BBC 'news jockey' experiment

By Steve Herrmann, writing on the BBC News Editors blog yesterday:

During the past few years the “live page” format has become a regular feature of our coverage around big breaking stories. The format has been a big success in terms of usage, so we’re thinking about what more we could do with it. We think the pages are not necessarily just about breaking news – they are also a real-time showcase of the best of what we (and others) are doing.

By me, writing in July 2007:

A ‘breaking news blog’, in my book, should look and feel more like Twitter. Activate it when a huge story breaks – maybe only a couple of times a year, maybe a couple of times a month. Short snaps of maybe only a couple of lines, written in an informal tone. Pretend you’re MSN-ing a friend. Be prepared to be vague – read between the lines if necessary, and don’t be shy about getting it wrong. Stream of consciousness, if you like, and proud of it. I haven’t yet seen any news organisation doing this systematically… but if they have any business in breaking news, then they should be.
I’ve also got an early idea for a ‘news jockey’ role, writing a running commentary on the day’s news blog-style. The USA Today thing is probably the closest comparison, but I’m thinking of something slightly different. It calls for a certain style of writing, and a certain style of writer, but I think it could be a winner.

BBC's study of Whitehall open source use yields little

By their own admission, it doesn’t unveil any shocking secrets: but I suppose it’s worth noting the BBC’s attempt to investigate Whitehall’s use of open source software, or lack thereof. In truth, it really only highlights that the picture is rather chaotic, with little centralised control. I can also guarantee it’s less than comprehensive. But would you expect anything else?
The answers are rather vague; but then again, so was the question. What exactly does it mean, to ‘acquire’ an open source product?
By way of illustration: the Beeb’s list – (initially) published, without a hint of irony, as an Excel file – tells me that there is precisely one copy of Firefox inside DCMS, plus an unspecified number in DH, MOD and DFID… but none, apparently, in DfT. Clearly that’s ridiculous. But even if Firefox appeared on everyone’s list, what exactly would that tell us? That there’s a copy which the web team use for occasional testing? That it’s available as an option on every desktop? Or that it’s the department’s default, or even its exclusive browser?
And anyway, where does open source start and finish? What about the open source code in your website? your network hardware? mobile phones? satnavs? Macs? inside Windows, even (albeit accidental)?
Puffbox, if you hadn’t already spotted it, is very big on open source as a principle. But I’ve taken a very specific approach to the subject: concentrating on one specific product, for one specific purpose. Why? Because it’s much easier to frame the question that way. And because that particular product is a pretty good case study for open source done right.
The plan is, we set a precedent. Prove to people that the open source model can produce first-class results. Show how an open source basis can stimulate smarter and faster innovation. Then it becomes easier to take the next step, and the next, and the next…

How can a website cost £35m? Easily.

The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones clearly doesn’t read this blog. His big story this morning is on the cost associated with the BusinessLink website: much as I predicted in my immediate analysis of the COI data a fortnight ago.
Rory was casting around on Twitter yesterday for interviewees: I know my name was put forward by a few people (for which I’m most grateful), but the call never came. Instead he’s gone to Sean O’Halloran from Hoop Associates, who offers a theory about ‘a big supplier, technology driven way of thinking’.
Speaking as someone who has worked as a civil servant, as a consultant on one of these mega-projects, and now as a small supplier trying to undermine them, I can speak with some authority on this. And whilst Sean’s theory isn’t wrong, it’s a little out of focus.
The simple answer to the question ‘how can a website cost £35m?’ is – because it can.
Government’s perceptions of ‘the going rate’ for website development have increased – ironically, just as the actual cost of web development has dropped due to open source and cheap hosting. In recent years, there’s been no shame in a department paying close to £1m on its corporate website – see these PQ answers from DFID and DIUS. It naturally follows that a ‘supersite’ representing multiple departments would cost a multiple of said figures. And when they asked for the money, they got it.
As soon as big money is on the table, the big consultancies swoop – in numbers. Waves of salespeople, account managers, and business analysts, which the civil service balances out with IT managers and procurement specialists. It’s a very cosy relationship, with both sides keeping each other busy, and everyone taking home a day’s pay.
It’s not unusual never to even sit down with the people doing the actual work. Instead, you find yourself in a whirlwind of meetings, documents, meetings about documents, and documents about meetings. And then there’s the stakeholders – mustn’t forget them. All of this costs money. And none of it actually generates a single line of code.
The brutal truth is that it isn’t in the big consultancies’ interests to deliver quickly, and the civil service often doesn’t know any better. Sure, government IT always runs late and over budget, doesn’t it?
How do we break the cycle? I think the forthcoming austerity measures will help. There simply won’t be the same amount of money sloshing around the system. Departments will simply have to try other, cheaper approaches – no matter what the current contracts say. And they’ll simply have to get tougher with suppliers who fail to deliver. A few new faces will also help: Tom Steinberg, Rishi Saha, the proposed skunkworks, (Lord) Richard Allan… maybe others.
None of this excuses BusinessLink costing £35m, and not being brilliant. But that’s for another day.

