old and potentially neglected material that is unnecessarily encumbered. The key here may lie with legislators who could help by reasserting the BBC’s larger purpose and agreeing to compromise the inalienable rights of content owners and creators a little in return for a more open environment (pay attention Cliff Richard).

BBC new media managers are not the problem

On the evidence of Wednesday evening’s showing, slow progress in building a common platform in Britain is not the fault of the managers building it. Tony Ageh, James Cridland, Jem Stone and other BBC staff present are evidently all passionate drivers of change (and I know many others like them inside the Beeb). In many respects they were the most forward-thinking people in the room: Tony Ageh’s suggestion that he’d like us to be able to right-click on any asset at bbc.co.uk to get a pop-up detailing its ownership and rules for use was particularly inspiring. Presumably many years spent wrestling with a highly-regulated, historically-cautious tax payer-funded monolith has produced a pragmatic approach to achieving change but there’s evidently no absence of enthusiasm for it.

Channel 4 is ready to help

It’s not all about the BBC. Jon Gisby, Channel 4′s new Director of New Media, spoke with what I’d characterise as cautious enthusiasm about the station’s status as a ‘convening brand’ (that’s a technical term. Look it up) and about its potential to provide a £50M springboard for UK tech and media businesses via the fascinating and so far enigmatic 4IP fund. More than one person used the analogy of Channel 4’s seeding of the British independent TV production business 25 years ago. Gisby nodded.

I’d certainly like to see Channel 4 function as a cheeky and innovative counterweight to the BBC in building out the common platform. The potential is clearly there in 4IP.

The BBC has a history of engineering leadership

All sorts of technical innovations were invented at the BBC and then spread into the wider industry. James Cridland put it like this: “we agree in technology and compete in content”. An organisation accustomed to sharing its production and distribution tech but closely guarding the programmes made with it will inevitably find it hard to shift to a new model. One where technology leadership has been replaced by open source collaborative methods and where content is freely shared.

Tech entrepreneurs don’t care much

On the evidence of our debate there is no real clamour for access to BBC resources from the UK tech startup industry. In fact there’s significant mutual ignorance. Startups don’t know how to access the BBC’s fund of good stuff and the BBC doesn’t know who might want it or in which formats. Entrepreneurs heard at the event said things like: “who do I talk to about access to historic news content?” and “how do I get a commercial agreement for use of programme metadata?” I think for most people—adventurous tech startups included—the BBC is part of the woodwork, practically invisible. The idea that it might function as an enabler for enterprise or community is not widespread. There’s work to be done there.

There were many other fascinating strands to our debate—the BBC’s monopolistic behaviour in some categories, market failure in others, the absence of true APIs and other easy methods of calling on BBC assets, public value tests… to name a few. I’ll try to return to some of them here. Others have covered the debate elsewhere. I’d like to see a follow-up meeting soon. I’m also planning to put up a web site (probably a wiki) for the further discussion of these matters. Do let me know if you’d like to help.

Thanks to Mike Butcher for putting the considerable weight of TechCrunch UK behind this. It was his initial post that got things going in the first place. Thanks to all the panelists, all of whom have important jobs to do and better things to be doing with their Wednesday nights. Thanks in particular to James Cridland who organised the venue, catering and lots of other stuff for us, as well as being a trenchant panelist and defender of the BBC’s honour! Thanks finally to attendees and bloggers who made the thing lively and interesting!

Coming to tonight’s Common Platform debate?

First of all, it’s sold out, so if you’ve not got a confirmed seat I’m afraid you’ll just have to fight your way past three rows of braided Commissionaires (mostly veterans of the Desert Rats) at Broadcasting House to get to the Council Chamber (like that brilliant scene in Extras where Stephen Merchant tries to vault the security screens to get into a BBC building). If you do have a confirmed seat, on the other hand, please show up at Broadcasting House reception (Portland Place) for a prompt start at 19:00.

Second, the confirmed panel is as follows:

  • Tony Ageh, Controller, BBC Internet
  • Jem Stone, Portfolio Executive, Social Media for Future Media & Technology, BBC
  • James Cridland, Head of Future Media & Technology, BBC Audio & Music
  • Tom Loosemore, Ofcom and The Cabinet Office
  • Jon Gisby, Director of New Media, Channel 4
  • Azeem Azhar

Third, here’s the briefing I sent to panelists yesterday. For those of you who’ve been bugging Mike and myself for tickets, I really am sorry. Next time we’ll book Wembley Arena.

