Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

BBC Closes Experimental "Backstage" Developer Project

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 6, 2011

Martin Belam on currybetdotnet discusses the end of "BBC Backstage" a project begun 5 years ago to encourage developers to use BBC content in new ways that support communities.

I'll miss the hacks, but not the tiresome DRM debates - the end of BBC Backstage - Martin Belam's currybetdotnet blog

It was a laudable aim, and the site launched with some prototypes built by internal people who had been given early access to some of the feeds. I contributed two efforts. "Where is the BBC News?" crudely parsed news headlines for country names, and made the countries currently being mentioned light up on a map, and the BBC Complaints RSS feed, which as I mentioned yesterday, was an effort at screen-scraping to produce content in a format that the BBC should have been publishing anyway.

One of the more memorable results was an early hack that read aloud the BBC News in a Dalek voice. (Daleks are a fictitious malevolent hybrid robot race found in Doctor Who stories.)

Mr Belam says he is glad to have worked "with people like Ben Metcalfe, Matt Cashmore, Ian Forrester and Rain Ashford." But he doesn't miss the project and how "toxic" it became.

In the end it drove me to unsubscribe, fed up of being insulted for daring to suggest that in the short term, DRM was the only thing that was going to give rights holders the confidence to enable any content to be released at all.

Jemima Kiss has a long and comprehensive account of "Backstage" and lots of details about some of the projects: BBC Backstage: The end of five years of hackery, mischief - and true innovation | Technology | guardian.co.uk:

Backstage leaves a legacy of around 160 ambitious and imaginative prototypes in various stages of development. Some ideas were thrashed around at hack events and then abandoned, while others, such as trafficeye, became commercially successful. BBC developer Jonathan Tweed built a prototype app of iPlayer for Facebook at one hack day - a project that would have taken months for the BBC to commission and produce internally. Another early hack included BBC Touch, which compared the news stories the BBC had highlighted with those most popular with readers. "The BBC is 26% in touch with its readers", it would conclude, which didn't win many fans in the news department.

Ben Metcalfe, who now lives in San Francisco, writes that "Backstage" was responsible for acting as a nucleus for London startups:

'Hacking the BBC', a BBC Backstage Retrospective | :Ben Metcalfe Blog

...BBC Backstage, and the community that formed around it, also helped kick-start the fledgling London Startup community that we have today. What was then called "The London New Media Scene", primarily because of the agency orientated slant of the London industry at the time, influenced a generation of non-commercial hackers and NTKsubscribers to become entrepenurial and start building startups.

With BBC Backstage winding up, the BBC has produced a wonderful retrospective, "Hacking the BBC", which I had the honour of being interviewed for. You can download a copy here (pdf).

Mr Metcalfe concludes:

The challenge for the BBC is maintaining the concept of open data and external innovation - and weaving it through the entire fabric of the organization. They claim that is something that is happening, and I think there are good people there championing the notion - but I think the BBC still has some way to go before that box can be really ticked.


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