Category Archives: backstage

Farewell BBC Backstage

Mashed hacks

I can’t talk about leaving the BBC without mentioning the end of another era…

In another part of the BBC at roughly the same time I left, a fantastic project that I had the honour of working on, BBC Backstage, was sadly wound down after 5 years.

Backstage at Bristol Web Developers conf

If you haven’t come across BBC Backstage before, it was catalyst for the BBC (and consequently a model that inspired many other orgs and institutions) to open up its data to the world in many forms. This freedom of data and APIs kicked off much innovation and encouraged developers to discuss, share and make mischief in a very positive manner and with a community driven by a mailing list, geek events, projects, plus the wonderful sharing of fantastic talent, enthusiasm and creativity. The Backstage online area had a blog which has now been moth-balled, but is still available (though sadly a server migration lost accreditation to my 20+ posts), BBC feeds and API areas, it had the Wild West servers: a playground for creativity and innovative projects, plus an area to list project news. The Wild West servers were a place to develop many exciting ‘skunkworks’ projects that wouldn’t usually have a home to develop.

Backstage posse

It’s true to say that with anything new and innovative there were both ups and downs as the project leapt forward and tested all kinds of boundaries. I’ve seen a few heated threads on the mailing list, but challenging discussion always provokes more than one viewpoint. I always found the debates, however heated full of passion, interesting points and I learnt huge amounts from the combined views and knowledge of the community, plus some of BBC’s best thinkers. For me the highs were the power of the community, events like Mashed and projects such as RDTV – these outweighed anything that didn’t go exactly to plan and I consider Backstage a great success. I was terribly sad when the BBC powers that be decided that Backstage’s work was done.


Some key people involved in the start-up and running of Backstage were Ben Metcalf, James Boardwell, Tom Loosemore, Matt Cashmore and Ian Forrester. I could write reams on some of my adventures at Backstage, but handily my colleague, Ian Forrester, commissioned Suw Charman Anderson to compile an ebook capturing some of the history and stories from this fantastic era of creativity ‘Hacking the BBC, a Backstage retrospective’ and it’s available as a PDF to download for free.

Yipeeee, my hard copy of ‘Hacking the BBC – a Backstage retrospective’ has arrived!
Hacking the BBC - a Backstage retrospective

Maker Faire UK, Newcastle
Also, Jemima Kiss of the Guardian wrote a very good in-depth article on BBC Backstage, plus there are several blog posts from my former colleagues, Ian Forrester, Adrian Woolard, Ben Metcalf and Martin Belam charting the history of Backstage from different perspectives and eras.

I sincerely hope the spirit of Backstage carries on, I know I’ve made many, many, fantastic friends during my time working on Backstage and have learnt so much, including the maxim “seek forgiveness, not permission” – sometimes it really is the only way to innovate and get stuff done – even if you do get told off sometimes (quite a lot) 😉

Yay, that's my number!

R&DTV Tim O'Reilly tweet


Rasmus Lerdorf talk at the BBC

Yesterday, Backstage was really lucky to have the opportunity to have Rasmus Lerdorf over for a talk. If you don’t know Rasmus, he’s credited with creating PHP and has been at Yahoo! for 7 years.

Rasmus took us back to 1993 and gave us an intro into PHP and it’s uses – it was a mixed level talk because some of our developers are new to PHP and asked me if they could have an intro, so soz hardcore PHP peeps who were expecting a bit more of a hardcore talk.

Rasmus Lerdorf at the BBC

Rasmus Lerdorf at the BBC

I haven’t sorted out all my notes properly as I’m presently at Open Hack 2009, but here’s some of my notes from the Q&A session as they were really interesting, apologies if I typed any of these answers incorrect or got the wrong end of the stick – Rasmus let me know!

Q: Alex asked about back to front controllers…
A: Rasmus: they have a Zend framework – but they’re very slow, as the code has to be evaluated.

