Thanks for all the #tags

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Ian Forrester Ian Forrester | 14:35 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

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So we're finally at the very end of a era. There's a few more things to sort out but generally its all come to an end. This blog will be mothballed for the future.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to get involved with, be it to rave about what we were doing or shout at us about the DRM stance of the BBC. Without people like yourselves giving up your time to get involved, hack, tweak and scrape the BBC of its data, it wouldn't have been anywhere near the success it turned out to be. All this will go down in history as a breath taking project with many fingers in many pies which out performanced its very humble start and drove the way the BBC will move forward in the future.

Everyone I speak to since the announcement has asked in there own way, "so what next?" Well it would be a disrespectful to say something like backstage. There is almost nothing like the phenomenon which was BBC Backstage. As you might have heard many times, it was of its own time and to be frank it was put together by some of the smartest people in the UK net scene at the time.

R&D use to have a department called Imagineering which then became Creative R&D. That department was a magnet for talented people with wild imaginations and creative solutions. This is where Backstage came from along with projects for the creative archive, innovation labs, etc. Now Creative R&D is just R&D and the traditional research has been turned on its head forever more.

I've witness the backstage methodology just spread like wildfire. Every single day I hear some down right zainy ideas being talked about between engineers and researchers. Ideas that 5 years ago would have been shot down before they even get a chance to stretch their wings. The "Backstage approach" is common in the lanaguage between engineers, researchers, programme makers, etc. The legacy of Backstage is transfixed on the BBC and will never be forgotten.

In a economic environment like we are in now, making things happen will be all important. We won't stop taking risks, its what we do, but its important to be extremly cost effective with the ones we do.

"...Come on what's next?!" I hear you all shout...

Well we all have ideas about what areas could do with some creativity but its the combination of the ideas which will make up the replacement. I can tell you the core activity of watching and engaging with the hackers will prevail in some form. Data will be a large part of what happens next but maybe not at the level we were at before. Others have taken that fight onwards and its our time to look to the next 5 years.

Alan Kay once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." And you'd be hard pressed to find anyone to disagree with him. Rather that talk about what would replace Backstage, we will be inventing together with yourselves, the future. We can't wait...

But before we leap too far into the future, theres one more thing to do. This was personally one of the best times of my life to date and I'm proud to be able to see it through right to a respectable end. I wish I could name everyone who was involved in Backstage but that list would be almost endless and the ebooks have done a fantastic job doing some of that. (you can also buy it in written form now)

So in Backstage fashion, thanks for all the tags... you were all truly inspiring and together we inspired.



Ian Forrester - Senior "Backstage" Producer

On behalf of everyone who collaborated and helped make backstage what it was over the last 5+ years - Thanks for all the tags!

BBC Backstage the ebook retrospective

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Ian Forrester Ian Forrester | 13:43 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011

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Its been an amazing five years but finally the servers are powering down on the (to be official) project.The legacy of backstage will live on, but what better way to end the project but to launch a ebook which tells some of the stories of how the project started way back in 2004.

We commisioned Suw Charman-Anderson to create the eBook retrospective of the whole project, quite a challenge as you can imagine. But she's done a excellent job with help from editor Jim McClennan and designer Nicola Rowlands. Its an fantastic piece of work I think you will agree.It also serves as a very fitting tribute to the endless efforts of the many staff, friends, hackers, developers, designers, critics, etc, etc of the project over the last half decade.

There is plenty of background information in the ebook including those playground servers, the amazing array of prototypes and some real interesting points about the nature hacking... maybe someone should update wikipedia with some of the information?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm really happy to present the Backstage Ebook:Hacking the BBC, a backstage retrospective. From us to you, for making backstage what it became.

Download in [PDF] [print ready PDF] [EPUB] [MOBI] [RTF]

(The Amazon Kindle will read MOBI files, the Apple iPad makes great work of the PDF, while most others readers will accept epub. If you're in any doubt try the PDF on which is full colour or the RTF which is just the content.)

The cover of the BBC Backstage ebook.

You can also read more on the Guardian's PDA blog,  the BBC R&D blog (which will be the place to find out what happens post backstage), the BBC internet blog and of course my own personal blog.

I think its safe to say the ebook is licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence. So please do share it and tells us what bits you loved or hated. In actual fact, tells us what bits you loved or hated generally about the whole project. We really value your feedback and of course everything you all did to make backstage your place to influence the BBC as a whole.

thank's for all the tags

.... end line :)

Backstage: The Beginning

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

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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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BBC Backstage to close

Adrian Woolard | 16:40 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

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As has been discussed recently in the press and various channels online, the BBC has taken the decision to close BBC Backstage in December 2010. Given the report recently in the Guardian Tech blog this no doubt comes as little surprise to most. However, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain why this decision was made and what it means for the BBC as an open innovator in the future.