Fourth, if you’ve got a question you think really ought to be asked of this panel, drop me a line and I’ll try to squeeze it in.

Watch this space (and TechCrunch UK) for the outcome of what I expect will be a fascinating debate. I think Mike himself will be live blogging so TechCrunch might be a good place to start.

What’s the difference between the common platform and the web?

James Cherkoff wonders (in a comment) if my common platform isn’t really just… well… the web. It’s a good question because the web, of course, is the mother-and-father of all platforms, a place with such a richness of tools and outlets that it might seem as if it has no need of an additional layer like a common platform. But I think the answer to James’ question really is ‘no’.

The Common Platform (see, it’s already acquired a ‘The’ and Capital Letters like it’s a real thing!) is a designed overlay for the web, an elaboration. The sort of secondary functionality that all platforms sooner-or-later acquire. That’s not to say that it’s separate from or outside the web proper (not a walled garden or a locked-down proprietary thing). In fact it’s strength will lie in the fact that it is profoundly of the web.

Trying to be as ‘web-like’ as possible here I can imagine a common platform, at its simplest, as barely more than a commissioning model plus a tag-cloud. At its largest and most monolithic… It shouldn’t really be large or monolithic.

Expanding on this slightly, the Common Platform should be an organisational device plus some commissioning logic plus some kind of resource discovery gubbins and a wafer of UI to point all the different stakeholders at what they need. Bob’s Your Uncle. Job done. Public service media transformed. Next!

Another confirmed speaker for the Common Platform debate

Jon Gisby, who is Director of New Media at Channel 4, is now confirmed as a panelist in our debate next week about the BBC’s public service obligations—and beyond! (echoey sci-fi voice there). Jon is listed in my address book as ‘Managing Director, Freeserve’ which a) shows you how useful my address book is and b) suggests that I may well have tried to sell him another.com (there are very few people of any stature in the UK web industry to whom I did not try to sell another.com—but that’s another story).

A common platform?

What does the future of public service media look like? What comes after the current crop of public service entities, which are all essentially channels? Could it be a kind of platform?

We already have lots of platforms: Playstation, the web, Windows, Ubuntu, Series 60 mobiles. Systems that live low down in the stack, providing a bunch of services and data for applications that run on top. We’re familiar with how they work. They make life easier by eliminating duplication and they make possible all sorts of creative and useful work that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

So what I’m talking about is building a big, generous, accommodating public platform that runs code and community and content – making life easier for creators and communities in Britain. A kind of giant shared computer that exposes useful assets like public data, educational content, archives and library catalogues, health data and democratic and community tools… The whole range of useful and enabling content and services that comes from state providers like the BBC, the Ordnance Survey and the Public Records Office and also the good stuff that comes from the commercial and third sectors.

A national public service platform like this would be a public good, a freely accessible toolset, meeting place and notice-board. People would use it tell stories about all the big issues: the drama about free content and software, health service reform, access to public data, surveillance and health records, copyright, immigration, educational standards, content ratings for kids’ media, community access, capacity building for excluded groups and all the rest.

A platform like this would be open to all: individuals, businesses, clubs and schools. A rich and open toolset that people and groups could use to represent themselves, communicate their values, publish cool and useful content (and make money), but also to make mischief, dissent and pure entertainment—nothing worthy about this platform. Could something like this be a legitimate replacement or supplement for the industrial era public service outlets (the terrestrial TV channels, essentially) we now treasure but recognise are really struggling for relevance?

This is not a new idea. I first wrote about it over ten years ago. Lots of others have done so too. Ofcom even came up with a name for it (before they lost interest): the Public Service Publisher. Tessa Jowell, when she was Minister of Culture, advanced a similar idea with more of an economic edge: she called the BBC ‘venture capital for the UK’ in speeches like this one made all over the place. Jem Stone alerts me to the fact that senior managers at the Beeb seem to have picked the idea up again. Caroline Thompson, the most senior BBC Executive you’ve never heard of, was recently heard testing it on a Manchester audience (James Cherkoff points out that Peter Bazalgette’s Boggle is close to the Common Platform idea too).

