Archives for January 2010

Round up Friday 29 January 2010: "Backstage blog is Back!"

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy | 17:20 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

With due apologies to the Backstreet Boys the Internet blog would like to extend a warm welcome back into the fold to the BBC Backstage blog. With a full archive of posts in its new look and tireless updating from Ian it's an inspiration and a great resource.


dig_rev_300_neu.jpgThe long anticipated BBC Two documentary about the web Virtual Revolution starts this Saturday night at 8.30pm (and on iPlayer after that). For those of you who've been following the release of rushes and interviews that the team have publishing as they go along it's a chance to see and compare the edited results. And for those of you going 'Hold on I thought it was called "Digital Revolution"?!' that was only ever going to be a working title.


There's an entertaining interview by Information Age (typical quote: "One of the core principles of the strategy is 'frictionless technology'. Can you define what this means?" with the BBC's CTO John Linwood (typical quote: "If I ask my wife is she uses interactive services or web-based services on her iPhone, she would say no. But if I ask her if she uses the weather function, she would say yes, absolutely.").

If that's not enough for you there's a post on the Internet blog with a PDF of the BBC Technology Strategy document. Happy reading.


If this is something that appeals to you:

Last year, we got OpenLink and Talis to crawl BBC Programmes and provide two SPARQL end-points on top of the aggregated data. However, getting the data by crawling it means that the end-points did not have all the data, and that the data can get quite outdated -- especially as our programme data changes a lot.
Then you should have a look at the post Live SPARQL end-point for BBC Programmes on the DBTune blog.

And finally as they say on TV, the Open Post is still open so you can tell us what areas you'd like us to cover on the blog. We've been looking at your comments and questions to date and will start responding on Monday.

Paul Murphy is the Editor of the Internet blog.

Illustrating the Six Nations - suggestions please

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Ashley Stewart-Noble Ashley Stewart-Noble | 16:22 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

It's Six Nations time again and my team are preparing a series of images to illustrate the matches for when they appear on BBC iPlayer. For the past two years we have used composites of painted faces (see the example below) but this year we want to try something different. We have a few ideas but nothing stellar, so I'm opening it up to suggestions from you* which you can post in the comments.
* We don't want specific players - these images go up before any given match and we can't guarantee that the player we use will be in the game.

Ashley Stewart-Noble is Senior Content Producer, BBC Homepage and BBC iPlayer, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Open Post 27 January 2010

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy | 22:00 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Less Stick, more carrotI'd like to invite your comments and questions on the work of the Internet blog and the topics and areas that we cover. We've run Open Posts before and they've always been interesting. It's an opportunity for you to help steer the direction of the blog with your suggestions and ideas.

Nick answered the question "What is an Open Post?" very succinctly in a previous post so I've lifted his words:

This post is for comments and questions about anything to do with BBC Online, BBC iPlayer, BBC HD, and the BBC's digital and mobile services.
But as it's an open post you can leave a comment about whatever you like.
I can't guarantee that every single comment or question will get a response. But I'll try.

There's already a post about BBC HD Picture: BBC HD Picture Quality: some myths laid to rest and I'd like to keep related comments there. Similarly there's some lively stuff on Graham Plumb's post on Freeview HD content management and comments on this topic should go there.

Paul Murphy is the Editor of the Internet blog. The picture is of a post-it note in Internet blog Towers from bring a slogan to work day.

The R&D Mobile Team goes to CES

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy | 16:29 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Ed's note: On the Research and Development blog there's a new post from Steve Jolly on the R&D Mobile Team's trip to CES. One of the things that the team wanted to demonstrate was: "that Femtocells are a completely viable way of delivering streaming video from a home network to multiple phones simultaneously." On the Internet blog Jerry Kramskoy has previously written about the use of Femtocells in home networks which you may also find interesting. (PM)

"One of the ways a small research team like those at BBC R&D can try and influence a large industry cost-effectively is to take a prototype - or even a simple proof-of-concept demo - to a conference, trade show or other industry gathering. If you can get the right people excited about your vision of the future, that vision is far more likely to come about. That's exactly what my colleague Jerry Kramskoy had the opportunity to do at CES this year. We were invited (and subsidised) by UK Trade & Investment's Digital Communications Knowledge Transfer Network to give a demonstration on their stand."

Read the rest of The R&D Mobile Team goes to CES on the R&D blog.

BBC Technology Principles

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Spencer Piggott | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

I'm Spencer Piggott Head of Technology Direction. I work in a department within BBC Future Media & Technology called Broadcast & Enterprise Technology Group (B&ETG).

B&ETG is responsible for the technology backbone of the organisation, from desktop PCs and tapeless production to camera procurement and much, much more.

Today we have published a new document (see PDF below) which will outline the direction for technology activities within the corporation for the next two to five years.

The world has changed and technology is increasingly at the fore of everything the corporation does. There has been a fundamental shift in the pace of change of both business (think cloud computing) and consumer technologies (iPhone/notebooks); alongside this of course there has been a massive change in audience behaviour in line with these developments.

The fact is we can't rest on our laurels; this new direction is a response to these internal and external demands on the BBC. The shift to fully tapeless content production, file based transfer for media and the production and delivery of High Definition all put greater pressure and emphasis on technology. With growing demand we can see that we need to make efficient considered investments now to build an agile platform for the BBC's technology activities over the coming years.

What's also been interesting is that we've been seeing convergence between our traditional enterprise technologies such as backend office and business systems and the new media solutions. For example the success of BBC iPlayer has meant the systems it's built on have needed to become much more robust and adopt the scalability and reliability principles of the business enterprise solutions. Conversely, the back office solutions have needed to become more open and modular as they are now playing an increasingly important role in providing data for some of the BBC's audience facing services.

These different drivers have culminated into an approach which focuses on four key areas which are:

The core building blocks - Ensuring the BBC has sustainable networking, telephony, storage and other core services which are needed to support the growing demand across the BBC.

