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Rory Cellan-Jones

Tech Tools Aid Heathrow Hack

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Jan 08, 21:52 GMT

I’ve been away from my normal beat for a couple of days, getting involved in coverage of the Heathrow crash landing. But reporting on this story has reminded me of how new technology has changed the lives of journalists. Ten years ago, we would not have had three tools that proved essential over recent days – Google, Youtube, and games software downloaded online.

Even just a decade ago, my first stop in examining the possible causes of this near disaster would have been the BBC library, home to volumes of Jane’s Aircraft and to dedicated researchers who would comb through countless dusty folders of little cuttings from newspapers in search of vital scraps of information. Next, I would have called our film library in search of archive pictures, then waited for a stack of tapes, sometimes in old formats which needed converting, to arrive on a van..

But nowadays I turn to Google. A quick look at my web history shows I made around 70 searches over the last two days. The first, an hour or so after the crash landing, was for “instrument landing system” (Wikipedia gave me a useful summary) but soon the theories moved on and I was typing “777 power incidents” into the search box.

My very first search, though, was on Youtube – and it quickly turned up something very useful. A passenger on a BA 777 flight to Heathrow last year had posted his footage filmed out of the window as it made a safe landing, passing over the exact spot where Thursday’s flight fell short. We used those pictures on the Six O Clock News – and other broadcasters had the same idea, finding Youtube footage of bird strikes to illustrate one possible cause of the crash landing.

Graphics artists are invaluable on these occasions and Google Earth provided them with useful images of the approach to Heathrow. But to get a real feel for the view from the cockpit, I despatched a producer to go and buy a Flight Simulator PC game. Then we realised that the small aircraft that comes with the game wouldn’t do the trick, so we went online to download a Boeing 777 add-on.

When we invited a retired pilot into our edit suite to describe what happens when you find yourself without power at 600 feet, we expected him to be scornful of our game footage. Quite the opposite – he said it was identical to the experience provided by the simulator where he learned to fly a 777 at Heathrow ten years ago. So a £25 piece of software is now performing the same task as a machine that cost a six-figure sum to build – another example of the advance of computing power.

Mind you, as the grateful passengers of the BA flight will attest, technology has its limitations. When something went terribly wrong with the systems on one of the world’s most advanced passenger aircraft, it was human qualities – the skill and nerve of the crew – which saw them safely onto the ground.

Comments

That is really interesting, and a huge contrast on how things were, as you say 10 years ago.

I would be interested to know how the increase in the uses of Google by people like yourself has affected the reliability of reporting, and whether the use of sources like YouTube for footage really improves what the end user, the viewers, experience?

When I look up my high school in Wikipedia, it claims that Bin Laden studied there, and that it clearly not true, I would hate to think that when rushing, a journalist might actually trust something like that.

I think it would be worth easing off the excessive use of new technologies, and using your researchers and archives simultaneously with Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, simply to make sure you are not letting ease come before quality and trustworthiness of your reporting.

That is really interesting, and a huge contrast on how things were, as you say 10 years ago.

I would be interested to know how the increase in the uses of Google by people like yourself has affected the reliability of reporting, and whether the use of sources like YouTube for footage really improves what the end user, the viewers, experience?

When I look up my high school in Wikipedia, it claims that Bin Laden studied there, and that it clearly not true, I would hate to think that when rushing, a journalist might actually trust something like that.

I think it would be worth easing off the excessive use of new technologies, and using your researchers and archives simultaneously with Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, simply to make sure you are not letting ease come before quality and trustworthiness of your reporting.

It's a definite step forward to be able to look at these things from all sorts of different angles within hours of the incident. Of particular interest to me is how the stories spread through the blogosphere and the way some bloggers latch on to different news sources.

  • 4.
  • At 01:45 PM on 19 Jan 2008,
  • Roy wrote:

Rather than Rory Cellan-Jones expressing such wonderment at the available Internet sources, he should lament this lazy, pseudo-journalism.

Tech tools aiding? Rather Tech tools taking place of real journalism.

The Internet is full of conspiracy merchants and downright liars! To rely on these sources rather than to seek out concrete, expert advice is sloppy and half-hearted.

I have noticed a worrying trend amongst modern hacks to use Google as a shortcut to real investigation, and to credit anybody with a website in the field of their investigation as a credible spokesperson. Well it's so much easier to sit at home on your PC than go out in the wind and rain!

Consider this; If I were to set up a website called, 'aviationaccidentexpert.com' I wouldn't be surprised if lazy journos, on referral from the Google search engine would bombard me for my expert knowledge of this incident.

Of course I would know nothing about aviation, but by the very ownership of a website of an authoratitive sounding nature, I could be called upon as an expert! Worse still, journalists are often happy to accept the credentials of a so called expert merely on account that he has set up such a website!

This happens all too often.

My advice to Rory, get expert opinions from experts, turn off the PC and go out and do some real journalism!

