Monthly Archives: May 2009

From Ullapool to Alston

Last week saw me in two lovely parts of Britain – the town of Ullapool on the far north west coast of Scotland, and Alston in Cumbria, which boasts that it is the highest market town in England. I was in Scotland for a relaxing family holiday – we had rather dodgy weather while the rest of the UK was basking in sunshine, but we did manage to eat some very good fish and chips, spot a seal in the harbour, and climb a small mountain, Ben Mor Coigach. Well, at least one member of the party got to the top.
View from the top

Then it was on to Alston for work – our long-planned broadband notspots story. My colleague Jane Wakefield from the BBC website’s technology section came up with this idea earlier this year, and we decided to make it into a TV, radio and the web extravaganza. I wanted this to be a preview of one of the key issues in the upcoming Digital Britain report – just how many people will have to be covered by the government’s promise of a minimum 2mbps broadband service for all. We asked the website samknows.com to come up with a figure and a map, which could provide the news peg for our coverage. We’d sold the idea to TV and radio news outlets, so needed to give them some news as well as a feature.

I chose Alston as the place for our live broadcats for two reasons – it has a long-running community broadband network which is now moving up a stage by laying fibre along country roads, and yet there are quite a few nearby homes where they struggle to get any broadband, let alone 2Mbps.

The figure produced by samknows.com – as many as 3 million homes in the UK unable to get 2Mps – and their map arrived a few days before we set off on our trip. We struggled to make sense of it in TV terms – the researchers at samknows had done a vast amount of work, but the map was slightly confusing. The spots – blue for under 2mbps, red for under 0.5mbps – represented each postcode they had sampled, but as they could not test every postcode in the UK, it meant that in between were vast amounts of white space, where it wasn’t clear to the untutored eye what was happening. Did that represent broadband no-go areas – or places where you could get a fast connection? In fact, all that meant was that we could not say what speeds were like there – we just knew what was happening where there was a dot.

Notspots map

Still we did manage to turn it into a TV graphic, which we took with us to Cumbria. The trip involved myself, Neil Drake, a multi-skilled cameraman, editor and engineer, and Jonathan Sumberg, who is an extraordinarily imaginative producer – also a very stylish dresser, extraordinarily erudite , and a man of the most delicate sensibilities.

We spent Tuesday filming in and around Alston. First, we visited a family twenty miles away, the Shaws, who could only get dial-up and were very frustrated about it. Their comments about the pianful process of spending five minutes to watch Facebook load ended up being the key sequence of our report.
The Shaws - life in the slow lane

Then we headed off to meet Jules Cadie, who lives in a remote farmhouse but can get broadband, beamed to him via wimax from the Cybermoor community network. Then Daniel Heery from Cybermoor took us off to see a house having a mast installed and his team laying fibre on a country road. That’s where we recorded this video, to run on the website.
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Tuesday ended with us in a hotel bedroom, editing our 2’30” television package to run from breakfast the next morning. We got it cut and sent via broadband to London by 2300.

Then at 0500, the alarm went off and we headed to the market square in Alston to begin a long day of live broadcasting for Breakfast, BBC World, the Today programme, 5 Live, and every TV news outlet up until the Ten O Clock News.

We were a lttle nervous because we were trying something pretty tricky – broadcasting live over the Cybermoor community broadband network, rather than using a BBC satellite truck. Daniel Heery from Cybermoor and Hugo Raddon, his technical whizz, had done us proud, putting up a wifi mast on the market square to gather the signal from another mast on a hill and beam it to us. But it was Neil who had to make it work, and he went about it in his usual calm and professional manner.
Neil Drake - making it happen

Using a piece of software called vPoint – more commonly used in war zones – we got on air without a hitch all morning. And as long as I didn’t move too rapidly, the picture looked pretty good on air. Midway through the day, I recorded this little snippet of video showing the cast of thousands involved in this live broadcast:

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We spent weeks planning this broadband day, which also included contributions from reporters around the world. You can see some of their work here on an interactive map on the BBC website. And Jane Wakefield, who is now one of Britain’s leading experts on broadband , has put out a whole lot more interesting material, including this piece on a place very near to London where people still can’t get a decent connection.