I’m going to suggest that we call this new public service vehicle our Common Platform.

Next Wednesday evening I’m chairing a debate about the BBC’s role in the subtly different world after the Trust’s review of bbc.co.uk. The debate’s a response to the fairly robust debate that’s been going on at uk.techcrunch.com since Mike Butcher put the boot into the Beeb after the report came out. We’ve got several important BBC people booked to participate plus Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore. Sadly the event is already a full house but watch this space for more news and a summary of the debate once we’ve had it.

Is the Trust a Trojan Horse?

Looks like it, doesn’t it? The history: a short-term crisis (Hutton and then all that premium-rate stuff and the lies about the Blue Peter cat?) produced an apparently innocent change in the way the BBC is governed (and a new royal charter to go with it) and now, eighteen months later, it’s just sinking in that the BBC Trust is potentially the corporation’s unwitting nemesis.

No one seriously thinks that the Trust has it in the for the Beeb but the kicking doled out to news chiefs in the latest report could be a sign of things to come. The problem is that The Trust is a strange beast: a kind of internalised regulator, a body paradoxically obliged to provide statutory oversight and to defend the corporation’s independence and standards. The Trust must, by law, be tough and impartial and this will necessarily lead to some damaging analyses—and coming not from an arms-length regulator but from right inside the corporation.

The Beeb’s top managers must fear a drip drip drip of negative reports and impossible-to-ignore prescriptions. Legislators hostile to the corporation for various reasons must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of lots of new ammunition for their causes. As the Trust’s reports pile up on the DG’s desk, each demanding an expensive response and quite possibly deep and structural change (like, for instance, spinning off and funding Scottish and Welsh mini-Beebs), it might look increasingly like the corporation is tearing itself apart.

The potential for damage to the BBC from its own governing body, doing no more than its job, might make ‘top slicing’ look trivial. Is that what was intended when the Trust was set up? Obviously not. Can it now be avoided? Probably not.

Googlification vs picklification

Before I get my teeth into the BBC Trust’s service review (I feel obliged to sooner or later) I enjoyed the collision of cultures (or contrast of cultures I guess) evident in two announcements made last week. In the first one Google announced that the company’s personal health platform thingie Google Health now works with medical records systems at various US hospitals (they started in Cleveland).

Obviously this is just another step in the advancing Googlification of Everything but it’s also interesting because of the way it contrasts with the second announcement, which was from mega-government IT contractor Fujitsu (which used to be ICL) that they’ve got into a terrible pickle and have finally had enough of the vast and (by the sound of it) out-of-control government IT disaster-in-the-making that is the NHS medical records system.

The former (Google and the hospitals) says: use light-weight, consumer-grade tools, put control in the hands of users and not administrators and concentrate on incremental methods, standards and interoperability. The latter (the £12 Billion NHS system) says: build grim, centralised and monolothic systems on a military-industrial scale, exclude open, incremental or agile methods because of your 1950s risk model and hope for the best.

So the big question is: how many of these epic, national-scale contracting disasters do we need to see before we change our approach and try building important national systems by assembling existing code and services in a smart, non-dogmatic way? My guess: at least another ten years. Contractors (BT In particular) are queuing up to replace Fujitsu in the NHS job because the money is just vast. A real web 2.0 type approach to the project would cost 10% of the bid price for the whole thing and would get dozens of executives fired.

In the meantime, I think everyone involved (at the NHS and Fujitsu at least) should read this fascinating presentation about the re-engineering of the BBC’s online identity system from Brendan Quinn and Ben Smith (thanks to Jem Stone for the link). To quote:

1. Each project must have a clear customer and a real benefit
2. Don’t repeat yourself
3. Be as simple as possible
4. Be as open as possible
5. Start simple, then iterate
6. Don’t optimise prematurely…
7. …but build to scale
8. Test often
9. Evolve
10. Let it die

If the BBC, which is a pretty big institution—although I’ll acknowledge it’s an order of magnitude smaller than the NHS—can build like this then the NHS could too. I wonder if there is any radical thinking of this sort going on there or is it life in the bunker for all concerned?