Moving on from W+K

Today is my last day at W+K London.

Starting next week, I join the Government Digital Service. You might already have heard of GDS and the single government domain (GOV.UK beta) project, which is rather exciting. If not, here’s Danny O’Brien writing about poacher turned gamekeeper, Tom Loosemore, which should set the scene nicely.

I’m joining a brilliant department. They’ve been bringing in some seriously good developers and building an exciting multi-disciplinary team. Most recently, Ben Terrett (also ex W+K) joined as Head of Design, and Russell Davies is now lending a hand too. Exciting times.

How is it that *The Government* is one I the most exciting start-ups in Britain right now? #govuk

What will I be doing? Well, I’ll be product manager for the Innovation team. Last year they launched the e-petitions site, which in its first 100 days received an impressive 18 signatures per minute. I hope to work on some similarly interesting problems and make some interesting and useful things. There’s a lot to do, and having fun with government services is an opportunity too good to miss.

Leaving W+K was a difficult decision though. Especially because I know that I’ll miss it, and the people there, very much. Leaving after 14 months, just when things are finally falling in to place and I feel at home, feels like a very strange thing to do. On the other hand, it’s good to be leaving on a high. Things have never been better. It’s been a privilege to work with such amazing people on such a wide range of projects, from the Kaiser Chiefs album launch to Cravendale’s ‘cats with thumbs’ and everything in between. There are some seriously good things coming up later this year too.

I’ve learned a lot in the past year-and-a-bit, and I learned more from my mistakes than the things I got right. Perhaps the thing that stuck with me most was some  advice for new joiners that I read on my first day, which said, if you are wondering whose job it is, it’s probably yours.

When Ben left W+K, he wrote about what makes W+K great. Like the BBC and IBM before that, it’s a place I’ll remember fondly, full of people I’ll miss seeing around.

Goodbye, W+K. Hello, GDS.

Moving on from the BBC

I’m excited to announce that I’ve accepted the position of Head of Emerging Platforms at Wieden+Kennedy London, where I start on the 1st of December.

Wieden+Kennedy are an advertising agency with an amazing track record. You’ll know them for Honda ‘Cog’, Nokia ‘Dot’, Nike ‘Write the Future’ and (of course) lots more. Recently, you might have noticed them doing some rather interesting work with things like Nike Grid and ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ for Old Spice. Clearly a company with big ideas and, I was happy to learn, a desire to get even deeper into helping their clients explore what’s next.

Joining Wieden + Kennedy is an incredibly exciting opportunity. I’ll be building on my experience of heading up social media at BBC Vision, and am looking forward to helping W+K continue their journey of learning how to communicate in new and inventive ways which reach and excite people. Joining the London office and getting to work with the amazing talents in both the planning and creative teams is going to be an awful lot of fun, and I can’t wait to get started.

While in many ways the decision to leave the BBC was a relatively easy one, I’m still going to miss it greatly. It’s been two-and-a-bit years since I joined, and in that time I’ve been fortunate to have worked on some brilliant projects with an amazing range of clever and creative people.

The small but perfectly formed social media team in Vision which I built from scratch probably represents my biggest achievement. They’re all amazing, and the way they support BBC Vision (both the multiplatform teams and increasingly the TV types themselves in Vision Productions) is fantastic. The nice things people say about me these days are usually because of them. They de-mystify and de-risk the strange world of ‘social media’ for the BBC every day, making sure it’s more than just a scary unknowable concept or a meaningless buzzword, and they do this with and for the people who work on some of the most well known TV brands in the UK. Rowan, Fiona, Dan and Gary (and Kat, who recently moved in to a new role in BBC R&D) you are my heroes and I’ll miss having you around to make me look good.

I won’t list all of the (literally hundreds) of projects I’ve been involved with since I joined, but Buzz, the BBC TV Blog and Games Grid deserve a special mention. Though in all three cases the credit is due to others, I’m more delighted than I can express to have had responsibility for them. Thanks everyone, and good luck with the future.

What are those dots anyway?

It’s been my privilege to have worked with and for some amazing people at the BBC. As you’ll know, it’s an organisation in the middle of some difficult times at the moment, not least in defining the scope of its mission online. I hope its leadership will be able to act bravely and set a clear direction that matches the breadth of the BBC’s charter in delivering its public purposes as well as the ambition and creativity of its staff.

