BBC anger at DCSF data formats

BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann is not happy. In previous years, the Beeb site has carried full school league table data, as soon as the embargo is lifted at 09:30am. But not this year.
‘This is because the government has tightened up on the media’s pre-release access to official statistics,’ he explains. ‘In the past, we have generally got the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables. This time, we will have had sight of the data for just 24 hours.’
But, in fact, it’s not specifically the reduced lead time that’s the problem here. More accurately, it’s the reduced lead time to deal with what DCSF chucks at them.

The school results that are supplied to the news media are not in a readily accessible form. In the case of the secondary schools, there are two large spreadsheets, each with a number of pages… Each sheet has dozens of columns, and a row for each school and college. Formatting the essential benchmarks from all this for publication, using computer scripts to interrogate the data, compiling and then proofreading them, takes hours of work.

In other words, DCSF are unable – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment – to supply the data in a format which assists the end users (in this case, the entire national media) to do their jobs.
And it’s led to an official letter of complaint – signed jointly by the BBC, Press Association and national newspapers – to the DCSF’s chief statistician. ‘With less than 24 hours’ preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors,’ they write. ‘The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations – to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters – will be thwarted.’
Statistical release procedures are a touchy subject; and school league tables are even touchier. Statisticians don’t like issuing them, because people insist on doing nasty things like – imagine! – ranking them in order. Many schools don’t like them either. But I can tell you for a fact, parents absolutely lap them up.
If DCSF, at whatever level, believes in the publication of this data, they need to make it easy for the major communication channels – the newspapers, and the BBC website – to republish it to their huge readerships. That clearly isn’t happening.

Home Of The Future at High St prices

Never has a nail been hit more squarely on its head than when Charles Arthur wrote his Guardian piece last week about how ‘The digital home hub is finally happening‘:

[Gates and Jobs’s] vision is coming true. Except that it’s not the computer they thought which is at the hub. It’s a rather different one that hadn’t even been considered at the time, using a technology that had only just begun to get traction. That would be the iPod Touch, and Wi-Fi.

At the very moment it popped up in my Twitter stream, I was completing the purchase of something I’ve been looking forward to for literally years: a digital audio solution for the bathroom, previously the only ‘quiet zone’ in the house. But after weeks of looking at expensive, high-end media-sharing solutions, such as the (albeit impressive) Logitech Squeezebox Duet, I’d decided on a much more modest (and ultimately, more powerful?) setup: a Sony iPod dock with DAB Radio (crucially, with external speakers) and an iPod Touch talking to my home wireless network. No PC at the heart of it; no need.
It gives me live digital radio, access to my music library (including downloaded podcasts), and BBC iPlayer radio/TV… with goodness knows what else to come, as Apple’s AppStore expands. All very modest kit that you’ll easily find on any High Street – but an outcome straight out of ‘Tomorrow’s World’.
I had a similar reaction when the BBC took us inside Bill Thompson’s ‘digital home’ last week: two Macs and an XBox 360 connected through a wireless network, beamed out via a low-end projector. All very well… but frankly, I think I get a better user experience from my Wii – connected to the internet via the home wireless setup, with BBC iPlayer delivering (almost) full-screen TV on demand on our (again, fairly modest) big flatscreen telly. No need for computer X to talk to computer Y here; all controlled without having to leave the sofa via Wiimote.
Charles reckons ‘almost 30%’ of homes have wireless networks; and the Wii is trouncing the competition again this Christmas. A lot of people are going to have all the kit they need to enjoy some digital living.

MySociety completes crowd-sourced video markup

Congratulations (hardly for the first time, of course) to the MySociety crew: in less than two months, it looks like their community of volunteers has completed the work to timestamp the 42,019 video clips supplied to They Work For You by BBC Parliament, covering the entire 2007-8 parliamentary session. Hero status is rightly accorded to Abi Broom, responsible herself for more than 20% of the effort (!)… but it’s interesting to see a few familiar names in the list of ‘top timestampers’.
Of course, the time is ticking down to the start of the new Parliamentary Session, when the work starts all over again. Tom Steinberg tells me they get ‘only’ 3-400 new clips per day, so keeping up to date shouldn’t be too hard. Unless Abi gets sick, obviously. 🙂
Quite seriously, this is a fantastic achievement. The goodwill of a community of people, coupled with a trivially simple tagging tool, achieved something which – realistically – neither speech recognition technology, nor the IT budgets of Hansard and BBC Parliament (combined?) ever could. And it goes without saying, it’s largely down to the MySociety ‘brand’ of charitable activism: if Parliament had asked people to do this, do you think many would? (Not that there should be much anguish in Millbank about this invasion of ‘their’ territory; I bet Parliamentary people will be the ones most grateful for the service.)
About 13% of the video clips were tagged anonymously; my guess is that, like me, many of those were people who were searching for something on TheyWorkForYou, came across an as-yet untagged video clip, and decided to ‘leave a tip’. For me, the magic of the tool was the fact that it made this bit so easy. But that means 87% were tagged by people who went to the trouble of registering – much more than I would have guessed, although admittedly, 7 people were responsible for over 50% of the tagging.

