Tom Watson, cabinet office minister and actual blogger, has paddled downstream from his Whitehall digs under cover of darkness (most likely wearing a balaclava) and come away with approximately half a Loosemore. The fraction of Ofcom’s Public Service Web supremo Tom Loosemore he came away with has been busy pushing the laudable idea of open access to government data. This week he launched a competition whose goal is to encourage you and me to make beneficial use of that data. The whole thing is so simple and so persuasive that you’re just going to have to enter. Government data is one vitally important plank of the common platform I’ve been going on about lately. Tomorrow I’m going down to ULU for the geek village fete they call Open Tech at which the cabinet office team will be making a presentation. See you there…
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!
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.
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!
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.
Ed Richards, principle advisor on Telecoms and new media to the Prime Minister until he took a job at Ofcom last week, reveals Tony Blair’s decisiveness on Broadband Britain:
“First, I want you to tell me what this broadband thing is. Second, I want you to tell me why it’s in crisis, and third, I want you to sort it out…”
Take-up for broadband is pretty impressive now, even from a very low base. According to NOP, a quarter of UK Internet households will be on broadband by the end of 2003. Blair’s Churchillian approach might actually be working.
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 FT.com subscription or a free trial).
Lord Currie is the first Chair of Ofcom. He’s building his rag-tag team (rumoured to be at least 600 strong) and setting terms of reference now in readiness for the green light once the Communications Bill hits the statute books. Perhaps understandably he remained resolutely vague about the direction and tone of the super-regulator and when I asked him why he thought the net was explicitly excluded from its scope, he literally shrugged his shoulders as if to say “nothing to do with me, guv”. I hope he’s able to form an opinion by the time Ofcom is formally in operation.
What winds me up about Melvyn Bragg’s appeal for Ofcom’s scope to be extended to include the BBC is not the sentiment itself, which is unexceptionable. It’s the fact that Bragg’s establishment status should buy him a double page spread in a national paper on a topic now so well-worn that most readers will have snoozed right through it while the genuinely pressing matter of the redefinition of ‘public service’ for the networked era doesn’t get any mainstream coverage at all.
Ofcom could valuably examine the online activities of the Beeb and the other important players and could do useful work helping to rethink the public service requirements of Big Media now that half the population is regularly online and TV viewing is in decline. Sadly, though, it can’t. The Communications Bill explicitly forbids Ofcom from examining the net. MPs could amend the bill to change Ofcom’s remit but, on the strength of yesterday’s second reading in the House of Commons, it doesn’t look likely.