By the way, I should be clear: this isn’t redundancy and my role at the BBC isn’t going away when I leave. Next month, someone else will get to have all the fun – and of course the frustrations – that I do now. And no doubt they’ll have their own ways of doing things. Probably better ones. :-)

Goodbye, BBC. Hello, W+K.

This is why we need more photographers at public events

Regular readers will know that I don’t often mention news stories here. This can’t go unmentioned though.

Duncan Campbell’s piece in ‘Comment is free’ points out the very patchy reporting that the death of Ian Tomlinson has had thus far in much of Britain’s press. I think that’s about to change.

Please take a couple of minutes to watch this video and read this report. The video shows what seems to be Ian Tomlinson, the man who died during the G20 protests on April 1st, being pushed from behind by a police officer dressed in riot gear, including a balaclava. Unlike the others in the group, the officer who pushed Mr Tomlinson to the floor doesn’t seem to be wearing his identification epaulets, or ‘collar numbers‘, on his shoulders.

I’d already left the area by this point, but were you there? Did you see what happened? The Independent Police Complaints Commission is still gathering evidence in this case.

The investigation is continuing to look through CCTV footage to see whether the incident inside Royal Exchange Passage has been captured and we already have a number of witness accounts from the area. However, I would ask anyone else who saw Mr Tomlinson at about 7.20 p.m. or who may have taken a photo of him around that time to contact us so that we can build up a full picture of what happened.

Anybody who saw Mr Tomlinson in Royal Exchange Square is asked to contact the IPCC on 0800-096 9071 or email

And who took this important video? Not the police (though they were certainly filming the protesters). Not a protestor. Not even a legal observer (though I saw at least one of those in the crowd). No, the person who filmed this was an independent bystander. He was apparently a fund manager from New York, working in London.

We all need to be observers. It seems to me that we need more people taking photos of the police during events like this, not to target them with yet more anti-terror legislation such as the Counter Terrorism Act 2008. (See also this article outlining the new legislation too. Especially the comments).

We need to be able to hold to police accountable, especially in tense and difficult situations like a protest. Imagine how much more difficult the IPCC’s job would be now if it were not for all those cameras in the hands of the public. If the police start using section 76 to prevent people from filming them in public, that’s a protest I’ll be attending as participant, not just an observer.

Guardian Open Platform

The Guardian today announced the Open Platform, comprising two products: a Content API built on top of their existing search engine allowing other people to build applications on top of the Guardian’s content, and the Data Store which is a collection of public and Guardian-owned data sets made freely available for reuse.

Open Platform sticker

I was invited along to the announcement, and took some hurried notes during the introductory talks. They’re by no means comprehensive but I did manage to capture a few quotes from some of the speakers and most of the Q&A session too. Here are the highlights…

Tim Brooks, Managing Director

Before the web, we reached around 6 million people per week. We now reach 33 million in a good week.

Emily Bell, Director of Digital Content

We take risks. … Handing this over to you guys is a risk. But one that I’m sure will pay back in multiple dividends in terms of the creativity it unlocks. It’s a significant step towards the idea of ‘Guardian Everywhere’.

Mike Bracken – Director of Technology Development

showing Chalkboards

We can’t do everything ourselves … We want you to show us how to improve

Stephen Dunn, Head of technology strategy

shared a timeline of some of the Guardian’s online activity, pointing out that today’s announcement is a step in a journey.

  • 1995 – Guardian first on the web
  • 1996 – Guardian New Media Lab
  • 1998 – Unmoderated Talkboards launched
  • 1999 – Guardian Unlimited launched with registration sustem, but was removed in the same year.
  • 1999 – RSS feeds and headlines distribution service
  • 2001 – first Guardian blog
  • 2006 – Free Our Data
  • 2006 – Comment Is Free
  • 2007 – RSS Everywhere
  • 2008 – Full feeds (with ads)
  • 2008 – First guardian hack day

and their web principles:

  1. Permanent – (a cool URI is one that does not change)
  2. Addressable – (resources are about something, ready fort the social web. We live in ‘the age of Point-at-Things‘)
  3. Discoverable – (multiple routes to content. Tagging drives discovery)
  4. Open – (hackable URLs, using and contributing to open source tech)

Matt McAlister, Heard of Guardian Developer Network

Today the Guardian announces the open platform. It’s the suite of services allowing partners to build services with the Guardian

Some more detail from Matt on the terms of use. You get rich, tagged article content. Full content, not just the headline and abstract. And you can publish it in your apps

We decided that the best price point for fueling growth is free. We want you to be able to make money on your site too.

