Archives for July 2008

Music Beta & Linked Data

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Guy Strelitz | 13:05 UK time, Thursday, 31 July 2008

radiolabs175.pngBy now, you may well have found the new BBC Music beta site - Matthew Shorter and Tom Scott have both blogged about it, and it's shown up on TechCrunch. If you haven't seen it yet, I strongly urge you read the blogs and take a look - it really is a huge step forward for BBC Music online, and for the data infrastructure of bbc.co.uk as a whole.

I'm not going to repeat Matthew and Tom here. Instead, I'm going to explain how some of the thinking and technical features have come together in one of the really cool things we've been able to achieve - the data graphs on the new Artists Gateway and on Artist pages.

Read more and comment at the BBC Radio Labs Blog

Guy Strelitz is Technical Project Manager, BBC FM&T for Audio & Music Interactive.

Support Report: Video Aspect Ratio Issue On Satellite Sport Service

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Rob Hardy Rob Hardy | 15:41 UK time, Tuesday, 29 July 2008

bbcilabszk.jpgLike any IT service, we have a continuous flow of support issues for the live service (or incidents, if you're an ITI List). Occasionally an issue is high profile enough to garner some outside interest, and I'll report on these here. Here's the first report...

Read more and comment on the BBCi Labs blog.

Rob Hardy is Technical Manager, TV Platforms Group, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Interesting Stuff 2008-07-29: "The All New BBC Music Site Where Programmes Meet Music & The Semantic Web"

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:02 UK time, Tuesday, 29 July 2008

musicbeta.jpgFollowing on from Matthew Shorter's post, Tom Scott has now posted more details about the new BBC Music beta. It's available here on Tom's personal blog, derivadow.

The approach we're using to keep the Wikipedia data up to date is, I think, quite neat. Patrick has written a bot to monitor the Wikipedia IRC channel for updates - when it spot an update we fetch the new Wikipedia content. Oh and obviously all this data is rendered dynamically using the same MVC framework we are using for /programmes which means that updates happen almost instantaneously.

You can comment on Matthew's post and on Tom's.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog

BBC Music Artist Pages Beta

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Matthew Shorter Matthew Shorter | 20:24 UK time, Monday, 28 July 2008

musicbeta.jpgI'm happy to announce the launch today of a beta of our new artist pages on the BBC Music website. We now have a dynamically published, persistent and automated page for every artist we broadcast on the BBC, and thousands of others besides.

These pages form the foundation of an ambitious programme of work to improve the way we make our music content available to our audience.

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Daphne Oram blowing a mijwiz while Richard Bird records the sound on a tape machine, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Maida Vale, 1958.

The BBC has a long and distinguished track record of bringing music to new audiences through its music brands (programmes, events and websites) from Later... with Jools Holland to the BBC Proms, Radio 1's Live Lounge and new brands like the BBC Electric Proms and BBC Introducing. The other half of the equation - bringing brands to new audiences through the music they love - has been harder for us.

For example, if a fan of the band Foals doesn't know that we have video available online of both an excellent BBC 6 Music Hub Session for the band and an interview on the Later... website, they're not going to find out by searching for Foals on Google. If they find their way to the BBC's artist profile of Foals, they may spot the text links to this content, but how are they going to find the artist profile in the first place? And if they do, they still won't be aware that 6 Music is the best place to go on the BBC to hear more of Foals' music.

On a worldwide web where music content is abundant and readily discoverable - just look at some of the links on those Foals top ten results on Google, including free streamed music from Last.fm and YouTube - the BBC owes it to its licence fee payers to make it easier to find our music content. Particularly since, unlike many of our rivals, we invest so heavily in such a distinctive mix of music, including an unparalleled range of music that's new, live and specially recorded, British and from right across the genres.

We've taken a significant first step in this direction with the beta launch of our new generation of artist pages. By associating artist IDs with programme IDs, we have laid the foundations for making our content, and by extension our brands, much more discoverable by our audience. By exposing play count data (ie, displaying which networks and programmes have played a given artist), our beta artist page for Foals makes it clear to the audience that it's well worth tuning into 6 Music if they want to hear more from this band, and offers some pointers of which programmes to sample, with links to those programme's pages on /programmes.

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The artist pages' URLs will also remain the persistent and definitive home of these artists on the BBC's website in the same way that episode and brand pages on /programmes remain the persistent, definitive home for individual programmes.

Having a persistent, and increasingly rich, resource to link to for each artist on the BBC should also help those pages appear higher up the search rankings, making it easier for our audience to find them.

This is only the start. There is a lot of work to do before these pages effectively aggregate all the BBC has to offer for individual artists. It's also important to point out that there also remain significant gaps in the play count information - one of the main reasons why this is a beta and not a live launch. For example, our data currently excludes Radio 2's specialist output and all of Radio 3, as well as significant amounts of content from across the radio networks. We also need to extend the concept of the unique ID from artists to releases, sessions, tracks, events and so on. But by establishing the crucial link between unique IDs for programmes and brands on the one hand, and unique IDs for artists on the other, we have put the building blocks in place for this work.

musicbrainz_on_wall.jpgAnother way in which we would like to make our content more discoverable is by openness to the web. We are working closely with the community-generated and -maintained music database MusicBrainz, which provides a unique ID for every artist as well as data on how they are related to one another and external links. By adopting this open standard, our pages are able to benefit from public domain content linked from MusicBrainz such as biographies from Wikipedia and discographies from MusicBrainz. But MusicBrainz IDs also make it straightforward for third parties to work with our data and automate links to our pages. (Photo of MusicBrainz banner by mayhern on flickr).

Tom Scott is blogging later this week [editor's note: Tom's blog post is now published here] about some of the ways we are facilitating this activity, by making our data available in different formats.

By the way, as this is a beta and most of the pages are unlinked, you may be wondering how to find a given artist. Here's how:

We plan to move from beta to live launch later this year, once we have added a few features to the pages, including the facility to promote content from around the BBC and more accurate play count information. Watch this space.

Matthew Shorter is Interactive Editor, Music, BBC Audio & Music Interactive.

Interesting Stuff 2008-07-28

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Alan Connor | 10:19 UK time, Monday, 28 July 2008

The BBC Trust has started its public consultation on plans to syndicate national TV and radio services over 3G networks for mobile devices. Detail at Digital Spy and the BBC Trust's website.

At followthemedia, Michael Hedges looks over the Pricewaterhouse Coopers' research [pdf] into the economic impact of the BBC [see previous post], (commisioned by the BBC Trust) and argues:

the Beeb is "not simply TV and radio channels any more than Google is simply a search engine."

Rory Cellan Jones locks horns with Stephen Fry and Macheads at the BBC's dot.life blog.

While Christine Jardine in the Sunday Herald speculates:

The iPlayer is a runaway success ... but could it backfire on the BBC?

shoot_summer_qrcode.jpgStare at the image on the right. Let your mind wander... what can you see...? Is it a series of short-form user-generated videos shot in fields which are being shaken by bass bins? Then you are seeing correctly:

Shoot The Summer is a film about festivals shot entirely on mobile phones. All the pictures and videos on this site have been captured on mobile phones too. The film will be shot by our DJs and our artists at festivals this summer. You can get in on the action by sending us your mobile clips.

