Digital Public Space: In Space Everybody Can See You Stream
Executive Product Manager, BBC Archive Development
The moment when the Globe to Globe production of Venus and Adonis finally finished transcoding just after midnight on May 1st.
Last August the BBC and Arts Council England formed a partnership to deliver a new platform for digital arts, The Space.
My team started to build it during August last year, and we launched thespace.org on May 1st, delivering a multimedia, multi-platform,cross-genre, global arts service that supports video, audio, articles, image galleries, games, interactive applications and live streams and is available on smartphones, tablets, computers, smart TVs, and Freeview HD (Channel 117 if you want to have a look).
It was a bit of a rush.
From nothing a small group of us created a design and user experience, developed a content management system based on a very customised Wordpress instance, coded responsive design templates to work on a variety of screen sizes, built a transcoding system, procured a cloud-based content management and content delivery network, went through a cycle of user testing, contracted two live streaming suppliers, procured a bespoke VOD (video on demand) application for Freeview HD, launched a Freeview HD channel, and went live with a global site that works on more-or-less any modern browser and quite a few older ones.
After forty days in my own special wilderness, I'm coming up for air after what were certainly the most exciting days of my life at the BBC. On a few occasions I've found myself wondering what on earth I was thinking on the fateful day last year when I muttered 'why don't we build this ourselves' to Tony Ageh and Mo McRoberts, but I don't regret any of it.
We took on the task knowing it would at best be very difficult and at worst prove to be impossible. There have been many late nights and early starts. So many screens, so many refreshes. So many contracts, so many lawyers. So many cables, so many encoding profiles.
A 'normal' launch goes through a well-trodden path of various pre-launch closed trials, betas, test, fix, test, and launch, but we had no time for this. Instead I had to rely on having a fantastic hand-picked team, a very open approach to project management, very brief and very few meetings, upfront agreement that we'd fix problems as they were identified, and a dose of good luck.
On the night before launch, Paul Coghlan, Dirk-Willem Van-Gulik and Jon Stuart had been working their way through some last-minute video transcodes, builds, changes and fixes; Mo McRoberts was online and about to hop on the train from Glasgow to London; and I was waiting for the transcoding of the Globe to Globe production of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in six South African languages to complete. And we'd just watched the News At Ten announcing our go live the next morning, meaning that an audience of millions would be expecting us to be there when they woke up...
The picture at the top of this post shows the progress window of our custom built local transcoder based on the open source ffmpeg/x264 encoders and Manzanita transport stream multiplexer to provide all the formats needed for both web streaming and Freeview HD MHEG broadcast. It runs on bootcamped Win 7 iMac, and turns a single HD video file into six profiles for all web devices and TV, and then uploads it to the cloud.
It shows the moment when the final go live video transcode queue completed after midnight, meaning we had a full set of content for launch. I'd been waiting for it to complete for hours.
The site went live when Mo took down the holding page on thespace.org. He actually did it at about 0130 on May 1 from the dining car of the Glasgow to London Sleeper train, just after he passed Carlisle. He'd promised it'd happen before Carlisle, but I was willing to forgive him.
I arrived home in the early hours, excited by the knowledge that we were live, but aware of the 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' that we would face in the coming months.
The following morning I attended the launch event at the Royal Festival Hall, bleary-eyed and unshaven, and then headed to Television Centre and checked with Alex Russell that Freeview HD channel 117 was working, before firing up the array of devices in the office to make sure all was well across our promised platforms, devices and browsers.
We were getting 800 requests per second during much of the morning, and the cloud hadn't complained one bit. Jon Stuart had done well.
What Do You Reckon?
Soon after launch we started to receive a variety of messages from people who had come to The Space to have a look around. These offered a healthy mix of general and specific positive feedback; and a smattering of snags, bugs, and suggestions. But the response from around the globe was overwhelmingly positive, which made our efforts over the previous months feel totally worthwhile
We don't have a system for logging compliments, but we do have one for logging bugs. You can email us with your bugs at 'firstname.lastname@example.org'. Every single issue is logged on JIRA, and every single one will be addressed. We need users of thespace.org to help identify bugs and make suggestions for future enhancement. This is invaluable to us, so I thank all of you who have done so, and ask that you continue.
With a small team with a constant flow of stuff to do, prioritisation of these issues is one of the hardest parts of our job. Our mission is to provide a good experience across all devices, browsers, operating systems, in the midst of unpredictable OS and browser upgrades.
And we are striving to make The Space as usable as we can for users who have sight, hearing, cognitive and motor accessibility requirements.
So, how did it go? We had over 250,000 users in the first week. Within the first three days we managed to get a good experience on 95% of browsers. And so far we have had only one hour when part of the site went down. I won't tell you whose fault that was because I'm a nice person.
Coming Live from The Space
As well as the recorded performances and interactive artworks we have also hosted seven live streamed events, ranging from a two hour performance of Britten's War Requiem from Coventry Cathedral to three sets of seven hour streams over three days from Vanilla Galleries.
These required close and sometimes hair raising coordination across my team, the venues, and third party suppliers to the venue and to The Space. We worked Skype group messaging to the bone. If I ever need a reminder of what working to a live broadcast deadline feels like, I have those chat logs to refer to. Steve Allen worked magic with the live events, facing chaos and adversity with levels of calm only found in someone who is planning to launch a lunar explorer in his spare time.
The Space Team
My team are the real stars in the firmament of The Space, and I knew we could pull it off once I'd pulled this small group of very talented people together, gave them a mission, asked them to trust each other, and added a bit of fuel and the occasional drop of oil.
Mo, Paul and Steve have been absolutely heroic, and without them there would be a void rather than a space.
Vibeke Hansen and Caroline Smith continue to evolve and enhance the user experience and design of The Space. You'll see some significant changes appear in the next month or so.
Aaron Dey made all of our machines talk to each other, despite them being from many different generations and being across the OS divide.
Robert Gummesson keeps the transcoders firing on all cylinders, and has recently configured them to wrap subtitle files in to the video profiles.
Jon announced he was moving to Vietnam, but pointed out that we rarely saw him anyway, and that we wouldn't notice the difference, and he continues to keep the machines humming away nicely in the cloud.
And last but by no means least, Dirk-Willem Van-Gulik and Brandon Butterworth - our 'tech overlords' - keep an eye on the big picture and keep us connected to the rest of the BBC's technology folk.
Running The Space
The team that operate The Space - Hilary Bishop, Sally Taft, Mike Osborn, Ana Lucia Gonzalez and Dora Somerville - turn the empty vessel that we have built into a fresh offering every day, using the amazing variety of material that we receive from the commissioned arts organisations. They greet with joy the green 'queue completed' message on our transcoders and fear its evil twin, the red 'failed to upload' error...
We've made a few substantive changes recently, with new releases every week, and we have many more up our sleeves as we make our way towards the end of phase one in November. We've upgraded our search function quite substantially, and have started to create collections pages to house the ever-increasing volume of material. We'll also be implementing page templates that offer a greater number of items and build on our accessibility features.
We hope you continue to enjoy The Space, and i thank you again for the comments and suggestions. My favourite so far comes via Facebook: 'pretty much the best thing online EVER'.... which is over-egging it a little, but gives us something to aim for in the best way we can.
PS, iOS users - we've found that in several cases, users need to clear their cache and / or delete and reinstall the web-app icon on iOS to pick up the new code and be able to enjoy the fixes and features that we have deployed!
Jake Berger is Head Of Technology and Distribution, thespace.org and Programme Manager, Digital Public Space, BBC Archive Development