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?

Pilger vs. Lloyd in The New Statesman

Absolutely compelling war writing in this week’s New Statesman. John Pilger’s article is bitter, Messianic, despairing stuff. For him, the actual conduct of the war confirms everything he said and thought in advance: “…a glimpse of fascism”. John Lloyd – one time editor of the magazine – is a pro-war Blairite. His angry article is the last he’ll write for the anti-war Statesman.<(You can now buy a 24 hour pass to read New Statesman articles online for a quid. Very clever idea and a pioneering effort for a small, impoverished political zine. Admirable)

Beeb to Charter renewal opponents: ‘give up now’

According to Dan Milmo and Maggie Brown in The Guardian:

“The BBC has begun a three-year battle to secure its future and retain the ?2.5bn licence fee by appointing a team of 50 to work on a new royal charter.”

Most UK businesses and many of the corporation’s most important competitors, especially online, employ fewer than 50 people in total. Forgive the crass analogy, but the Beeb is preparing the media equivalent of ‘shock and awe’ for opponents of the licence fee. Resistance is futile.

Tait on Puttnam’s rebellion

Richard Tait in FT Creative Business on the likely parliamentary clash over media ownership rules and the so called ‘Murdoch Clause’. Written before Lord Puttnam announced his intention to oppose “in every respect” the relaxation of the rules designed to permit Sky to buy Five (link to Tait’s article requires subscription or a free trial).

Wonks on the BBC’s future

Policy wonks (what is a wonk exactly?) Damian Tambini and Jamie Cowling survey the increasingly obstacle-strewn path to charter renewal for the BBC in FT Creative Business (you’ll need to subscribe to to see the article). It is fascinating to watch the quick collapse of the corporation’s untouchable status over the last few months. Forces are at work.

BBC Online under the microscope

A long overdue enquiry into the BBC’s investment online should be a good thing for all parties but it must strike a delicate balance. If it turns into a mugging for the corporation orchestrated by its competitors it will not serve the interests of industry or citizens. Likewise, a whitewash that leaves the BBC’s hugely out-of-proportion investment unexamined will not answer vital questions about the proper role of a public service broadcaster in the networked era. If this enquiry is real, it presents an unlikely-to-be-repeated opportunity to straighten out the regulatory and funding context for BBC Online and to set some goals:

  • Hub for a new online content industry. The BBC’s massive investment in online content and infrastructure should stimulate a new downstream ecology of content and application creators – an online ‘indie’ sector like the one brought into being by Channel 4 in the 80s would be a good thing.
  • An engine for participation. BBC Online should invest in a new generation of content and applications that promote participation, connection and creativity amongst wired citizens – not just programme support material and one-way content.
  • Public service online. If BBC Online is to assume a statutory public service obligation (as it should), then the burden should be shared by other online businesses – and until the funding climate for private sector net businesses recovers, Government money may have to be made available to support them.

BBC Online should not fear the inquisition. It’s likely to be critical and may close off some of the department’s activities but the current uncertainty is more damaging. Lambert’s report on News 24 is hardly flattering but, by taking the project seriously, it has secured the channel’s future nonetheless. A close examination of BBC Online should have the same effect.

Expanding on the three goals:

  • Hub for a new online content industry. Azeem Azhar thinks he knows how to jump start this downstream ecology. He’s proposed the application of the GNU General Public License to BBC Online’s content and code. This is fresh thinking from the Internet’s intellectual property laboratory and I hope it’ll be a part of any serious inquiry into BBC Online’s future. To learn about Azeem’s idea, start here. I blogged the idea here and here.You could probably achieve the goal of opening up a secondary content industry around BBC Online using established methods like commissioning quotas but Azeem’s idea cleverly exploits one of the net’s efficiencies.
  • An engine for participation. An ambitious cadre within BBC Online is already working on applications like this. This serious-minded group could do the job if required to. I think a benefit of an enquiry would be to throw the spotlight on good work already being done by the corporation.
  • Public service online. I get more grumpy by the day about the way the Government continues to evade its obligation to help define what a ‘public service’ BBC Online should look like. The latest evasion is going to be embodied in law – the Communications Bill, now at second reading stage, explicitly forbids Ofcom to regulate the Internet, thus making it almost impossible for Ofcom to make a useful contribution to the debate. I’ve blogged this before here, here and here.

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.