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From Channelography and beyond

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Ian Forrester Ian Forrester | 16:33 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

Front page of the Channelography website http://channelography.rattlecentral.com/

The Channelography website fom Rattle

Channelography is a project commisioned by BBC R&D back in the heyday of BBC Backstage. It includes a couple of sub-projects too- Dashboard and Pocket Guide. The genesis of the idea came about from the Mashed event and the Edinburgh TV festival a few years before. The project was realised by James Boardwell (one of the founders of BBC Backstage), Rob Lee and Frankie Roberto of Rattlecentral. They were interested in exploring what makes a channel, a programme, etc by analysing the TV data over and beyond which was supplied by the BBC Backstage project.

One of the things people didn't realise about backstage was that if we didn't supply the data, we could put you in touch with people internally who you could do a deal with. This meant we had hackers building seriously amazing prototypes and demos which would never be allowed to see the light of day for fear of copyright worry.

James and Rob had built a system which was called Muddy Boots (detailed in this excellent post from 2008 on the Journalism Labs blog).  It was best described as a indexing and categorisation tool for use by people and companies with lots of content.  It makes sense of notable people, places and organisations and then references them against other information sources such as Wikipedia. You can find Muddy.it being used as its now called all over the BBC.

But the real inspiration for Channelography came from "how people consume tv" said James. We wanted to provide "...a better experience" using whats implicit within a TV programme. It was something the BBC had exploring its self at events like BeebCamp (the BBC's internal BarCamp) and the Edinburgh TV un-Festival.

What is a channel? And what makes them unique in a world where you can grab everything and anything on demand? James was also exploring the question and what better way that via a prototype which really tried to define a channel.  Practically Rattle approached Backstage and asked about running it as a backstage project based on the thing which no one had really thought about till then. "Subtitles."

It became clear quickly that we couldn't as such make the subtitles available due to legal reasons (yes you would not believe it, but theres a lot of legal issues like most media) but as a isolated partnership it could be possible and a few months later Channelography was born and started indexing subtitles. We were able to supply more and more subtitles over time and Muddy would suck it in and provide wildly detailed stats about channels, programmes, the casts, etc. In actual fact the project threw up a ton of intriguing questions about our own programming and scheduling. Something which Rattle later explored in detail with other parts of the BBC.

Channelography is currently 750000 rows and took about a month to build in its current form. There is about a year and a bit of historic subtitle data in its store.

Channelography Newsnight

We were sitting on a linked data gold mine and but it was hard to explain the overall concept and benefits to producers. This is why a good half of the channelography project worked on the visualisation. This is something which quite a few of the backstage projects missed. Visual communication is important to expressed an idea or concept.


This is something James and the Rattle team understood and emphasised in the next iteration to the channelography project, the BBC Dashboard.

BBC Dashboard

The BBC dashboard made channelography accessible to people through infographics who were less interested in the actual data and are more interested in the overall trend.

Infographics are visual representation of information which can range drastically in their complexities, yet will always (at least attempt to) provide an instant and often universal explanation...

Infographics and visualisations tend to have a bad name in certain circles not everyone shares the love of data regardless of the push as of recent times around open data and informational statistics. The dashboard used cleverly crafterd infographics to tell a story about the information it was representing. Less interactive and but for a different purpose.

After the dashboard became a reality the idea of a mini pocket guide which was a small internal document which put the information generated from Channelography from the past year into print form. Like the dashboard, the pocket guide was Channelography powered. In fact Channelography became the source for other types of experiments, something which we tried to do with other Backstage projects such as the failed Tweetstore.

The power of having the information in paper form was magical. People were able to easily share, learn and discuss together the visualisation of the data about different aspects of our tv programming. The cost of production was very low but the overall effect was huge. Everybody that received a copy had a good old browse and passed it on to others within there team. It was deliberately polarizing and highlighted many points about our channels which were unknown or overlooked.

The aim of channelography was always to stimulate and provoke conversation through visual communication. This has been achieved in the follow on Dashboard and Pocket guide. You can of course look at Channelography for yourself at http://channelography.rattlecentral.com.

Channelography pocket guides 2010

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