Being connected and collaborative - Breaking down the technology barriers to allow our partners to easily work with the BBC and support for flexible and remote working.

Fostering Innovation - Embracing the growing capabilities of consumer devices for professional use and ensuring that innovative technology is able to be developed and grown within the BBC.

Delivering Value - Minimising customisation across technology, driving standardisation and use of commercial off the shelf products as much as possible.

These focus areas are underpinned by a set of principles which will guide technology decisions in the BBC from now on and represent the first step to developing a fully detailed approach for the BBC. For example some of the key principles describe the need to drive standardisation of technology so that it simplifies our ways of working and also on the ability to use appropriate consumer technologies in the workplace.

Over the coming weeks we're developing a set of individual technology roadmaps which will respond to these focus areas. These will outline specific goals and approaches for all aspects of technology from networks, storage and core infrastructure to IPTV, mobile and other audience facing technology.

I'll keep adding to this blog over the coming weeks with more detail as it comes in. In the meantime, take a look at the PDF document below.

The BBC has an obligation to make sure it stays in touch with the growing demands of the licence payer. At the end of the day the BBC is here to inform, educate and entertain and technology is playing a more and more important role in maintaining this purpose.

Spencer Piggott is Head of Technology Direction, B&EGT, BBC FM&T

  • Download the BBC Technology Strategy document (PDF): TechnologyStrategyPublicMaster250110.pdf (Ed's note: This is an updated version of the document to correct a typo. No other changes have been made. PM)

CES and the Blue Room

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Roland Allen | 09:52 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

It's been a while since I blogged about the BBC Blue Room, amongst other things we've been busy at our annual visit to CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas from which we Twittered and Tubed, more of which below...

A bit of background for those who haven't heard about the Blue Room - basically it's a room in the Broadcast Centre here in London and it's blue. But it is also a concept, a "media lab" facility lovingly developed and managed by my colleagues Trevor Robinson and Richard Robbins. It also regularly gets packed into a van and taken around the country to other BBC sites so to share the benefit amongst as many people as possible.

Our mission relates directly to the BBC's 6th Public Purpose: "BBC viewers, listeners and users can expect the BBC to help everyone in the UK to get the best out of emerging media technologies now and in the future". The Blue Room exists to assist our colleagues in delivering this by ensuring they have an awareness of how the world of consumer technology is changing the way that we all consume media.

"But", I hear you ask: "surely BBC staff should all be wise to this sort of thing?"

To some extent yes. However like most organisations we comprise staff with a wide range of vocations such as Programme Makers, Designers, Lawyers as well as Technologists to name but a few and whilst I count myself lucky to work with some of the best and brightest it takes quite a degree of focus to keep fully across the rapid pace of development in the consumer technology arena, hence the role of the Blue Room.

So, back to CES.

Now that the dust has settled on this year's event what should we be choosing to highlight in the Blue Room as a result?

Well 3D TV was one of the predominant themes and a lot of my colleagues are keen to understand more about it. Our plan then is to expand our displays of Anaglyph and Polarising systems to include Shuttered and Autostereoscopic systems, subject to these being available in the UK; inevitably there is always a time delay between what is on show at CES and when it appears on the UK market. We will also be looking at some of the boxes we saw that performed real-time conversion to 3D and perhaps Panasonic's "end-to-end" 3D with their integrated 3D HD Camcorder.

Multi-touch technology was another growth area at this year's CES - indeed I spotted several people pawing at various displays on the assumption that they were multi-touch capable, such is the expectation. We already have a Microsoft Surface (much in evidence at CES and not only on the Microsoft stand) but will be looking to augment this with other display devices, possibly from Asus or Samsung.

TV Remote Controllers have come alive this year with multi-touch devices with integral screens on offer from Slingmedia and Samsung (see picture above),and a Wii type pointer from LG. (I can just picture your kids saying: "Ooh! A tiny telly!" and wandering off with it to their bedrooms...)


Above: A Parrot AR.Drone - iPhone-controlled helicopter with built-in cam that streams video output to said iPhone - from the Blue Room's photos on Ping FM

The eReader market seems to be really taking off, highlighted in some part by the number of rather cheap and unimpressive devices on show. The media industry in general is becoming quite excited by the prospect of sending content wirelessly to these devices and we hope to have some example from the higher end of the market on display, including the Barnes & Noble Nook and perhaps later in the year the Plastic Logic Que.

Other exhibits we hope to get our hands on include the Asus Eee Keyboard PC, various Pico projectors, the Light Blue Optics Light Touch, D-Link Boxee box, Panasonic and LG TVs with Skype and maybe even something new from Apple...

I hope to update you in due course as to our impressions of these devices in use and how we think they will affect what we do, in the meantime we continue to Tweet...

Roland Allen is Head of Technology Liason, BBC Future Media & Technology

N.B. More videos from Vegas are available on the Blue Room's You Tube channel

Freeview HD content management

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Graham Plumb Graham Plumb | 10:25 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

Ofcom has this week published its formal consultation considering the implications of the proposed new Freeview HD content management system. This will attract further dialogue from those who take the view that introducing any form of content management represents an unacceptable restriction on consumers' rights.

So I thought it might be helpful to summarise why the BBC and other broadcasters care about this issue and why we believe consumers will benefit from a stronger Freeview HD platform supported by an appropriate content management system.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), copy protection or content management is never going to be something that we would expect viewers to react to initially with the view "that sounds like a really great idea". The issues are really quite complex and the benefits not immediately obvious (the primary benefit being that the use of such technologies gives access to a wider and more attractive range of HD content). People understandably want to be able to enjoy media in ways which suit them. They don't like the idea that the owner of that media may want to limit the way they can use that content or have some say on whether it can be shared over the internet.

