Delivery, innovation and openness - reflecting on #W3CUKI
On Monday, the W3C launched its UK and Ireland office - an event I believe will prove highly important in the continued development of the open web.
As much as anything, I, along with Matthew Postgate (Controller, BBC R&D), and others from the BBC, attended to affirm our continued support and contribution to the open standards that have fuelled the web's growth since its inception in the early nineties.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee opened the event, talking about HTML5, net neutrality and the role open data can play in driving transparency, while other presentations included Adrian Woolard, head of BBC R&D North Labs, who gave a tour-de-force presentation of BBC innovation focused on accessibility, but reminding us all of the huge positive impact BBC R&D has had in driving innovation across the industry over the years. Today's news that R&D has received a seventh Queen's Award, for the development of Piero, the graphics system that has transformed sports broadcasting, underlines this fact.
For me, Monday was an opportunity to connect the dots between my digital technology journey, the BBC's aims and place in the digital public space, and the W3C mission; my objective being to explicitly call out the philosophical alignment, and thus shared sense of purpose, that underpins our commitment.
At the Guardian Changing Media Summit last month, I used a series of tweets - curated through Flipboard, - as cues. Though technical problems preventing the audience from seeing them, the presentation was uploaded here and an outline (with links to the tweets) is below.
First, a bit about me
As a Star Trek fan and computer science major in the early eighties I was very much into the notion of Artificial Intelligence. At that time we worked on things like domain knowledge and inference engines for expert systems, and believed that computers that would talk, listen and reason were just around the corner. All of this obviously is taking much longer than expected, ergo the tweet about IBM's Watson winning on Jeopardy. But much like the semantic web now, the AI aspiration was about figuring out how to effectively capture, store, analyse and share data to create meaning.
I continued to pursue this aspiration at IBM, where we focused on information processing. It was here that I first encountered the notion of disconnected islands of information and how the lack of standards contributed to fragmentation and the inability to share and combine data. This was exacerbated by the ecosystem wars of the day (e.g. IBM SNA vs TCP/IP ).
The key take away being that "open" wins over time, that standards are critical to making victory possible, and that there is always a new set of open vs closed battles waiting to replace the ones going on now. As such, the effort on behalf of open standards needs to be continuous.
Nowhere is this more important than in digital media. Starting in 1995 when my team launched internet operations at Simon and Schuster, and continuing through 10 years at AOL, the goal was convergence - old media and new media come together, have a baby and change the world. While the vision was noble, the execution was not. Part of the issue is cultural - organisational change is hard. And part of the issue is that convergence has been accompanied by fragmentation.
The answer to both the cultural issue and the fragmentation issue is the same - getting on the same page. For organisations the same page means shared goals and objectives. To address fragmentation the same page is shared standards that enable heterogeneous devices, transport mechanisms and content creators/consumers to exchange data, information, knowledge.
After leaving AOL, I wasn't keen to join another media company. I came up with an "internet off-button" test, and felt most media companies would fail it as they struggle to reconcile the vast opportunity of the web, with the need to preserve their existing business models.
And then the BBC shows up. An iconic global brand, with a rich history of great storytelling, world class journalism and technical innovation. A noble mission to inform, educate and entertain. And the pursuit of that mission for the public good. It's clear that the BBC passes my internet off button test, that its mission spans time and platforms and that it has both the editorial capabilities and technical know-how to be a leader in embracing the web.
Execution & innovation: The priorities for BBC future media
Having spent a year setting, and seeking approval for, the BBC's Online strategy - we're now firmly focused on delivering it. London 2012 is firmly in focus here, we think the Olympics will do the same for online that the coronation did for TV. This comparison was as much about bringing many audiences to a new medium for the first time, as much as the scale of our output. We have the vision to take us up to 2012, we have the strategy, and (more and more) we have the culture; my priority now is to bring this together and deliver on it.
The BBC iPlayer has been a great example of the power of the internet (as a distribution platform), but really this is just a first step in realising the potential of the internet as a medium in its own right. Now we want to push on and create experiences native to the medium that complement their linear counterparts - such as "second screen" experiences such as this created by ABC - as we move towards the truly immersive storytelling through products that are social, interactive, and non-linear, as outlined here by Frank Rose.
The long view: The BBC, Digital Public Space and the W3C
Mark Thompson's introduction to "Putting Quality First", the strategy review announced in March 2010, spoke of the importance of Digital Public Space. Mark was speaking about an online space for licence fee payers to enjoy public service content from the BBC and other public institutions, a digital equivalent to the public spaces such as museums and galleries that have contributed so much to our culture and collective understanding.
This also says that while the BBC's storytelling and the services that connect those stories with the public will always be the BBC's lifeblood, we mustn't lose sight of the environment in which those services are experienced. We must ensure audiences can continue to enjoy those services in an open environment, free at the point of use.
This overarching sense of inhabiting a digital public space shapes our work. In R&D, we are upgrading our infrastructure for the connected age - a new broadcasting system that brings together internet and broadcast technologies. By nature this system will be more open than the linear networks that preceded it.
The BBC Archive team are developing partnerships and working on projects to knit together the archives of the UK's public institutions through common metadata standards, layer meaning through semantic web technologies and build a portal to give audiences access to it; all within the digital public space. And we expect that open standards evolved in partnerships with the W3C will be the building blocks on which this public space is built.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently said that access to the web should be a human right. I believe there is no more important digital public space than the web itself, and the BBC believes that the spirit of openness and collaboration that made the web a success will also safeguard its future.
Ralph Rivera is Director, BBC Future Media