A future of Politics and News Online

Warning – personal opinions, not official BBC policy or product announcements, within.

What with the Local and EU Parliament Elections, the Scottish Referendum, and a General Election next May, 2014-15 is a momentous year for UK politics. The BBC has, and will have, a big role to play in bringing coverage and results from these elections to the nation and the world.

Today, I talked to the team at the Government Digital Service about some of the work I, and others I work with, have been doing in the political arena of BBC News Online. Here’s a write up of said talk.

The BBC has a mandate, as part of the Royal Charter, to “encourage citizenship and civil society…by promoting understanding of the UK’s political system.” For ‘Vote 2014‘, the name the BBC gave to the local and EU elections, we used semantic tagging to bring together relevant content from across BBC journalism – traditionally siloed as TV, radio and online, centred around the things that were most important to our users – the councils and constituencies where they live.

There’s a lot more about the work I did, including making sure our tags were linked up to open data sources, in the blog post I wrote for the BBC Internet Blog, back in May. But there’s another side to the BBC’s coverage of Politics, online, aside from day-to-day reporting and election coverage.

Democracy Live is a part of the BBC News website which seeks to directly fulfil the requirement to ‘promote understanding of the UK’s political system’. In essence, it is the equivalent of the BBC Parliament channel on TV. Yet it has some added features – transcripts of the proceedings of most, if not all, of the representative institutions, are made searchable, and there is a page for every representative in each major House or Assembly.

Unfortunately, it is a part of the BBC News website which is also rather siloed. And whilst it has an important role to play, and an appreciative audience within the political class, it runs the risk of super-serving that audience – when surely the point of the clause in the Royal Charter is to bring the political understanding to a much wider audience.

As a result, in my role as Data Architect, working with both BBC News Online and with BBC News Labs (part of the BBC’s R&D division), I’ve recently created a prototype which explores how we might integrate the content and concepts present within Democracy Live, with the rest of BBC News Online. It’s also been a great opportunity for me to get back into the coding game. Having had a taster of Python at the beginning of the year, I’ve used this prototype as a chance for me to learn one of the MVC frameworks for Python, Flask.

the homepage of my Politics Prototype

the homepage


As part of our tagging effort, we have tags for every MP, every political party and every Government Department. So the first thing I did was build a page for each of these. The page brings together tagged content from across BBC News.

A party page

A party page

Importantly, though, I’ve tried to go to authoritative sources wherever possible. The BBC is not the canonical store of knowledge about Parliament or Government. Those institutions are. So, bearing in mind the principle of modular design, and of stitching into the wider Web, I’ve sought to include information from Parliament and Government APIs wherever possible.

For instance, for every Political Party in the prototype, if they have MPs in the House of Commons – I get a list of those MPs from Parliament. For each person, if they’re a member of the Cabinet, I ask GOV.UK for the role they play, and the department that role belongs to. And likewise, for every government department, I ask GOV.UK for the roles, and current role holders, in that department. There’s lots of other things that I could link up, too – GOV.UK has pages for each country the Government has dealings with, and ‘topic’ pages too – just as we’ve been trialling internally at the BBC. Linking these up would give our audiences both the latest news, and engagement with their own Government’s activities in those areas.

Using Parliament's APIs to display the seat for an MP

Using Parliament’s APIs to display the seat for an MP

Department and role information using the GOV.UK proxy API

Department and role information using the GOV.UK proxy API

That’s the idea, anyway. In truth, I’ve only been able to get this far because of the limited, but at least slightly useful (and currently being improved upon, I believe), Members Data Platform from Parliament, and a proxy API built by a kind developer at GDS, Camille Baldock. And of course, I’ve had to stitch the two together, maintaining a local store of mappings between IDs and things like that.

This shouldn’t have to be the way it is. Obviously, there is important distance to be kept between the BBC, the Government and Parliament – too closer a partnership, and the political independence of all three is brought into question, also blunting the role of a free press in holding the Government or Parliament to account. But releasing well maintained and structured data about the things each institution is an authority on, and using shared, web-scale identifiers? That should be a given.

As much as each institution will devote time to serving the needs of its’ own specific user base, time and again we have to remember that the concepts are separate from the providers – users don’t see the difference between a politician on GOV.UK, in Parliament or on the BBC – they are one and the same person, and it’s time the Web reflected that.