Digital technology has made the copying and internet distribution of broadcast content much cheaper and easier than was ever possible in the analogue domain. For example, it is now possible to buy a box for less than £100 which will record over a hundred of hours of standard definition television. Locating this content is also much easier and, increasingly, fast network connections make it possible (although sometimes unapproved) to freely download or upload broadcast video content.

Programme producers - i.e. the people who make the content, the performers, musicians, writers, etc. - are understandably worried that digital technology makes it trivially easy to access and distribute their work - often without any payment. This situation presents real problems for them. Good quality television programmes are expensive to make and, even where producers are well paid by the broadcaster who commissions their programmes, they are often dependent on sales of this content in secondary markets (DVD and Blu-ray sales, repeat showings on other channels, and overseas sales) to cover the costs of production (and hopefully make a profit).

Broadcasters are not immune to these concerns either. Yes, the licence fee (for the BBC) and advertising (for other broadcasters with public service obligations) pays for most public service television in the UK, but all broadcasters benefit from the income they obtain from secondary sales of the content they produce 'in-house' (or which they 'co-fund'). Consumers also stand to lose as, without this income, the range and quality of the content available (on free-to-air channels) would inevitably suffer.

Broadcasters could have tried to take a 'heavy-handed' approach to this problem. They could have argued to encrypt all programmes broadcast in a digital format, they could have only distributed services on those platforms which provide extensive controls on the ability to record and distribute content, and they could even have tried to restrict the ability of consumers to watch personal recordings multiple times (other than for legally permissible purposes such as study or reporting). In short, broadcasters could have tried to implement a full DRM system for both standard and high definition content. However, and just to be clear, we have absolutely no intention of doing this.

Instead, and in the specific case of the new Freeview HD platform, broadcasters have looked at the content management controls which exist on all other broadcast HD platforms in the UK. Currently all of these other platforms limit the copying and distribution of HD content in one way or another. However, broadcasters have also looked forward, to make sure that the proposed system allows for things like: the networking of media recorders, displays and servers within consumers' own homes and the transfer of HD content from domestic recorders to personal HD media players.

Overall, we believe the proposed system takes a highly pragmatic approach to content management - which offers consumers more flexibility to view and use content than is available on any other UK platform whilst at the same time protecting the legitimate concerns of rights holders.

The key features of this system are:

  • all video and audio content is broadcast unencrypted;
  • content management only applies to HD recordings (there is no impact on standard definition recording or on existing Freeview recorders);
  • time-shifted viewing of recorded HD content is always possible;
  • at least one 'archive' HD copy on a removable device is always allowed;
  • networked distribution and viewing of HD content in the home is allowed; and
  • the system doesn't even prevent the uploading of standard definition copies of HD content to the internet (although it should be noted that for most content and most applications this may not be permissible under UK copyright law).

Indeed, the proposed Freeview HD content management approach is so 'light-touch' that some have argued that it is not worth having. But, this misses a key point - almost any copy protection system can be circumvented (if you put enough effort into it) - and that it is never going to be possible to prevent the determined pirate from lifting content. However, it is still really important to make sure that the unapproved copying and internet distribution of high value broadcast content doesn't become so easy that people don't think twice about doing it.

The proposed system is designed to make sure that the vast majority of consumers (those who buy and use standard products without modification) can watch, record and move Freeview HD programmes between their own devices without ever knowing there is any content management present (like most people don't even know that content on DVDs is encrypted). At the same time, it provides just enough protection to prevent the casual and incremental erosion of the value of HD broadcast content.

We expect the consultation will attract a lot of interest, particularly from those who believe that any form of content management is philosophically a bad thing, and also from the Open Source community who may still fear that this will be more restrictive than it will actually turn out to be for them. And I completely understand that point of view; I just hope that these communities can understand our position too; that we want to deliver the service which enables more viewers across the UK to enjoy high definition content as soon as possible.

We welcome all further input to Ofcom on this matter and hope that any responses can be informed by the significant additional detail provided in our response to Ofcom's letter that initiated the consultation, and to the consultation itself.

It is now up to Ofcom to decide if the system gets the balance right between protecting the interests of consumers and the interests of broadcast rights holders.

Graham Plumb is Head of Distribution Technology, BBC.

A brief technical overview of the BBC personalised mobile homepage

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Mark Longstaff-Tyrrell | 16:45 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Most people I know are never more than a few feet away from their mobiles. They provide access to email, text and internet, including social networking sites. They're fashion accessories. They're becoming increasingly personal pieces of equipment and in the same way that junk mail landing on your doormat feels intrusive, so it is with mobile websites cluttering up your screen with unwanted content.

When it was released in April last year, the BBC personalised mobile homepage aimed to address this by allowing many aspects of the page to be personalised.

This post aims to explain some of the technologies we've developed to generate personalised mobile pages that we hope provide you with the best experience, regardless of the make and model of your device.

Rendering pages for different devices

The appearance of the mobile homepage changes depending on the device you use to view it. If you browse the mobile homepage using a touchscreen device such as an Android or iPhone, you'll be presented with larger text and images to make it easier to navigate with your finger.

Non-touchscreen phones that use a trackball or buttons to navigate will present a more compact page. In addition, links to mobile iPlayer and other multimedia content is selectively displayed based on the phone capabilities and whether it's connecting over WiFi or 3G.

In order to do this, the page content is defined using a device-independent XML representation. Each tag in the device-independent XML is then translated into a fragment of XHTML appropriate to the capabilities of the client handset. These XHTML fragments make up a library of common components, such as links, headings and list items. This approach means that the look of the site is maintained throughout and also that the entire design can be updated by simply changing the templates.

