Here’s a recent talk I gave in a session on Future Documentary at a BBC Academy event. My focus was on crowd-funding, collaboration, and “connected documentary”.
Posts Tagged ‘BBC’
Tags: 18 Days in Egypt, BBC, BBC Academy, crowd-funding, Documentary, Highrise, HTML5, Popcorn Maker; Kickstarter, Sound it Out
Tags: BBC, Bear71, Doctor Who, Gaza-Sderot, Highrise, Human Planet, i-Docs, iPlayer, Journey to the End of Coal, National Film Board of Canada, Participatory Culture, Prison Valley, Radio Ballads, The Family, Video Diaries
You’re a journalist; investigating the working conditions of the miners who are fuelling China’s industrial growth. You follow leads, conduct interviews in the polluted, devastated landscape of Shanxi, where workers are living in grim conditions, risking their lives for the production of products that we consume. This is the experience of Journey to the End of Coal, a fine example of a new breed of documentary projects – web-based, interactive – emerging in the last few years. It’s a big contemporary issue, approached in an accessible, vivid way – a classic public service offering.
Immersive, participatory; digital platforms offer new opportunities to inform, educate and entertain. This is the BBC’s remit. Yet the BBC is not producing any of the recent documentary projects that take advantage of the interactive and exploratory potential of the web. Why not?
In the mid 2000s the BBC’s critics grew vocal, charging the Corporation with being too big and dominant on too many platforms. There were accusations that it was skewing the commercial market, and criticism of too much unfocussed investment online. The BBC came back with a new strategy. The BBC’s “unique selling point”, it was argued, were great programmes and news. Journalism would thus continue to have a big presence online. A few major TV brands – Human Planet, Doctor Who – would have significant interactive enhancements. BBC Radio too would have substantial web support.
Early BBC experiments in interaction and participation were abandoned. Interactive commissioners were gradually let go, and technology teams were consolidated in the Future Media & Technology Division, separate from editorial staff. On the positive side, that strategic and organisational refocus enabled the development of iPlayer. On the down side it relegated the emerging platforms to supporting roles and the BBC stopped learning about what their creative potential might be.
Since then, the BBC has pursued its focus on linear programmes. Meanwhile, in other major media organisations, production teams have been formed which draw together “old” media skills (video, storytelling) and “new” (experience design, interactivity), and a number of centres of excellence have been developing in the new arts of factual storytelling. Check out the interactive portfolio of the National Film Board of Canada – award winning projects like Highrise; a multi-year, global, participatory investigation into life in the most common form of housing on earth, the tower block, or Bear 71; an irresistible treatment of the deadly clash between humans and animals in the Banff National Park. Browse Arte TV, France’s interactive output. Explore Prison Valley, which uses a game-like approach to interrogate the US prison system, or Gaza/Sderot, a web doc through which the user is confronted with parallel lives in two villages within a few kilometers on either side of the Palestine/Israel border. These projects use compelling interactive formats to engage with pressing themes and questions.
You might say that the BBC already makes terrific documentary content; so why does this matter? There are a number of answers. One of the BBC’s six public purposes requires that it take advantage of emerging technologies. A BBC that doesn’t know how to deploy these new potentials risks becoming redundant to “the people formerly known as the audience” who take interactivity for granted. Looked at from a creative industries perspective, the BBC is the biggest UK commissioner and needs to be producing work in this emerging field – to develop skills and capacity in a sector that could be world-beating, as well as for the value that could offer its audience.
The BBC has been at the forefront of documentary innovation in the era of one-to-many media. With Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads in the 50s, Paul Watson’s The Family in the 70s, Video Diaries in the 90s, innovation delivered new shapes and types of programmes that showed us Britain and the world anew. There’s an opportunity now for a generation of BBC documentary that uses non-linear forms to throw light on the realities and challenges facing us now. Producing this work is part of the crucial project of re-inventing the BBC’s public service role in the participatory culture of the 21st century. I urge the incoming DG to support that development.
