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What was the Domesday Project?

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Maggie Philbin | 12:34 UK time, Thursday, 26 May 2011

Back in 1986, when hair, shoulder pads and computers took up far too much space, we demonstrated the Domesday Project on Tomorrow's World. It was breathtakingly ambitious and in many ways, decades ahead of its time.

Tomorrow's World : 1985. Picture Shows : Presenters Peter McCann, Maggie Philbin, Judith Hann and Howard Stableford

My co-presenter, Howard Stableford, pointed to a mountain of encyclopaedias, floppy discs and maps, exclaiming how the amount of data the two videodiscs held was just "unbelievable."

It was. Timed to mark the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, it was the work not only of a brilliant team who nursed 80s technology into delivering 21st century ambitions but over a million volunteers, mostly children, who doggedly collected 9,700 sets of data, 300,000 pictures and 147,819 pages of text to chronicle ordinary life across every part of Britain.

There were two discs, the map based Community disc, which showed Britain as seen by the people who live there and the topic based National disc, covering everything from the number of abandoned cars to the National Health Service. The country was divided into 4kmx 3km "dblocks" ; each block rationed to 3 photographs and a number of short reflections on life in that area.

It was and probably remains the biggest audience participation project ever undertaken. We were genuinely excited by it on Tomorrow's World, there was a real sense of potential and we gave the story nearly nine minutes rather than the usual three or four. The National disc even contained a primitive version of non-immersive virtual reality, with nine surrogate walks including one around a Barratt show house.

I remember the elegance of the videodisc as it slid into the player, a potent symbol of the shiny world of technology which was now beginning to gather pace, and which would soon eclipse the expensive operating system, rendering it obsolete.

But the ambition behind it was groundbreaking.

We now take the ability to access, navigate and manipulate information for granted but this was such a fresh idea we invited viewers to phone up if they wanted us to find pictures of their own town or village. It's very strange to look back on that programme and hear how thrilled Richard Street from Longborough becomes, as he recognises first the map of his village, then a field with a tractor in it and finally his local post office.

The fact that so much information was provided by children leads to some idiosyncrasies. If you look on the dblock which contains York Minster, you won't find a picture of the cathedral but a woman ironing clothes.  But children record details adults would overlook. Only a child would bother to describe how in the village of Inkpen "many people wear Wellington boots, even in summer."  Once you start reading the details, you are rewarded by the occasional sly insight . In Slawston, for example "about eight attend the weekly service, although all go to the Harvest Supper"

The children entered the data onto floppy discs using BBC Micros in their classrooms and then posted them to the BBC, where Andy Finney who worked on the project remembers the technical challenges. "We weren't even sure how to put together a master videotape with thousands of single frames on it."  He credits Roger Kelly, the technical project manager and the enthusiastic Logica team, led by Jardine Barrington-Cook, who often slept in the office, as they struggled to shoehorn advanced concepts into the tiny BBC processor. Andy's website maps the scale of the technical challenge.

At around £5000, the final system was the price of a small car, so beyond the reach of most schools and libraries. 1000 were sold but that it was never easily accessible has clearly been unfinished business for the team.

Domesday Reloaded has brought the Community Disc material to the web and the reunion for the 25th anniversary will be a special celebration.  "I'm most proud that people are finally able to access the Domesday Project information and that they are fascinated by it" says Andy. "Better late than never."

For those who want to show their children what high tech meant in 1986, the Computer Museum at Bletchley Park have set up a complete Domesday system.

For the rest of us, it highlights the issue we face if open standards are not adopted for future information. What happens if the hardware as well as the software needed to access our pictures and our written history is long gone?

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