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Data Art on Backstage

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Andrew Littledale Andrew Littledale | 15:00 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Data is all around us. Public and private institutions are waking up to the fact that releasing data is not only politically useful in an age which values transparency. It can also foster innovation, improve services and reduce costs.

But while the 'Free our data' Guardian campaign, Tim Berners-Lee's linked data project, MP's expenses, data.gov.uk and many more initiatives have been very effective in getting the message across that releasing data is a good thing there hasn't been a corresponding conversation around what can be done to make sense of the data and how to present it in a way to engage people. Lots of people are talking about RDF , SparQL and ontologies but not so many people are explaining how to do something with them. There are some excellent data visualisation blogs but few sites dedicated to teaching the skills needed to create beautiful and meaningful graphics.

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The Data Art project on Backstage has the aim of teaching those skills to a wide audience. We will be using BBC data sources to do this and in doing so hope to also provide a new insight into the BBC's output. BBC data sources for developers are migrating to the forthcoming developer site, and we hope Backstage will be increasingly used to demonstrate what can be done with BBC data.

The project is a collaboration between BBC Learning and the University of Westminster and is part funded by an AHRC knowledge transfer grant. We've currently got 4 projects on the site using 4 different BBC data sources and we are in the process of creating some learning resources which will be launched in July. We're also planning an event at the University of Westminster in November and an exhibition in August 2011.

One thing I've come up against in the first few months of the project is that while departments across the BBC are eager to participate there are often obstacles to releasing the data. A good example of this is a visualisation I built in flash which used an API written by Andrew McParland from R&D to allow users to search for the instances of words mentioned on BBC TV channels. It threw up some really interesting results so I plugged the same API into a Microsoft Pivot to use the same data to create a new way to navigate through to iPlayer content. Due to concerns about the use of copyrighted material and issues about compliance these demonstrations were not able to be made accessible to the BBC's audiences on our website, but in this screencast I'll walk you through the key elements of the prototypes. We hope that during the 22 months of the project we can make a case for a relaxing of the rules around releasing BBC data sources.


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We hope soon to release a sitemap of the whole of bbc.co.uk, some insights into the output across TV & Radio using Infax and to collaborate with Tony Ageh to create some tools which demonstrate how data visualisation can provide unique ways to navigate around the BBC Archive. BBC R&D have been incredibly generous with the stuff they are willing to share.  We're hoping that we'll get involvement from more areas of the BBC in the months to come.  We are a small team but we have some pretty valuable skills (Flash, HTML5, Forge, etc) and we would love to get the chance to collaborate with other departments.

Please visit us at http://backstage.bbc.co.uk/data_art/

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