Of course, joining up information about MPs is only the start. The work that GDS do is brilliant, and quite rightly, they have focused on delivering services to users. But personally, I believe that the part of GOV.UK formerly known as ‘Inside Government’┬áis an untapped goldmine. It’s not just reference data – it is the cornerstone of the actual material of what Government consists of.

The fact that every Government policy, every statement, every minister, has a publicly addressable URL, and has structured information, is a potentially massive statement about our democracy. No longer does it have to be the case that politicians (and, indeed, the media) can get away with making announcements or press releases that are soon forgotten within the 24-hour rolling cycle of news. The commitments that a Government makes to its’ population are written down and made available to anyone. It’s the closest thing we have to a constitution. And we should be using it to do so much more – holding the Government to account, for instance via linking the latest developments in news, back to the policies, is just one way.

Directly linking the massive audience the BBC has, into GOV.UK, actually showing people that politics isn’t just about spin and publicity (or at least shouldn’t be, if we truly want to at least have a go at being some form of accountable government), is as much about serving users as any of the services the GDS team are working their way through improving right now. Those are important to – they nail people’s necessary interactions with Government – but for civic engagement and democracy? That’s what together, the BBC, Parliament, GDS, and all the other representative institutions (some of which are further ahead in this game – see, for instance, the good work being done with the Northern Ireland Assembly) in the UK, could build, if we work together.

Falling out of the world – RIFT’s Macbeth

Our home for the night - Castle Aargh! (I mean castle Macbeth)

Saturday, and to Balfron Tower to witness the Rift Theatre Company’s immersive staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A little context – Balfron Tower is a landmark structuralist tower blocks, designed by (Erno?) Goldfinger (he who would lend his surname, unwillingly, to the James Bond story), in the 1960s. Still inhabited today, it is about to undergo major renovation work, and thus retains its’ decaying and imposing, alien atmosphere.

I was fairly familiar with the idea of immersive theatre, despite not having experienced one yet, and was equally familiar with the play, given hazy memories of reading it whilst studying for GCSEs. So all in all, this promised to be an interesting evening. Consider this a review – three things that really leapt out at me, and a couple of minor, hopefully constructive, criticisms.

Crossing the Rift

We’re met at the base of the tower by the Bordurian border guards, and, having checked our (pre-delivered) visas, we’re warned of the dangers of crossing over the Rift into a fictional world. This immediately appealed to me – an explicit acknowledgement that we’re about to travel into a fictional world, albeit one which will feel entirely real, both to us and to those we meet inside.

Doing a @poppet - Macbeth in a tower block

This means we retain a sense of extra knowledge over the characters – we know the general shape of the narrative that will unfold, and they don’t; and we have an almost supernatural presence in the world. The characters can see us, touch us, speak directly to us, and vice versa, but the extent to which we can truly interact is limited. It is like we are truly liminal beings in this fictional world, trapped between being and not being.

Which, of course, puts us on a similar level as the very first characters we meet – the witches. They do have an active role in the world – indeed, it can be argued that they are the ones with an almost authorial force, influencing Macbeth and Banquo, setting in motion the chain of events that propels the drama.

This, in turn, blurs the boundaries between the meaning of us being in a fictional world, and them having supernatural powers – are they, therefore, closer to us than the other characters? Are they, in effect, audience members who’ve taken control of the world they’ve joined?

The Bordurians we meet, too, have a similar liminal status – they’re aware their own reality, ours, and that of the main characters, acting as our hosts, guides and chaperones, but also, at key moments, are in effect the opposite of the witches – the Bordurians are imposed upon by Macbeth and the others, so rather than having authorial influence, or the limited power of ourselves, they flit between acting in all three worlds.

This dynamic, the awareness of how our reality overlapped, or otherwise, with the rest of the people we met, was key to the immersion, for me.

The world unfolds

The other thing which strikes you, as you are led from room to room, from floor to floor, by the Bordurians, is the sheer scale of the production operation. As much as I was immersed in the fictional experience, I couldn’t help but wonder and admire how difficult this was to pull off successfully.

There are several audience groups going through the experience at a time, and staggered start times throughout the evening. Only one company of actors, though, which means that each actor plays several roles throughout the evening, being consistent for a single group, but different between the groups.

