Yesterday Martin Belam made me smile a lot with his post on MyBBC. I It reminded me I had this draft waiting to go about just how long it can take for things to get out to the public or even into awareness. t’s not always possible to know when the beginning of a story is. And although I’m researching the first twenty years of the BBC on the internet starting in 1994, the story certainly does not begin there. Generalising madly it’s often said that things usually start about twenty years before they become noticeable to the public.
So in my case 1974 would be a good year to choose. But wait! No , actually 1954 looks like a good beginning. It’s in 1954 that the BBC first sets up a Working Party on Electronic Computers. Whilst this bode well it took a full further seven years before the first computer was bought by the Corporation. According to Asa Briggs (History of Broadcasting in the UK Volume 5 part 2) it was a National Elliot 803B and it belonged to the “Central Establishment Office”. I am thinking that the story of that seven years worth of meetings , papers and even the appointment of an expert to tell the Corporation it was OK to buy a computer is one which would be repeated throughout the period I am looking at.
So, what was 1974 about? Apart from being the end of the period Asa Briggs covers in his last volume he suggests there are three areas of development that heralded the application of computers around the BBC . They were: that the Engineering Division had begun to use computers in their designing of of aerials and analysis of equipment faults, generating electronic music and computer graphics; that management had set up a “management information service” in Television (TMIS) ; and that Radio (External Services) had installed a microcomputer to control the output from all the radio studios In Bush House.
I think it also meant the BBC would increasingly need staff who knew how to work with computers , and those who were interested in exploring some of the new technologies as they began to emerge, and even possibly those who would be able to think about how computers would change the nature of communications in domains outside the military and academia.
When I worked at the BBC from 1993 to 2008 I was repeatedly told that the BBC is an Engineering Organisation with some programmes atttached. In 1974, as the significance of some of the developments were being realised “Information Engineers” were asked to explain the implications of their work to the public so that an “informed discussion” could begin about what the BBC does and has done for the public.
There are moments during this project when it feels like time has stood still. This is one such moment.
I’m looking for examples of good storytelling within and about organisations. Mostly you find the CEO has written an autobiography or someone has written his/her (mostly his) biography. My hunch is that historians of the present and future will look to blogs and tweets, social media and digital traces for clues and a way of deciphering changes in strategy or direction. But what of intranets? Or internal oral history projects? Memories of employees past and present? History from below? How will they be found? We can’t just rely on Google.
I’ve been looking at an interview, or more precisely, piece to camera that Frank Gillard lay down for his own BBC Oral History project. He is very lucid about his own role as a BBC employee and the terms under which he conducted the interviews. It was recorded in 1995 and feels like another age. The BBC is making excerpts available under its 100 Voices page
I have now recorded some interviews for this same archive. Looking at the period from 1994 to 2014. But I’m not concentrating on the people at the top of the organisation or politicians like Frank Gillard. Rather trying to choose people who , whilst not voiceless, may not historically have been chosen for such an archive. I did also go to the then top. You have to to understand the BBC . What is interesting about this period and the subject I am looking at – how the BBC became aware of the World Wide Web and the internet and what it did about it is how a rather divergent group of people could unite around the implications of a new technology and create clusters of interest which would, eventually , get together and get the organisation moving. I only realised after interviewing Professor Lizzie Jackson that she is related to Frank Gillard. Which is a nice piece of history in its own right.
Winner has been announced and it’s Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, an inventor team from the United States, offer sustainable ecological alternatives to conventional synthetic building materials. Capra J’neva and partner Emilie Fetscher of the United States invented easy-to-use consumer solar panels and were awarded a runners up prize. There will be a lot of press to follow – I think they chose wisely..
Trying to blog while Ethan is speaking proves that he can not only write at least twice as fast as I can, but he can speak as fast as he writes. So this will certainly not capture it all.