I remember year ago playing on an RAF simulator at some conference of something for school leavers.... I would cry laughing now if the RAF were still using the same "amiga style" graphics to train pilots on

Guy

  • 6.
  • At 07:17 PM on 19 Jan 2008,
  • Paul Freeman-Powell wrote:

Roy, I think you're missing the point entirely. Rory is an experienced and trusted journalist and as such it is unlikely that he is going to naively believe everything he reads on the internet.

I think it's a bit insulting to assume that he just typed "Boeing" into Google and then read out the search results on the 6 o clock news. He's not that stupid.

Rather, he made good use of new resources. Good, and careful use. He knows how to use the internet well, finding good information and ignoring stuff he can't verify.

It is a great shame when advances like the internet get shunned in the way you're advising because people assume that ALL use of it is lazy and unreliable. Sure, use traditional methods as well if you want, but why miss out on all the GOOD that the internet has to offer just because of the potential of bad? Surely better to be careful and use discretion.

Well done Rory, I really enjoyed your reports and thought they were much better than ITV's!

The only problem, surely, is that if the news is just a series of web searches distilled into a short report, why should we as viewers wait to watch someone else summarise that which we can easily find out ourselves?

Still, at least no-one's quite resorted to producing a complete "seconds from disaster" style documentary only hours after the incident.

Perhaps next week...

  • 8.
  • At 09:23 AM on 20 Jan 2008,
  • Andy Davies wrote:

Rory - was your output any better, informative or as authorative as it would have been 10 years before? It is probably a lot cheeper, but does it add any value and offer anything more than I can find out myself?

I have been interested in games and I am happy to know

that technologies such as games and social networking

websites are so much useful!

  • 10.
  • At 07:18 PM on 20 Jan 2008,
  • Kaity Allen wrote:

The thing is... do we really need all this in depth reporting?

Rushing out and spending licence fee money on a game for one news report.

It all seems a mite ott and needless.

Kaity

  • 11.
  • At 09:06 PM on 20 Jan 2008,
  • Rory Cellan-Jones wrote:

Roy(no 4) and Matthew(no 2) – a little clarification.

Let’s be clear here – I’m talking about extra help from technology, but that does not mean the old-fashioned journalistic skills go out of the window. So, for instance, my colleague Tom Symonds, our Transport Correspondent, knows a huge amount about the inner workings of aircraft and was talking to his wide range of contacts as soon as the incident happened.

He led our coverage. I was back-up – and needed to brief myself quickly about technical matters like the Instrument Landing System. Of course, you do not take what you find via Google or Wikipedia as gospel – but there is plenty of other material online such as AAIB reports. A decade ago a reporter would have left the building with a grubby handful of five-year old cuttings – far less likely to be illuminating. We tend to romanticise the good old days when a journalist had nothing but a notebook, some decent contacts, and a plausible manner, but I think the competition is more intense now.

My point is that the instant access to information and pictures makes every story move far more quickly. If you refuse to use the new tools – as well as the old ones – then you will be left behind.

I think this highlights a change from 'telling' the news to 'showing' the news.

Of course, I don't want to say that is a bad thing but some times it can be taken a little far.

On the subject in hand, i think it is somewhat important for TV to use custom CGI and not borrow from computer games or Google Earth.

Television used to be polished, now when I see Google used I think to myself 'Ah, they are using Google Maps' when I should be thinking 'I see the flight path the plane took'.

Same goes for the Flight Simulator but to a great extent. I recognised it as a game and the connotations of being a computer game didn't sit well in my head as part of a factual news program .

I think this highlights a change from 'telling' the news to 'showing' the news.

Of course, I don't want to say that is a bad thing but some times it can be taken a little far.

On the subject in hand, i think it is somewhat important for TV to use custom CGI and not borrow from computer games or Google Earth.

Television used to be polished, now when I see Google used I think to myself 'Ah, they are using Google Maps' when I should be thinking 'I see the flight path the plane took'.

Same goes for the Flight Simulator but to a great extent. I recognised it as a game and the connotations of being a computer game didn't sit well in my head as part of a factual news program .

  • 14.
  • At 10:19 AM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • Martin Baker wrote:

Just wondering if you could give an insight into how google maps/youtube footage is cleared for inclusion on say 6'o clock news - do the bbc have set agreements on sharing this kind of information or is it decided on a case by case level?

  • 15.
  • At 10:22 AM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • Roy wrote:

Well Rory, I look forward to any stories you may cover concerning the NHS in the future.

To save the BBC any further expense, you can have my copy of 'Theme Hospital' gratis.

  • 16.
  • At 10:48 AM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • John wrote:

Kaity, £25 pound and half-an-hours messing around in a game, versus £1,000's and days of effort from an animator, sounds like an effective use of my license fee. Pictures and video can be much more effective at conveying an understanding of complex technical stories to the general public then a dry talking head, and isn't that the BBC News core remit?