This had two effects – firstly, as we were led from room to room, our sense of the geography of the tower being fully disorientated, the world came alive. You’d be walking past nameless guards or Bordurian housekeeping staff, and hear snippets of other scenes going on. Not enough to fully realise the repeating nature of the production, but enough to feel like there truly was a world here, and you were only taking a particular path through it. Again, this really helped the immersion.

The second effect was that there would occasionally be delays whilst the actors moved from scene to scene, and from group to group. To negate this, the Bordurian hosts would essentially keep us in a holding pattern, entertaining us and making conversation. For the most part, this worked well, providing welcome moments of rest. But there were two moments of this type that had major impacts on the enjoyment of the experience – one positive, one less so.

Falling out of the world

The positive one first. As I said, moving from room to room had the wonderful effect of disorientating you, and almost forcing you into, for the most part, forgetting this was a play with a known narrative. And so, whilst your head’s spinning, and you’re still trying to keep a track of where you’re up to in the text, something truly brilliant happens.

I mentioned above about our relationship to the characters, and especially the witches – we’re visiting the world, able to be seen but trapped behind an indefinable barrier, preventing us from truly deforming the narrative – whilst the witches have that power too. So, when, in one of those lulls between action, and more precisely, during one of those mad dashes from room to room, we’re suddenly pulled aside by the witches and trapped in a room with them, the experience really becomes magical.

It’s hard to explain how much I loved this moment. The timing of it, combined with the murky and stormy weather as the sun descended through the hazy clouds, all leant to the supernatural atmosphere. We thought we knew the shape of what was going to happen, but here, in this moment, the witches aren’t content with taking control of the characters lives – they take control of ours, pulling the rug from under our feet, and pushing us into a story which isn’t the one we were expecting. A parallel narrative, which once again opens up the prospect that what we’re experiencing isn’t the full story – there’s a much wider, longer game at play here.

The actual details of what happens in those moments, I’ll not spoil – in a way, the detail matters least in this case. It was the feeling it evoked – of falling out of the world, of having a real twist in the experience. Not the kind of Hollywood twist in terms of a big reveal, but the sense of jumping a narrative track – one that really made you think, well, now, anything could happen, I don’t know what to expect from this moment on. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy – you go into something expecting one kind of story, and you may ultimately get that, but there’s unexpected kinks and paths along the way, placing you in a real sense of narrative danger and uncertainty.

Some minor bruises

Some critique, then. The second major lull in the action comes towards the end of the play, as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. This is a moment which should produce one of the most evocative images of the experience, being something that is incongruous on a stage, the audience anticipating exactly how the producers will choose to bring it to life.

Unfortunately, the choice made at this part of the story feels like the only mis-step – almost all the action takes place on video, which you watch whilst (mostly) safely ensconced in the flat you’ll be staying overnight in. Whilst the news reporting angle is a cute idea, for a short while, it falls flat when extended over a longer period, and I’m not convinced that the TV debate, studio guests, and reporter coverage, was the most visceral way to get this experience across.

It has a whiff of the war from The Day Today to it, and whilst part of the appeal may be the humour derived from the situation, it does deflate the drama somewhat. It’s completely understandable from a logistical point of view, of making sure the actors are able to cover the main scenes for everyone, but with the promise, suspense, and raw action right in front of you that’s been built up over the past couple of hours, it is probably the only major mistake in the production overall.

The only other small criticism I’d make is that it wasn’t made clear that the story would continue the following morning. Part of the experience is staying overnight in the tower once the main action is done, and then having breakfast (on the roof, weather permitting!) with the characters and others.

Now, there were three packages for tickets, one where breakfast was included, and two where breakfast was available for a small fee. What wasn’t made clear was that there was a coda to the story taking place during breakfast – as far as my group were aware, it simply was breakfast, and the story was over. Had we been aware of this, I think we may have been more likely to stay.

Back to reality

In conclusion, then, I really enjoyed the experience – others who have experienced Punchdrunk shows and the like may feel this didn’t compare, but for a first timer, it was wonderful. The immersion, the atmosphere, the setting – and that moment when it all turns upside down – fantastic. And lastly, a huge logistical and ambitious achievement on behalf of the cast and crew. Some minor problems, but overall, a great thing, and I’d love to do it again.