Tags: BBC, Monmouth, Monmouthpedia, QR codes, Roger Bamkin, Wales, Wikimedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia
This week saw the launch of , “the world’s first Wikipedia Town” – Monmouth, Wales. Wikipedia says the project will,“…cover a whole town, creating articles on interesting and notable places, people, artifacts, flora, fauna and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible including Welsh.” On Monday I heard Roger Bamkins, Chair of Wikimedia UK, talking about the project. According to Bamkins, the uptake and enthusiasm has been substantial with some articles already translated into 25 languages and a group of thirty local volunteers devoted to PR alone. What’s different from Wikipedia to date is that there’s a locative aspect to content access. Over 1,000 plaques with QR codes (including 100 lovely ceramics like the one below) have been put up around the town so that you can access articles through a smartphone. Meanwhile, geotags in articles will mean you can take a virtual tour of the town using the Wikipedia layer in Google Maps, Streetview or augmented reality software including Layar. There are and have been lots of initiatives in locative and local media but what makes this one powerful is that the Wikipedia platform makes it eminently replicable around the world.
As Editor, New Media at BBC Wales I was involved in an earlier Wales experiment in participatory local web . In the early 2000′s we developed a network of “Where I Live” websites which combined BBC News, Sport and Weather journalism with content by local people. (There’s a 2002 interview with me about the project here.) For reasons I’ve explored here before the BBC decided this type of work wasn’t a strategic priority, and de-commissioned the project after a few years, but various things were evident from the experiment. All sorts of people were keen to create and share content that reflected their locality in the context of a public service project. In an expression of what Clay Shirky has called cognitive surplus, they provided detailed knowledge, unique points-of-view, and items from personal archives which were of great interest to a local and wider public. BBC research about Where I Live showed for example that people who didn’t think of themselves as interested in history were interested in accessing historical content about their own area.
As well as the participatory method, two things connect Monmouthpedia to the emerging documentary projects that most interest me. The first is the way that digital has the potential to connect people in and to the material world. While Monmouthpedia manifests itself on the web, and is associated with a mega social media brand, the project is about connections and impacts in a locality. The project partners include the County Council, 200 businesses, several universities and nearly every school and community group in the area. Fostering these community connections is very much the Wikimedia Foundation’s agenda. As they say. “There are a lot of opportunities for community involvement including teaching and learning of I.T skills, local history, natural history, languages and people of different ages working together.” More concretely, the project has proved the catalyst for a Wales first – a free, town-wide wi-fi network.
Additionally, I’m interested in the power of open rights framework in these participatory processes, making local content accessible and available for new uses by those involved – as knowledge, cultural and economic resource. In this case the museum have adopted the QR codes for visitor information. Meanwhile it’s hoped that the translated articles might play a role in introducing this historic town to potential tourists. You can find out more about Monmouthpedia on the Wikimedia Foundation blog or, if you aren’t too far away, get along to tomorrow’s events. I think we can expect lots more Wikipedia towns before long.
Tags: BBC, Charlotte Moore, Chris Mohr, Global Lives, Highrise, Life in a Day, Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remix, Morgan Matthews, Video Nation
Saturday was filming day for Britain in a Day, the UK version of Life in a Day which is being produced for the BBC by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free company, and directed by Morgan Matthews. Like Life in a Day the project will be made from content shot by the public drawn in through You Tube. The idea is to create, “the definitive self-portrait of Britain today, filmed by you”, which will be broadcast just prior to the 2012 Olympics. According to commissioner Charlotte Moore, all the content uploaded to You Tube will be kept as an archive, a time capsule of Britain 2012.
The BBC has worked with the public in a number of content collaborations designed to capture everyday life over the years. In 1986 over a million volunteers contributed to a snapshot of Britain for the Domesday project, recently revisited as Domesday Reloaded. As Charlotte Moore explains on the BBC blog Britain in a Day has a direct precedent in the BBC’s Video Nation,(the project I co-founded and produced for BBC 2 with Chris Mohr between 1993-2000, and which then continued on BBC online in various guises until March this year.) Looking further back both Video Nation and Life in a Day / Britain in a Day owe a debt to a much earlier British collaborative self-portrait, the remarkable Mass Observation, which began in 1937, and, among many other activities, undertook a number of day surveys,.
With digital tools and the web the early 2000s saw a variety of participatory initiatives at the BBC, projects like Blast, Audio Diaries and the Capture Wales/Cipolwg ar Gymru Digital Storytelling project that I oversaw. Then the mood changed and questions arose about why the BBC should get involved in these initiatives. The projects might be powerful for participants but how did they serve the wider audience? What was the BBC’s role in quality and editorial control in so-called “user-generated content”? More pragmatically, why should the BBC invest in what You Tube seemed to be taking care of?