Looking at the site, there are Commercial partner programs to enable commercial use. The FAQ says that “The Content API is free to use. There are some terms that you must adhere to for the free access level. For example, our default limit on queries per day is 5,000 calls, and we will in the future ask partners to display advertising from our ad network on pages with our full content.”

Explaining that it’s a beta trial, and they’ll be approving API keys on a limited basis (which has pissed off Dave Winer), Matt said

We’ll be doing that slowly so that we can understand what the dynamics are, and what you want to build … But we do plan to open more widely soon.

Simon Willison

Simon demonstrated the API explorer (the first app written using the API) and how each set of results also specifies a set of usable filters which are available in source, and shown in explorer.

New concepts can be prototyped in less time than the meeting you’d have needed to discuss it in the first place

and demonstrated this point using several demos including (from Chris Thorpe) and APIMaps from Stamen Design. Pleasingly, AMEE are another launch partner for the Data Store too. Exciting stuff.

Q&A session

Q – (Jon Slattery from Press Gazette) – Are you happy for news organisations to use your material?
A – (Emily Bell) – They do already! Frequently. The free model is built with developer community in mind. If other news orgs want to use the data because it’s better then theirs, that’s fine within the terms.

Q – (James Cronin) – Can we store data in your data store?
A – (Matt McAlister) – we’re publishing data into the store at the moment, but tell us what you’ve got, we’d love to look after it.

Q – (Stefan Magdalinski from Moo) [re 5000 hit daily API limit]
A (Simon Willison) – 5k hits is what you can ask from us in 24 hours. You’re allowed to cache that data though, so could serve as many pages as you like. We’re also serving smart caching headers with 50 min expiry.

Q – Are you exposing photos & media?
A – (Matt McAlister) – Not yet. But we return headline and description and URL for our photo pages.

Q – (Andy Pipes) – Any plans to share personal data, like the New York Times?
A – (Matt McAlister) – No. None at all.

Eye Eye

Thanks to Jem for casually mentioning this morning that I’m in this fortnight’s Private Eye.

Me in Private Eye

It’s taken from last week’s edition of the BBC’s staff newspaper, Ariel, which ran a nice welcome-to-the-machine piece describing my new role. Here’s how the full thing looked.

Me in Ariel

Birtspeak 2.0 it may have been, but I was only unhappy with one sentence in the whole piece. The sentence I didn’t like, at all, (and told the writer as much) was the parenthesised clause in the article which says

“(He also sits on Smurf, Vision’s social media forum, which he describes as ‘a clearing house for social media projects – it’s not meant to be the control police’.)”

The group it refers to is the Social Media Editorial Forum. Although I might have described the group to Ariel, I was quite careful not to name it, so I didn’t like the reference for four reasons:

  1. Nick Reynolds (no relation) has used the cute Smurf acronym in the past, but I don’t like the name and avoid using it. It hasn’t really stuck and it’s in my diary as SMEF. At least it’s not the Social Media Editorial Group.
  2. It’s not actually a formal group on which anyone really ‘sits’. It’s just a collection of people with similar jobs around the BBC who regularly get together to share plans and ideas…
  3. …which also means it’s not owned by Vision (which happens to be my division).
  4. Did I really say ‘control police’? Wow, I do sound like a prat sometimes.

Ah well. Being quoted in Birtspeak is apparently a rite of passage.

Moving on from IBM

Having been an IBMer for more than 10 years, I’m moving on.

I’ve accepted the position of Portfolio Executive, Social Media at BBC Vision. What that means is that I’ll be helping to define, develop and execute BBC Vision’s strategy in relation to social media. Simon Nelson gave a speech in September 2007 about some of the progress made (and challenges faced) by the BBC in regard to multiplatform (more discussion about that here). That’s the backdrop to what I’m going there to help with. No doubt I’ll talk more about the specifics in the coming weeks and months. Oh, and I get to work with such cool people as Dan Taylor and Jo Twist.

