Tag Archives: doctor who

Narratives and the Semantic Web

Super Bowl Sunday Crystal Ball, by Circulating, from Flickr, Creative Commons license

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect – but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly…timey-wimey…stuff.”

The websites that we create around the narratives we tell currently focus on the objects within those narratives, like the playing pieces in a set of toys. More often than not, these are hand-crafted, static pages about certain editorially defined objects. Although we can record the links between objects implicitly as things that the audience can travel along, we tend not to expose them as things that the audience can explore and see in context. This, however, is what we are really interested in when describing narratives or telling stories. We define the objects within the world of the narrative, and then describe the interactions and changes between the objects. The intriguing thing is not necessarily the objects themselves, but the ways in which they change, or otherwise. A truly engaging website would therefore allow the audience to explore the world of the narrative not only by navigating between the objects, but by exposing and analysing the links between them, in order to derive more satisfaction.

Outside of the web, when we focus on an object, our minds give it context, and naturally establish the links between relative objects. For instance, when on a train journey, if I look out the window, I can see that branch of that tree which is placed there. We are instantly aware of both the object and its context, the thing and its links. Do the same thing with a computer, and it could identify and create a URL for a branch of a tree, but this would exist in a vacuum. It is up to us to give it the context. Using the principles and technologies underlying the Semantic Web, however, we can start to embed the context, the links, the meaning, so that, when using the web, we do not have to define these things every time. Instead, we can concentrate on uncovering and analysing those links, so that we can derive greater understanding and enjoyment from them.

Currently, websites such as www.bbc.co.uk/programmes define the objects, their contexts and links in a semantic web fashion, so that we can uniquely identify a particular object. Essentially, it provides the building blocks upon which we can establish the type of website I hae described above. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, these building blocks are the limits of what we can currently, reliably, achieve. Emerging technologies such as SPARQL and RDF/graph visualisations will help us to build upon these blocks, but I do not think we currently have an established, reliable ‘toolkit’ or process that we can use to do this. However, this does not mean it cannot be done – it needs further experimentation. In the meantime, we can set about ensuring that the websites we build now will allow us to achieve the ideas mentioned above.

In the context of the BBC, there are two areas in which I can imagine the benefits of such an approach. The first, I will only give a overview of, as I have only thought briefly about the possibilities. The other, regarding fictional narrative, has been the focus of my previous blog posts, and I will continue the discussion here.

The first area is sport, particularly football. The BBC Football website contains a wealth of information, covering what is, in effect, the (almost) closed-off world of football. Fans essentially are following a narrative which spans matches, clubs, leagues, seasons, cup competitions etc. There is, obviously, some organisation taking place on the website – organising the clubs into their leagues, for instance. However, the links between these things – and here I mean not just the clubs, but the players, the action – are rarely revealed. We know that a team is relegated from a division because on one day their page exists within the ‘Premier League’ section, whereas the next, they are in the ‘Championship’ section. Their history may be recorded on the team’s page, or preserved in the numbers of a league table for a particular season, but there is no way of effectively (and, most importantly, engagingly) charting their fortunes. Of course, we can present these things in the numbers and bar charts and graphs, but they do not take advantage of the existence of the narrative behind them – which is really what people are interested in. Similarly with players. When two players go in for a tackle, we know that they have a history of confrontation, or perhaps an embarrasing own goal incident – what if we could provide the context around that tackle as and when, and after, it happens – filling in the back story, and getting the audience excited and engaged.

Similarly, by identifying and putting objects and events in context, we can give the audience something to latch on to. Take, for instance, a penalty incident. Say that the match was being covered on 5 Live with a commentary, it was shown and discussed on Match of the Day by pundits, and then also talked about on forums and 606 by fans. If we had an identifiable ‘hook’ for the incident, then potentially we could build a page which brought together all these different interpretations and discussions of the same event. That way, the audience would have an effective overview of the incident, with informed (and perhaps ill-informed!) opinions – their understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced, and of course, they could make their own contribution.

Back to the fiction – in my last post, I linked to a couple of images within which, I tried to explain what I aim to achieve, and where the benefits could be found. The first diagram establishes the episodes as a whole, regardless of series – and then drills down to a particular series, and a particular episode. A website that deals with a fictional narrative needs to remember that the episodes are merely a window onto the universe for the audience. If we intend to allow the audience to fully explore the universe, then apart from pointers leading them from/to episodes, as a form of ‘way-in’ (which, incidentally, should probably be through /programmes) the episodes themselves should (probably) not be included – all that exists are the objects (the places, the times, the characters) and the events.

The first diagram, once an episode has been specified, identifies the characters and events within the episode that are crucial to the narrative. For this, I limited myself to a handful of events and characters, which meant that I did not fully get the richness of the narrative across. However, potentially, we could identify as many events etc. as we require. Below the timeline of events (as presented to the viewer) there are coloured blobs, representing the characters in the events. This view shows us how the characters come and go throughout the episode (for instance, the Doctor only really appearing at certain points in the beginning, middle and end).