We don’t pay much attention to Africa – but if you look on Google news you will find ten times more news for countries outside Africa than countries inside Africa. Media attention map by a Dutch firm – shows Africa consistently falling off the map in this respect. But paying attention does matter. In November 2005 someone from the Malawi Times was passing through a village when he was shown a windmill that a kid had built and hooked up to generate power. It made enough power to power his parents house. It was blogged in Malawi then was picked up by AfriGadget – then there was an invite to speak at a conference which was picked up by international press. What this has meant up meaning is that people have now raised enough money for this young man to go to one of the best schools in malawi. His whole life has been transformed by the fact that someone did pay attention. how much more are we missing like this?
In the past lots of well meaning white guys have been talking about Africa – but the good news is that there will be fewer of us in the future and I want to introduce you to the world of African Bloggers and I am going to talk about Kenya.
There was a media blackout for a couple of day during the run up to the last elections in Kenya except fo the blogs , so you had an IT specialist going out with his camera and blogging. As things got harder and harder during the reporting of the election another blogger had to switch to updating from her phone. mashada a lively bulletin board site got really nasty during the election – lots of hatred but the guy who ran the site took it down as he got tired of moderating ethnic conflict and put another one up called “I have no tribe” and that started another discussion all about being Kenyan. Ushahidi.com set up after Kenya Pundit who moved from Kenya back to South Africa to be with her family said she was worried people would not be able to follow what was going on in the election process – and so a group of people got together and helped her set it up taking input via sms. You can find voices who do reflect what is going on. We do have aggregators. Now we have the Africa 2s – the Africa that goes to shopping malls. there is now a group of people who have enough disposable income to go shopping, and I would prefer to think of them as producers than consumers – moving swiftly towards the future. And its not the shopping mall that is the sign of the future but the mobile phone. I can’t emphasise enough how this is transforming Africa. Now interesting African problems can be solved that you guys do not need to solve. – eg cash accounting in Ghana. take your money , you buy a phone card , you get the code but don’t use it. You phone someone in the village give them the code and take my credit of $20 – now you have the credit, give $19 to my mother. So now mobile phone services are setting up. I wish I could pay for my taxi here in Amsterdam with my mobile phone….
Then Ethan talked about a Knife sharpening bicycle from AfriGadget – the guy who runs this stand makes $10 a day – that puts him in the Kenyan middle class. We hack what we have. In Africa a bicycle can become an ambulence. Block and Track an anti-theft device invented by a young man with no formal electronics training …During recent elections in Zimbabwe each polling station posted the number of votescast centraly and so they knew they had the numbers. They (mobile phones) have the ability to fix election systems too.
This infrastructure has expanded faster than anyone thought. Who is making money? In some case it is Africans. Someone built a mobile phone infrastructure in DFC while still at war , sold it and made money. We in the west have made money from Africa by taking stuff out. The way to make money in Africa now is to build stuff up. Biggest problem in Africa now is cost of power. Need to build . We tend to think of Africa in terms of Aid – how can we help. It’s not wrong but it’s incomplete – we need to figure out how to do infrastructure. China is looking at this from a different perspective. China is focussing on infrastructure because they want to get stuff out. Both think they are robbing each other, probably quite a good partnership. But the people who are going to build the content are the re diaspora. Africans who leave to get their education and then go back – and build up colleges – eg Ashesi college.
If Africa is surprising it’s just because you are not paying enough attention.
Just catching up on Ofcom’s proposals for stage two of the PSB review and noticed, apart from the proposals themselves, this “experimental” page where you can leave your comments alongside the proposals. There are other ways too of responding formally. But I’ll be interested to see who leaves comments here and how many. There are lots of things we do at the BBC which could also benefit from this kind of approach to guage the views of our viewers and listeners in more informal ways.
On this experimental site we encourage you to leave informal comments alongside the Executive Summary of Ofcom’s Second Public Service Broadcasting Review – Phase Two: preparing for the digital future, published on 25 September 2008.
Alternatively, you can download the full consultation document, and/or respond formally to the consultation (closing date 4 December 2008). You can also follow the debate on the PSB Review blog.