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Over at Backstage (which Andrew Williams gives "a (brief) introduction" to here), Steve Butler unleashes feeds from /programmes [see previous posts], referencing Tom Scott's Interesting BBC Data To Hack With and sending interested parties to the /programmes developers' page. Great things will result - you mark BBC Internet Blog's words.

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And - still talking to you, Mr(s) Sports Fan - if you're after an abstraction of Sport Multiscreen architecture, the marvellous red button boffins at BBCi Labs are happy to oblige.

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A proper explanation of QR codes is here.

Alan Connor is co-editor, BBC Internet Blog.

Summer Of Mobile Sport Video & Tall Ships

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Jason DaPonte | 16:06 UK time, Friday, 25 July 2008

Whether you've got a sparkly new 3G iPhone or not, more and more of people are watching video on their mobiles. Here's some of the work the BBC Mobile team has been doing to try to bring more of the BBC's video to you.

Between January and May 2008 our video (and audio) downloads have almost doubled and the length of time people are spending consuming audio visual content has nearly quadrupled. We're not sure exactly why the change has happened so suddenly, but I reckon it has to do with more devices being wifi-enabled and/or having larger screens.

We're in the middle of a summer full of sports video that you can watch on the go. And we're experimenting with how mobiles can be used to capture media and tell stories in new ways.

One of the more original video projects we're working on is the Liverpool Tall Ships Race.

Our team worked with BBC Liverpool on this year's Tall Ships race to capture the first-hand experiences of five crew members - with videos taken on their mobiles and viewable on yours.

We selected a range of crew members on different ships that would give us a good spread of stories and shots from this dramatic event, especially since using the mobiles would allow us to tell the stories of the journeys as they unfolded instead of having to wait for traditional cameras to come back to shore.

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Lovely picture "Tall Ships at Liverpool" courtesy of John Kennan on Flickr. There's also a Tall Ships Races 2008 Flickr group

We then kitted them out with Nokia N95s (with fingers crossed that none of them would go overboard!).

Some News Online reporters used them to report from this year's Game Developers Conference, but this was the first time that we've put them in the hands of the subjects of a story to understand it from their perspective.

We offered them some light directorial and filming advice, but the decisions were theirs and we didn't edit the clips (some were stiched together for the web to make pieces that were longer than would be digestable on mobile).

We used ShoZu, commerically available media upload software, to make sure that it was easy to send videos back from sea and hope dthat the ships would be within range of a decent 3G signal to transmit the videos back over. ShoZu worked well for us, but our team had to do a lot of re-encoding of MPEG-4 to AVI to MPEG-1 before we could put it onto our mobile video portal. The option to record in 3GP was also available but we weren't happy with the picture quality that the N95s gave using this standard. If anyone knows of a media loader that will let us go direct from phone to MPEG-1 (and give us good picture quality), let us know, as we're looking for one.

We're still waiting for the final videos to come in - one camera is still at sea and will complete the trip to Norway before the phone comes back to BBC Mobile HQ - so I hope you'll take some time to watch them and let us know what you think of our experiment (positive or negative). The feedback will help us to figure out whether to do more like this in the future - and ways of doing it better.

Other video highlights this summer included UEFA Euro 2008, which featured more video than we've ever provided for a major sporting event and the Olympics On Mobile will have even more. If you sign up for Olympic Mobile alerts, they will warn you shortly before the biggest events are on in Beijing so that you can tune in and watch on your mobile and never miss a thing - even if you're at work. (Or you could be boring and tune in on telly - but I would say that, being the mobile editor, wouldn't I?).

To promote the Olympics, we've got exclusive videos and wallpapers of Monkey created by the men behind Gorillaz - Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett.

If you're not sure of how to access BBC Mobile, Kate Silverton will be happy to give you a lesson.

Jason DaPonte is Managing Editor, Mobile Platforms, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Interesting Stuff 2008-07-23

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Alan Connor | 17:42 UK time, Wednesday, 23 July 2008

iplayer_help_faqs125.gifIf the question on your lips is "In which audio formats can I play BBC radio stations?", you may find this iPlayer Help page helpful: In which audio formats can I play BBC radio stations?.

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Exciting archive news (and if you think that's an oxymoron, shame on you and read on): DG Mark Thompson tells us that former Controller of BBC2, Roly Keating is to become the BBC's first Director of Archive Content "with responsibility for maximising public access to the BBC's invaluable archive of television, radio and multimedia content." You can find out more about the archive in a series of videos called Meet The Experts, kicked off by Adam Lee:

We've got about 4 million physical items for TV and radio. That's equivalent to 600,000 hours of TV content and about 350,000 hours of radio. So we're getting very close now to a million hours of material. We also now have a New Media archive, which is keeping a record of the content that goes out on the BBC's websites. We also have large sheet-music collections, we have commercial music collections. We have press cuttings going back 40 years as well. So it's a very large-scale operation.

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In the BBC Backstage protoypes, Fraser Murrell explains how he's integrated BBC feeds for dailysnooze:

I wanted a quick loading simple homepage for my browser, which included the BBC headlines and weather. Long gone are the days of screen scraping the bbc news pages and now luckily we have access to some nice feeds!

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mini_motty.pngOur radar has only just picked up the thoughts of Adobe Flash designer Serge Jespers on the BBC Live Update:

I'd love to see some video in there as well but hey... it's still an early beta and I'm sure video is on their radar. Being a beta application, I have to point out that there are still some bugs in the application but that's exactly what public betas are for, so you can give feedback...

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And finally, if you're short of smileys and GIFs of all descriptions, there's a surfeit over at the Points Of View Message Boards as the users say goodbye to community editor Peta.

Alan Connor is co-editor, BBC Internet Blog.

Wider, Bigger, Better

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Yasser Rashid Yasser Rashid | 09:29 UK time, Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Teams of designers, developers, project managers and producers within Audio & Music Interactive have been very busy recently working together to deliver a refresh of our radio network and music event websites.

radiolabs175.pngThanks to the work of the central Future Media & Technology (FM&T) team in rolling out the new page layout system called Barlesque, we are now updating all our radio network websites with a new look and feel and integrating the programme and schedule data from /programmes. At the same time, we have have had another team which has been working on improving our event websites.

Yasser Rashid is a Senior Designer, Audio & Music Interactive.

Read on and comment at the Radio Labs Blog.

Creating Our Olympic Map

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Ollie Williams | 10:54 UK time, Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Today, we've launched our interactive map of the Beijing Olympics, showing all the venues, a selection of landmarks, plus blogs and Twitter posts from our journalists in Beijing.

If you haven't already seen it, please do take a look and let me know your thoughts.

olympicsmap.jpg

I'm a bit of a map geek - old maps, new maps, shipping charts, satellite images, GPS, it's all good (I've just had mild abuse involving "toggles" and "anoraks" lobbed at me in the office, to prove the point) - so it's been great fun to help build a map for BBC Sport.

But for somebody like me, used to wasting the occasional evening messing around with applications like Google's My Maps, creating a map on this level turned out to be a daunting proposition.

Continue reading "Creating our Olympic map" and comment on the Olympics Blog.

Ollie Williams is a BBC Sport journalist.