Do the others really think a trained and experienced tech journalist like Rory wouldn't be aware of the shortcomings of internet research? Or that his editors would let lax under-sourced reporting through to the main bulleten when the Beeb is under such scrutiny these days?

John.

  • 17.
  • At 11:36 AM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • Paul Webster wrote:

Easy access to information is important, but so is the quality of that information.

Mathew gave a particularly good example of how his high schools Wiki claims Bin Laden was a student there. There are many more. I was recently researching my family history. One Wiki article about Daniel Webster I came across was well written and authoritative, but suddenly about 2/3 the way through it started to make all sorts of bizarre claims. I have consequently found that Wiki articles are often vandalised, and in fact some are now locked, i.e. un-editable, to protect them.

This is not limited to Wiki style cooperative sites. We have all come across the conspiracy theory sites, very often they can be quite funny, as long as they are not taken seriously. However, a number of times I have come across articles on seemingly rational sites that cite these conspiracy sites as authoritative references.

Clearly for some people, when they want to make irrational unsupportable claims, quality of the source information is not so important.

Or is there a degree of laziness on the part of the researcher; willing to take on trust information without checking it.

Wiki and other sources of information are all very well for a quick overview, but this must always be backed up by 'back to source' research - even, dare I suggest, dusting off printed sources.

The internet is a great tool but the reliability of any information found (Googled I guess you might say) needs to be checked.

  • 18.
  • At 11:39 AM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • Paul Webster wrote:

Easy access to information is important, but so is the quality of that information.

Mathew gave a particularly good example of how his high schools Wiki claims Bin Laden was a student there. There are many more. I was recently researching my family history. One Wiki article about Daniel Webster I came across was well written and authoritative, but suddenly about 2/3 the way through it started to make all sorts of bizarre claims. I have consequently found that Wiki articles are often vandalised, and in fact some are now locked, i.e. un-editable, to protect them.

This is not limited to Wiki style cooperative sites. We have all come across the conspiracy theory sites, very often they can be quite funny, as long as they are not taken seriously. However, a number of times I have come across articles on seemingly rational sites that cite these conspiracy sites as authoritative references.

Clearly for some people, when they want to make irrational unsupportable claims, quality of the source information is not so important.

Or is there a degree of laziness on the part of the researcher; willing to take on trust information without checking it.

Wiki and other sources of information are all very well for a quick overview, but this must always be backed up by 'back to source' research - even, dare I suggest, dusting off printed sources.

The internet is a great tool but the reliability of any information found (Googled I guess you might say) needs to be checked.

  • 19.
  • At 12:30 PM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • Julian wrote:

Modern tools such as those described do indeed allow journalists to get copy out fast but in so doing all attempt at accuracy and quality has been lost. A satellite image of the airport spinning three times round the screen before settling into place with one runway highlighted is now a work of moments by a graphic artist. Shame it's the wrong runway lit up.

Cut back to the live shot of the reporter on the scene telling us of the chaos of the cancelled flights and how it's only going to get worse. Almost gleefully he tells of how BAA might be able to reopen the runway 'tomorrow' for takeoff as if it's his idea. This is broadcast some 3 hours after BAA had already opened the south runway for takeoff. Had he only looked behind him at the world outside his ego-sphere he'd have seen for himself.

As for this: 'So a £25 piece of software is now performing the same task as a machine that cost a six-figure sum to build' the sheer ignorance of such a statement is staggering. To your uneducated eye they look the same therefore they are at all levels equivalent? Airbus will save billions.

Once upon a time if you heard something on the BBC it was likely accurate. Sadly today the BBC has followed the bandwagon of speed above integrity.

Comments relate to the 6PM BBC One broadcast Thursday 17th January.

  • 20.
  • At 02:01 PM on 21 Jan 2008,
  • JN Kirkland wrote:

Small points about your "£25 piece of software performing the same task that a cost a six figure sum to build"; firstly add on the £1,000 or so of hardware required to run the software successfully and secondly consider the hardware cost of a professional flight simulator in which the mechanical feedback is realistically simulated; the actual developed software cost for such a simulator is probably not much short of £25.00

  • 21.
  • At 12:04 PM on 22 Jan 2008,
  • Brian wrote:

Come on people - what are you whining about?

So Rory used game software for illustrative graphics and it only cost £25 - but he also got a real pilot to verify it.

So he sourced images from Google Earth - one of the richer organisations on the planet maintains a fine collection of aerial photography covering the whole world and makes it available to all at no cost, and you want Rory not to use it?

So he got background on ILS from Wikipedia - that wasn't his only source. Of course Wikipedia has some problems with trolls and enthusiastic idiots posting on it - you have to read it as critically as you would a press briefing from a commercial or government (or non-gvernment) organisation, but that doesn't mean you can get nothing useful from it. One of the advantages of Wikipedia is you can look at the article history and see who put what in it (and what they've done to other articles) to get a better idea of credibility. And I'm sure the ILS article is more fiercely guarded by knowledgeable editors than the one on Matthew's high school.

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