Here's an example. The following XML describes the Radio & Music topic:

<header editable="true" text="Radio &amp; Music" url="/mobile/radio/"/> <now_on_air title="NOW ON AIR"/> <list style="plainList"> <channel_list-item channel_url="/mobile/radio/radio1/index2.shtml?region=london" channel_name="Radio 1" brand_url="b00pjl2g" brand_name="Greg James"/> </list> <list style="boldList"> <list-item text="More stations and schedules" url="/mobile /customise/11"/> </list> <list style="audioList"> <list-item demi="15" text="Podcasts" url="/mobile/radio/podcasts/index.shtml"/> </list>

The XML above renders like this on an iPhone:


And like this on a Nokia 6331:


On the 6331 version the text and image sizes are reduced to account for the smaller screen and the podcast link is hidden.

Here's a simplified diagram of the flow during a mobile page request:


Page personalisation

Successfully navigating over 60 regional news areas, 17 sports categories, 181 football teams, 18 news topics, 9 radio stations and 6 TV channels on a mobile device requires some organisation. To this end many of the topics on the mobile home page can be personalised to show only the information you're interested in. When you personalise your page the personalisation settings are stored in a cookie on your device. Due to the number of personalisation combinations available a cookie format had to be designed to store these settings efficiently to reduce the storage space consumed on the device, while being flexible enough to allow future development.

In the end we settled on the format shown below:


Each of these fragments represents a topic on the homepage and its personalisation settings. The position of the fragment in the cookie determines the order in which the topics appear in the page.

Topics that can be personalised contain extra information in their fragment that represents the personalisation state of the topic. For example, the fragment '10__CD' describes the 'Television' topic and can be split into three fields: '10', '__' and 'CD'. The '10' is the topic ID, the next two characters are used to store the TV region as a 2 digit base 42 (b42) number and the rest of the fragment stores the selected TV channels. In this case the channels are 'CD' which correspond to BBC1 and BBC2. Adding BBC3 to the page changes the fragment to '10__CDF'. Both the channels and the order in which they will appear in the topic are stored. The formats of the other topics vary depending on the information to be stored and are outlined briefly below. We don't use vowels in the configuration cookies to avoid spelling unfortunate four letter words. With this many combinations they're bound to occur.

The topic IDs and their personalisation encodings are as follows:

1 Promo - none
3 News - 2 character b42 region + n character feed list
4 Weather - 3 character b42 region + 1 character b42 display format
8 Sport - 2 character b42 region + n character feed list
9 Entertainment - none
10 Television - 2 character b42 region + n character feed list
11 Radio & Music - 2 character b42 region + n character feed list
12 iPlayer - none
14 Featured Sites - none
15 Search - none
16 MyClub - 4 character club ID + 2 character b42 display format

The characters used for the base 42 encoding are:


If you're so inclined, you can play about with the configuration format to see how it works. Paste the following URL into your desktop browser, edit the configuration and see what happens.

You'll notice that you can't remove the promo or search topic. These are now permanently part of the page but still appear in the personalisation settings. They'll be removed in the future.

Scaling personalised applications

The system described so far has all the functionality required, but in order to cope with the high load demanded caching must be used to reduce the load on the servers. 'Caching' is the process of storing in memory a piece of data that takes time to be rendered or downloaded so that next time you need it you can simply look it up.

Non-personalised pages are relatively simple to cache as each user sees the same page. But personalised pages, where each user has a personal view on to a page, requires a little more thought; a user in Manchester doesn't want to see the weather for a user in Birmingham.

The problem we have is that the number of combinations of personalised pages is huge. The order of topics in the page alone gives us over 300,000 combinations. So what we've done is to cache the individual page topics separately, rather than the complete pages. When a client request is received for a particular topic order, the topics are simply retrieved from the cache in that order and concatenated to form the complete page. This immediately reduces the potential amount of data to be cached by a few orders of magnitude, but there's still the problem of the topic content.

For example the news component has over a million combinations and that's before all the regional news feeds have been factored in. We can't cache them all. Luckily there are a couple of things on our side:

  1. Not all personalisation combinations are equally represented: It turns out that nearly 70% of all requests are for the same couple of dozen personalisation combinations. The last 30% is still a large number, but the majority of the load can be effectively managed by caching.
  2. We don't want to cache the components forever: Many topics contain dynamic data such as news stories that need to be updated periodically. Caching components for just a few seconds is enough to considerably reduce the number of requests per second while not filling up the server cache. Perhaps in the future we could exploit the observation in point 1 and employ a more intelligent caching system where the more popular configurations are cached for longer.


The mobile homepage is still under constant development and there are many aspects of the system that can be improved. Mobile development is still a relatively new discipline and presents its own unique problems. But it's by building novel systems that we develop the techniques to solve them, some of which may find uses beyond their original application.

I hope this has provided an insight into some of the work that we do here at BBC Mobile. With ever more powerful devices becoming available it's a very exciting field to be working in at the moment. I hope we can help to make it an exciting experience for you too.

Mark Longstaff-Tyrrell is a software engineer on the BBC mobile platform.

Science on BBC Online

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Seetha Kumar Seetha Kumar | 11:20 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

labuk_logo.gifHave you been tempted to check out Lab UK and take the Big Personality Test or join the Brain Test experiment? If you haven't come across it so far, you may want to have a look as this is where you can be part of groundbreaking scientific experiments. The results from these two tests will be revealed in Spring.

As the BBC today celebrates its ongoing commitment to science, this year Lab UK will be working with UCL and Stanford University to test whether the internet has changed the physiology of our brains. By working in partnership with leading external institutions we can help collate data that throws light on how technology may be changing the very way we think. Our hope is this will be the biggest ever study evaluating human behaviour in cyberspace. If this is the case, the results of this analysis should be very interesting indeed.

Today also sees the revamp of the BBC science portal.

Across the BBC, programme sites for Bang Goes The Theory and Nina and the Neurons are offering family and parents experiments and tests that they can try at home, with our new astronomy archive Planet Explorer coming up later this year. Planet Explorer is about the BBC at your fingertips, using a similar format to our successful nature portal Wildlife Finder, which Tom Scott wrote about last year.