P2P-Next Trial

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George Wright George Wright | 17:59 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

The BBC's ongoing work on the P2P-Next project is beginning to produce interesting results (and code!).

P2P-Next is running an early trial with around 500 participants to assess client (software application) suitability, to examine whether our plans and work for a full P2P system will deliver useful outputs, and to stick with the "Release Early, Release Often" approach that we're aiming for with this project.

You can take part in the trial, as there are still some spaces left. Head over to trial.p2p-next.org to download the software.

P2P-Next will run across the European Union (the Commission is paying for a hefty chunk of the work, after all), with 21 partner companies, and the BBC is exploring how a UK-facing, licence fee-funded corporation like us can work outside its normal geographic boundaries.

Clearing BBC content for worldwide redistribution without DRM is no mean feat. Thanks go to Richard Chapman and the other folks in the BBC Weather Centre, along with the Met Office, for allowing us to add a four minute bulletin of the European weather forecast to the trial.
screenshot_swarmplayer_weather.jpg

One of the main problems that we're trying to solve with this project is the fact that a lot of very interesting P2P projects can't quite cope with live content. This means, for example, that P2P distribution wouldn't work with news, or live sporting events. One of our partners in the project, Fabchannel has contributed a live feed from their Amsterdam office, showing that we have managed to crack live P2P, at least for this small trial.

The content in this trial is, admittedly, not the stuff that keeps online video companies afloat, or makes the BBC's consumer VOD services like iPlayer so popular - but then this technical test isn't hugely about the content. We're examining network performance problems with consumer broadband being rate limited on upload compared to download speed, and how changes to video codec and bitrates affect live video playback. All of this fits into our stated goal with this project - to explore and create next generation Internet distribution systems for TV and radio content.

The code behind the trial is written in Python. We have Windows [6] and Ubuntu/Debian GNU/Linux clients built now - OSX is coming Real Soon Now. Source is also available via our SVN repo. Code is released under OSI approved free software licences, so if your favourite distro isn't featured, you can build your own binary (and redistribute it!).

P2P Next is still rough around the edges in part - it's not consumer-focussed, after all, so READMEs and features are still very much work in progress - but then this is a four year research project and we're only in July of the first year ('M7' in EU language).

There'll be more news on this as we make further releases.

George Wright is Portfolio Manager, Rapid Application and Development, Research & Innovation, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Interesting Stuff 21.07.08

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 13:19 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

The BBC Trust issued a statement today outling decisions made at its meeting of the 16th July, following up its review of bbc.co.uk. At this meeting, the Trust approved the BBC Executive's proposals for a new system of management controls. Quote

The new system includes the appointment of a Group Controller, bbc.co.uk, with overall accountability and responsibility for the service licence. This will include accounting for the overall performance of the service, including its financial performance which is now subject to a new set of rigorous controls, shaping the development of its strategy and setting and monitoring compliance against clear criteria for distinctiveness and market impact.

There's been speculation recently that the BBC is working on a "IPTV" set top box. If you don't know what IPTV is, then BBCi Labs has blogged a quick guide. The iLabs blog has got off to a strong start with details of Flickr on TV work and their Two Streams quiz.

The Radio Labs blog tells us that iCal has been added to /programmes.

data.jpgTom Scott has some BBC data to hack with.Image from Ian-S on Flickr.

The BBC iPlayer service on Virgin Media recorded more than 10m viewings in June according to Media Guardian. There's a list of June's top ten iPlayer programmes here.

The BBC's webpage for Liverpool city of culture includes a mobile service, a Flickr group and a way to upload video..

Donald Kelly has mellowed in his views on the new iPlayer and says:

Feel free to submit your comments, I'm not expecting the flood of traffic I received via the link from the BBC Internet blog on my previous review (of which almost crashed my web-host.)

We'll do our best!

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog

myCBBC: All Your Stuff In One Place?

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Marc Goodchild | 15:04 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

myCBBC hit the headlines again this week - this time in the Media Guardian - and, for a change, it was a positive story. (If you don't know what myCBBC, is check out Richard Deverell's previous post.)

mycbbc_logo.jpgmyCBBC still manages to divide opinion. It's designed to provide younger children an alternative environment to express their personalities online and share in their favourite brands, without necessarily going on to more intimidating unregulated social networking sites.

There are those who believe that the very fact we're offering such a service means we're actually encouraging kids to embrace social networking before they're actually mature enough to understand the risks.

On the other hand, many argue that the cat's already out of the bag, and that the allure of unregulated social networking sites is far to great to ignore. You can guess where I stand, and recent Ofcom stats suggest that more than a quarter of children aged 8-11 who are online have a social networking profile, whether we like it or not.

We genuinely hope that myCBBC can provide a safe alternative for kids hungry for a taste of the web 2.0 network experience that they keep hearing about everyday from siblings, in the playground, on TV and in the press. Social networking is touted everywhere and children want a piece of the action - so we've come up with a secure environment where we can make sure that children pick up good tips on how to stay anonymous and safe.

But that raises another dilemma which we've been trying to grapple with at CBBC. If we want to be truly web 2.0, we surely can't restrict the share functionality to just BBC assets. Kids, more than anyone, are driven by their favourite brands and make little distinction between channels or websites except as a method to find their chosen programmes, characters or presenters.

So it feels rather anachronistic to suggest they shouldn't be able to aggregate all their fan-trophies (pictures, wallpapers, gossip etc) in one place. Surely if you're a fan of both Blue Peter and High School Musical, both posters should be available for you decorate your virtual den?

Most broadcasters struggle with the notion of embracing competitor brands on their websites - but for us, the issue is more about how to moderate all this stuff rather than fending off the competition.

If we didn't have an obligation to protect kids from inappropriate material finding its way onto our site, we could theoretically allow children to import whatever images they like.

But then we also open up a thorny rights issue. As a broadcaster/web publisher we have to be far more rigorous about what we allow on our sites than most aggregator services. And yet the costs of moderating make it impossible to pre-check the content or rights situation for every image a child might submit.

So the philosophical questions remain:

  • should broadcasters like the BBC allow users to collate other material alongside BBC assets?
  • and if so, how do we technically guarantee that content is appropriate for younger users and doesn't cross the line with third party rights agreements?

All suggestions welcome.

Marc Goodchild is Head of Interactive & On Demand, BBC Children.

Erik Huggers Is New Director Of BBC Future Media & Technology

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:25 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

From Mark Thompson's email to staff:

Erik has been a very strong Group Controller, FM&T for the last year. He has shown tremendous commitment championing the BBC iPlayer amongst many other projects. I look forward to him bringing his drive and determination to this new role, helping ensure the BBC is fit for the digital future.

The full press release is here.

Another appointment that may be of interest to readers of this blog: Head of BBC HD (and blogger!) Seetha Kumar is moving to another senior role within the BBC and will be replaced by Danielle Nagler. Press release here.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog

Under The Bonnet: The Two Stream Quiz

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Rob Hardy Rob Hardy | 09:49 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

bbci_labs_blog_logo.jpgOn 26th June, we jointly won Best Use Of Interactive TV at the New Media Age Effectiveness Awards, with our colleagues in BBC Vision Multiplatform Studios; the award was for an interactive service called How Green Are You?. Here's the blurb:

The Vision team produced a visually stunning quiz based on the BBC Two Series It's Not Easy Being Green. The application allowed viewers to interact by scoring themselves on their environmental attitudes. Through seamless video switching, positive or negative feedback was given before presenting the viewer with their own individual "green audit" scores".

