Sunday 31 October 2004

Economist on simplicity in technology

This week's Economist has a special on designing for simplicity. It's described in terms a business manager can understand, with a few strained metaphors such as the journey of a byte from disk to user, but the point it raises is a good one.

I worry when I hear people say that simplicity is the way to go in the future, with the not-very-subtly-hidden subtext that all we have to do is get rid of layers of technology and complexity, and a simple interface will magically present itself.

The set of articles in the Economist uses the examples of cars and telephone networks to show that making things simple to use is actually very difficult, and could well require more layers of complexity to provide the interoperability and intuitive interface that we need if we are going to make sense of the changing world of technology in the next decade or so.

Update to RDF Data Access Use Cases

RDF Data Access Use Cases and Requirements

Somehow I feel the combined smarts of the W3C should be able to come up with more exciting use cases than finding the top 10 movies which also had soundtracks that came top 10 in the charts..? How is that supposed to energise a new industry to make its data available in RDF?

The use cases don't come from the real world that I live in... random quotes:

"José sends a query to the Census Bureau's new RDF storage server and requests that his client pass the query results to an XSLT transformation service so that he can print the resulting XHTML."

"Zoe wrote an IRC bot that they use to make assertions -- which the bot stores as RDF."

I hope someone out there is thinking about this stuff in a bit more end-user-friendly manner!

Friday 29 October 2004

Events ML

Something I hadn't noticed before... IPTC EventsML Working Group.

Right now "The project scope is limited to the definition of an information interchange standard for newsworthy event information", but I'm sure they will expand the scope eventually to handle other types of events... I haven't looked into it yet but I hope they're thinking about integration with iCalendar...

Thursday 28 October 2004

Publishing our metadata in HTML

In the BBC English Regions web CMS I've been involved with building, we have six controlled vocabularies for descriptive metadata (location, name, subject, audience, BBC brand, time period), and we manage about 85,000 terms in those CVs. We sourced some of the CVs from external suppliers and modified them, some we built from scratch. We also have a team that maintains the existing terms and allows our journalists to suggest terms and have them vetted and finished off by the metadata specialists.

A few of us have some ideas around publishing out this metadata, we just have to run it past search to check what format we should use. I’m hoping we can just do

<meta name=”location” value=”BBC/C/Devon,BBC/C/London”>

etc. That would be very useful, in the sense that people could pick it up and do amazing things with it... maybe we can do that stuff ourselves, but even if we don’t, the data is there ready for someone else to play with.

As well as the text-based names, we have the lat/long data for those locations in an XML file somewhere, I might be able to get that extracted and put into the HTML as well. We aren't allowed to publish the complete location CV due to licensing restrictions, but we can extract pieces of it for certain purposes.

We haven’t really decided on the format yet, it might be worth making it RDF or something from the start -- although I’m not sure how useful that would be unless our content is all well-formed XML, and while we’re pretty close, I don't think we've sorted out all the issues of & in URLs etc.

Sunday 24 October 2004

Thoughts on a BBC API

After seeing some cool newsy metadataey things recently like aaronland's New York Times widgets and Stef's BBC News wikipedia thing, and talking to Tom L about some of his grand ideas, I've been thinking more about where the BBC should be in the semantic web, the lazyweb, etc etc... and in the end I figure we at the BBC should be able to build the content equivalent of Google API or Amazon API.

Basically, Google provides a bunch of web services (via SOAP and REST) and exposes their core functionality to developers around the world. They provide the engine, developers can build their own interface, as long as they follow a few rules. Amazon does the same thing, although of course they're not being nearly as nice as Google because they're really just opening up their shopping cart to others, they still get the money from any sales.

So if Google can provide the definitive search API that everyone can use, and Amazon can provide a book buying API, what could the BBC offer? The list is endless...

  • GIS services: postocde<->location name<->lat/long mapping

  • TV/radio listings services: what's on today, what's on this week, in a particular genre, on a paricular network, what's on right now

  • Search services: BBC search via API

  • metadata services: classification engine??, list of terms, integrate with BBC Search to show stories/pages that match metadata terms

  • information services: weather, traffic info, financial data...

A simple application of this would be something that takes a person's postcode, uses the postcoder API to translate it to a lat/long, then uses the BBC search to find all content marked with locations within 10 miles, and presents a custom page for that user. Of course that's just the beginning!

Content Management Professionals organisation launched

After about six months in gestation by a group of Content Management gurus and me, CM Professionals - The Content Management Community of Practice was launched in September.

We hope it to be a place where the sort of people who make content management actually work can gather and share information. Vendors are not allowed to join as an organisation (although people who work for vendors are welcome to join as an individual), and we don't really care too much about the technology. We know that the problems of content modelling, change management, business process modelling and actually getting reasonable requirements for a CM project are much harder than merely building some software to manage content.

If that sounds interesting to you, please check out the site and maybe even sign up. We're having our first official meeting, the CM Pros Summit at Boston in November, co-located with this year's Gilbane Conference. You're welcome to join us!

Tuesday 6 July 2004

Graf review on content management

The Graf review on the BBC's online offering was finally released today, after 18 months of development.

So what does it have to say about content management at the BBC? Some interesting points...