Q: Dan: what’s the deploy process at Yahoo!?
A: Rasmus: We have a central package database to ask what package versions are available. What ever you pick it makes sure it picks the files automatically so they’re not half written in the cache.

Q: In terms of source control how do you organize that?
A: We started with CVS but we’re mostly Subversion with Git and we build Wine packages and people work in small groups. We have a central control team called ‘the paranoids’ and we have a code ferret that looks for things. We look for patterns and red flag things.

My goal recently has been to push things developed towards an open source form
You should treat all projects and document like they were open source for the guys who are new to something


Q: Rendan – Staging servers?

A: Rasmus: People make their own processes – Yahoo! is a company of 35 companies so you will get different processes in different areas. Some of the code will be horrible and you’ll have the desire to pull it apart – it’s tricky as you don’t want to rock the boat – i.e. it’s weird but it works for them. There are no central services

Do we use different languages for different parts of Yahoo!?
PHP is the default and so is C++ Fireagle was built in Ruby on Rails, but it’s now in Ruby – Delicious was in Perl for years but is now in PHP. Seven years ago we decided to write everything in PHP, we needed to do this as we had 4 different code bases in Singapore and we had all sorts of coders writing different code. We had to make some hard decisions – even where other code would have been better than PHP we had to do it to standardize everything.


Q: Any drawbacks to using PHP?
A: Rasmus: We may have to revisit it, but not in the next 3-5 years – maybe if I leave!

Q: Yoafv: PHP has had its problems in the past – will PHP be used more for unit testing in the future?
A: Rasmus: Yes, there’s simple test written buy a guy in London, but problems are a separate thing. I keep things very simple – there are some very strong opinions but I don’t want to get into any battles – PHP is a part of a larger system but you get to decide what you test.


Q: Your opinion on Ruby on Rails?

A: Rasmus: Anything I say about Ruby ends on Twitter and blogs and I get people calling my wife – I wish people didn’t care so much about what I think on Rails – the scaffolding is a quick way to write code but the scaffolding doesn’t help you – it’s okay for a weekend project but not good for scaling.

Ruby is good but I don’t have any love for the Rails bit and you also have the problem of finding enough people to write it. I don’t like programming but I like solving problems – with PHP it’s really easy to code and it’s really easy to find coders – it’s a bit harder to do that with other languages when you need to find 2000 developers.


Q: What different types of developers do you have?
A: Rasmus: We have front end guys – they get better and better – the front end engineering team has been beefed up over the last 5 years and you have the back end guys but within that you have the front end back end and the back end back end guys -who write the C++ stuff – there’s 3 distinct groups!


Q: Do you have any recommendations on serving personalized content whilst making the service more dynamic?

A: Rasmus: We don’t serve a single static page at Yahoo! – from ads to personalized data we use good code, it has good latency – we work backwards – you build it so you hit the numbers, it’s not impossible if you throw effort at it. It’s all customizable with news, comics, content, mail etc – not doing it to save money doesn’t make sense.


Q: How do you manage the dependencies?

A: Rasmus: We have this new thing called Wireless (?) which is a framework building many content services and it also does benchmarking – from these little blocks.


Overall it was a very interesting talk, whatever your views on PHP. I was especially interested in the questions people asked, I filmed the event & I’ll put some video up later. Thanks Sophie at Yahoo! for helping make this possible 😀

R&DTV – collaborative project between BBC Backstage (R&D) & RAD

Yay! Today we launched R&DTV, a pilot project that Backstage has been working on with colleagues in RAD (Rapid Application Development). I’ve been working on this as producer: filming, interviewing and generally running about pestering people, also on the team are: co-producer Hemmy Cho, and exec producers Ian Forrester and George Wright.