Oi BBC, don't you dare diss my legacy

The BBC published a very nicely balanced, sober article yesterday by Brian Wheeler, noting the ‘web revolution sweeping Whitehall‘. It’s been widely retweeted around the e-gov community, and is being seen as highly complimentary of civil service efficiency.
Which makes it all the more curious to see the pictures they’ve chosen to illustrate the story: and the presumably humorous captions added beneath them.

As you may or may not know, I was the individual responsible for the FCO web presence during those formative years. I designed and built every page of the 1997 site with my own two hands; and led the development of the 2000 (actually, 1998) site. And I’m going to defend them.
The 97 site was redesigned, top to bottom, during purdah… and launched on the morning after the election. Never mind ‘few frills’: its design was pretty close to cutting edge at the time. That image of Munch’s The Scream was actually an animated GIF, which morphed into a globe – OK, maybe that was a bit pretentious on reflection. We even had RealAudio clips of Robin Cook’s comments on arrival at King Charles Street, thanks very much. Grr.
The 98 site had a hell of a lot more than ‘a dropdown menu!’ (sic). In fact, it was absolutely groundbreaking, internationally speaking: and it had more functionality than the majority of Whitehall departments’ sites have now. Actually, if it launched now, it would still be one of the top handful.
You could register to receive email alerts, based on news items ‘tagged’ with certain policy areas, or updates to country Travel Advice notices. And the list of latest news on the homepage was then personalised according to those same preferences: so you’d instantly see news items of interest to you, and a chronological list of changes to country Travel Advice for countries you cared about.
On the back end, it was the first in government to use a web-based content management system – a custom-built thing, courtesy of a truly heroic developer called Ian Lathwell at Bates Interactive (later  known as XM London). And if you’re not impressed by that, maybe I should tell you about the several large Whitehall departments which still – a dozen years later! – haven’t evolved that far. We had a simplified markup language – […] for bold, {…} for italic – which was flexible enough for our purposes, and yet simple enough to explain to those who had never seen the web. Nothing too extravagant, but it just worked. We won enough awards to justify a trophy cabinet.
And you won’t believe how little we paid for it. Buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you.
So, less of the smart-alec captions, Mr/Mrs/Miss BBC Production Assistant. Thank you.

Code your own BBC News homepage

The BBC has announced plans to switch off its low-graphic websites:

The low graphics version of the site was designed as a low bandwidth alternative to the full website at a time when most users of the site were using slow dial-up connections. Now, most of our users are on much faster broadband connections and as a result, the percentage of users of this service has steadily declined to a current level around 2%.

Fair enough I suppose. Except that I was one of those 2% of users. Why? – because I had it set to load in a Firefox sidebar. With one click of a browser button, I got my instant news fix. I use it constantly throughout the day.
For obvious reasons, the full-size homepage doesn’t render especially well in a 200px-wide space; but the low-graphics version did pretty well. Not perfect, but pretty good.
For a few days now, I’ve tried following the BBC’s advice, by switching to the mobile interface. But it just didn’t do it for me. So I’ve taken matters into my own hands, and spent the last half hour ‘coding my own’. (And most of that time was just making look a little prettier.)
It’s a fairly simple PHP/RSS thing, with a dash of jQuery thrown in. I fetch the BBC’s homepage RSS feed via SimplePie, dress it up all pretty, then run a very quick jQuery routine to ‘zebra stripe’ the stories for easier reading. For each story, I give myself the headline, timestamp, summary – and the thumbnail image, something the low-graphic version couldn’t give (beyond the top three items).
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a perfect case study for the ‘raw data now’ concept. The BBC supplies the data, I bang out a hasty rendering routine based on free code… and I’ve got the service I want, regardless of what they want to do themselves.
It’s running in my development web space; I’ve got no intention of making it public. But if you really think it would be useful for you, let me know, and I’ll maybe share the address details.