The second diagram gets closer to the value of this kind of site. Here, we see that the way in which each character experiences the events of the episode is quite different. This is crucial both to the plot and to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment of the episode. If, for instance, you wondered exactly how things tied together, then exploring this kind of site would allow you to piece together the parts of the puzzle. Perhaps on each character’s page, we would show their timeline, and how things happened to them. From the Doctor’s perspective, for instance, the event at the end of the episode is the first thing that happens to him – and the last from Sally’s point of view. Also, by showing these different timelines in the context of each other, we see the intricate way in which Steven Moffat (the writer) is able to weave the story together – giving the audience a greater appreciation of the story as a whole.

Obviously, Blink (so far) is an atypical episode of Doctor Who. By and large, the stories do not tend to concern themselves with the ‘timey-wimey’ stuff. However, over the course of a series, or indeed several series, characters, events etc re-appear – for instance the ‘Bad Wolf’ motif – the reason that the cliffhanger to ‘Turn Left’ works so well, is because it draws together elements of continuity established throughout several series. The audience gets maximum enjoyment out of such a moment because they are aware of the links and the context.

So what of the original series, whereby both ‘timey-wimey’ stuff and ‘story-arcs’ were at a minimum? Well, there are still instances of recurring themes, but overall, stories are self contained. That’s fine – they could be slotted into this kind of website just like everything else, because it essentially gives us a great pool of narrative to draw upon – if and when needed. Crucially, though, they represent a pool of ideas that future writers can draw upon if they wish. Continuity should not restrict the writing of future stories – the previous stories merely open out the fictional universe, creating more richness for authors. As such, when feeding the ‘classic’ stories into the website, the site becomes a form of ‘official’ wiki. Users can and should be encouraged to contribute, as a form of writing their own stories, but a distinction can be drawn between the events depicted on screen (it is, after all, and should not be forgotten, a television show..) and those where people ‘fill in the gaps’. The series itself has touched upon this, with the idea of certain events being ‘fixed points’ and others being ‘in flux’. As long as the narrative is not disrupted (i.e. breaks down so that it no longer makes sense to the audience) or becomes to insular (i.e. relying too heavily on continuity, so that new audiences are driven away), then continuity can enhance the fictional narrative universe as a whole.

Finally, a new diagram which, on a very basic level, tries to illustrate the idea that the website could be explored and presented through the model of, as quoted above, “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly…timey-wimey…stuff.” The diagram is quite obviously incomplete, but the idea is that the objects and the links between them are visualised, and the audience can then choose to look at a particular object, and see how it ties in to everything else – seeing both the object and its changing context and perspectives at the same time.

Phew. That’s enough for now. Till next time…

Canon Flux

Blue Box – by Brainless Angel, Creative Commons, via Flickr

Well, that’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I’ve made progress on both the RDF/Ontology and the Ruby/Rails front – although one much more significantly than the other. We’ll deal with both in a moment, but first a few encouraging signs.

Thanks, as ever, to those who have commented on my posts so far – some interesting questions have been posed, of which I’ll get onto later, and ideas have been discussed. One thing that has encouraged me a great deal has been this article by Tom Scott and Michael Smethurst on coherence at bbc.co.uk – most of which I’m familiar with from work, but the references to non-linear narratives, the BBC as a story-telling organisation, and how to adapt that for the web, are of particular interest and encouragement, because narrative and story-telling is at the heart of what I’m trying to achieve. Michael also wrote this article over at the Radio Labs blog, which is gathering plenty of praise (not least from Tim Berners-Lee himself!) – from my perspective, it’s given me a useful focus on the steps I’d need to take to move these ideas from blog posts to a working prototype, and hopefully beyond.

So, how have I been getting on with a) developing a front-end website for exploration and administration of a fictional universe (by administration, I mean the creation of new elements in the ‘toy-box’ and the links between them), and b) an ontology (and accompanying RDF examples) to describe the narrative content of episodes?

Ruby/Rails – A Web Front End

One half of this project has always been focused on providing a front end application/web site. One in which users (I won’t limit or define *who* they might be at the moment) could navigate and explore a fictional universe, in a wider, more open format than the current focus strictly on the episodes. A suggested approach to the project as a whole has been to create the web app first, use that to produce and store the data in a MySQL (or similar) database, and then expose the data as RDF etc. Unfortunately, my lack of technical expertise has severely hindered my progress on this front. Over a week and a half has been spent on just getting Ruby/Rails up and running properly, and learning the basics (for which, thanks must go to Anthony Green and Craig Webster in particular for being patient and offering help whenever possible). Although it’s still a strand which I think is important, and would like to develop, I’ve been worried that concentrating solely on the Ruby/Rails side is taking me away from the semantic web/linked data roots of the idea, which I’d prefer to get sorted out first. I’ve also realised that before I can really begin to develop the front end properly, I need to know the scope and domain model inside out. Both of these I had a fair idea of, but the domain model in particular was very much a work in progress – and so I felt there was less value in developing the application until I had it sorted out. Note my use of the past tense to describe the domain model – which leads us nicely on to…

