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Backstage: The Beginning

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Brendan Crowther Brendan Crowther | 18:00 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

For those who don’t know me, I’m a researcher for BBC Research & Development. For the last fifteen months I’ve been on attachment with BBC Scotland learning about how R&D interfaces with production divisions. Prior to my attachment I worked closely with Ian on Backstage events such as the Edinburgh Un-Festival and Over the Air so now I’m back in the fold I’ve been asked to work with a small team on the closedown and migration of BBC Backstage

A few weeks have passed since the announcement that Backstage is due to close. It’s taken a while to get up to speed but recently we’ve really started to get a clear idea on what we need to do to close down Backstage in a way that preserves its legacy and continues to support its community. Here’s a brief rundown of what we’ve been up to.

At the moment we’re working our way through the current website to working out which projects are still live. All APIs and feeds will remain available until we establish what will replace the website at which point we’ll migrate everything to its new home. We’re also looking at how to archive the content no longer in use as a resource for the future. 

We’re in discussion with a couple of organisations about the new home for the Backstage developer community. What we want to do is plug the current community into the wider groups at large in the UK looking at open and linked data. Allied to this is a piece of work looking at  how we continue to evangelise the provision of open data internally at the BBC.

To help commemorate Backstage we’ll be producing a retrospective ebook at the end of the year. Created in collaboration with Suw Charman-Anderson and Kevin Anderson it will draw on the whole of Backstage’s five year run, telling the stories of the people, projects and institutions involved in a project that crossed lines and pushed boundaries. We’ll be running a number of extracts from over the coming months. In this first one Kevin tells the story of Backstage’s birth:

“The whole idea was to do it quite slowly and quietly, don’t have a big fanfare, do it under the radar.” James Boardwell.

Out of the ashes of the dotcom crash rose a new, more open web. Instead of simply offering linked pages, sites began offering APIs - application programming interfaces that allowed developers to build additional functionality on top of existing sites.

Google launched its first APIs in April 2002, allowing developers to query its index of more than 2bn web documents. Amazon launched its Web Services three months later. Both companies gave developers a way to build applications with their content and integrate those applications easily with their sites.

The shift from static web pages to APIs and applications was not lost on Matt Locke, at the time the BBC’s head of innovation. Just after the turn of the century Locke was part of a team working on a report looking at the predicted state of broadband in the UK in 2014. The report found that,

“the BBC, which is very focused on control and broadcasting and one-to-many communications, was unlikely to be able to adapt enough to get the full affordance of network connections, social media and so on.”

Locke believed that the BBC should enable open innovation by working with lead users of new technologies to spur development. Tom Loosemore, at the time with BBC Future Media & Technology, was working with developers both inside and outside the BBC. Locke and Loosemore met at Bush House, the headquarters of the BBC World Service, and over pizza sketched out a model for innovation to engage with lead users. This model was to become Backstage.


Backstage was all about enabling the BBC to engage with the external developer community. Image courtesy of Rain Ashford.


The community would be open but self-selecting, attracting people possessing not only unique skills but also a focused passion for digital technology and the future of media. Locke asked a member of his innovation team, James Boardwell, to  manage the project.

The first step was to see what feeds already existed at the BBC. 

“A lot of data was available without anyone actually knowing it, especially around news,” Boardwell said. Many BBC sites already were producing RSS feeds but while people were aware of them, the knowledge and understanding of them was limited.

Due to the abundance of feeds from News, Loosemore went to them to find a developer for the project. Ben Metcalfe had already been doing similar work. Previously he had given a presentation to BBC News Website management about what a ‘BBC News API’ might look like. Nothing came of the meeting but he continued to build small prototypes in his spare time. One of these prototypes caught Loosemore’s eye and he asked Metcalfe to join the Backstage project.


“Use our stuff to make your stuff.” A project using Arduino kit and weather feeds to create ambient info-lighting? We can do that. Image courtesy of Rain Ashford.


In its early days the project had a informality and a daringness to it that was quite uncommon in the BBC. Instead of going to management and asking for permission for the data, Metcalfe would speak directly to other BBC developers and ask them to expose a feed. Often it was possible but just wasn’t being done.

News was their first early win, with Metcalfe working with many of his former colleagues.

“That was what we launched with. The whole idea was to do it quite slowly and quietly, don’t have a big fanfare, do it under the radar,” Boardwell said.

Metcalfe remembers Backstage then having the atmosphere of a start-up.

“In the early days it was just James Boardwell and myself working full time on the project. We both did anything that needed to be done – from working with ops guys to set the server up through to liaising with the legal department on the creation of the license Backstage made the data available under.”

Much of Boardwell’s early work was with legal teams to come up with a licence acceptable to both the BBC and the external developers they hoped to engage.

“At the time, there was a massive thing about alternative use, not allowing reuse, which obviously for developers was a  nightmare,” Boardwell said. They spent a lot of time introducing the legal teams to the idea and eventually got a license that the legal team were happy to “run with for a while.” They agreed on a wording that was sufficiently vague to allow developer use but with one important caveat: the use had to be non-commercial.

With knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff on board, a licence in place and sources for the data feeds acquired, Backstage was ready for launch.

We’ll be posting more extracts from Suw and Kevin over the next month. In the meantime please feel free to share your memories of Backstage with us and let us know your thoughts on our plans for the future.

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