BBC sounds death-knell for left-hand nav

There’s a fascinating (and lengthy) post on the BBC’s internet blog, setting the scene for a forthcoming ‘post-2.0’ redesign of its web presence. It’s a design geek’s paradise – global visual languages, grid systems, typography and colour palettes.
Intriguingly, they start their potted history of the BBC website with a screenshot from December 1997. My own memories go further back, to the days when the BBC’s URL was – and one particular landmark in page design. White with a dark blue left-hand column; some kind of HTML table magic. Groundbreaking in its own small way.
Pretty soon, all websites looked like that – many, no doubt, deliberately doing so because if it was good enough for the BBC, it was good enough for them. So it’s a pretty big deal when they now announce that they’re ‘moving away from left hand navigation to consistently placed, horizontal navigation across the site.’
I haven’t designed many sites lately which used any kind of conventional left-hand nav; but I have built a few sites which integrated into existing ‘look and feel’ which did still have left-hand nav – and it felt very strange. Blogs and the ‘tab’ metaphor have effectively killed it off.
Another interesting trend from the Beeb’s work-in-progress is the overlaying of big headline text on imagery. For an organisation which produces so much imagery, it’s a fairly obvious thing to do: and it may ‘raise the bar’ for other sites with pretensions to similar scale. Pages without pictures are going to look pretty dull in comparison.
And it looks like we’re going to see a conscious effort to underline the real-time aspects: I note the various mockups marked ‘ADDED 3 MINS [ago]’. Again, if you’re running a large website and you aren’t demonstrably keeping your core content similarly up-to-date, you’re going to look bad – and risk losing trust.
If you want to know what your website will look like in a year or two, have a peek. Do I like it? Yes, yes I do.

BBC iPlayer back on Wii: a tipping point?

The BBC’s new iPlayer ‘app’ for the Wii is now available for download: and it has the potential to do amazing things to UK viewing habits.
Thus far, if you wanted to watch iPlayer via your Nintendo Wii (and your wireless broadband connection), there was a web-based interface, not dissimilar to iplayer/bigscreen – which was fine, but not without its issues. Like for example, if you wanted to watch full-screen – which, of course, you would – you had to do a manual zoom-in on the playback window, and even then, it wasn’t quite right. Then came the upgrade to the Wii’s web browser… and iPlayer broke, for some reason.
Instead, there’s now a free iPlayer ‘channel’ available for download from the console’s Wii Shop. The interface is much the same: which, to be honest, is a bit disappointing. I can appreciate the desire to maintain consistency across all broadcast platforms, but the Wii could surely do a lot more than others. But it works fine, so no real complaints.
The TV playback? Fantastic. Better image quality than before (I think): not as good as a Sky Digital signal, but certainly good enough. Seems more reliable playback too. And yes, hurrah, proper full-screen viewing.
Of course, the Wii version falls a bit behind the Virgin Media cable version, which already boasts HD-quality. But it’s worth noting how big a success iPlayer has been on cable; Virgin credited its arrival as being ‘a real tipping point in consumer understanding of on-demand’. I wonder if the same can happen with the Wii (and other games consoles) as platforms for delivering online content?

Why the fork does the BBC need its own jQuery?

Of course it’s good news that the BBC’s in-house Javascript library, Glow has been released as open source. It’s a very respectable chunk of code, with some quite nice built-in widgetry. But why on earth should the BBC have its own Javascript library in the first place? Its ‘lead product manager’ – itself a worrying job title – justifies its existence as follows:

The simple answer can be found in our Browser Support Standards. These standards define the levels of support for the various browsers and devices used to access some JavaScript libraries may conform to these standards, but many do not, and those that do may change their policies in the future. Given this fact, we decided that the only way to ensure a consistent experience for our audiences was to develop a library specifically designed to meet these standards.