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This is a good time to go under the bonnet for this show.

Read more, watch video and comment at BBCi Labs Blog.

Rob Hardy is Technical Manager, TV Platforms group, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Interesting Stuff 2008-07-18

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Alan Connor | 09:40 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

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The BBC Trust has published Pricewaterhouse Coopers' research "into the economic impact of the BBC's publicly funded services on the UK broadcasting and creative sector" [pdf] - sections 5.5 and 13 are the ones to head for first from a bbc.co.uk angle, but you should of course read all 196 pages.

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Tom Loosemore, formerly of this parish, responds to the research on the Ofcom PSB Blog:

So, we have an estimate of the market upside resulting from a licence-fee funded BBC, but no numbers for the downside.

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traffic_lights100.jpgIn an Organgrinder post called The "What's On" Wars: BBC Local vs Commercial Radio, John Plunkett looks at hyperlocalness, asking and answering the question:

How often does my BBC regional news service mention Hazlemere shopping centre or those nightmare traffic lights near High Wycombe? Never.

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voting.pngLots of activity with mobiles: Damyanti Patel and Owen Stephens write up the keynote given by the Beeb's Jason DaPonte at the JISC Innovation Forum [slides as ppt] and Pat Phelan (tagline: "Subverting telecomms from the edge of industry") writes about A Day At The BBC where he talked to Charlotte and Anthony from BBC Switch about "MAXroam, QIK , Agito Networks, Truphone, YouGetItBack, SpinVox , vlingo , 3Skypephone, Rebtel, ZYB, Twitterfone, ShoZu , PimpMyNews ,Shazam , ShopQwik plus lots of other stuff" and looked at new initiatives like BBC Revealed:

I was amazed at the innovation taking place at the BBC especially from the Switch team in the Youth arena.

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sausages.jpgThe Beeb's Andrew Bowden tries to get his head around the bewildering array of food websites with some connection to the BBC, including bbc.co.uk/food, BBC Good Food, UKTV Food, BBC Food and Ever Wondered About Food - it's as if all the intricate relationships between the BBC, BBC Worldwide, UKTV, the Open University, etc, have been depicted, in microcosm, in a diagram made of sausages.

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bbc_trust_foi.pngAnd there's a Freedom Of Information request [btw, did you know about the Beeb's FoI blog? - Ed] with an unwieldy name that's very much on Internet Blog's beat, Correspondence between the Chair of BBC Trust and the Director General of the BBC regarding the future strategy and management of bbc.co.uk, that's currently awaiting clarification:

I note that the process you describe leads one to suspect that the BBC Trust will find it hard to be perceived as an effective, independent regulator if all FOI correspondance it receives is automatically handled by and thus shared with BBC Management - the very people is it supposed to regulate.

Alan Connor is co-editor, BBC Internet Blog.

BBC HDTV: "The BBC's Bold Trial Of Reverse Karaoke!"

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Andy Quested Andy Quested | 16:07 UK time, Thursday, 17 July 2008

logo_bbc_hd.pngI finished my last post with the sentence "Two days later the World Cup kicked off and then the fun really started...".

I wasn't joking. It's been an amazing two years, with many successes and a few disasters!

Top of the list for "must try harder", though, is audio - with surround sound causing more problems than anything else. I couldn't decide what to call this post - I started out with: "Surround Sound is easy... ...to get wrong!"

But then there was an incident with the Eurovision Song Contest and I had a different idea. So, welcome to:

The BBC's Bold Trial Of Reverse Karaoke!
(Or, We Send The Vocals; You Provide The Accompaniment)

I'm sure that, like me, you've been to at least one Eurovision Song Contest party where you either had to dress up as one of the qualifiers, take a dish or bottle of the country you've been allocated, or been given a song sheet so you can sing along. This year, due to a technical fault, we had the ideal opportunity to try something new, so for around half an hour we sent the vocals for everyone to gather round the telly and provide their own instrumental accompaniment! From the comments in the many HD forums, I gather not many people took the opportunity, oh! well.

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to the technical director of Discovery: he said that over 75% of their quality control failures are due to surround sound problems.

Then you realise that Discovery are at least five years further down the HD road than us and they don't do that many live programmes! No excuse for getting it wrong, but it does put it into perspective.

So why and how does it go wrong and why isn't everything in surround?

Read the rest of this entry

Interesting Stuff 17.07.08: Anthony Rose Video Interview

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:25 UK time, Thursday, 17 July 2008

Anthony Rose was interviewed by Andrew Keen for the Independent earlier this week. Andrew has now uploaded the video and I've embedded it above. Enjoy!

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog.

Interesting Stuff 16.07.08

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:24 UK time, Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Microformats debate rages on with this contribution from Ash Searle:

...it's not just screen-readers that get confused by machine-data in title attributes - sighted users are baffled too."

BBC TWO is encouraging you to "create your own Heroes season 2 summary" and post it on You Tube. And don't forget the zombies.

Rob Hardy of BBCi Labs team has a feast of detail about their interactive quizzes for television: "Under the Bonnet; the Two Stream Quiz".

Dan Sabbagh has thoughts about how BT's investment in broadband could change consumption of the BBC iPlayer content in today's Times.

Learning_To_Talk_-_BBC_Internet_blog.jpgAfter Dan Taylor's word cloud of the BBC's Annual report, the OFCOM PSB review blog have also caught the bug. So I thought I'd follow suit with this wordle word cloud of Zoe's blog entry about "Learning To Talk".

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog.

"Learning To Talk": You Can't Hide Behind a Blog

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Zoe Kleinman | 13:55 UK time, Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Whatever you say, on any subject, on a blog is open for debate, discussion and/or abuse from whoever happens to be reading it. For some media types it's been a bit of a learning curve, to put it mildly. Some have actively embraced it, others (let's be honest) are practically hiding under their desks at the very thought.

rory_cj_lttalk.jpgLast night, the BBC Internet Blog took part in a seminar grandly titled 'blogs, the media and accountability'; BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones chaired a panel consisting of BBC News Online Editor Steve Herrmann and our very own Internet Blog Editor Nick Reynolds, Channel 4 Viewers Editor Paula Carter and Guardian Readers Editor Siobhain Butterworth.

Of course the whole audience was blogging, twittring etc throughout: check out Matt Deegan's and Meeware's thoughts.

The panel all agreed that if there is one cardinal rule about keeping a blog, it is never ignore your comments page. Especially if it turns out that you've said something wrong.

'When you start a blog you are going to screw up,' said Nick Reynolds unequivocally. 'Apologise quickly, read your comments and follow the community of readers - they may be able to help you.'

steve_herrmann.jpgSteve Herrmann, who contributes to the Editors Blog, admitted that as an editor 'it goes against your instinct to explain to the whole world why a story was wrong'. However, he also said the feedback he received after explaining the relaunch of News Online back in March was invaluable in ironing out creases to the new look site and explaining why things had changed; as well as apologising for those things that had gone awry in the process.