In the face of these issues, and with commercial criticism that the BBC was doing too much across too many spheres, there was a retreat in the later 2000′s from investment in participatory work. BBC programme makers have gradually become fluent at drawing on social media for audience input and comment, but apart from as witnesses to news events, the BBC seemed to lose sight of its audience as content creators.
So I welcome Britain in a Day as a sign of a renewed curiosity about what might be possible when the BBC and the public work together in documentary. Saturday Nov 12th was an interesting day in an interesting year – the Remembrance commemorations coinciding with the leak about Armed Forces redundancies, with ex-soldiers at Occupy London, a gloomy economic picture contrasting with sublime Autumn weather. Having shown in making The Fallen how he can build a powerful whole from multiple stories, Matthews is just the director to work with the video material that people will have generated.
Putting audience created content into the hands of a professional director is one response to the possibilities of participatory culture for documentary. Projects like Highrise, Man with a Movie Camera; the Global Remix and Global Lives offer alternative approaches and show how collaborative and participatory modes can lead to new forms of documentary experience. I look forward to seeing Britain in a Day. Meanwhile I hope that this commission heralds more experimentation with participatory documentary by the BBC, including non-linear work which can compare with what the National Film Board has been doing in Canada, or Arte in France.
Tags: BBC, Challenge for Change, CINER, Community Programmes Unit, DCRC, Filmmaker-in-Residence, Gerry Flahive, Highrise, Holy Mountain, iDocs, iDocs Symposium, Jacqueline Wallace, Katerina Cizek, MPI-TV, NFB, Out my Window, Peter Wintonick, PIne Point, Public AccessTV, Sandra Gaudenzi, Seeing is Believing, Video Nation
Good news this week from Cannes, where Katerina Cizek / Gerry Flahive‘s ‘Out my Window’ was the deserving winner of a Digital Emmy for non-fiction at MIP-TV. I’ve enthused about this National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary project here a number of times. (Nov ’10, Jan ’11). It’s the first output from Highrise, “a multi-year, multimedia project” exploring “vertical living in the global suburbs”, which brings the stories of people in highrise communities vividly to life in a web based interactive format.
We had hoped the project director Kat Cizek might be able to present her work at the recent DCRC iDocs Symposium. In the end she couldn’t be there, but Sandra Gaudenzi talked to her a few weeks ago on Skype for the iDocs blog. (Also see the substantial consideration of “Out my Window” that Sandra wrote on her Interactive Documentary blog.)
Watching Kat Cizek you get a feel for some of the factors that contribute to the success of ‘Out my Window’. The iterative process – where research leads the thinking about approach – is key to the great fit between form and content. It’s clear that Cizek is an impressive digital producer with a fluency across platforms and technologies, but interactive production is very much about team work and she’s evidently also part of a great creative team.
The commissioning context is really important here too, though. It’s pretty unusual for a commissioner to make a substantial investment in an experimental project with undefined outputs (though that was, it’s worth mentioning, just what happened on BBC 2′s Video Nation project, and was, without doubt, key to why it worked. But that’s another story…) In the case of Highrise, it demonstrates the National Film Board of Canada’s faith in Cizek, and their grasp of non-linear production. For Highrise is one project in an extraordinary body of interactive documentary work that the National Film Board has commissioned. (The NFB were marketing 14 interactive projects at this year’s MIP-TV.) Have a look on their portal. Explore Pine Point or Holy Mountain. These are intelligent works that take advantage of what the web can do to explore the complexities of life now.
More than that, the NFB have invested in the development of digital documentary as a social practice, and Katerina Cizek is crucial to this story. Back in 2002, Cizek, who has described herself as a “social-justice documentarian”, had explored the democratising potential of the camcorder in ”Seeing is Believing”, a film made with Peter Wintonick . So, when the the NFB had the idea to revisit their Challenge for Change project in the digital age by appointing a Filmmaker-in-Residence, it was Cizek they approached.
Challenge for Change was a pioneering NFB participatory media project that started in 1967, in which filmmakers worked in partnership with marginalised communities, not just to reflect their situations, but to change them. 145 films were made within the project which was the inspiration for Public Access TV projects including the BBC’s Community Programmes Unit.