Planet Explorer will feature more than 100 clips from 1969 through to 2010, of unforgettable moments including Sir Patrick Moore's first words on The Sky At Night through to footage of NASA's Apollo missions. It's about leveraging the power of BBC Online to offer genuine insights into the world we live in - by curating BBC content and complementing what exists on the internet about the Milky Way we will provide a very distinctive proposition. We hope to deliver many more projects on these lines over the coming year, and, as ever I would be interested in your thoughts.

Seetha Kumar is Controller BBC Online and the BBC's Online Access Champion.

Round up: Monday 18th January 2010

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 19:15 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Over at the Radio 4 blog, Controller Mark Damazer is getting quite excited about "A History of the World in 100 objects":

The website was only finished this weekend - truly - but has lots to offer and we really want you to upload your own objects that have global connections. Every object you upload will have a page accompanying it.

Last week's BBC iPlayer figures for November and December went down well with gamers (is this the right word?), including Gamer Syndrome.

The Telegraph tells us: "iPlayer to be reviewed by BBC Trust"

BBC Research and Development blog has another of its videos with Quentin Cooper this time called "Displays and Screens Part 1".

In part one of this film Quentin and Richard Salmon discuss the last of the old Cathode Ray Tube displays, and what the implications of this are in terms of the way that displays show colour.

While over on Web Developer Mat Hampson in a post called "A/B Testing" ruminates:

A little while ago I was talking to our interaction designer Pekka about a link we had in the masthead that was under-performing. We suspected it was the wording that wasn't working, and after thinking up a few possible options Pekka said it would be great to be able to "A-B test" some of them. This led to some blank gawping from me...

The Sunday Express ran a story yesterday with the headline "Is the BBC run by a bunch of Twitters?"

The story has now been removed from the Express' website but Steve Bowbrick took a picture of the paper version:


The Express story included these quotes:

The BBC Radio 2 site, which gathers messages, or "tweets", from presenters such as Chris Evans, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr, has no followers... The BBC Radio 5 Live site, run by presenter Victoria Derbyshire, has just two.

No Rock n Roll Fun discovered that this (and other things in the story) weren't quite right:

The Radio 2 site actually sends the odd Tweet from staff at Radio 2 about the programmes, but not by or from Chris Evans. Oh, and the "no followers"? 12,470 at time of writing... As this screengrab shows, Victoria is following just two people. But, erm, she's being followed by over three and a half thousand.

Malcolm Coles also had an opinion. Here's some reaction from people on Twitter.

Nick Reynolds is Social Media Executive, BBC Online

Haiti: Sourcing imagery

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Ashley Stewart-Noble Ashley Stewart-Noble | 17:18 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Judith Betrand, 10, being attended by a Dominican Red Cross volunteer in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince(Picture credit: Talia Frenkel/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

When finding imagery for iPlayer and our /programme pages, I look for newer, fresher and engaging sources. For the disaster in Haiti, as well as using our usual databases and suppliers, I contacted the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Society after seeing their photostream on Flickr.

After sifting through hundreds of harrowing images from the disaster, I was struck by the newer perspective in these images - they give us the view of the scene from the people on the ground, helping those directly affected. Their impact also makes sure that they stand out in among search results - which in turns drives users to The DEC Appeal programmes we are highlighting.

The image we have chosen for the World Tonight on Radio 4 is of Judith Betrand, 10, being attended by a Dominican Red Cross volunteer in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince.

Ashley Stewart-Noble is Senior Content Producer, BBC Homepage and BBC iPlayer, BBC Future Media & Technology.

BBC iPlayer: November and December 2009's stats

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy | 13:47 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

The stats packs for the BBC iPlayer for November and December 2009 are released today. Full of charts, graphs and tables including demographic information and the iPlayer Top 20 programmes there's something for everyone.

The accompanying press release pulls out some of the highlights:

  • BBC iPlayer breaks 100 million requests, with record numbers at the end of 2009
  • New Year's Day was the most popular day for people "iPlayer-ing" over Christmas
  • Terry Wogan's departure and battle for Christmas Number 1 helps BBC iPlayer to achieve record numbers of Radio requests
  • 1.3 million requests for David Tennant's final appearance as Doctor Who
  • One in eight requests for TV programmes now coming from a games console

Paul Murphy is the Editor of the BBC Internet blog.

E20 on Eastenders: your comments

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Seetha Kumar Seetha Kumar | 12:06 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

In comments on my E20 blog post Boilerplated asks,

'why are you still peddling the myth that 'old fogies' can't cope with computers?'

I agree with rexel: the BBC is not perpetuating the myth that older people can't cope with computers - we are trying to do the exact opposite.

True many parents and grandparents were using computers in the work-place before anyone thought about having "a computer in every home". And yes it's true - some younger people might not have access to a PC in their home.

We have a commitment to digital inclusion (it's actually part of the BBC's charter) and to reach audiences who do not have access to the internet. We point audiences to where they can get access to the internet and where to get help in developing their online skills.

We run a number of initiatives to this end and target all sections of the population not yet online, currently over 10 million adults. Just over half (54%) of those are aged 65 or over. And whilst it's true to say that not all young people have broadband access, the proportion who don't have access to broadband is much smaller in younger age groups (14% of 15 to 34 year olds). These age groups also have a higher tendency to connect to the internet via mobile phone.

Our research has shown that mentoring and help from friends and families is one of the most effective ways to help online adopters. They can make a real difference to developing online skills and boosting confidence for those new to computers and the internet and it's something I will be working on with Martha Lane Fox and Race Online

You can see an existing scheme run by UK Online Centres here.

Seetha Kumar is Controller BBC Online and the BBC's Online Access Champion.