(Just notes-to-self for now, I'll come back and write about individual points later)

Page 20 of the main review: "The BBC has also employed a number of technical solutions to enable them to deliver news and information content quickly and effectively, over a number of platforms. The development of the News and Sport Content Production System (CPS) represents a significant investment in such technical solutions, with total costs amounting to £3.8m in 2003"

A constant theme is value for money, which resonate's well with Mark Thompson's recent prouncements to make all BBC services pass a "public value test". The term "cost per unique user", "CPUU" is referred throughout, obviously meaning the cost of content production divided by number of unique users. It will be interesting to see this statistic for a lot of our content. According to page 21, CPUU for weather is 1.8 pence and Nations and Regions (excluding Northern Ireland) is 20.5 pence. It will be interesting to see if this figure changes after our CMS has finished rolling out to the English Regions sites...

Page 21 again, "the BBC is currently developing the technology to track traffic exclusively to external sites." Well I thought the /go/ system would do that, but if you say so... anyway in the CMS, adapting our external weblinks to use a system like this (or to move from one such system to another) will take about 20 seconds of XSLT coding.

And more on page 21, "links from sites or pages are not... measured across the site." Another easy peasy thing for us to do with the CMS...

Page 22, "The total costs of the launch of the
search engine (worldwide and BBC site) were £414,268, and the current running costs of the
BBC Online search tool are £476,000."

Documentum specifically gets a mention on page 24!

Page 27, "Applications developed by the BBC, such as DNA have also enabled user-generated content to
be more stimulating for the user and more efficiently managed. The current growth in web log usage also allows users to contribute richer content (e.g. to news stories) in the form of text, pictures, and audio and video clips."

Page 32: "BBC Online’s ambition to syndicate online content to other providers (for example, free and non-exclusive arrangements for commercial websites such as to carry BBC news headlines), and to other devices (for example, free and non-exclusive arrangements with mobile providers to ensure position of BBC Online on WAP versions), is again, a means to drive towards 100% reach. Reach is a key means to ensure that increasing numbers of licence fee payers can derive some value from the BBC’s online services. This strategic goal does, however, risk the BBC being perceived by commercial operators as an aggressive, and unfairly advantaged competitive force. Submitters to the review also argued that the BBC’s current
inconsistent approach to linking, the prominence of BBC Online results in its search engine, and the low level of joint venture or externally commissioned projects have compounded this

Page 35 has a graph of BBC Online Expenditure, charted over the years... the division with the most expenditure is of course News with 15.5m in 2003/04, second is Nations & Regions with 11.6m and third is Factual and Learning with 10.1m.

That'll do for now, more on the technology assessment appendix tomorrow :-)

Sunday 4 July 2004


Hello and welcome to what is currently called "Brendan's Braindump" -- Brendan Quinn's thoughts about the world of content management systems, the techniques of teasing these systems into doing something that's actually useful to human beings, and generally the practice of managing content in enterprises large and small.

Basically I figured after more than ten years on the web, it was about time I got myself a blog.

Hopefully this one will be updated more frequently than my horrendous efforts on Advogato (wow! over three years of inactivity, is that a record?) and one on livejournal I think I created once but can't remember for the life of me... and for that matter my own website which is lucky to see an update every six months.

So why did I never update my blog/s before? I know exactly why. It's simple really. I never thought I had anything interesting enough to say.

I'm not like a lot of bloggers out there who seem to have the web equivalent of verbal diahrroea, enjoying the sound of their own voice (or is it the glow of their own pixels? or something like that).

I suffer from indecision -- or is it insecurity? From the paralysing thought that what I am now writing might be proven wrong tomorrow, derided in other blogs, laughed at by posterity. No matter what I write, I know that unless I believe in it unequivocally I will never be happy with it. And being a scientifically-minded sceptic, it takes a *lot* for me to believe in something unequivocally.

The other reason, which in a way is the same reason I guess, is that I am far too much of a perfectionist. I will spend way too long going back and editing everything I said, trying to make it read more fluently, grimacing at my woeful use of what is after all the only language I speak, trying to cram way too many ideas into way too few lines, and becoming even more obsessed with spelling and punctuation. I know blogs are supposed to be free form, conversational, and mostly unedited, but that's just not my way. I like structure, I like correctness, and I take the time to make sure things are right. Already I've lost count of the number of times I've deleted chunks of this post and re-typed them (including this very sentence).

So it's really taken me ten years to realise that these qualities can be seen as virtues, and if nothing else they make me different from most other bloggers out there. Hopefully it will at least end up that I say things with meaning, things worth reading. (Not so far, I'll admit.)

It's taken me ten years to realise that I actually have things to say, but they are still swishing around my brain, waiting to be released in a more permanent, more structured way. And the only way to get them out is to start writing about them. And a blog is as good a way to do that as any.

In a way I've been forced into doing this, because my job is now requiring me to think some more, and write some more, about what content management means and where it will be in a few years' time... Where will the world of web services, rich metadata, and peer-to-peer applications leave the still fairly push-centric world of digital publishing? What lessons can the relatively established practice of web content management teach the "serious" media and broadcasting companies that are finally waking up to truly converged, truly digital audio and video production? What new standards will emerge to guide us through this difficult process of making so many different systems, processes and people work together?

Of course you would think that being a full-time, self-employed content management consultant for a year during all of 2001 and part of 2002 would have forced me into thinking about what I stood for, and what content management really meant, but at the time it was revolutionary enough just to be someone who asked the right questions.

Now I want to start thinking about some answers.