Creating a digital public space

Entrance to the British Library What is the online equivalent of a library?

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In her recent Dimbleby lecture, broadcast last week on BBC One, internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox talked about how to make the UK the most digital nation on the planet and asked us to think more about the civic, non-commercial side of the network.

The BBC has a pretty good track record when it comes to thinking about public service broadcasting, and both BBC Engineering and BBC Digital (you may still know them as Technology and Future Media) are actively exploring ways in which we can deliver our public purposes in an internet-shaped world.

It's a world in which the IP of 'intellectual property' and the IP of the 'internet protocol' are sometimes in conflict.

We're not alone, of course, and many other public bodies have been thinking about the net's impact on their activities. In February the Warwick Commission into the Future of Cultural Value called for the creation of a 'Digital Public Space', an online zone of engagement that would be 'free from political and commercial interference and created solely for the public good'.

The idea is rather like the non-commercial, public area of the network that Martha Lane Fox wants us to build.

The term Digital Public Space has been around for a while since it was coined by Tony Ageh - the controller of archive development - as a way of describing how the 'public space' created by broadcasting could extend to encompass online services.

It has been the subject of extensive debate and discussion and even forms the basis of the research programme undertaken by the Creative Exchange, a consortium of universities looking into ways to support the digital economy.

According to Ageh, the DPS isn't a service or even a platform - neither BBC One nor iWonder - but the thing that happens if you take a particular approach to your online activity. 'It's not about doing a different thing', he says, 'it's about doing things differently.

'Today's online tools make it easy to develop commercial services like Facebook and Twitter, but make it hard to create the safe, trusted online equivalent of a library or a living room.'

The three main requirements he points to are:

1. a way of finding material online;

2. a way of getting your hands on that material;

3. and a way of ensuring that people have permission to access and use the material they get their hands on.

'You need assets, you need access, and you need assurance,' he says, in his usual succinct style.

What excites Ageh, and many others, is that the BBC is already working on the key technical challenges that need to be solved. 'We have myBBC, offering a trusted framework for identity', he notes, 'as well as the work being done on IP distribution and universal provision within BBC Digital and BBC Engineering - so assurance and access are being addressed.'

And within archive development, the Research and Education Space is building a linked data aggregator that will make licensed online materials more easily discoverable.

During the next charter period it's likely that the BBC will be expected to deliver the benefits of emerging technologies to everyone in the UK, as we did with digital switchover between 2007 and 2012.

For many both outside and inside, the model of the digital public space could provide a useful framework for determining where to get the most out of the BBC's expertise and investment.

Bill Thompson is Head of Partnership Development in the archive development group

Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson will give a lunchtime talk reflecting on the idea of Digital Public Space in the Media Cafe at NBH, 1-2pm, April 8. They will talk about where we've got to and what the DPS might be, followed by a discussion about how the BBC could be involved.

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