It’s a monthly tech programme and we’ve been interviewing some really interesting developers and media folk inside/outside the BBC, using off the shelf technology and then distributing it via a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial license. It comes in three forms: a five min version of the best bits, a 30 min version with in-depth conversation and an asset bundle if you’d like to remix the content, including the bits we didn’t use. We’ve got some great interviews in Episode 1 with the Digg guys, Nicholas Negroponte and from BBC R&D / Learning Innovation: Ant Miller, George Auckland and Graham Thomas. In May we’ll release Episode 2 in which we’ll be sharing a some more top interviews and if these go down well we might create even more! 🙂

The project isn’t just about interesting interviews, it’s also about using off the shelf video kit, researching encoding and looking at ways to distribute video – we still at early doors and I’m sure as we progress on our journey it’s going to get very interesting.

You can download the interviews to enjoy in several formats: Flash, Quicktime and Ogg Theora – here’s some links:

Videos can also be viewed on YouTube and Blip.TV. You can find more on our FTP site and also take a mo to check out the cute read me page 😀

Hope you like it!

Here’s some of the places where you can find reportage, feedback & comments on R&DTV so far:
* The Guardian
* The Pirate Bay
* TorrentFreak
* Creative Commons
* Digg
* ubuntuuk

BarcampLondon6, Guardian Offices, KX London

I’m in a very warm room with about 120(?) people in the swanky new Guardian Offices in Kings Angry, London. Emma Persky is doing a good job of the welcome and *stuff* – there’s a lot of familiar faces and a few Barcamp Virgins who shyly stuck their hands up when asked 🙂

So far I’ve had a strong cup of coffee – glad I brought my soy cream – am am being cooked by the very warm lights!

Backstage are one of the sponsors and I have a load of pens and stickers to give out and will also hopefully capture some of the thoughts and happenings on my ickwl Xacti cam – so do come up to me and say hello 😀

Emma has just announced a Lego competition to make a letter and then the grid (the scheduler) will be open for people to add their sessions!


I put myself down on The Grid for the first round of talks – mine was a discussion on Arduino, electronics and how tinkerers can possibly shape the future of product design and research by designing their own wish list products…

This turned into an interesting discussion as people who attended were a mixture of those who had recently heard about arduino/tinkering with electronics, people who were interested in playing with this technology, those who were really experienced in using this technology and me, who has tinkered a bit and wants to learn more!

Peter Knight, from made the point that arduino technology was a good platform for prototyping, but you probably wouldn’t make a gadget of the future from it. We went on to discuss various types of hacks and bending such as ‘sustainability’ ie hacking existing technology – for example someone has hacked the doorbell of The Hub so that people can let themselves in with their Oyster cards. We also talked about large scale tech that is made only to last a few months until the next upgrade – ie mobile phones – how can we reuse this technology?

Finally we talked about custom builds – how we make technology we want from our own wish lists – this is very prevelant within music enthusiasts. I talked about how making custom accessibility hacks/tools could help shape the future of accessible products.

There are several groups and companies who are evolving who are looking at this:
Open Hardware Hacking Group


Next I went to a talk on Current Cost meters – these a gadgets that you use at home to track your usage of electricity and make you aware of how much you are using/spending. People are creatively hacking them to show data in different ways, from getting their data to appear on Twitter (and even writing code to make it appear they’re still using power if they’re on hols), to building hardware that glows in relation to how much electricity you are using. We heard about a hack created at Mashed08 – a prototype using XBOX to make a game/competition to see who out of a group of friends is using the lowest reading totals over different times of the day and also making suggestions how you can fix things to make your usage more efficient. They also created some widgets so that you don’t have to go to a specific site to see the data, but can put the data on sites like Twitter or your blog and also in different ways of presenting and visualising.

He also gave the example of a friend who was leant a Current Costs meter noticed that he was using more electricity than anyone else in his friend group, some investigation tracked down that the electricity for the whole blocks showers was being attributed to this chaps bill.

Current Cost meters can also show how using an old fridge will cost more in electricity than buying a new more efficient fridge. You can borrow Current Cost meters from libraries to see test your home usage and some electricity companies even give them out for free. Even if you think you know your usage, some surprises can be outed – such as leaving a surround sound system on or halogen lights in your kitchen!