Rule 2 is to respond and acknowledge that help. Audience member and blogger Annie Mole said she was concerned that bloggers didn't get enough credit for stories that they feed to the BBC. Last week's news story about the doctored stills pictures of Iranian missile tests for example, came from a blog source which was not credited in the story itself, admitted Steve Herrmann. And yes, that needs to be addressed.

channel_four_viewers_editor.jpgSlide courtesy of Paula Carter.

paula_carter175.jpgRule 3 is to listen to what's being said about you, not just to you. Paula Carter has a Google Alert for all things Channel 4. 'lots of blogs are like personal diaries,' she said, 'and I don't think people intend for Channel 4 to be reading them.' Nick Reynolds agreed but gave the example of a personal blog he'd stumbled upon which criticised a regional programme about topless car washing (no, me neither). The blogger had emailed the BBC and had received a fairly unsatisfactory standard reply.

nick_learning_to_talk.jpgNick sent the link to the regional editor, who wrote to her personally, explaining the choice of programme but admitting that, on balance, she was right. 'The odd thing about this further reply though is that I never contacted the BBC complaining about the first one,' she wrote. '...This is the power of the blog...'.

siobhain_butterworth.jpgBut is this micromanagement of a very small percentage of the vast audiences of organisations like the BBC the best use of time and money? The Guardian's Siobhain Butterworth, who handles 400 emails a week from individual readers (in 2007 the entire Press Complaints Commission received 5000) thinks so. 'it's important that news organisations are considered to be responsive,' she said.

guardian_litho.jpg'You've always got to ask, "is this good value for money?",' added Nick. 'But I think it is. They might be small groups but they're influential. You only need to get one good idea from someone and it's worthwhile. There's always someone out there who's cleverer than you.'

Zoe Kleinman is Features Editor, Ariel. Picture of Guardian lino print courtsey of dexter1uk on Flickr.

Flickr On TV

Post categories:

Richard Felton | 16:08 UK time, Monday, 14 July 2008

bbci_labs_blog_logo.jpgIn the near future we are going to see more TVs and set-top boxes which incorporate Ethernet ports. Freesat devices already have this feature and the BBC is working with the industry to standardise how MHEG applications could utilise such a connection on compatible Freeview boxes.

To investigate the possibilities of hybrid (IP and broadcast) set-top boxes, I created an application which allows the viewer to browse Flickr feeds on their television.

Read more and comment at the BBCi Labs Blog.

Richard Felton is a research engineer at BBC Research and Innovation.

Interesting Stuff 2008-07-14

Post categories:

Alan Connor | 10:59 UK time, Monday, 14 July 2008

Had I but world enough and time, my coyness about blogging would be a crime..."

Siobhain Butterworth (Readers' Editor, The Guardian) has some thoughts in advance of tonight's "Learning To Talk" event.

mycbbc_logo.jpgIn The Guardian, Jemima Kiss quotes BBC Children's Marc Goodchild in a piece about MyCBBC [see Richard Deverell's February post] reaching 100,000 registered users: "Our research showed that while kids love the idea of sites like World of Warcraft, they are still quite innocent and quite nervous about joining."

The BBC hiring Kazaa's Anthony Rose to run its online media player was like the Royal Navy signing up pirate Jack Sparrow...

...says today's Independent. ("Aaaarrrr!" - pirate ed.)

uxd_column_widths.png

Ethan Eismann enthuses about the BBC page widening templates [pdf] in a post called The BBC Grid:

Aside from this document's first-order value - providing an informative definition of the BBC grid - it also provides a look into the documentation/specification format and process of the BBC UX&D team. Rare, interesting find indeed.

topics_header.pngNext in our overview of bbc.co.uk-related matters, Murray Dick gives a good overview of Martin Belam's good overview of the overviews provided by the BBC Topics pages: "Guiding its users across and between these diverse (and popular) media and genres is not easy, but if you use the places, people and events which feature in the content, you have a way of expressing the full range of what you do."

Finally Phil Ferris on his Cornish Pasty blog shows that multi-tasking is possible:

Today I set up the journal programme with the BBC iPlayer along side and this meant I could catch up on watching stuff while being able to write a journal and also blog.

Alan Connor is co-editor, BBC Internet Blog.

BBC Radio Streams Update

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James Cridland James Cridland | 10:05 UK time, Thursday, 10 July 2008

radiolabs175.pngOver the last few days, I've listened to more BBC Radio than ever: particularly now the BBC iPlayer makes it much easier to discover content across the BBC's output. I've enjoyed everything from Radio 1's Annie Mac, via Radio 2's Pete Mitchell, to Radio 3's Choral Evensong (Annie's great if a little loud for our office, Pete's a familiar knowledgeable voice, and Evensong is rather good for clearing stressful emails and grappling with the wonders of the BBC's many forms and policies).

Over at the BBC Radio Labs blog, I'm trying to keep everyone up to date with our plans to increase the quality of our online radio streams. You're seeing the first fruits of that work in the listen-again streams in the new iPlayer; but there's plenty more to come. For the latest on that, you're welcome to _take a read_.

NB: I do try to answer relevant questions in blog comments; so I've switched off comments here to keep all the comments in one place - feel free to comment away over in my team's blog.

Read and comment on James' post "The latest on our audio improvements" at BBC Radio Labs blog.

James Cridland is Head of FM&T for Audio & Music Interactive

Interesting Stuff 09.07.08: BBC Annual Report word cloud

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 13:18 UK time, Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The BBC Annual Report was published yesterday. Media Guardian has a useful summary of the digital bit. (Update 5.36 pm - The Register has its own distinctive take here)

The BBC's Dan Taylor has put together two "word clouds" of the Annual Report at Fabric of Folly. Here's one:

annualreport_wordcloud.jpg

A few stats:

bbc.co.uk

3.6bn page impressions a month
33m unique weekly global users
12m British adult users a week

BBCi (red button services)

annual weekly reach: 11m adults
3m watched Wimbledon 2007 on bbci
2.6m viewed Glastonbury interactive

BBC iPlayer

42m programmes accessed on iPlayer between January and March 2008. The most streamed programme in the last financial year was an episode of The Apprentice and Louis Theroux: Behind Bars.

7.7m UK people downloaded BBC podcasts in March 2008 (16.4m around the world)

Nick Reynolds is editor BBC internet blog

Pic of The Day: BBC Glue

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 11:03 UK time, Tuesday, 8 July 2008

bbc_glue.JPG

Wandering around the Broadcast Centre (or rather walking briskly as I've got a lot on) I spotted these two diagrams scrawled on a whiteboard.

bbc_glue_two.JPG

Don't worry if you're a glue manufacturer. The BBC's not going into the adhesive buisness. But "BBC Things" are what we do and "BBC Glue" is what binds us together.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog

Bryony Is Making A Zombie Movie

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Martin Trickey | 15:33 UK time, Monday, 7 July 2008

zombie_banner.jpg
Bryony is the YouTube star Paperlillies.

I'm not sure I can accurately describe what she does, but for the uninitiated, a good starting point could be "Britney Spears: Jamie Lynn Childcare Tips". It made me and another two million people laugh.

