Those who do not understand the past…

are condemned to write bad newspaper articles about it.

Read this, from Ian Katz in The Guardian

Despite the huge success of its website over the last decade, the Guardian was a relative latecomer to the business of online news. While competitors such as the Daily Telegraph built efficient and well-used digital facsimiles of their print editions, the Guardian instead established a new media “skunkworks” team, tasked with dreaming up innovative online ideas, in an airy old warehouse just across the road from its main offices.

There a group of programmers and young journalists dabbled in a curious range of experimental projects from a wildly ambitious, multilingual website for Euro 96 to Shift Control, a webzine so painfully cool that every issue was redesigned from scratch. When, in 1997, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger dispatched me across the road with instructions to redirect their efforts to building an online version of the Guardian itself, the team wore the despondent look of a bunch of German soldiers who had just been sent to the Eastern Front.

But though many of the hipsters soon departed, some of the lateral, webcentric spirit of the New Media Lab animated our plans for the online Guardian.

Then read this, from my ‘my life as a new media dog‘ on this very website

In early 1995 Tony Ageh of The Guardian suggested I join them there full-time to do Web stuff, having already made The Guardian the first UK national paper with any online content. In January 1996 Tony left to go to Virgin and I became head of the New Media Lab. I stayed until September 1996, having seen the successful launch of The Guardian site, The Observer site, GO2 (Guardian Online online), Top Marques online and the phenomenally wonderful, covering Euro ‘96.

At The Guardian we were convinced we could change the world of newspapers, We were playing around with design, navigation, content and approach, looking for ways to take the printed newspaper online while preserving the values and attitude that made it work: we were all about brand extension, not about being an income-generating business unit. This gave us a freedom that others could only marvel at – when Vauxhall gave us £250,000 to build a Website for the Euro ‘96 tournament I spent all of it on the best site in the world, drawing the wrath of my director, Stella Beaumont.

But I was right – the point was to spend the money and do something great, not feed 10% to The Guardian. Two years later, at the time of the World Cup in France, was still the benchmark for how to do a major sporting event on the Web.

I left The Guardian for many reasons, not least being the tension between the newsroom and its journalists and the Web team under my direction. Since leaving I can’t understand why I stayed as long as I did. My successor, Robin Hunt, lasted a matter of months. His successor, Ian Katz, threw away all the Guardian had learned, and it was left to Simon Waldman and Emily Bell to turn the experiment into a viable, brand-building proposition.

Funny how things can look different from different perspectives.

Turn and Face the Strain

I left my job as head of The Guardian’s New Media Lab in 1996 to work as a freelance writer and consultant, and also to look after my two young children. After a few years of freelance life I started to describe myself as ‘unemployable’, and to tell anyone who would listen that not only would I never want to go back to office life but that I doubted anyone with any sense would take me on. 

When I did take on a role as interim publisher at openDemocracy during one of its crises I expressed astonishment that people could schedule meetings for me without actually asking me in advance, and swore never to subject myself to such humiliation in future (or something like that – I may have been drinking at the time).

So it was with some surprise that I found myself seduced by Tony Ageh, the man who brought me on board at The Guardian all those many years ago and who now rejoices in the title of Controller, Archive Development at the BBC, into taking on what many might describe as a ‘proper job’ at the BBC, as opposed to my casual appearances on websites, radio programmes and the odd TV news bulletin. 

For the next six months I will be working part-time as Head of Partnership Development for the BBC Archive Project, working with Tony and the team under Director Roly Keating to build relationships between the BBC and other cultural institutions based around a shared interest in digitisation, standards and practical applications of the enormous archives that form Britain’s cultural history.

I get a desk and a computer on the seventh floor of TV Centre, access to the staff canteen and a chance to bump into Director-General Mark Thompson in the corridor early in the morning as I stagger in to the office, clutching my coffee.  And I get to have some influence on what I believe is the most important project the BBC is currently working on, finding a way to take the vast amount of material that the Corporation has accumulated over the decades and put it to work in our digital world.

This isn’t an editorial role, and I’m not working as a BBC journalist in the way Rory Cellan-Jones does, so I won’t stop working as a freelance and general hack, though the things I write for the BBC will now have to follow editorial guidelines.  I’ll still be giving talks and presentations as an independent commentator, since very little of what I normally talk about overlaps with the work I will be doing on the Archive and I won’t have any public profile in my work for the Archive Project.  I’ll have less time for such things of course, but no less interest in the whole range of issues that have motivated me over the years.