My next talk was on Safe Stoozing!
This was all about how to make money from no interest credit card deals, for example maxing them out for a year and putting the money in a high interest account or an ISA. There are hidden terms and costs to be aware of such as a small interest charge per month, but if you are clever these are minimal!

Some tips for Stoozing:

  • Be clued up about what you are doing – read the small print
  • You are not going to spend the money – don’t buy toys
  • Do not spend on the credit card – as soon as you’ve transferred the money you chop up the card
  • You have to be meticulous with payments – set up a direct debit
  • Stoozing isn’t for the faint-hearted or be careful or you’ll end up paying back a lot of money!

Remember it’s not your money!


Processing with J4mie

We heard a quick tour of coding language: Processing, what it is, the interface how it’s code is comparable/different from other languages such as Java. Also about the book Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham – which argues that programming is an act of making and included some analogies to the creative process of painting and music making.


Flashing Lights with Nigel Crawley

Nigel showed us how his interest in ambient info lighting was piqued by the Tabard Square housing project which has ambient light cubes which change colour by measuring air pressure on top of buildings and reflects this in various hues of light.

He’s been experimenting with DMX (like midi for lights) lighting since attending a workshop at and started wondering how you could get Flash/Air apps to talk to lights. He created an prototype using arduino and Processing sketches with a DMX sheild, which in turn talks to Adobe Air and using all the colour hues fed out as RGB data. DMX is a serial protocol with 512 channels and can work with 32 channels . You can daisy chain items such as different lamps all with different channels such as red green blue white. OSC (Open sound control) works over local network or internet so you could have a lamp ensemble – it’s great for controlling lamps, sound synths, multimedia, etc. Nigel also has an iPhone using OSC (an app costing a couple of quid) working over wifi via a laptop to control lighting. He was also using Patchbay & Pachube air monitoring data to create baromic ambient lighting.


Hacking with ikea and other simple pleasures – @kenlim

Ken Lim works at the Guardian and one of his pet pleasures is hacking with Ikea products – here’s what he told us…

Objective: to encourage people to make and break stuff


  • 2.0 envy
  • make 2.0 exists
  • it’s fun

Hacking in the real world is fun! We should encourage more hacking fun in the real world…

Why ikea?

  • It’s cheap
  • modular in nature
  • functional, minimalist design

Ken realised that he could make a bespoke table top and take ikea legs to make his own bespoke table.

Example: Ikea TERTIAL lamp – it has ripped off classic anglepoise lamp design and costs £6.84 – it’s quite cheap and this has enabled people to play with it, for example, someone has made a tertial lamp chandelier with 3 lamps.

Another example KROKEN towel rail that sells for £1.95 – Ken used it for a DVD mount using two of them.

  • Extremely cool example* – a guy took an Ikea table top and carved out an electric guitar from it for £15 and could, the table top was big enough to carve 3 out of one table top

Case study and lessons learnt:
• need documentation pictures
• need both hands free
• I don’t want to hold the camera over the workspace
Solving – need documetatio pictures
• Tripods are too restrictive
• Tripod with a boom too expensive
• Solution is the tertial arm ☺

Lesson1 – don’t stress it test it

  • Solving the need for both hands free
  • the solution is the robot finger – has built an arduino box to work with a servo and cat5 cable – works with 5 lines of code!

Lesson 2: servos are awesome!
Another example is the Guardian build monitor which will let you know if the build is going okay – if they break it they get ‘the chicken’ from their build architect Phil

A proposal to managemt
The build lord
• audible warning
• obvious indication
• proactive
light saber that goes off and then you can take out the offender!

Lesson 3 – work with what you got

Things to consider
• no copy and paste… yet – cheaper 3d printing is coming
• you will break things – buy spares – stress on hardware build quality
• look around – so much awesome stuff around – prob is where you’re going to keep it all
• be a kid – have fun

There followed much fun and frivolity, and cocktail drinking into the night, here’s a nice photo of The Hodge in his jams – not a sight often seen in the Guardian Offices!