BBC Backstage has been a great success. I am very proud to have worked with the team on numerous projects. It was the forerunner to many other emerging, successful initiatives and has made a valuable contribution in driving the BBC towards genuine open innovation. In many ways it has been very much of its time.

The Banana Labs team gather around a darkened desk at Hackday 2007 to create yet another mad app using BBC data.

Hackday 2007. The Banana Labs team gather around a darkened desk to mash up yet another prototype using BBC data.

Following the official launch of Backstage in 2005 the project has consistently delivered groundbreaking prototypes using BBC data. Personally, the stories of Hackday 2007 at Ally Pally where lightning did indeed strike twice remains one of the numerous high points.  On that remarkable day the creative energies of the developer community prevailed, sheltering under umbrellas at times, with many people working through the night to build outstanding prototypes over the course of the weekend. Lord Reith would have approved of Backstage and its community on that day and many others.

Looking forward, BBC Future Media will shortly launch a more comprehensive repository of data feeds, development tools and APIs which will supersede the current Backstage collection. The BBC is in early discussions with a number of the other UK developer communities about aspirations to create a larger network of independent developers that will absorb and support the current BBC Backstage community.

As many of you know Ian Forrester, the producer of Backstage, fell seriously ill in May of this year. The plan for last ten months was always to implement a systematic winding down of Backstage in early summer but Ian’s illness precluded this. Now that Ian is once again able to take up his role within BBC R&D it feels like the right time to retire Backstage and allow Ian to concentrate on new projects. Innovation and Innovators don’t stand still and with the Backstage model now firmly established elsewhere it’s time to move on.

 Over the remaining months, we will be using the Backstage blog to celebrate the achievements of the project. We’ll be sharing some articles written by Suw Charman-Anderson, commissioned earlier this year to produce a retrospective piece on the initiative. We will discuss in more detail the aspirations around the growth of a richer developer community in UK and Europe, explore the legacy of the project and its place in UK developer history and also share some details on some of the newer projects that the team have been working on. 

At Mashed 2008 Jemima Kiss of the Guardian interviews, and Flip films, Ewan Spence on his Social Flight Simulator.

Mashed 2008. Jemima Kiss of the Guardian interviews, and Flip films, Ewan Spence on his Social Flight Simulator.

Huge credit and recognition needs to go out to so many people involved since the germ of the idea that became BBC Backstage was conceived in 2004. In particular I’d like to give thanks to the following people for their efforts: James Boardwell, Ben Metcalfe, Matt Locke, Tom Loosemore, Jem Stone, Ian Forrester, Matthew Cashmore, Rain Ashford and Ant Miller.

Finally, and most importantly, the BBC recognises that the success of Backstage is down to the whole community of developers, designers, contributors (and even critics) built around the project - a community who pushed it far beyond its original concept.

The BBC wants to support the community that is BBC Backstage and we’d really welcome ideas on how to extract as much learning from the project as possible as well as your thoughts on what its spiritual successor should tackle next. I want to say personally that BBC R&D is committed to retaining the team who have worked tirelessly on Backstage and I am looking forward to working with them on applying the Backstage philosophy to the new challenges faced by BBC. 

Cheers and hope to see you in the next incarnation.

Pulling related web content into a live TV stream

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Andrew Littledale Andrew Littledale | 16:16 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Like everyone else, we have been wondering what set top boxes connected to the internet will look like for the user. What kind of interfaces will work best when TV and the web become bedfellows?

We decided to mock up a prototype application to play around with some user interface ideas.

The most useful application we could think of was something that would provide web content that was relevant to what was being talked about on TV.

So we created a Flash application that pulls in live subtitles from an IRC channel and places them underneath a live feed of News 24. Thanks very much to Andrew McParland and his team in R&D for making the subtitles available.

As the subtitles appear on the screen they are sent off to a natural language processing API and relevant concepts are extracted from the text (and in our case returned as DBpedia terms).

When the concepts come back from the API they are placed over the EMP on the left of the picture. We've mapped these terms to BBC News content and clicking on them reveals links on the right. Clicking on these opens up the web page in a new tab.

It needs a bit of work. Sometimes the concepts returned are a little random and it would be good to filter them. We also need to come up with a scalable way of using the subtitles. Both things are doable.

It would also be possible to tailor the application to link to specific parts of At the moment we are just linking to News but it could be that we linked to GCSE Bitesize so that students could find Learning content that was relevant to stuff they were watching on TV.

With Google TV launching in the Autumn and Canvas next year expect to see more interfaces like this soon.


This video shows the application working with a live stream from News 24

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Further information

If you would like more information about this prototype please contact We hope to demo it at the The Media Festival Arts next month.

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