OntoMedia – An Ontology for Describing the Narrative Content of Media

This is a story of serendipity (which reminds me, of course, of the Jon Pertwee story ‘The Green Death‘, aka ‘The One with the Giant Maggots’, in which the concept of serendipity plays an important role – anyway, where was I?). I’ve already described in detail my frustrations previously with the tantalising prospect of the SUDS ontology – something which several people have helpfully mentioned as a good starting place, but for which an actual ontology specification has been lacking. I’m still pursuing the SUDS material, thanks to Kim in the comments, but I’ve managed to get my hands on an ontology which might just be what I need – OntoMedia. A chance meeting with Mike Jewell at the last OpenSoho (see, networking can be useful) led to a discussion of this project – and it turns out that whilst at the University of Southampton, Mike and Faith Lawrence (amongst others) developed an ontology called OntoMedia for doing just as described in the heading. It has its’ roots in an exploration of online fan fiction, and is extremely detailed and flexible. The fan fiction roots also mean that it has been designed with geeky subjects like Doctor Who in mind, which is a bonus. However, being so detailed and tailored to the fan fiction roots means that, speaking personally, it sometimes focuses a little too much on fantasy genre elements (detailed descriptions of clans, bonds, blood oaths, woods and coppices etc), whilst seemly lacking a couple of minor basics (although I’m still getting to grips with it, so it’s possible that I’m just missing the obvious bits…!). But that’s not to knock it at all – it’s a highly accomplished piece of work, and allows all kinds of narratives to be described. Since our initial meeting, I’ve been discussing the possibility of developing and improving the onotology – I truly believe that with a little more work, it brings me a huge step closer to my goal, and could end up being widely used throughout the BBC. To be honest, I’m just surprised that no one else had picked up on its’ potential yet.

I think I’ll leave a detailed description of how to go about implementing stuff in OntoMedia for another blog post, but what I can do is give you a flavour of the basic principles. Essentially you establish the existence of (at least) two universes – reality, and the fictional universe. Within the fictional universe you establish a timeline, your characters, locations etc, and link your characters to defined actors in the ‘real world’. Here, we can deal with characters and elements which are of dubious or multiple origins – we can deine essentially concepts that are shared between media, and their provenance as part of a universe (or context). I’ve also then defined episodes as being things existing in the real world, with their own timelines – the episodes are then linked into the bbc.co.uk/programme equivalents. Finally, you establish events which can occur in multiple timelines (and in different orders within those timelines). That’s the principle, at least. For me, it all harks back quite nicely to that ‘toy-box’ analogy. You set the scene, choose your characters, then tell the story. It’s also important to bear in mind that we’re not trying to restrict creativity and lay down the law for what happened and when – to use the analogy from within Doctor Who, some things are fixed points in time (i.e. the stuff shown on screen), others are in flux.

As for my progress so far, I’ve been helped by Yves Raimond in particular for reminding me of the benefits of writing n3 triples, Patrick Sinclair and Nicholas Humphrey for other guidance. I’ve been working to two case studies. The first is to eventually show the benefits of linking characters and events across several episodes – for this, I’ve defined the scope as the 2005 series of Doctor Who (including The Christmas Invasion), with the intention to show the Bad Wolf arc (I can then extend this to cover the second, third and fourth series). The results of which can be seen here and here. (You’ll need an RDF extension like Tabulator for Firefox to navigate the links properly).

The second case study is designed to highlight the benefits of exploring events in the fictional universe and comparing them with the order in which they occur within a given episode – so that the skill with which the writer has constructed the story can be fully appreciated, and the enjoyment of the story can be increased. For this case study, I’ve chosen to concentrate on the award winning story from the 2007 series, ‘Blink‘ – famous for its use of multiple, interconnected timelines – very ‘timey-wimey’, as they say. Results so far, which just set up the timeline, the episode, the characters, actors and locations, can be found here.

Events and occurrences are, by their nature, a little more complex, and I’m currently trying to get my head around how best to represent them – the OntoMedia ontology allows extremely detailed representations of the data, but I’m trying to stick to simple representations for the moment – the achievement of which is my current challenge.

The ontology allows, essentially, the description of any narrative. Which leads me to a potential further case study. Obviously for the moment I’ve been concentrating on fictional universes – but this could easily apply to the real world. Could this be a way to describe events and blend the semantic web into other areas of the BBC’s output in an easier and more subtle way? For instance, coverage of a football match – again, define the teams, the players, the timeline of the match and the various events. Then, again, we would have permanent, stable URIs for each team, player, event – I think the possibilities and potential are huge.

Finally, in terms of my overall approach – my current thinking is to continue with writing the RDF, then load it into a triple store. An application would then be written to allow the querying of data in the triple store, and its representation in a well designed, user facing front end. If there are standard patterns in the RDF for creating characters, events etc using Ontomedia, then ideally the application would take these recipies and allow the user to input the data without having to interact directly with writing RDF.

So there we are – a great deal of progress – not all the way there, but a huge step forward – although the phrase ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ does come to mind… Once I’ve worked ou how to represent events and occurrences, the triple store will be next, then the Ruby/Rails application, and then some design magic. Wish me luck!