There is always a danger when you plan something weeks in advance that it gets swept away by some breaking news story. Luckily for us, Wednesday turned out be a quiet news day in the UK, so our story ran all day and made plenty of impact. The notspots story was the most-read item on the BBC website, and the research we commissioned was quoted by a whole range of people, from the Lib Dem MP for Inverness to the Country Landownsers Association. So, all in all, a successful week out of the office. But Jonathan thinks we’ve done the Broadband Britain story now – he has set his sights on something more ambitious. He’s volunteered to go and recce Broadband Bermuda – and has said he’s happy for me to check out Broadband Baghdad. He’ll be right behind me – in the office.

The art of editing

I wrote here a week or so back about making a technology story into television and stressed just how important picture editors are these days in making television news pieces . In my view, they are becoming the key creative forces in television news, with digital editing setting them free to try out all sorts of ideas.

When I took that post, slightly adapted, and put it on the dot life blog there were plenty of comments from people who seemed to think that the last thing you needed in television was decent pictures and clever ways of illustrating complex stories.

Perhaps I didn’t explain myself very well – but here’s a video which might do it better. It is an insight into what a picture editor does by an award-winning craftsman Bill McKenna. I particularly like what he says about the distractions of having a correspondent and a producer gossiping in the background.

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Turning tech into telly

You will often hear these days that television news ain’t what it used to be, that there was a golden age, say twenty years ago, when it was a much more intelligent and useful medium – and of course far more people watched it. Well as someone who’s been in the TV news trade for more than two decades, I say don’t believe it – yes the audiences have declined but the standard of the product is much improved.

I’ve had occasion recently to haul out of the archive some old TV news pieces to show to journalism students. They were, quite frankly, lame – as the students themselves pointed out. One in particular, about a major economic crisis of the early 90s, was hopeless in telling a complex but important story. It consisted of long swathes of what’s known in the trade as wallpaper – meaningless shots of Westminster and ministerial cars driving past – covered with commentary and interspersed with clips of politicians.

Economics was a subject I used to cover and I must admit that many of my reports were as bad, or worse, than what I showed the students. Economics and business stories have always been a challenge to turn into television. I have on occasion told one of our senior editors who trains newcomers to the newsroom that he needs to tell them less about using pictures to describe wars, earthquakes and other dramatic events and more about how you turn the demise of the final salary pension-scheme into a compelling TV news report..

Anyway, all that is a preamble for some thoughts on my current preoccupation – turning technology into television, which is, believe it or not, almost as big a challenge. Mobile phones, computer screens and endless shots of websites make for very dull pictures – and then you have the problem of getting techie people to talk in terms that will mean something to a mass audience.

But the advantage I have today is that while I may not have moved on that far, the creative people I work with – producers, camera operators and picture editors – certainly have. So here’s an example.
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Last week I decided to try to sell a story to the TV news bulletins on the future of web search, linked to the upcoming launch of the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”. This was obviously going to be extremely hard both to sell to editors during a busy news period, and to film. I wanted both Wolfram and Google in the piece, and while both are fascinating subjects, each is in picture terms very dull.

Then there was arranging an interview with the main protagonist, Stephen Wolfram. He was in Illinois, and I didn’t think our World News department would think it was worth the cost of sending a crew there.
Instead, after long discussions with Wolfram’s PR people, we arranged to chat with him over the internet, which gave us some pictures as we filmed the call from our end. The problem with an internet video call is always the quality – of the audio more than the video. But Wolfram Research agreed to record the interview at their end, and then send it to me, as a thirty minute 1.8Gb file. Luckily, I was working with Doug Dalgleish, a cameraman who is also a technical whizz, and he managed to make everything work.

Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant and enthusiastic evangelist for his vision of the future of search – but getting a 15 second clip from our interview to use in a two minute TV news piece was a bit of a struggle. (We did make more of the interview available on the web).

Google was somewhat easier – we were able to go long to their funky London offices and interview a senior executive Mario Queiroz about where search was heading. Still desperate for pictures, we shot a sequence of him using the new Google Squared product and me using Wolfram Alpha to answer the same queries. In the Google lobby the most popular search terms currently being entered by its global users are projected onto a wall – so that made a nifty location for my piece to camera, linking between the two sections of the report.

But when on Monday we came to edit the piece, we were still faced with a desperate dearth of interesting pictures. Riding to the rescue came Nick Tulip, our picture editor. Cutting film and later video together has always been a skilful activity, but the arrival of digital editing, allowing all sorts of effects, has transformed the craft and Nick is amongst the very best and most inventive of the new breed.

