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Camping in a Digital Public Space: Over the Air 2011

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Mo McRoberts Mo McRoberts | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Folk chat on a sunlit lawn, surrounded by tents. And computers. And cables.

Bill Thompson and Matthew Postgate chat at Over the Air 2011. Picture by Paul Clarke, used with permission.

This Friday and Saturday I was lucky enough to have been asked to speak at Over The Air 2011, held at Bletchley Park — home to the team of code-breakers who cracked the Engima and Lorenz ciphers during the Second World War.

The topic of my talk was our prototype implementation of the Digital Public Space. Last week, The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast went into detail about the aims of the project and talked with Richard Ranft of The British Library and Francesca Franchi of The Royal Opera House, as well as my colleague Bill Thompson, who is Head of Partnerships here in BBC Archive Development.

I’m pleased to say that my talk seemed to be well-received, with a good twenty minutes of Q&A from an interested audience, covering various areas that the project including approaches to digitisation, rights and the expression of metadata.

Over The Air is billed as “36 hours of mobile development” and much of the time spent there by developers involved taking full advantage of the glorious weather and spacious grounds, hacking on prototypes to be shown off on Saturday afternoon.

On the Friday evening, Bill Thompson kicked off the first ever Ignite Bletchley Park talks with a whirlwind tour of the nature of reality itself, why the notion of “augmented reality” doesn’t make sense, and how the Digital Public Space fits into our evolving sense of what constitutes “real”.

Having slaved over their hacks for a day and a night, come Saturday afternoon it was time for the developers to show them off and be judged in several categories. A number of the hacks were pitched squarely at the Bletchley Park Challenge — a plea to developers to find a way to replace the audio tour “wands” which visitors carry with them as they visit different areas of the estate.

This challenge was of particular interest to us as a demonstration of the ways in which physical cultural assets and structured, machine-readable data about those assets can be brought together to create new kinds of journeys and make our cultural heritage accessible to wider audiences.

The challenge was won by Michael Deales for his entry “Bletchley Park Guide”. In other categories related to the concept of the Digital Public Space, Team WhyMCA won in the best android category for “Hack the Mansion” — a geeked-up version of the classic board game, Monopoly; and Melinda Seckington won the prize for most cultural entry with “MuDo's”, a museum to-do list. While not a winner, Cristiano Betta did show off a version of his “Mobile History of the World in 100 Objects” webapp — something which is, of course, close to our hearts. He’d originally built the app as part of History Hack Day earlier in the year, and has released the code on GitHub.

Of course, no event would be complete without a big finish! Over The Air’s came courtesy of Ewan Spence (accompanied by some pyrotechnics), who had over the course of the weekend built a KerPlunk-styled Enigma machine out of bits of wood, some garden hose, plastic cups, and… some of those little silver balls of fondant that people use as cake decorations.

Mo McRoberts is a Data Analyst in the Digital Public Space project. Tony Ageh, the BBC Controller of Archive Development, leads the project.


  • Comment number 1.

    Mr McR-
    Interesting to hear about this digital public space reclamation project. How can our company - in the US - help collaborate? We're working on re-purposing public space using mobile digital tools as well... @gmocracy

  • Comment number 2.

    @gbomber124 — do you have an e-mail address we can contact you by? (I had a look at your Twitter account, but it seems you haven't tweeted at all). Bill Thompson looks after partnerships and can get in touch with you if so.


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