They’re clearly sensitive to this question, as there’s a whole section about it on the Glow website itself, specifically referencing my own current favourite, jQuery. ‘On reviewing the major libraries we found that none met our standards and guidelines, with browser support in particular being a major issue,’ they explain.
So why not contribute to something like jQuery, to make up for its deficiencies? Isn’t that the whole point of open source? ‘Many of the libraries had previously supported some of our “problem” browsers, and actively chosen to drop that support… Forking an existing library to add the necessary browser support was another option, and one that might have had short term benefits. However, as our fork inevitably drifted apart from the parent project we would be left with increasing work to maintain feature parity, or risk confusing developers using our library.’
I’ve written here in the past in praise of the BBC’s browser standards policy, and I stand by that. But I’m afraid I’m not buying this defence of their decision to reinvent the wheel – and, it must be noted, ending up with results remarkably close to jQuery. The best argument seems to be the risk that libraries which currently meet their standards might not in the future; or that they might have to do work to keep a fork in sync. And even if that should happen, the worst case scenario is that they’d have to churn out a load of new Javascript. Which is what they’ve chosen to do anyway.
Plus, crucially, this isn’t about a bunch of geeks directing their spare-time volunteering efforts in one direction, rather than another. These are people being paid real money, taxpayers’ money, to do this, at a time when the BBC is supposed to be trimming its ambitions. If they’re at a loose end, perhaps they might want to address the News homepage’s 416 HTML validation errors, and abandon the ‘table’ markup.

Our top story: government web video

No10 video on BBC News
It isn’t every evening that a video clip from a government website features prominently on the main evening news. Except this week.
Last night, it was the Treasury’s YouTube clip of Alastair Darling preparing for tomorrow’s Budget: nothing too spectacular, nice visual wallpaper for the story. Tonight, the PM’s announcement of changes to MPs’ expenses – presented first on the Number10 website – didn’t just pop up on the 10 O’Clock News; it was the basis of the lead package.
It’s another curious piece to camera by the PM. When he talks straight into the camera, he actually comes across as quite sincere. But then he ruins it with that unnatural smile, which isn’t convincing anyone. He actually looks like he’s going to burst out laughing when he mentions Harriet Harman. (Insert your own punchline in the comments, please.) Clearly I’ve missed the inherent humour in the words ‘detailed written statement’.
Prime Minister – please, stop putting it on. Remind me, who was it who uttered these words six months ago? ‘So I’m not going to try to be something I’m not. And if people say I’m too serious, quite honestly there’s a lot to be serious about – I’m serious about doing a serious job for all the people of this country.’ Exactly. No more forced grins, eh.
PS Is it pedantic of me to point out that Nick Robinson’s oh-very-clever line about ‘a U-turn on YouTube‘ isn’t strictly accurate? The Number10 video player is powered by Brightcove, and the clip isn’t among those uploaded to Downing Street’s YouTube account. There, I’m glad I got that off my chest.
PPS Jemima Kiss at the Guardian has a nice roundup of views from ‘the web community’ (ie the usual suspects), reaching a similar conclusion. But please, before anyone else declares it the Worst Video Ever, let’s remember the Countdown one.

David Lammy, Twitter expert

Lammy meets Brandreth
It came as a bit of a shock this evening, when BBC1’s The One Show started talking about Twitter, that reporter Gyles Brandreth’s first port of call was Kingsgate House on Victoria Street, home of DIUS and minister David Lammy. With traffic up by a factor of three this year already, Twitter’s certainly a hot topic at the moment – with the BBC in particular facing accusations of going overboard; but where does David Lammy come into all this?
To be entirely fair, Lammy did talk (some of) the talk:

For me, it’s almost a broadcast means of people knowing what I’m up to during the course of the day. It is about finding ways in which people can be clearer about what government ministers are up to.

OK, so it would have been nice if he’d described it as a two-way thing – and of course, he may well have done, but that wasn’t the soundbite we heard. But nice to get the potential for political transparency on the record.
The only niggle is that Lammy has been a member of the Twitter family since mid-December. He hasn’t even reached three figures for the number of tweets. Indeed, he’s only been using it with any head of steam for a month. One can’t help feeling it was a nice ‘soft’ primetime TV appearance for a politician with ambition: the caption read ‘Minister, Dept for Innovation’, and it can’t have done any harm to put a government minister in a story about something ‘cutting edge’ and ‘cool’.
Speaking of Twitter: I see @downingstreet has now reached the Twitterholic Top 50, and looks like going even higher – they’ve already passed the MarsPhoenix Lander, one of Twitter’s iconic accounts. Between you and me, I’m told they have MC Hammer in their sights.