Day two

I was woken at about 7 or 8am, depending on whether you count the clocks going forward, by a chap informing me that the floor I was sleeping on was about to be used for a talk, so I sluggishly dragged myself up after about an hour and a bit sleep – I think it was way past 5am that I looked for a floor to crash on after the Werewolf and cocktail fun – meep!

After spending some time trying to wake up and make myself presentable, I greeted my fellow BarCampers both IRL and on teh intertweets – who were also in various stages of sleep/unsleep.

I decided I needed to do something drastic to get myself going and coffee wasn’t doing it, so I joined a chi gong class – which my body did it’s best to resist, but did wake me up a little and found myself getting to know a couple of developers better by the power of push hands!


Peter Knight from talked about his arduino tea measuring gadget, which comprised of a set of scales with a infra-red protocol from & an oscilloscope in audacity sending 0s & 1s.

He also showed Auduino – a synth which generates audio tones, which also included some LEDs to create a very cool effect. Finally he talked about DMX for LED lighting, like midi or serial port – you can play with mains lighting that’s isolated. have a specially made shield All the code is on

Lots of fun was had by the audience inspecting and playing with the gadgets after!


Alex from talked us through a list of infamous products/gadgets over recent history such as the smart fridge, nabaztag, iphone to micro printer that talks to twitter – from successful large products, to ones that didn’t get anywhere to very small, but beautiful gadgets.

She went on to break down products into five categories and discussed our relationships with them :

  • Me
  • My stuff
  • My home
  • My people
  • My city

A very interesting and thought provoking talk (unfortunately my notes aren’t very comprehensive) especially some of the questions and thoughts about micro production of products for specialist users and micro markets that came at the end.


Ask the BBC Anything – Ian Forrester joined by any passing BBC bunnies

Basically we invited people to come and ask us questions, as usual Ian took centre stage – so I gave up trying to get a word in 😉 or videoing the session as I was craning my neck as Ian was kinda standing over me – not great for camera angles & some of our answers were personal thoughts, rather than official answers so decided it was more fun to enjoy the session than try to film it.

Questions ranged from subjects such as the BBC Archive, to the future of the BBC & licensing, to Backstage & beyond.


Well, sadly BarCampLondon6 had to end, but it was great and I thought it was very well executed, thanks to everyone involved. Note to self: remember to *poke* the organisers of the next one very early for vegan food 😉

Maker Faire UK, Newcastle

On the way up our chatter about Twitter encouraged Alia to join the fun, but Cy wasn’t convinced. We met Andy, Tony and Ian here and have shifted some of the kit into the Maker Faire marquee and have plans for some exciting ‘makes’ – we’ve also brought some interesting demos, so if you’re in the area come and see us – we’re a mixture of BBC Backstage, R&D engineers and RAD teams. The fun for the public starts at 10am – come and say hello if you’re attending this exciting event 🙂

Two views of the team (alternating between Alia & I behind the camera) everyone’s a bit tired, tho I seem to be a bit hyper!

Saturday morning

Too early:
Good morning people! I’m stumbling about at 7.30am in my hotel room in Newcastle. We had a full-on day yesterday driving up in our Tweeple Carrier and were up till 2am sorting out last minute bits and bobs for today’s Maker Faire UK at the Life Centre in Newcastle.

07:30am -ish
Alia and Ant off to the Maker Faire marquee

10:00am -ish
Ian and I arrive, we’re scolded for being late – we were having an important Backstage meeting – honest!

I’m interviewing various people about their makes – will add some names/linkys for you later!

I grab James Boardwell to tell us about the Folksy and stand

Things are well and truly in full swing there’s a lot of people here poking, prodding and being very enthusiastic about how much fun you can have with electronics and craft. There’s a really good buzz around the BBC stand, kids are loving the tanks and having a lot of fun with the steady cam and other demos. Ian and Ant have gone to the other Maker Faire venue to do some talks about Backstage and ideas around a BBC Micro for the 21st Century. I am manning the stall and discussing our arduino tanks with curious visitors.