Anyway, Bryony decided to make a zombie movie and she asked YouTube to help. I would image she was surprised at the response; I certainly was when I saw it. The level of enthusiasm, commitment and lack of cynicism in the responses was really impressive.

A few days after her post Jonathan Davenport from Hat Trick TV Production company approached controller of BBC Three Danny Cohen and me with an idea for a documentary about Bryony's experience in making the film.

Here is how he described it:

Bryony Makes a Zombie Movie is a big cross-platform summer event that celebrates ultra-low budget film making by following the ups and downs of YouTube star Bryony Matthewman, as she marshals an international online community striving to create a user generated zombie movie. Not only does she have to make the film a reality, she also has a deadline to meet - Halloween 2008, when we'll expect her to throw a huge premiere party involving as many contributors as can make it, all dressed in their finest zombie clobber. The clock is ticking...
 
The online documentary coverage will take the form of two webisodes per week over a 17 week period. As much as possible, we'll follow the real world journey, racing around the country as Bryony seeks mentor advice, meets key members of her community who have volunteered to help and makes sure they do what they said they would do, and blagging all manner of things from actors to fake blood to locations. We'll also be covering squads of volunteers working abroad (there's already talk of a New York and Sydney unit) and rounding up all user suggestions and videos (auditions, make up tests and so on). Finally all 34 episodes will be edited into a 30 minute documentary for broadcast on BBC Three.

We forgave Jonathan the use of the word "webisode" as it is left over from Have I Got News For You, where the teams use it to some comic effect... and, to be honest, he could have said "blogumentary" - as I did... once... never again.

We have no idea about whether Bryony will be able to pull it off and I am quite nervous about the format of near real-time documentary, as it doesn't leave much opportunity for "fixing it in the edit".

Everyone has been working flat out to get it ready as soon as possible, as Bryony is already pushing ahead and we will be launching something similar to what you see below on Tuesday.

zombie_embedded.jpgI know this isn't the first user-generated movie ever (whatever that means); according to MySpace MyMovie Mash Up winner is due for release this September and Beyond The Rave is certainly doing some great stuff in a similar genre. I guess what makes Bryony's project so interesting is the spontaneity, the scale and the risk she is taking.

I should stress that the BBC Three interest is in just following what happens and in trying out something new; we are not involved in the production of the film but we wish her all the best and hope it works - otherwise it's going to be a long quiet 17 weeks.

If you want to get involved in the movie, the place to start is at the Internet Zombie Movie site - or if you just want to see how it unfolds, then you can watch the documentary every Tuesday and Friday at on BBC "Zombies" where they will be posted as near to 3.33pm as possible and on YouTube the following day.

Martin Trickey is Commissioning Executive, Multi-Platform, BBC Vision

Interesting Stuff 07.07.08

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 12:56 UK time, Monday, 7 July 2008

Mashed08: London, June 21/2 2008More Mashed activity is starting to surface. Rob Foreman follows up on the BBCi Labs blog:

After the talk on Saturday morning, several developers were interested in learning MHEG and turning their interactive TV ideas into reality. MHEG is the open standard middleware used on Freeview and Freesat and increasingly in other countries...

Tristran Ferne has links to some radio related mashed hacks on the BBC Radio Labs blog.

Martin Belam has started a series of posts analysing BBC Topics.

Steve Bowbrick thinks that the six month delay in the launch of Project Kangaroo might turn out to be a good thing. (The OFT press release is here).

David Black of the Trinity Mirror says on the Guardian's Organ Grinder blog.that the BBC's plans for expanding its local websites and adding video are "an unnecssary waste of public money".

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog

Why the BBC removed microformat DateTime patterns from bbc.co.uk...

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Jonathan Hassell | 14:33 UK time, Friday, 4 July 2008

... and what we are doing to bring them back

A couple of weeks ago we made the decision to start removing microformats from BBC sites that used the DateTime pattern, the most popular of which is hCalendar.

This pattern was provided to give non-BBC programmers an API (an "application programming interface" - these allow computers as well as human readers to use BBC data) with which they could create software using the information on sites such as /programmes and iPlayer.

Unfortunately the pattern had a number of flaws, which I'll summarise here:

In terms of accessibility: using the DateTime pattern causes some screen readers (in non-default configurations) to read out the contents of the title attribute rather than the text content of the element, meaning users will hear data which is designed to be understood by computers rather than information designed to be understood by people

In terms of usability:
using the DateTime pattern causes a tooltip to appear containing this machine-readable data when the user hovers the mouse over the text content. Some technical users may understand "1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00", but the majority of BBC users will not.

Because of the above problems, we changed our semantic markup standard, adding a rule that the title attribute MUST contain human-readable data.

This is why microformats have started to disappear from BBC sites.

We need to uphold the needs of our users, and see if we can find alternative patterns which do not have these negative usability and accessibility side-effects before programmers start building too much software which depends on the DateTime pattern in its current form.

The BBC have engaged with the microformats community to come up with alternative patterns. While this is a complex process, I hope that through this engagement an alternative pattern will be found which satisfies all the demands on it, from a programming, web standards, usability and accessibility perspective.

My colleague Jake Archibald (who is a Senior Client Side developer in BBC FM&T) has more technical detail on this decision below, and the latest summary of the debate around these alternative patterns.

Jonathan Hassell is Head of User Experience & Accessibility, BBC Future Media & Technology

The Microformat DateTime Pattern

jakearchibald.jpg

Michael Smedhurst blogged about the removal of this pattern from bbc.co.uk/programmes on the BBC Radio labs blog a couple of weeks ago, and then the world went mad.

The RDFa guys started claiming victory and a small war broke out in the microformats community around alternatives to the pattern.

I'd like to clear up exactly why we don't support the current pattern, and what alternatives have been proposed.

What are microformats?

The HTML elements we use in modern web development are from a specification released in 1999. The web has evolved considerably since then and there are notable gaps in the specification. A developer can, using HTML, identify some content as computer code, but cannot identify a telephone number or a date.

microformat_arm_wrestling.jpg

The microformats community create HTML patterns for describing things such as contact details and calendar events. Other programs and websites can read this pattern and present the data in another way. An example of this is the Operator plugin for Firefox, which recognises the hCalendar microformat and lets the user add detected events to their Google calendar. (n.b image from nennett on flickr)

What's wrong with the current datetime pattern?

<p>
  To be held on
  <abbr class="dtstart" title="1998-03-12T08:30:00-05:00">
    12 March 1998 from 8:30am EST
  </abbr>
  until
  <abbr class="dtend" title="1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00">
    9:30am EST
  </abbr>
</p>

The screen reader issue

This is the most commonly discussed issue, but it's not as big as people suggest. Some screen readers in non-default configurations will read out the contents of the title attribute rather than the text content of the element, meaning users may hear the machine data rather than the human data.

Personally, I believe that screen readers should read the title attribute rather than the text content by default (I'll come back to this later), but they don't, so it's not that much of an issue.

The tooltip issue

This is the biggest issue in my opinion. When you use the above pattern, a tooltip will appear containing the content of the title attribute when the user hovers the mouse over the text content. Like the screen reader issue, this is presenting machine data to the human user. Some technical users may understand "1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00", but the majority of BBC users will not.