BBC launches Enhanced Search

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Matthew McDonnell | 17:15 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Earlier this week we began a phased roll-out of our new site search. New features include:

  • A brand-new search which intelligently tailors the display to the specific query the user enters
  • The addition of featured content to search result pages
  • Improved links to non-BBC content
  • More accurate results through improved meta-data creation

Our aim in designing this new search experience has been to present search results in a way that makes sense of the huge variety of content available on It should be effortless to find a specific piece of content and enjoyable to explore everything that we have on a subject.

The richness and diversity of the BBC's internet content (News, Blogs, iPlayer, Weather, Sport, Recipes and so on) places demands on site search that are different from more focused websites and this led us to explore original solutions to enterprise search.

As you will see in this post, our solution is a major departure from traditional enterprise search designs. So, for the rest of this post, I'd like to give you some insight into how we reached our decision to make such a significant change to the way we deliver our search results.

As always we would love to hear your views on these changes.

The challenge of site search

Last year, Erik Huggers challenged our team to "deliver a step-change" in the quality of site search.

This was a daunting challenge, but as always the first thing to do was to define the problem. This meant analysing what users are searching for and which results they are clicking on.

To explain what we found, consider this list of the 50 most popular searches in December 2009.

The third column shows the click-through rate (%CTR) for each term, i.e. what percentage of people who searched for that term actually decided to click on a result. The higher the %CTR the more satisfied we believe users to be.


Notice that I have colour coded the different search terms. Green are searches where the user is looking for something specific: usually a part of the BBC website (iPlayer, the Weather website, Bitesize) or a named programme (EastEnders, Top Gear, Doctor Who). Red ones are searches where the user is looking for something about a topic - a particular person, a country or city, a subject or news event.

Look what happens when you average the %CTR for these two types of search:

Looking for something specific 83.86%
Looking for something about a topic 63.91%

As you can see when you want to get something specific, the BBC site search is pretty effective. But if you want to find things about a person, place, subject or event the experience is patchy.

So we began to re-develop site search to improve this type of search, which I call Topic Searches.

To start with we asked "why are Topic Searches less successful?" The answer is surely that the intentions of the person doing this type of search are less clear. When you search for merlin or top gear or travel news the intended results are easy to predict. But when you search for iran, what do you want? The latest news about Iran? Some background information on the country? A programme that's available on iPlayer?

What about searches for Delia Smith? Do you want to know when her next programme is being broadcast? Do you want to follow one of her recipes?

Results display: the problem with search result lists

We then looked at how the results were being presented and whether this was hindering users' understanding and therefore depressing the click through rate.
The traditional way to present search results is as a single list ordered by relevance to the search term. This has been our approach up until now. But it has never been great for topic searches. Here is what one interviewee said during some research we carried out:
"The search just throws everything at you, you would have to spend ages just looking through the pages to find what you need."

There are two big problems that make a single list approach very difficult:

  1. You need to understand what the user means to know what relevance scores to give to their results. Two searchers may want two different things but use the same search term - one user may search for swine flu looking for a description of the symptoms whereas another may use exactly the same search term but be interested in news about the latest outbreaks.

  2. Different types of content are relevant for different reasons. The most relevant news article is the most recent one (unless of course someone is looking for a specific article). Whereas for archive programmes or background articles date is much less important, the most relevant thing is the one "most about" the subject.

This means that when you try to produce a homogenised, "relevance ranked" list of results you need to add biases and boosts to different types of content to get the right results to the top of the list. With the diverse content on offer on, this is nearly impossible.

(It's worth noting that the major search engines have also been moving from a single list view to a more modular set of results over the last few years. Google for instance include modules of results from their verticals - News, Video, Blogs, Maps and now Tweets - blended into their Web results. Google's Marissa Mayer laid out their strategy in a post in 2007, Danny Sullivan has a great explanation too.)

So our solution rejects the single list approach and instead introduces "Smart Zones".

The New, Enhanced BBC Site Search: Smart Zones

This is a close-up taken from the results page I got when I searched the new system for David Cameron on Friday.


As you can see, the results are split up into sections or "zones" - in this case: News, iPlayer and Knowledge (the zone which holds background and in-depth content). The content in each zone is ordered in the most appropriate way - so that you see the latest News but the most relevant Knowledge items.

Of course zones are nothing new in search result pages but - this is the clever bit - these zones order themselves on the page depending on the search query, the matching content available and what we think users find most important. So every time you search you will see the best possible ordering of available results.

For example, compare the results above with a search for David Cameron I did on Sunday morning just after he had been interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show. You can see that the News and iPlayer zones have swapped places as the system has calculated that the interview is likely to be the most popular result.


When I searched for Ryan Giggs, the Sport zone appears in the results.


Searchers can see all zones or focus in on one particular zone. Here I have searched for Jonathan Ross and I have selected to expand the News zone to see more News content (note all the other zones are still available on the right of the screen reminding you that other relevant content is available).


Other Enhancements to Search: Highlighted Content

This is a search for George Orwell. As well as search results we also show profiles for certain people. In this case it is from the BBC History site.


Likewise, a search for India returns the BBC Country Profile and the latest weather forecast. (Note that no new content is being produced here, we are just finding new ways to draw attention to our best web pages). We will be working to increase the amount of highlighted BBC content over the coming months and highlighting the best content from other websites.


Other Enhancements to Search: Extra results from around the web

Here I have highlighted another zone that appears for most searches - Around the Web. This shows relevant content from other news providers. In the image below the search was for Simon Cowell.


Other Enhancements to Search: Extended query terms

Here is a close-up of a section of the results for a search for Prince Charles. Some journalists will refer to the Prince as Prince Charles, others as The Prince of Wales. Our system knows this and automatically includes synonyms of your search terms (as shown in the detail below).