I am about to have my lunchbreak when I spot Nick Woolley and his amazing LED hat – I have seen his hat online and was in awe of it then, so go chasing after him. I get an interview in a dark place as it’s too bright in the tent – not sure about the cam handling dark spaces, so will see in logging the footage if it’s usable!

Go blinking into the sunshine to try to find a vegan sammich

I help Chris Vallance with his interviews by guarding the satellite link up and being mindful that no-one including myself stands in front of it. I’m outside and behind a security fence, so people wandering past make helpful offers to release me from my cage 😉

Final demos of the day and then it’s time to pack up.

Debrief in Ian’s room – Alia has had a can of RedBull and going through the shoot itinary for tomorrow, she’s the only one awake – everyone else is falling asleep.

We tell Alia we can’t take any more and we recieve very detailed SMS itineries for tomorrow – meet at 7:30am = argggh!


Day two

06:00am Up and getting ready

07:15am Breakfast meet-up

08:00am Get to the Maker Faire tent – I begin with the outside establishing shots

08:30am Get a few quick interviews with some of the other makers, as well as our gang

09:15am Oooh public are let in early and from then on I am interviewing people back to back all day, such as Sarah Angliss, the chap with the Twitter Bubblino and tons of others!

13:00pm I film Ian Forrester & Ant Miller’s talks on Backstage & BBC Micro for the 21st Century

14:00pm I film Ian Forrester talking about the future of Backstage

16:30pm Mad rush to get our robot finished before the end so we can present it

17:00pm After a couple of hiccups it’s working and we show the public

18:00pm Mad rush to pack away and get home!

11:45pm Back in London

03:00am Just about packed for MIX09

06:00am Up again and rushing to get the train to Heathrow for nearly 24 hours of travel!

London Backstage Communities Network Bash

Thanks to everyone who came to the London Backstage Networking Bash last night / this morning. I had a lovely time although I didn’t actually get to spend much time with anyone. Not coz I didn’t want to but just because I was too busy – either unpacking/setting up stuff, fiddling with a walkie talkie, liaising with the venue staff, crawling under tables/hunting for obscure male /female jacks in bags or finding a t-shirt in one of the combination of sizes.

The party fun of an event planner is pretty lonely. It’s very sober (no alcohol for me all night) and not very social = not one I usually experience. I felt pretty guilty all night as I left half constructed conversations or hellos with good friends – being tapped on the shoulder & breaking off to answer a question, find something on another floor or reset the Skype. I was really torn and I had to leave my usual time for my friends at the door to cut off and just *do* things, as it were… I felt like I had wonky eyes all night – talking to friends, but having a roving eye on the peripheral… From the time I got there at 6pm I spent all night without a drink, lipstick check or time to go to the loo. Really!

Not to worry though because it wasn’t *my* party – it was a hello and thank you for all the lovely people who had are involved with the Backstage communities and had made the effort to cross London and the home counties, on a really shitty night of torrential rain for the east end of London. Everyone was lovely and no-one moaned about the weather, the distance or the fact that we didn’t have any booze sponsors this year.

I loved watching people interact over Skype to say hello to peeps at the Backstage do in Manchester. As there was music going on (thanks Dom) they found inventive ways to communicate such as games of hangman – reversing letters to construct hellos and questions such as ‘Where is Ian?’

A nicer bunch of people you couldn’t find. They’re all fabulous, clever, fun amazing people (and I say that most sincerely) I love you all and give you a big *hug* (okay now I feel emotional) – meep!

I want to say a *HUGE* thank you to Brendan Crowther, Dominic Travers Sarah Mines, Gareth Davies, and Ciaran Anscomb for being generous with their time to help get the kit there, DJ, set up, look after the door and our lovely guests!