Govt comms: better, but years behind

Flicking across the news channels tonight, I bumped into recorded coverage of Wednesday’s Lords Communications Committee. You had the BBC’s Frank Gardner and Sky’s Tim Marshall, plus a couple of other senior journalists, giving their frank opinions on the state of media, politics and government. I only caught the last few minutes; it looks like I missed coverage of the earlier session with Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton.
The session closed with each ‘witness’ being asked: is government communication getting better or worse, and how does it need to improve? Fascinatingly, the two TV correspondents referenced the world of multi-platform, multi-media, online-driven news.
Frank Gardner told the committee: ‘I definitely sense a desire to be helpful. [But] they are still in about 1985, when it comes to being in tune with the modern, multimedia environment we work in. We live in a fast-moving media environment. Government departments generally are far too slow – unnecessarily.’
Tim Marshall, never one to mince his words, agreed that things were ‘getting better since 2004, because things were pretty bad before that. The flow of information is much better, putting things on the internet, the Prime Minister’s conferences being televised, Lobby being on the record – these are all very positive things. But there are still not enough professional people [in media operations]. It’s people passing through for two years, sometimes they don’t want to do it.’
Tim then quoted an email from an unnamed colleague, who had recently spoken to a conference of 60 government press officers. ‘I got the distinct impression they are several years off the pace.’ ‘We in the media have had to embrace the blogosphere, all this stuff,’ Tim said in conclusion. ‘We’ve had to, because it’s survive or die. It’s not like that in government press offices, and I don’t think they’ve quite understood 2008, and the multimedia platform.’
So, to any press officers who happen to be reading: it isn’t just the geeks saying this now; it’s the journalists you’re there to serve. They’re telling you – politely, positively – that you aren’t serving them satisfactorily. You need to play catch-up.
PS: I’d never have found this if I hadn’t been channel-hopping at the right moment. The fact is, some of the most insightful and intelligent broadcasting in the UK is happening at weekends on BBC Parliament – and it’s a crying shame that we can’t find a better way to get it out there. The iPlayer is a start (and yes, this recording will thankfully be on iPlayer ‘soon’ – Monday I guess). But surely it’s crying out to be a TED-style podcast series?

Here are your winners

It took a couple of days, but the list of winners from this week’s New Statesman awards has finally emerged. As predicted, MySociety didn’t go home empty-handed, with recognition for their FOI site, What Do They Know? And it’s good to see Patient Opinion getting recognition in the Community Activism category – their approach to patient feedback, and how it can help improve NHS services, is not going unnoticed.
But it’s a shock to see the BBC taking home the Democracy In Action trophy for a campaign around Radio 4’s You and Yours, which (frankly) really isn’t that great, and doesn’t demonstrate any obvious connection with democracy. Quite simply, that award should have gone to Unlock Democracy for their magnificent Vote Match site, based round the London mayoral election. You was robbed, guys.
Next up in awards season are the UK Catalyst Awards, which have now posted their shortlist. There’s an immediately obvious resemblance in the lists of nominees, but a few you probably won’t have seen before, which are worth a look at least.

Does anyone ever 'share this'?

On a couple of design jobs lately, clients have been very eager to have ‘sharing’ buttons on their pages. You know the sort of thing… one-click functions to submit a page to the reader’s Delicious, digg or Facebook friends. I get the feeling it’s purely because they’ve seen it on other sites, and think they should have it too.
Except, in my experience, they’re very rarely used… and I mean rarely. Let’s look at one site: the BBC blogs, rated the number one ‘British blog’ (singular?) by Hitwise. Roughly half the BBC’s blogs have links to share content on – rated the UK’s #11 online news source, also by Hitwise – as well as Delicious, Newsvine, NowPublic and Reddit (but not StumbleUpon?). These were first introduced nearly a year ago, surely plenty of time for people to have become aware of them. Even better, many of the Beeb’s blogs are relatively geeky in content, so should appeal to the more tech-literate Digger.
So let’s visit Digg, and search for all the instances of people ‘digging’ a page on The results:

  • a total of 16 articles were shared in the last 28 days
  • and half of them were only ‘dugg’ by one single person.
  • Half of the 60-odd digs in the last month were to a single posting, on the technology blog – which doesn’t even have sharing buttons on it.

Don't worry, it's just a lame jokeThat said, it isn’t exactly difficult (in most cases) to add these buttons: at code level, it’s usually just a case of tacking the ‘permalink’ on the end of a base URL. And I guess it makes the point that you’re ‘down with this sort of thing’.
But if you think it’s going to drive huge amounts of traffic your way, think again. And if it’s any kind of effort to get your IT people to add them in… pick a different battle, I’d say.