I think it’s important that anyone who seeks a public voice, as I do, is open and transparent about their interests, activities and sources of income, so now you all know what’s going on. I probably won’t be able to write much about what I’m actually up to at the BBC, as most of it is about getting projects and relationships to the point where they can be talked about by other people.  However I’ve set up a new Twitter profile, ‘bbcbillt’, where I’ll tweet about what I’m up to so that I keep it out of my main timeline.

And we’ll see how it goes – I’ll watch the ripples change their size, and perhaps leave the stream of warm impermanence.  Changes, indeed.

Start Me Up..

[As ever, this can be read on the BBC News website, as part of their Windows 7 coverage]

In August 1995 I queued to buy the newly-released Microsoft Window 95 from the PC World store in Ropemaker Street, near Moorgate in Central London and hurried off to install it on my desktop computer.

It was hard to miss the launch. Microsoft had bought every advert in that day’s edition of The Times and even licensed the Rolling Stones song ‘Start Me Up’ to promote their brand-new operating system.

I knew what Windows 95 looked like and had seen the Start button and all the other innovations in the user interface, file system and control panel, because I worked in the tech industry and had access to the Windows 95 launch website, and also because I had been to a conference where Microsoft’s Jeremy Gittings showed it all off to a select few outside the developer community, but for most users it was all relatively unknown.

Sometime this week a package containing Windows 7 that I pre-ordered months ago from Amazon will arrive in the post, strike action permitting,  and I’ll get to play with the latest Microsoft technology. However I’ve been using the pre-release version for over three months, so I doubt I’ll be very surprised by it.

Continue reading “Start Me Up..”

What Would Foucault Do?

[This one was on the BBC News website on October 16]

Broadband speeds may remain painfully slow, but the desire to provide access for all will be driven by the pressing need to save money by reforming public services, cutting costs and improving efficiency, whoever is in power.
So we’ll see universal access simply because the financial benefits of online public services will only be realised if nearly everyone has access to them, although there will always be a need to provide offline provision for those who cannot be served effectively through a screen and keyboard and I, like many others, will fight for this.

Over the next five years we can expect to see increasing use of web-based tools as the primary way of accessing state-provided services. I already renew my Road Tax, register to vote, pay my VAT and Income Tax, hand over the money for my TV Licence and pay the occasional parking penalty charge online, and I expect that soon I will have no need to write or phone a single agency to transact my business with government at local or national level.

The drive to digital will also be fuelled by increasing demands for transparency, as the crisis of faith in our MPs created by the revelations about expenses claims works its way through the political system, while a desire to emulate Obama will give extra impetus to the  Googleisation of Government IT and initiatives like Any resemblance  to its transatlantic cousin,, which speaks proudly of its exciting mission to ‘increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government’, is of course entirely deliberate.

Continue reading “What Would Foucault Do?”

Stop. Look. Change your Password

[I’ve been neglecting this space for the last few weeks… this was published on the BBC News site on October 9]

If you use a web-based email service then here’s a public service announcement. Tufty the Squirrel says ‘Change your password. Now. Before you read the rest of this column. And if you use your webmail password for any other services go and change it there too.’

OK, assuming you’ve done that, we can discuss the apparent plundering of tens or even hundreds of thousands of login details from Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail and other web-based email services, revealed last week when a partial list of ten thousand addresses was posted to – and quickly withdrawn from – the Pastebin code-sharing website and details of another 30,000 accounts were posted elsewhere.

The compromised email addresses seem to be the result of a number of phishing exercises, where fake websites are set up to harvest login credentials from those who can be tricked into visiting the phishing site instead of the authentic home page for their service provider, and not related to any security flaws in the webmail services themselves.

Continue reading “Stop. Look. Change your Password”

Neo-Nomad at Large

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]

A couple of years ago I wrote about my life as a ‘neo-nomad’, one of the growing number of people who use digital technologies to allow them to work from anywhere, living with ‘no office, colleagues who are largely engaged with online and often a number of overlapping projects to be juggled and managed at the same time’.

It was a pattern of life that had emerged for me over years of being freelance as I put more and more of my work on a laptop and found that I could generally rely on being connected to the Internet when I needed to be, initially over dialup lines ‘borrowed’ from amenable friends, then via open wireless networks, and now thanks to the good graces of my 3G dongle.

Continue reading “Neo-Nomad at Large”