Other Enhancements to Search: Better results through added content structure

One of the advantages that site searches have over internet web search engines is that we can influence the way content is produced to improve the quality of our search results. We have put a system in place that uses search to suggest the most relevant tags for BBC content. Content producers accept or reject these tags before they are committed to the system. The tags are then used to influence the results that are returned when you search the website.

Note this system is in its infancy so it will take some time before the improvements in result relevance are apparent for every search.

Other Enhancements to Search: Addressable search results

All search result pages have unique and persistent urls. This makes it very easy for people to link to everything that the BBC has about a topic. In time public APIs will allow other systems to request feeds of content about a topic.


Phased Roll-out

The roll-out will be phased. We'll be monitoring our metrics (usage, click-throughs etc) and the feedback we receive to tune the product during the deployment cycle.

At the moment only about 11,000 search terms will return the enhanced results detailed above.

Over the coming weeks more and more searches will return the enhancements until every search works in this way. There will be additional zones added into the results and we have a slate of new features that are in development.

We will also be using the technologies we have built here to produce exciting new applications. One of the objectives we are focusing on is how we can use these tools to make you aware that there is new content about things that are of interest to you as soon as it is published. Watch out for something special when the BBC Homepage re-launches in the very near future.

Matthew McDonnell is Head of Search, BBC.

BBC on blogs in Twitter

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 14:50 UK time, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

One of the jobs of this blog is to link to conversations about the BBC.

The BBC Internet blog's delicious account is one of the ways we do that. It's where we collect links to interesting content. The most recent of these are displayed on the right hand side of the blog under the heading "BBC on Blogs".

I noticed the other day that the delicious account has 30 people in its network. But the Internet blog's Twitter account (which is a feed of entries from the blog itself) has more than 1,800 followers.

on_blogs_300.pngI think the links in delicious deserve a wider audience. So as an experiment we've turned them into a separate Twitter feed called BBC_on_Blogs.

"BBC on blogs" is shorthand for "Conversations about BBC online, BBC iPlayer, the BBC's digital services and the technology that underpins them, including blogs, message boards and articles where you can comment".

If you can think of a better shorthand let me know.

Links are chosen by the editor of the blog (PM) and myself (NR). What criteria do we use?

1. Links are to conversations - places where people can comment. So articles where you can't comment are not included. So we would link to a Daily Mail story where you can comment but not to a Tumblr account or a "blog" where you can't comment or where comments are turned off.

If something is sufficiently interesting but you can't comment on it then we will include it in a round up.

Links are to conversations which are both supportive and critical of the BBC.

3. We don't link to content which is illegal or which breaches the BBC's agreements with third parties. For example we would link to a blog post which was critical of the BBC's approach to DRM, but we would not link to somewhere which gives you full details of how to remove DRM from BBC content.

4. We follow the BBC's editorial policies about linking. If content contains strong language but is still worth linking to, we'll make sure you are aware.

5. We make editorial judgements about quality and relevance. We're looking for new angles, insight, opinion, reaction and original thought.

6. We don't link to content which we know to be wildly inaccurate. However we do sometimes link to opinion or speculation especially if there have been useful follow up comments which correct inaccuracies (see this entry from my personal blog from 2008).

Paul and I discussed whether we should simply amalgamate our existing Twitter account with the delicious feed. In the end we decided they were two distinct things and should be separate.

Do you agree or would you rather have them mashed up together?

Let me know in a comment on this post.

Nick Reynolds is Social Media Executive, BBC Online

Update: BBC iPlayer on Freesat

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 13:18 UK time, Monday, 11 January 2010

homepage_freesat_600.jpgDecember 2009 saw the latest addition to the BBC iPlayer family, with the start of a beta evaluation period for Freesat devices.

This is the first time that we've delivered a service as complicated as BBC iPlayer onto a normal, household set top box or TV set, and we initially restricted the beta to a closed group of users.

Since then many Freesat users have been asking when they'll be able to try it for themselves, and as our testing has been going well we're making the beta product available more widely, and you're invited!

To take part, you'll need a Humax branded Freesat HD or Freesat+ set top box and a broadband connection of at least 1Mbps. You'll also need to connect your set top box to your broadband connection - visit Freesat's website for detailed instructions, which also contains a help video as well.

Once your box is connected, to access BBC iPlayer you just need to:

  • Tune into any BBC channel and press the red button

  • When the BBC Red Button homepage loads, type in the code 5483 and press OK. You'll see a message that says "Number not found" however don't worry about that.

After a few seconds, BBC iPlayer will appear on screen.

Whilst currently the Freesat version of BBC iPlayer is currently available on Humax set top boxes, it will become available to all Freesat HD set top boxes and Freesat HD TVs as soon as possible over the coming months - including all HD boxes and TVs with Freesat built in from launch. Please note the Freesat SD boxes won't work with BBC iPlayer at any point. In the meantime, if you have a different Freesat device to the Humax equipment then I'm afraid BBC iPlayer is not available.

During the beta period, we'll be working hard to make fixes and improvements and we'll continue to blog about our progress. Naturally we're interested in finding out about your experiences using the service - hopefully all good however if you have any problems, we'd also like to know as well. Just leave us a comment below.

Andrew Bowden is Senior Producer, TV Platforms team, BBC Future Media & Technology.

E20 on EastEnders

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Seetha Kumar Seetha Kumar | 19:35 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

e20_01_300.jpgThis evening EastEnders launches its spin off online drama E20. As soon as EastEnders finishes on BBC One, log on to the EastEnders website at and you'll find the first episode of E20 which features 4 young characters in a squat in Albert Square. You'll see some regular cast members from EastEnders in E20 too. If you're a regular watcher of EastEnders you will have spotted some of them already!

Younger audiences who have grown up with the internet and technology will be familiar with logging onto a site and watching programmes online. It's intrinsic to their lives. However, some older audiences might not be.

I know John Yorke, Controller of Drama Production and New Talent genuinely hopes that people who don't normally use the internet will, because of this perhaps get the net, see it and discover a whole new world for themselves.