BBC blog feeds go full-text

Credit where it’s due. By popular demand – and contrary to the implication of Jem Stone’s piece, I can’t claim to have started it  – the BBC has switched from sending (very short) summaries in the RSS feeds from its various blogs, to sending the full text of the blog postings in question. ‘Sorry that it’s taken so long,’ Jem writes; no apology needed, sir. Thank you.
Full-text feeds on the blogs was always The Right Thing To Do. There are basically two types of BBC blog: the senior journalist, offering instant analysis or adding background; and the ‘behind the scenes’ staff commentary, aimed at engaging / assuaging the community.
In both cases, we’re already paying for the work these people are doing through the Licence Fee, so it was arguable we were entitled to getting the item however we wanted. The excuse of stat tracking via click-throughs didn’t go far, as we’d already paid for it all anyway. It wasn’t for BBC management to judge a business case; it was our content, to receive however we might want.
The growth of mobile internet usage is perhaps the greatest user-centric justification for the move. I can speak from experience; I’ve got several BBC blogs in my Bloglines account, which I frequently read on my mobile phone. The inconvenience factor – reconnecting to the data network, pulling the page, and hoping the mobile browser doesn’t destroy it – was often enough to stop me clicking through.
But it also reflects the reality of the blogosphere, where most ‘normal’ bloggers are happy to share their full-text feeds. The Beeb’s bloggers are playing by the standard rules, joining the community rather than putting themselves above it. Again, it’s just The Right Thing To Do.
So will be see full-text RSS of news items? I doubt it; it would open up all sorts of anti-competitive arguments, and would make it just too easy for the Beeb’s content to be republished by others for profit. Mind you, since we’ve paid for it already… etc etc. 😉

New Today programme site's post-match interviews

There’s a new look to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s website. Gone is the bizarre Soviet styling, to be replaced by something a bit more blue and funky. Stalinist to Cameron-esque? It would be churlish to note the coincidental synchronisation with the swing of the opinion polls at the moment.
A couple of additions seem worth mentioning: a box for ‘REACTION FROM AROUND THE WEB’ (ie blogs) on the homepage, plus feeds from and Twitter accounts; and the rather odd spectacle of Sarah Montague’s video review… which resembles a footballer’s post-match interview in front of a board of sponsors’ logos, and is equally enlightening. ‘We’re mid-way through the second half, I’ve thrown it to Nick Robinson, he’s dropped in a blinding anecdote…’ You get the idea.
Worth noting, too, that Evan Davis is back blogging again, this time under an intriguing address: /blogs/today/evandavis. Which surely leaves open the prospect of /blogs/today/johnhumphrys in due course? We can but hope.

BBC's new /topics pages

See, this is what you can do when you’ve got lots of information, all properly tagged and structured. The BBC’s new /topics pages are entirely automated, and pull together content from across their online offerings – iPlayer, the News site, weather, /programmes – into a nicely presented ‘everything we know about X’ page. A modest 66 topics to start with, by my calculation, but the promise of many more. Try these examples: NHS, Gordon Brown, Liechtenstein. (And check out the pretty addressing, too.)
Over on the BBC Internet Blog, Matthew McDonnell explains how it uses ‘a variety of search techniques to create feeds of the latest BBC content’. I’m guessing a lot of it is down to a subject taxonomy, or free-text search for certain keywords. However it works, its beauty is encapsulated by this section:

Because the overhead involved in maintaining these pages is so low, we can cover many more subjects than we could using traditionally edited pages which had to be manually updated by a human being. As the feeds used in /topics are automatic, we can be confident that all the pages are bang up-to-date.

In many respects, this is the ‘holy grail’ of every taxonomy project. Well done to the BBC for actually making it happen; although it’s likely to encourage others to attempt to follow suit. And most will fail. (Yes they will.) And for the future?

We want to include high quality content from outside the BBC to enhance our pages. We’ll be working on providing feeds of news and blogs from sources other than the BBC. Yes, feeds [for you to build into your own website] will be available soon.

It’s genuinely brilliant: can we call it a hybrid of Wikipedia and Wikinews, with the added benefit of trusted editorial oversight? Just please, don’t try it at home.

BBC's lessons for management blogs

The BBC’s Jem Stone adds an interesting perspective on the success (so far) of the BBC’s management / editorial blogs, in a comment on ex-BBC man Alfred Hermida‘s blog. There are very valuable lessons here for many similar ‘transparency through blogging’ initiatives, not least in government and politics:

We’ve found that [engagement with readers’ feedback] is possible (and I’m talking about the BBC mgt internet blog here but I’d say it applies to other similar propositions) but only when we’ve had two factors in place:
a) Strong ownership (buy in from senior management even when criticism from users is a “s**tstorm” as Ashley Highfield dubbed the initial BBC iPlayer/Mac period the other day) and
b) Investment in community facilitation, monitoring and hosting. Monitoring feedback and having the antennae to alert issues to teams (and thus the knowledge of the tools that makes this now a lot easier) is often overlooked. Doing this well can’t be done by magic.

Hope you don’t mind, Jem – I’ve fixed the spelling. 🙂
Incidentally… this isn’t the first time recently where the most valuable insight has been in the comments, and not in the originating blog post. If you’re deciding whether or not to open your pages up to readers’ comments, don’t just think of the management overhead. Think what you might be missing out on.