The semantic issue

The HTML4 and XHTML2 specifications say the <abbr> element is for marking up an abbreviated form with the expanded form in the title attribute, and the <abbr> element should be used around each instance of the abbreviated form. The HTML4 specification says the content of the title attribute may be presented to the user, so you can conclude that the content is intended for humans.

On the other hand, the XHTML2 spec is vague, defining the title attribute as "meta-information about the element on which it is set". In XHTML2 land, the microformat use of <abbr> seems valid.

HTML5 defines <abbr> as an abbreviation or acronym, with an optional expansion via the title attribute. In my opinion, this is the best definition of <abbr>. Expansions should only be used when they're needed. So it would be used like this:

<p>I am 6<abbr title="foot">ft</abbr> tall and work for the BBC</p>

Here I have expanded 'ft', because I read it as 'foot', whereas I read 'BBC' as each letter individually. This is why I believe screen readers should read from the title attribute of <abbr> elements rather than their text content.

The BBC's decision

Because of the above issues, we changed our semantic markup standard, adding a rule that the title attribute MUST contain human readable data. This is why some microformats have started to disappear from BBC sites.

What are the alternatives?

RDFa is a possible alternative but BBC sites will require an exemption from our standards and guidelines before they can use them, because they don't validate as XHTML strict.

Microformats are an excellent way of adding additional semantic value to a page without compromising validation. However, we can't use them if they create usability or accessibility issues.

Alternatives to the datetime pattern have already been proposed which attempt to solve the current problems. Here's a quick overview of 3 proposals...

Empty elements with title:
<p>
  To be held on
  <span class="dtstart" title="1998-03-12T08:30:00-05:00"></span>
  12 March 1998 from 8:30am EST until
  <span class="dtend" title="1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00"></span>
  9:30am EST
</p>

Here, empty elements are used to create key-value pairs using class and title. Screen readers ignore the empty element and the hover area for the tooltip is zero-width so it won't appear to the user in normal circumstances. For microformat parsers, there's little change from the current implementation, as most (if not all) do not require an <abbr> element.

However, it has the same semantic issues with title as the current standard has, and should an empty element even have a title?

It's also been raised that some CMS / tidying systems have issues with empty elements, making them self-closing or removing them completely.

Data in the class attribute:
<p>
  To be held on
  <span class="dtstart data-1998-03-12T08:30:00-05:00">
    12 March 1998 from 8:30am EST
  </span>
  until
  <span class="dtend data-1998-03-12T09:30:00-05:00">
    9:30am EST
  </span>
</p>

Here, the machine data is moved into the class attribute. The content of the class attribute is never presented as human readable data and the spec proposes using it "For general purpose processing by user agents". The developer is free to use whatever element is semantically best. Microformat parsers would have to find the element with the identifying class, such as 'dtstart', then look in the same attribute for the data class beginning 'data-'. Elements could have many identifying classes, but only one data class.

However, despite the "general purpose" definition of the class attribute, it's an unusual use of the attribute and not in line with the object-oriented concept of 'class'. Also, a principle of microformats is to keep data visible to humans, whereas this proposal intentionally hides data in the class attribute.

Here's a link to furtherdiscussion of the data class proposal

Date and time separation using value excerption
<p>
  To be held on
  <span class="dtstart dtend">
    <abbr class="value" title="1998-03-12">
      12 March 1998
    </abbr>
  </span>
  from
  <span class="dtstart">
    <abbr class="value" title="08:30">
      8:30am
    </abbr>
    <abbr class="value" title="-0500">
      EST
    </abbr>
  </span>
  until
  <span class="dtend">
    <abbr class="value" title="09:30">
      9:30am
    </abbr>
    <abbr class="value" title="-0500">
      EST
    </abbr>
  </span>
</p>

Here, the time information is split up into separate parts. The <abbr> element and title attribute are used to provide the machine alternative to individual date parts. The machine data is still displayed to user via a tooltip and potentially read by a screen reader, but splitting it up makes it feel more human (and keeps the data visible). A single span can represent both the start and end times, ideal for situations like the above where the start date is only mentioned once, as it is also the end date. Parsers would have to collect all the elements with an identifying class such as 'dtstart', then gather all the <abbr> elements within with class 'value'. The parser would recognise the string patterns in the title attributes (as they are not in a particular order) and construct a full date from them.

However, this pattern seems complicated for both implementors and parsers, involves more elements and can require multiple 'dtstart' and 'dtend' classes, as in the example above. The semantic issues around <abbr> and title remain, as does the possibility of screen readers reading the machine value rather than the human value. Tooltips would still be presented to the user, which may be unwanted and potentially confusing. Non-technical users may not be used to seeing dates year first, or timezones represented in that way.

Here's a link to furtherdiscussion of the separation proposal

Where now?

It's clear that none of the proposals are ideal, and as usual semantics play a big part in the debates between them. The microformats community need to come up with a solution that solves the issues with the current pattern and doesn't create any new ones. Once they do that, microformats such as hCalendar (in their new form) will begin to reappear on BBC sites.

Jake Archibald is a Senior CSD in BBC Future Media & Technology

"Learning To Talk": Ask A Question

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 12:10 UK time, Thursday, 3 July 2008

Are blogs like this one a useful way of newspapers and media companies reaching out to readers, viewers and users and becoming more accountable?

Or are they yet more meaningless electronic chit-chat, or worse still corporate spin?

Those are hopefully some of the questions we will be debating at a panel discussion called:

learning_to_talk.jpg

"Learning To Talk: Blogs, Media and Accountabilty"

Dates, venue etc: 5.30 on the Monday 14th July in the Council Chamber in Broadcasting House, Portand Place, London.

On the panel will be Paula Carter (Viewers' editor, Channel 4), Siobhain Butterworth (Readers' editor, The Guardian), Steve Herrmann, (editor, BBC News Online) and me.

Asking the questions (breaking technology stories permitting) will be Rory Cellan Jones (Technology Correspondent, BBC News).

This is a public event but by invitation only. So if you want to come make a request on the Facebook event page, indicate your interest on the Upcoming page or leave a comment and I'll get in touch with you.

If you'd like to ask the panel a question please do leave a comment on this post.

To kick things off I thought this column by Siobhain raised an interesting question which was relevant to blog. Siobhain says she "struggles with" the practice of comment columns by politicians in newspapers sometimes being ghost written.

What about blog posts? Are there any circumstances when a blog post can be ghost written?

If have any other questions for the panel please do leave a comment.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet blog

BBC iPlayer Website Redesign

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Ben Hanbury | 16:00 UK time, Wednesday, 2 July 2008

There were two main challenges in redesigning the new version of BBC iPlayer:

  • improving on the already very popular, easy-to-use existing site
  • and to fully integrate the long-standing Radio Player in a way that was seamless and consistent, giving the user a "one stop shop" to a huge amount of on-demand BBC television and radio content.

A major part of the initial design brief was to offer, where relevant, radio programmes alongside television programmes. This was perhaps quite a controversial decision, as there aren't very many places on the rest of the web where this happens; however, we really wanted to offer both media so that a user interested in, say, history will be able to find the BBC's radio and tv output of an historical bent.

To start the process, we did a lot of brainstorming, creating user personas and mood boards and looking at equivalent non-BBC sites to find out which features make it easier for a user to find what that they want right away and for us to facilitate the discovery of new programmes.