In 2004 the NFB recruited Katerina Cizek, who embedded herself with the health care community at St Michaels, an inner-city hospital in Toronto, and set about reinventing the Challenge for Change model as a digital project – as what she called “Interventionist Media.” You can see what happened in “The Seven Interventions of Filmmaker-in-Residence“, a film charting the five year process. Watch it. It’s inspiring. There’s also a DVD box set that came out of the project, that I haven’t seen yet. In the words of Jacqueline Wallace, who interviewed Cizek in 2010 for CINER (the Concordia Interactive Narrative & Research Group), ”The resulting work is nothing short of a multimedia juggernaut and includes several films, a photo exhibit, a filmmaker’s blog, and a web documentary that exemplifies non-linear narrative and the possibilities it represents to tell the stories of real people and create real change.”
Out my Window is, then, very much a continuation of Cizek’s energetic engagement with the possibilities of non-linear, with documentary for social change and with participatory and collaborative processes. It’s also a triumph in terms of its realisation – with evocative soundscapes, rich 360 photography, and flashes of animation brought together through apt, engaging visual navigation. [Do we yet have a good term for that 'bringing together', that process of montage in interactive production?]
So, congratulations to Cizek and the team. Do check out the latest, Participate section of Out my Window, which artfully presents photo contributions gathered through a Flickr group. It includes a stunning sequence of images that witness the Egyptian Revolution as seen from a window in Alexandria in February.
I’m going to be really interested to see how the Highrise project will evolve from here. Right now, I’ll leave you with the Manifesto for Interventionist Media that Cizek wrote while working with the community at St Michael’s. (It comes from the Filmmaker in Residence blog - Cizek talks about it in the video above.) It’s a great document – a blueprint for a socially engaged documentary practice.
- The original project idea and goals come from the community partner.
- The filmmaker’s role is to experiment and adapt documentary forms to the original idea. Break stereotypes. Push the boundaries of what documentary means.
- Use documentary and media to “participate” rather than just to observe and to record. Filmmaker-in-Residence is not an A/V or a PR department.
- Work closely with the community partner, but respect each other’s expertise and independence.
- Use whatever medium suits – video, photography, world wide web, cell phones, ipods or just pen and paper. It can all be documentary.
- Work through the ethics, privacy and consent process with your partners before you begin, and adapt your project accordingly. Sometimes it means changing your whole approach – or even dropping it. That’s the cost of being ethical.
- The social and political goals – and the process itself — are paramount. Ask yourself every day: why are you doing this project?
- Always tell a good story.
- Track the process, the results and spend time disseminating what you’ve learned with multiple communities: professionals, academics, filmmakers, media, general public, advocates, critics and students.
- Support the community partner in distribution and outreach. Spend 10% of the time making it and 90% of the time getting it out into the world.
Tags: BBC, Blast Theory, Documentary, Documentary film, Interactive Documentary, Jon Dovey, Judith Aston, Nick Cohen, Sandra Gaudenzi, Upian
The Digital Cultures Research Centre ,which is the home of my research, is putting on a one-day symposium on Interactive Documentary next March – called iDocs. It’s being put together by DCRC colleagues Judith Aston and Jon Dovey in collaboration with Sandra Gaudenzi, whose Interactive Documentary blog and archive is the online resource in this area.
There’ll be keynotes from people who’ve made major contributions to this emerging field – Upian (Prison Valley, Gaza/Sderot, Havana/Miami), Blast Theory (Rider Spoke, Desert Rain, A Machine To See With), and BBC Multiplatform Commissioning Executive for Documentary, Nick Cohen.
If you’d like to take part there’s a call for papers out now – deadline Nov 26th, or you can sign up to attend on the iDocs site. See you there.
Tags: Anne Heppermann, BBC, Berkman Center, Capitol of Punk, James Burns, Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler, Main Street, Mapping Main Street, Media and Place Productions, National Public radio, NPR, Sinclair Lewis, UnionDocs, Voices, Yellow Arrow, Zeega
“When politicians and the media mention Main Street, they evoke one people and one place. But there are over 10,466 streets named Main in the United States… Mapping Main Street is a collaborative documentary media project that creates a new map of the United States through stories, photos, and videos recorded on actual Main Streets.”
Back in April I wrote about visiting UnionDocs in Brooklyn and mentioned an independent project created by the Co-Directors of the UnionDocs Collaborative - Mapping Main Street. I’m an admirer of this collaborative documentary project which has set out to reflect the diverse realities of Main Street America, unsettle assumptions, and foster dialogue in and about community life.