Part of EastEnders 25th Anniversary celebrations, and predominantly aimed at a younger audience, the 12 part series, was innovatively conceived as a way of nurturing new talent - a potential training ground for new talent in acting, writing, and remixing music etc. The writers are aged 17-22 years.

e20_02_300.jpgYou can see how they got on, and see interviews with cast members, amongst others the director and producer about elements of getting the series made in our behind the scenes guide. You can see 4 short films about the idea, the casting and scripting process, the shoot and all the finishing touches. It's called EastEnders: E20 - The Making of an Online Drama.

For producer Deborah Sathe, E20 is also an opportunity for young people to show the older generations in their family how modern technology works. So if you have a friend or family member who is a huge EastEnders fan but might need some help watching E20, please give them a hand. Once they've watched the programmes, they may just be inspired to explore the internet further. They can find all sorts of useful learning material on the BBC Media Literacy website.

Seetha Kumar is the Controller of BBC Online.

BBC Homepage: Rage versus X Factor

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James Price | 15:50 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

Rage v X Factor homepage promoThere are moments the nation comes together and it can be interesting to see how this plays out on the BBC homepage. Sometimes you can predict what'll happen, sometimes you can't.

Looking back over 2009, it is not hard to imagine that Obama's inauguration would be a popular live stream as we saw the year in, nor that the cold snap right at the end would attract much clicking of weather and travel updates. But over the festive period we also had a huge peak that I didn't anticipate.

Relatively few of the features we display at the top of the homepage attract more than 40,000 clicks from users before they get replaced. This one got clicked 217,000 times in just 3 hours on Sunday, 20th December. That's an average of twenty clicks per second, making it one of the most popular ever.

The "Rage versus X Factor" race to hit Christmas Number One wasn't confined to ITV and the tabloid press. The BBC also benefitted as people swarmed to Radio 1's Chart Show to find out who won.

Doubtless people would run into news of the winner soon enough, so it's interesting that many still chose to hear it live; to catch the very moment of victory or defeat. Thousands of years on, people still want to gather around the fire place to witness the ceremony reach a climax.

By way of contrast, we featured the Chart Show in exactly the same slot the previous week and it garnered just 9,000 clicks. Climaxes can't be engineered every time then.

James Price is Editor, BBC Homepage.

R&D (South Lab) Progress

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Ant Miller Ant Miller | 12:18 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

Happy new year to everyone out there, and straight off, let's look at the imminent relocation of the R&D (South Lab) from Kingswood Warren to Centre House. As you might imagine, such a massive programme of work is having a huge impact on the department right now, so we thought it was worth giving you a quick update on progress over the Christmas and New Year break.

Site Preparation

No one would expect a standard 1980's office block, and one that's been out of use for two and a half years at that, to be immediately ready to accommodate a world-class broadcast engineering research laboratory, but what may surprise is the speed with which the site has been converted for our needs...

Read more and comment at the BBC Research and Development blog

Anechoic and Free Field Chambers

Post categories:

Ant Miller Ant Miller | 08:37 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

Welcome back from the Christmas and New Year break - we took a little time out here in R&D to recharge batteries, fuel cells and exotic energy systems, as we have a tremendously exciting few months ahead of us. We'll post about that soon, but lets kick off the new year with another great video from Quentin Cooper's further exploration of R&D.

In today's film Quentin meets with Chris Chambers and Ranulph Poole, two of R&D's most experienced engineers, and explores the peculiar spaces that are our 'controlled environments'.

Watch the video and comment at the BBC Research and Development blog

Round up: Thursday 7 January 2010

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy | 15:10 UK time, Thursday, 7 January 2010

Welcome back after the Christmas and New Year break.

We've been sloganeering up at Blog Towers and today's is "Never let the snow get in the way of a good story" which leads neatly into the first round up of the year.

blog_towers_snow_300.jpgEscaping the snow for the desert the BBC Blue Room finds itself relocated for CES, the humungous Consumer Electronics Show. Contradicting the slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" you can find the Blue Room sharing slightly breathless tweets and pictures on the latest gadgetry due to hit the shelves this year on their Twitter stream.

On Christmas Day Which? published their report into picture quality on BBC HD with the headline finding that quality is as good as it was before the changes in encoders and bit rates. In a follow-up item on Radio 4's You and Yours, Matthew Bath, technology editor of Which? described how the blind tests were carried out and their findings in more detail. You can hear You and Yours on the iPlayer for the next six days and the item starts around 14'47. has an interview with the BBC's CTO John Linwood on operational changes at the BBC and also the way that technology changes audience relationships:

"For example, a year or two ago, we may have thought about BBC iPlayer as cool and future media. In reality, it's become just standard BBC as far as our audience is concerned and so they expect it to be available, up to date and work across whatever link they're using it on."

It's worth reading the interview in tandem with's The six BBC tech projects to watch for an insight where the future lies. Not least because as well as looking at the big beasts like Canvas and iPlayer the piece spotlights significant developments like the semantic web and the BBC's archive projects.

And finally, giving the last word to Erik Huggers, there was a short Q&A in the Christmas edition of Radio Times with the BBC's Director of Future Media & Technology. Sadly this is not available to read online, only in the print edition of the RT. So here's a taster quote from Erik in response to a question "What access to BBC programmes is offered to viewers and listeners beyond these shores?":

"TV programmes are not available outside the UK. In most cases we only have rights to distribute the programmes in the UK - and sometimes BBC Worldwide sells content abroad, generating money for us to re-invest in programming. Also we simply can't justify the costs of TV screening outside the UK . We can make radio content available worldwide because those rights restrictions don't exist, the cost is minimal and the commercial potential is more limited."

Paul Murphy is the Editor of the Internet blog. The picture is the view from the fifth floor of Blog Towers.

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