Hursley House
IBM, Hursley, Hampshire
BBC Television Centre
BBC, Wood Lane, London

10 years is a long time (I got my pen last year) so although I’m very excited about the new role I always knew that I’d be sad when the day finally came to leave IBM. Hursley is a great place to work, but more than anything I’ll miss spending time with some very good friends who work there.

Things I’ll miss about IBM:

  • Friends. Lots of friends. So many very good friends. The good thing is that we don’t have to lose touch, but not seeing you all around on the intranet and in person is going to be sad. (Which leads us on to…)
  • Regular tea runs. The Hursley Cha Bar is a sort of second home. 66p for a small PG Tips. The Starbucks in White City just might not be the same.
  • Hursley itself. The site is a big gorgeous leafy campus with a nice walk around the site, a library, a reading room, 2 pubs in walking distance as well as an onsite bar/clubhouse and a couple of thousand geniuses. It’s beautiful.
  • A short drive to work, with a lift-share. (A train + tube journey from Southampton to Wood Lane is probably going to hurt a little bit, even factoring in some working on the train. I haven’t started yet and I’m already looking forward to the London Overground line opening. Southampton – Clapham Junction – Shepherd’s Bush has to be better than Southampton -> Waterloo – Bond St – White City)

Incredibly, I’ve been an IBMer ever since I finished school and started my degree as a sponsored student, way back in 1997. I was initially based in North Harbour before relocating to Hursley because that was where the interesting technical work seemed to be. I had roles in middleware development teams including spells in test, service and development. I’m glad to say that each role was more interesting and fun than the last. I have never had a master plan. I’ve never had long term goal, other than to say yes to everything I physically can, and have as much fun as possible.

In more recent times, that attitude has meant helping develop Business Integration for Games (before IBM, or the world, really took games seriously). I went on to be the the lead developer for a small messaging product called Microbroker before joining the Emerging Technology Services team making proof of concept and first of a kind prototypes for clients. Most recently, I was pleased to see that it really is possible to carve out a new role when I joined Ian in calling myself a Metaverse Evangelist and we were both picked up by the CIO office’s Innovate Quick team on a virtual remote assignment.

I got to meet a lot of clients and business partners in this role, so I know very well that IBM continues to impress people as being surprisingly advanced and interesting for a company of its age and size. Not only that, but IBMers are treated as grown ups; we get to use our common sense. If it was not for the freedom and trust which IBMers enjoy, I’d have left a very long time ago.

The thing that has made IBM such a great place to spend a third of my life (!) is the people I’ve worked with. Don’t lose touch – I’ll still be on LinkedIn, blogging, Twittering, etc.

I’ve worked with some great people and on some great projects, and it’s good to be leaving on a high. I don’t regret anything about my time at IBM, and I’m only going because it’s time for me to have even more fun elsewhere.

Goodbye, IBM. Hello, BBC.

Update: I’m overwhelmed by your lovely comments, compliments and travel tips. Thank you, everyone.

X is the new Y for 2007

The Boston Globe’s Ideas section today features an updated version of my “X is the new Y” diagram. [Update: it’s actually the front page feature of the Ideas section. Thanks to Kelly for the picture…]

Originally inspired by the LeisureArts chart from 2005, I decided to bring the idea up to date in September. Essentially, it’s a few pages of results from a Google search for “* is the new *” (and “* are the new *”). For this latest version I also added “+2007” to the search term, so it picks up things that happened (or were at least written about) in 2007. I then ran the results through some basic text processing. “x is the new y” became “x -> y”. This happens to be the required syntax for Graphviz, which then automatically drew the directed graphs for me.

X is the new Y - 2007

(bigger version)

The search was a bit of a manual process, and I ended up doing additional searches in order to flesh out the diagram (oh.. pirates are the new ninjas.. I wonder what are the new pirates… I’ll search for “* are the new pirates”).


All of this is very similar to my first pass at this idea in September except this latest version, being 2007 specific, misses out more general links and includes culturally specific recent references such as the werewolves -> vampires -> zombies -> pirates -> ninjas chain (which I’m really happy about) as well as the iPhone and a few other recent highlights of this year.

