Turing Festival: Slicing and Dicing the BBC

Chief Technical Architect

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John Peel, Centre for Creative Arts: an example of a virtual view on the BBC archive

In my role as the BBC's Chief Technical Architect I try to ensure that we can make the best possible use of the latest digital tools and technologies in order to serve our audiences.

That means working with both programme-makers and programmers on internal systems that may never be seen by members of the public, but which are key to our activities - such as the Development Platform or the Digital Media Initiative.

It's a privileged position, as it lets me see how all aspects of the BBC operate, and offers a unique insight into the creative processes that result in the amazing television and radio shows and online services that audiences treasure.

Time and again I'm reminded of a phrase that the artist Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said: "Good artists copy, great artists steal". It was his way of expressing the deep truth that all creativity in the arts and culture builds on the work of others, even if the tools and techniques of art change over time. Just as a builder needs bricks and mortar to make a house, so artists of all types need raw material to work with, drawn from many different sources.

One of those resources is the BBC's own archive, which I see used in so many programmes and websites. It is an enormous collection of building blocks for creativity , and it has been used for many years by programme makers inside and outside the BBC to provide inspiration and material.

For some time now I've been part of the team driving a move to digital storage and distribution for the archive, and I can see clearly that this creates entirely new opportunities for making the BBC's history more widely available - where we have the rights to do so - as well as new ways to use it for public benefit.

What is the archive?

If you think about the archive at all you probably think of it as something like a library, with a well-ordered collection of polished and finished works that has every episode of Dr.Who, every Prom and the DVD Box set of Frozen Planet.

While the BBC does indeed have ranks of videocassettes and DVDs all carefully catalogued and kept on shelves in our Perivale Archive Centre, and even has shops both on-line and at some physical sites, the archive is far more than that.

For one thing, it's a lot more than just television and radio. The BBC archive has twice as many pieces of sheet music and twice as many photographs than we've got pieces of video and film. That is because my colleagues and I in the BBC Archive team believe that one of the archive's main functions is to help people create new things.

If you want to make something new then you don't want access to finished, polished and shrink wrapped DVDs.

Instead you want the gory details, the scripts, the original notes or score of some music, unique clips never used. You want basic building materials; the sound of a train passing, an aerial shot of the Pen-y-fan, a shot of a late 19th century gas light being lit. You want the raw building blocks, and as more and more artists get comfortable with digital technology offering the ability to merge footage and to recreate scenes in 3D, this need only increases.

Today the BBC supplies raw materials like these to anyone in the industry through Motion Gallery, which works well for large professional outfits who are primarily focused on creating what those working in the broadcasting world call "linear content" - traditional TV consisting of a single piece of continuous video played to large well defined audiences.

Digital technology and the Internet is changing that.

How demands on the BBC Archive are changing

Experiences on-line and in games are no longer linear.

Augmented reality and modern films call for access to information at a much more granular level.

And the stories told with these resources are not necessarily aimed at an entire well defined audience anymore, as the internet both fragments viewing and creates new opportunities to bring people together.

This poses a lot of challenges, not least when it comes to providing easy access for this sort of volume of material. We don't want to go about creating the on-line equivalent of a 'tape' (where we pre- and post-fix the video with 90 seconds of black, two frames of pure white, a nice countdown timer, colour bars, test-tones and what not [PDF]) even though that is how it has been done for television clips in the past.

How do we deal with rights, when agreements almost always have assumed you would 'air' an entire episode to a nation?

And, most of all, how do you deal with provenance, so you can later recognise that the period castle used as the background three minutes 'in' was in fact derived from something else?

At the BBC the Archive Development team has been thinking about this for a long time, and I've been lucky enough to be part of their discussions. Some of the work has led to the idea of a Digital Public Space, while my colleagues in the BBC Archive and I have started on the cataloguing and provenance too, as without having proper names and labels for things it is hard to even 'think' about these building blocks.

More recently we've been trying to see what happens if you do this for real, collaborating with Arts Council England to create The Space, a new platform for all types of digital art.

But like most people in the BBC I tend to look at and learn from large organisations, from people used to processes such as 'commissioning' and who by and large produce, or have produced, a 'single final product' like a programme or a website. Their concerns and understanding can be very different from a small game developer, someone with a wonderful business idea for a smartphone app, or a remix artist.

At this year's Turing Festival in Edinburgh I'm going to spend some time talking with smaller businesses to explore and discuss what new technologies and new business ideas could be fuelled by the archives of the BBC and other cultural institutions.

First on Friday, in a panel titled 'Mashing up the BBC, Slicing and Dicing UCL', and then with a more hands on design-jam session on Saturday.

It's part of a broader BBC initiative, captured in projects like the Connected Studio, for me and my colleagues to understand what is needed in terms of interfaces and catalogues, to explore a path through rights issues and, perhaps most of all, to understand how creators and innovators would like to work with the BBC.

With the help of the new digital tools BBC Future Media can start to think about the archive in a different way, as a collection of assets that can be made available to creators from any sector and any size of company. These are early days, and we are all at the very start of a long journey - so I welcome your comments and contributions

Dirk-Willem van Gulik is the Chief Technical Architect, BBC Future Media

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