I decided that we shoud illustrate the type of question that Google found hard to answer – how far is the earth from the sun at this moment, how is the population of India growing compared with that of China, how far is it from London to Glasgow? Nick pulled some pictures out of our digital archive, and superimposed a Google search box image over them. He then set about making two rather dull websites somehow look interesting, with the aid of some of Doug’s imaginative shots of the Google offices.

The result was by no means a masterpiece and, like all TV news reports, could only scratch at the surface of a complex subject but Nick, Doug and I were all pretty satisfied with our work. But here’s the irony. Monday was a very busy news day in the UK with all sorts of stories – the Speaker row, the conflict in Sri Lanka , England’s World Cup bid – and our report did not make it onto the domestic news bulletins, though it was shown on BBC World.

So in my view we are now able to tell complicated stories much more effectively on television. But, in a busy world, where politics, business and sport are vieing for viewers’ attention, getting them broadcast is another matter. Luckily we now have something that was not available to TV journalists two decades ago, the web, so even something that doesn’t make it to air can find a lasting home online.

Fry at Bletchley

On Monday this week I went to Bletchley Park, invited by the Trust that runs it to come along and meet Stephen Fry, who was there for lunch and a private visit.
It turned into a big social media event – which I blogged about on dot life the following day.

The Trust had also invited Dr Sue Black, who has done so much to promote awareness of the wartime coding and the need to preserve it properly for the nation, and Christian Payne (aka @documentally) an insanely keen exponent and apostle of social networking and everything new tech. Christian had been so impressed on a vist at the end of last year that he set about showing Bletchley how to strut its social media stuff – and he put that in to action suring Stephen Fry’s visit. In fact, the whole event turned into an online extravaganza – @stephenfry, @Dr_Black, @documentally, @ruskin147 and @bletchleypark were all tweeting. Both Christian and I were also recording AudioBoos. Here are a few of them.

I recorded Tony Sale talking to Stephen Fry about Tunny – the machine used by the Germans to send high-level messages.
Listen!.

And Christian recorded me interviewing Stephen towards the end of his tour.
Listen!

Christian has put a set of his excellently shot photos
on Flickr.

One Enigma examines another

I have put three or four completely rubbishy, iphone pix up as well, the best of which is shown above – but far better to go and look at Christan’s.

But I also shot some video as we were goiing round, which is much better. It’s right here.

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t to Ble

Prague, patents and Amsterdam

My week began with a trip to Prague for Patinnova, the annual conference about patents organised by the European Patent Office. Sounds dull? Well it could have been, but it was a great opportunity to learn about the fast-changing world of intellectual property, which is in ferment right now. I was chairing a couple of days of the conference, so had to bone up about issues such as patent trolls, patent thickets and CII – computer implemented inventions, one of the most controversial subjects in this area. Among the questions which we had to address – should Amazon be able to patent its one-click shopping system? Is it right that most European consumers pay a levy to buy an iPod or a blank CD? And did the patent on James Watt’s steam engine hasten or slow its development?

Just about everyone who attends conferences like this is of a particular mindset – they are wedded to the current system of IP protection and, if anythng, they want it strengthened. Dissident voices are thin on the ground but I found one. Dave Birch of Consult Hyperion has strong views on all sorts of technology issues – instinctively, he is an open-source web libertarian, and he was not afraid to voice his opinions to the patent lawyers and artists’ rights organisations gathered in Prague, You get a bit of a flavour of that in this video.

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I made it back to London on Thursday, and chipped in with this blog post about the events in Prague.
With swine flu raging (at least through every newsroom in the world) it was a quiet couple of days, but on Friday I managed another blog post – about the meaning of memes – sparked by a rather wonderful interactive chart showing a timeline of internet memes.

A steamboat in Amsterdam

A steamboat in Amsterdam


Then at the weekend we headed to Amsterdam for a very special party – a friend’s 50th birthday – aboard a boat powered by steam. The boat, the SS Wolk, dates back to around 1890, and has been lovingly restored for use as a a party/floating conference venue. Ah – but here’s a question – just what impact did the patent system have on the development of steam-powered transport in Amsterdam? Actually, I don’t remember discussing that once as we chugged down the canals for three hours eating, drinking, and generally having a good time.