For the visual design, we decided to continue the black, image-rich look, for several reasons.

  • it helps iPlayer to stand out from most other on-demand sites such as YouTube, Hulu, and itv.com which follow the more traditional white-background webby route
  • it seems to give the site a more cinematic, exciting and entertaining feel
  • part of the brief was to keep the look of the site very much based around media playback - this should be particularly evident in the playback page, where the embedded media player takes centre stage and all information which isn't directly to do with playing or finding new content is hidden.

playbackpage.jpg

In terms of the interaction design, we wanted users to quickly and easily find a specific programme. Our solution was to add in proper list and schedule views and to group together multiple episodes of a programme, to avoid having to wade through 15 episodes of Chucklevision before finding Dragons' Den (or vice versa)!

Where a user isn't looking for any specific programme and just wants to find something entertaining to watch or listen to for the next 30 minutes, we developed the carousel feature which appears throughout the site, featuring big images and simple navigation to casually "flick" through a range of programmes.

carousel.jpg

We also wanted iPlayer to become something people use more regularly, out of habit, on a day-to-day basis, so we added features like "Last Played" (which allows users to play programmes from where they left off) and telling the user ahead of time what's going to be available.

We were also keen to bring in the "widget" concept that's used at the new bbc.co.uk homepage to provide other ways of finding content. In future iterations, this is likely to be developed further to allow for a more personalised experience.

widgets.jpg

The final point in our design brief was to bring iPlayer more in keeping with bbc.co.uk as a whole. This involves bringing in the BBC header and footer which the previous site lacked, and using the new global visual language which is currently being implemented throughout bbc.co.uk. The global visual language is a set of guidelines which aim to bring more consistency to the site by introducing an underlying design grid and consistent design patterns, icons, buttons, image sizes and a pan-BBC audio/video player.

As a way of constantly reviewing our work, we also carried out several rounds of usability testing which had a big effect on the site design (particularly around the navigation).

We also conducted a qualitative focus group session of existing users of the iPlayer and Radio Player to gauge their "emotional response" to the new site. There is more quantitative research in the pipeline with a survey of 1,000 users - results are due in at the end of this month.

We're really pleased with the result and will be doing lots of iterations and refinements in the coming months. We're also currently working on implementing this new visual language throughout other iPlayer products across all platforms and devices, so whether you're streaming radio or downloading TV on your Wii, a television, or a mobile, it will feel like one familiar, consistent experience.

Your feedback is an essential part of this, so please do leave a comment.

Ben Hanbury is an Interaction Designer, BBC Future Media & Technology.

BBC LiveUpdate

Post categories:

John O' Donovan | 08:57 UK time, Wednesday, 2 July 2008

It seems you can't move for widgets down on the BBC farm these days. You certainly can't have a product without one.

But it's not right, the way they are treated. Packed into websites and often given no sustenance other than poor quality, recycled feeds, they suffer a cramped existence and don't have the freedom to develop.

So we decided to start setting some of them free to roam the desktop.

A free range widget

mini_motty.pngAs with all good ones, this idea is not new. We have had a desktop ticker and similar products like Mini Motty for some time; they're quite successful with hundreds of thousands of users. But there are some issues with the way they work.

Firstly, they only work on Windows and are built out of a variety of proprietary tools. We'd like these to work cross-platform but we need to build them differently to do so. They are also difficult to manage and expensive to maintain.

We considered a few approaches, but decided to grow our new widget out of Adobe Flex and Adobe AIR. This is firstly because these tools met our requirements to work cross-platform and deliver the desktop experience we wanted, and also because they linked up with in-house skills in the team which manages them, making them simpler to manage.

air_ticker01.png

So here's the first of a number of desktop widgets the BBC will be releasing over the coming months. It's an example of how we could develop our current ticker. It's a beta product, so it will have some issues and it is also not fully accessible, but we'd like your thoughts and comments on how it works, what you like about it compared to our current ticker and what doesn't work so well.

You will need Adobe AIR to install and run the application. If this is not installed automatically, you can download Adobe AIR from here.

And what does it do?

Well, it runs as a desktop application in a similar way to the ticker showing the latest stories and also updating you if there is breaking news. It updates stories about once a minute and should be fairly low bandwidth, as it caches data downloaded. You can take it offline and - unlike the current ticker - it also contains images and summaries of stories.

air_ticker02.png

You can have it running as a small application showing stories listed from News and Sport, or you can minimise so it just shows as a ticker, scrolling current stories.

You can open up the preferences to select which feeds you get and you can click the full story links to go to the website.

air_ticker03.png

You will see a BBC icon in your toolbar when the application is running and you can turn the application off from here. The first time it runs you will see the preferences window which allows you to configure the way the application works.

air_ticker04.png

And that's about it.

Installation and feedback

You can download the application here [NB Editor's Note 3.03pm: If downloading via Internet Explorer, you'll need to change the file extension from .zip to .air]• (Editor's note 12.52 Thursday - you may also find this download useful if you're a Linux user)

N.B. Editors' note 19th May 2009 - this application is no longer a live prototype, so I have removed the link to download it.

Send us your comments below or through the Backstage list.

Before you do, though, here are some of the known issues, caveats, disclaimers and apologies:

  • Scroll arrows are missing on scrollbar
  • Can be slow to startup the first time: try clicking the News or Sport Tabs
  • Accessibility support is not fully developed.

In terms of the last, we do take accessibility very seriously and would like to give some more detail on how this applies to this beta:

Accessibility issues

BBC Future Media & Technology's pilot widget application BBC LiveUpdate uses the Adobe AIR runtime, which is dependent on users downloading and installing a plugin to their desktop, but which unfortunately does not currently support screenreaders (or other software which relies on the Microsoft Active Accessibility layer for assistive technologies).

We're working with Adobe to make tools built with AIR more accessible than current products wherever possible and are committed to delivering accessible services.

As this is a beta product, there are also other limitations in how much we have been able to establish accessibility support in the following areas:

  • Colour contrast cannot be altered
  • Text size cannot be altered
  • Lacks consistent alt text
  • Lacks Title attributes
  • Is not entirely tabbable.

We are sorry if you are unable to use this BBC LiveUpdate widget fully - but the content within the BBC LiveUpdate desktop application is available through existing BBC services on bbc.co.uk.

If you would like to share your views with the BBC about accessibility and the BBC LiveUpdate widget, please do not hesitate to email the BBC Usability and Accessibility Team.

John O'Donovan is Chief Architect, BBC FM&T Journalism.

Editors' note: A tad more on accessibility in this statement from Adobe: Adobe has a long history of its commitment to accessibility and Adobe AIR 1.0 currently provides support for developers to create applications that are accessible to users with special needs. AIR applications presently support many users with disabilities, such as users who are unable to use a mouse or who rely on textual equivalents for audio. AIR applications incorporate Adobe Flash, PDF, and HTML content, and Adobe support for assistive technologies for both Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader ensures that developers are able to deliver accessible experiences in the individual players. Adobe is continually reviewing with customers how to improve access to applications deployed on Adobe AIR for users with disabilities, in order to ensure that future versions of Adobe AIR support accessible experiences and meet emerging global accessibility standards.

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