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One Square at a Time: Building the Digital Public Space

Tony Ageh | 08:07 UK time, Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Earlier this year we announced the latest development in the BBC's long-standing Public Value Partnership with Arts Council England: a joint project to make the best of the artistic and cultural activity taking place this summer available to everyone, on as many screens as possible.

The result of that effort is The Space - and it goes live today at http://thespace.org/.

The Space is a creative adventure involving dozens of organisations and dedicated to ensuring that nobody misses out on the excitement surrounding the vast range of artistic activity taking place in the summer of the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics and Paralympics.

For the next six months it will give audiences access to original digital arts programming, behind-the-scenes insights and new perspectives, as well as allowing us to make material from the BBC, Arts Council England, the British Film Institute and other partners more widely available.

Making it happen has been a creative adventure too, with ACE and the BBC working together in new ways to identify and commission screen-based art and build the technical platform needed to make it accessible on laptops, tablets, smartphones, connected televisions and even - through a partnership with the Community Channel, Freeview, satellite and cable television.

Over the summer, The Space team will be airing a whole host of work from established names sitting alongside work from new and up-and coming companies and artists including; David Shrigley's new opera, a Scissor Sisters concert and the ground-breaking, international productions of Shakespeare's plays being staged by The Globe Theatre.

We've scheduled some well-known faces to help us curate and critique what we're showing, we're ready for live broadcasts from events like the York Mystery Plays, and we have lined up some rare gems from the archives of Arts Council England, the BBC and the BFI. We've also collaborated with the Arts council of Wales, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Creative Scotland to bring the whole of the UK into one unified space - The Space.

Technology

The Space is not a BBC service - ACE has taken the lead in commissioning digital art and media and in working with partners to provide the material that will be made available. For the BBC it's a six month experiment in delivering digital art to audiences. We have provided the technical and infrastructure support to deliver the work to as many platforms as possible, and our technical team has demonstrated yet again the BBC's world-class talents in this area.

In a very short few weeks they have specified, developed and commissioned a cloud-based content delivery network that supports sound, video, images and multimedia offerings, provides live streaming to a global audience and is viewable on all major platforms.

Normally we build systems which are designed to last for many decades, systems that are designed to scale massively and which form components of a highly engineered broadcast infrastructure. We build dedicated teams around them and train them appropriately, and we work to integrate these technologies into existing systems to keep the BBC on air.

The Space needed a different approach. It will only be running in its current state for six months, and we have had less than six months to build it, so instead of starting from scratch we have taken components from broadcast systems, open source software and cloud services and found new ways to make them work together. Of course there are many, many people without whom this would not have been possible but, from my point of view, the hero of the enterprise is Jake Berger who has been tirelessly responsible for building the teams, procuring the 'kit', managing the processes and ensuring that each of the critical moving parts have come together with a proficiency that was truly humbling to experience.

We're very pleased with the result, and we hope that you will find it an engaging, exciting and enthralling place in which to engage with the arts.

We plan to make the results of our work available to the technical community later in the year, so that others can build on what we've achieved.

An Experiment in Digital Art

The Space is an experiment in delivering art of all types to as many screens as possible and one of the reasons it is only running for six months in this form is so that we can tear it down and figure out how to do it better in future.

More and more people have multiple screens around them, and even when they are watching blockbuster TV programmes like 'The Voice' they will have a laptop, tablet or smartphone to hand. Broadcasters need to know how to operate in that environment, and The Space is one of the ways in which BBC Vision and BBC R&D are finding out how to deliver real value to audiences as we go forward.

The Space is also another step to creating the wider 'Digital Public Space' that we've been talking about here and elsewhere, an online space where institutions and communities alike can make publicly owned or collaboratively created material available for public use and where digital assets can be found or created, augmented and curated.

We've been working on the idea of the Digital Public Space for a while in partnership with a number of other public organisations. Together we are exploring what this could and won't mean, what it might comprise, who it would affect and how it might be achieved. Together we have developed and tested a wide range of hypotheses, prototypes and pilots, most of which remain unheard or unseen by the public.

The Space is our first experiment to be placed in plain view and is an attempt to answer a variety of searching questions about the impact of digital technologies on arts and culture, but it's also going to be fun and engaging!

So whether you're popping in for a quick blast of opera, theatre, pop or experimental art, or planning to spend the summer glued to a screen so you don't miss a moment of our programming, welcome to The Space - we think you'll like it.

Tony Ageh is Controller, Archive Development

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