The four creators of MMS are a transdisciplinary group. Kara Oehler and Anne Heppermann are public radio producers, multimedia journalists and sound artists. Jesse Shapins is an urban media artist and theorist. James Burns is an economist, photographer, mathematician, who created the information architecture and data engine of the MMS website. Together they have significant experience and expertise in media production and public participation, informed by a conceptual framework that sees media as public domain and art as a tool for engaging “matters of common concern”. Jesse was one of the creators of the influential Yellow Arrow public art project, and Kara and he first worked together on the Yellow Arrow offshoot “Capitol of Punk”, a non-linear documentary mapping Washington’s music scene.
Mapping Main Street was created as a response to the way that politicians were invoking Main Street to stand for “ordinary America” during the 2009 election campaign. This is hardly a new story, as Jesse noted in an article for “Writing Cities”, since the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street in 1920, “Main Street has been a highly contested shifting metaphor for what constitutes traditional American values and the “average” American experience.” MMS was designed as an intervention in this story through the co-creation and sharing of multiple representations of “these corridors of commerce and community” as seen from the streets themselves.
The project kicked off in May 2009 with a 12,000 mile journey across the country to visit Main Streets and gather material, followed by promotion to the team’s networks and, through a National Public Radio series, to the wider public. Audio stories with stills made by the team act as seed content to inspire and encourage contributions that are posted on Flickr and Vimeo, and drawn in to the MMS website using public APIs. The aspiration is to document all of the streets named Main in the USA, and to date there’s content from 591.
I’ve been keen to talk to the MMS team and recently hooked up with Jesse and Kara on skype for a phone interview which you can read here. The interview covers important fundamentals of collaborative participatory work – the role of the producer in “designing frameworks that have very specific constraints” (my italics – I think this is key), the relationship between professionally produced and citizen content, the challenge of how to structure a good user-experience from a “gigantic database”- a challenge met by the MMS team through what they call, ”algorithmic curation”.
An attitude to the database as a creative opportunity for reflecting a non-linear, multi-vocal aesthetic is an exciting aspect of the thinking behind MMS. “What the database enables in the context of public media arts is open-ended, indeterminacy. Instead of simply representing a singular thesis, the database allows for multiplicity… a framework that brings together multiple voices and multiple media formats. “ (From a presentation by Jesse & Kara to the Northeastern School of Architecture Feb’10). The team plans to share this approach through the development of Zeega, an open-source toolkit for the creation of API-driven interactive documentaries, which is high on the agenda of a new organisation they’ve set up, the non-profit Media And Place (MAP) Productions.
Something we didn’t touch on in the interview is the appeal of Main Street as subject matter. In a presentation by Kara, James and Jesse at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard (which is well worth watching), Kara says that when she records vox pops on the street usually only one in three people will be prepared to talk, but on this theme everyone wants to talk! This reminded me of how eager people were to talk about Voices, a project about accent and dialogue that I was involved in at the BBC, and it’s interesting to think about why some topics engage in that way. On Voices it seemed that people had a confidence, a sense of ownership of the subject - we are all, after all, experts in our own linguistic usage. Many also wanted to weigh in about the issues of class and power that play out around language (at least in the UK). The subject was also emotionally resonant – it seemed to me because language is so linked to where we have come from – both geographically, but also in the oedipal sense. Main Street is similarly resonant, layered and contested thematic territory, and as such fertile ground for participation and debate.
Getting the subject matter right is clearly important to any media project but it’s critical for a participatory project which needs to matter and to be accessible for people to want to get involved. That’s happening on MMS, with educators in particular picking up the topic and facilitating local initiatives around it. Main Street is a great subject, and Mapping Main Street is doing important work with it – engaging a dialogue about the lived experience of this site of “common concern”.
I just received a copy of “8″- a collection of essays about a research collaboration between the BBC and the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Eight academic studies looked at public participation in BBC new media. (I was the BBC partner on one of the studies which looked at the Capture Wales Digital Storytelling project. ) The other studies include a study of public feeling about use of the BBC archive – through local responses to material from the Miner’s Strike ’84/85 – a fascinating subject because it’s so contested, and a valuable piece entitled “ugc @thebbc” which takes apart the catch-all category of ”user generated content” by analysing who actually sends stuff in to BBC News and elsewhere, and makes some important distinctions between types of ’audience material’. The studies say a lot about the willingness of the audience to become creators, as well as the considerable barriers to getting involved which lead to the unevenness of participation right now. You can download all the studies and the 8 commentaries at the project blog.