Drake Bennett at the Boston Globe wrote a thoughtful piece about it.

If you want to know what happened in 2007, you could do worse than noting what it was that people decided was the new black, or the new oil, or the new golf.

Because it is so ubiquitous and so adaptable, because it so easily captures the human mind’s penchant for analogies, and because it is constantly rendering itself obsolete (what is the new iPhone? who is the new Amy Winehouse?), this off-the-shelf rhetorical device makes an ideal marker of a year’s conversational currents. The charts here are an unsystematic attempt, culled from Web searches, to trace the patterns that emerge.

Eventually, sapped by this sort of subversion, the phrase might have to give way to another equally handy one. What the new “new black” would be remains anyone’s guess.

The Boston Globe – ‘The new, new things of 2007’ – December 30, 2007

The team at the Globe took my ugly diagrams, which looked like this…


…and turned them into something beautiful, like this…


If you don’t happen to get the dead-tree version, you can read the article on the Boston Globe site.

Happy Birthday (and thank you), SlideShare

It seems my presentation from yesterday’s talk at IT4Arts has been selected, by whatever selection process exists, to be the “slideshare of the day” on SlideShare. I’m glad I added the audio track last night.


In other, related, news: SlideShare is one year old today. Happy birthday, (and thank you), SlideShare.

10 years at Big Blue (and how it feels)

This week marks my tenth year working for IBM. That means I’ve been working at IBM for 35% of my life, and a whole 12% of IBM’s existence, or 10%  if you include the time it was called CTR. (This feels like a lot, and more than I realised.)

I started ten years ago this week as an undergraduate on the Integrated Degree Scheme, the IBM sponsored programme at Portsmouth University. (Sadly this course was closed a few years after I completed it.)

The first few (six? nine?) months of my working life were pure training, learning programming skills, presentation skills, and generally how to be an IBMer. (In subsequent years, that first chunk of training was reduced and then dropped altogether.)

Although most of my time has been spent in Hursley, I first started in the ground floor of F-block in North Harbour, IBM’s UK headquarters. (That building no longer belongs to IBM. It was sold off, and most of the buildings leased back.)

In ten years I have had ten different first-line managers (and fifteen different desk locations).

I’ve worked in test, service and development for big (and small) messaging middleware products. I was invited to work on a couple of prototype innovation projects including something from 2003 called Business Integration for Games. I joined Emerging Technology Services, and am currently on assignment to the CIO’s office as a metaverse evangelist. Each role seems more satisfying, and more fun, than the last. (In the meantime, many of my friends and colleagues from those 10 years have moved on to other companies.)

Will I still be here in another ten years? (I’m not sure.)

Ask not what an Information Revolution can do for you’s latest attempt at wresting “sleep searchers” from Google: the Information Revolution. anti-Google campaign on the London tube

I saw the posters on the tube and thought “looks interesting” and made a note to visit the website. Although the site now displays the logo, it initially didn’t declare who was behind it (and I wasn’t sharp-eyed enough to spot the red oval on the poster is the Ask logo sans-“Ask”). Marketing-savvy readers – cynical about apparent underground activism and viral campaigns – did soon identify who was behind it though, with finally showing their hand four days later.

And that was probably the biggest problem with it. By initially concealing the messenger, the message itself becomes tainted.

It’s not even an original approach. Didn’t SanDisk already do almost the exact same thing with iDont, complete with guerilla-style tube ads and cheap-looking white-and-red-on-black website? The one thing Ask’s campaign does better is to allow comments on their website. Of course, the comments being left are almost universally negative, as people vent their disappointment and resentment. This one sums up the tone of most:

“Like other people here I was expecting a net neutrality site. I was curious where the money for your tube ads had come from though, and now I see this is just a poorly executed PR stunt for”

And what are other people out there saying?

Personally, if I’m disappointed it’s partly because I really want companies to try interesting ways of engaging with the web. With us. With me. This failed, and failed really horribly badly. While it’s crass and vacuous (almost on the scale of WalMart’s ‘School Your Way’ flop) hopefully at least the world is learning from it.

[CC-licensed photo originally uploaded to Flickr by Larsz]

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