Ben Smith

Mar 22, 2013

Following the recent(ish) success of BenConf it's important to remember...

Aug 13, 2012

"Taking the details of things going wrong and magnifying them."

Whoever wrote the narrative on the BBC's beautiful Olympic closing ceremony montage captures perfectly, in a sentence, the pre-games cynicism and the default state for most commentary on the UK and its institutions.

Aug 10, 2012

I tend to use Twitter's native image-hosting service for posting pictures. It's a combination of laziness (all my preferred clients support it) and a sense that in-line previews will be a way for the firm to flex its commercial muscles in future so it's a safe bet.

The down-side is this service lacks the gallery and archive features 3rd party services offer and I really wanted a back-up. I looked for, but couldn't find, a service offering this - probably because there's no public API for now.

I already use IFTTT to archive content from elsewhere to DropBox and Evernote, so what I really wanted was an RSS feed of Twitter images to add to that service. Fortunately it was easy to create a Yahoo Pipe which does just that. It:

  • Takes a Twitter username a parameter.
  • Polls Twitter for your last 200 tweets.
  • Selects the tweets that include Twitter-hosted media.
  • Re-arranges the bits to construct an RSS feed with the tweet as the title, a link to the large image and some media tags to show thumbnails.

That RSS feed can then be fed into almost any backup or life-streaming service or just added to a feed reader.

It's not instant - Yahoo caches feeds sometimes - but it's been brilliantly reliable for several months and recovers well from outages as long as you don't tweet more than 200 times during the break.

» My 'Twitter Images to RSS feed Yahoo Pipe'

Suggestions, comments and pointers to 'proper' services that do this welcomed via Twitter.

Aug 8, 2012

This post is to test prove I've managed to jam jQuery-based oEmbedding into this theme using

A plane image is by Christopher Ebdon on Flickr:

Some Monty Python in tribute to London 2012:

And a mashup courtesy of A.Skillz:

Aug 1, 2012

Prior to the 'badminton incident' I hadn't been aware of 'black cards'. Where they an Olympic thing?

No, it turns out they're a Badminton thing.

Like most sports Badminton uses yellow and red cards to issue warnings and penalties (or in Badminton's case 'faults') to players, but a black card is used to disqualify player(s) for flagrant or persistent breaches of the rules.

Receipt of a black card is followed by a disciplinary hearing where players can be fined and/or excluded from playing. In the case of the 'London 2012 eight' the black cards were withdrawn but separate disciplinary hearings later disqualified them anyway.

Update: Iain Wallace points out black cards are also awarded in fencing, although Badminton has been the source of the public attention on this occasion.

Jul 30, 2012

I had assumed the BBC was producing TV coverage of the London 2012 Olympics. They're screening the games in the UK and have a nice 'Olympic Broadcaster' logo.

BBC - Olympic Broadcaster

However, that's not the case... as I realised after the 'cycling timing' issue.

The Beeb - like all the other media companies that have the rights to coverage - show footage produced by OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Services).

OBS who?

  • Established by the IoC as the 'host broadcaster'.
  • Create the coverage of the sport and ceremonies.
  • Produce the graphics, timings and visuals over the sport.
  • Distribute coverage to rights holders.
  • With with the local organising committees to get media equipment installed.

Why create a new organisation?

It's not practical or cost-effective for every broadcaster to cover the event individually so a dedicated organisation was established to provide independent coverage.

This is a common approach - FIFA / UEFA / Formula 1 all do this to control footage even if a national broadcaster is sometimes contracted to create the images.

So why can I see / hear BBC (or local) commentators / features?

OBS doesn't provide any commentary or country-specific features so the BBC and other broadcasters mix OBS coverage with commentary, interviews and features they produce.

The London organisers (LOCOG) are also producing their own content including host presenters, interviews and features for broadcast within the Olympic Park and Olympic venues via big screens and in-ear radios.

But how to the BBC and others get the coverage they need?

OBS works with broadcasters to design the International Broadcast Centre building and to specify the coverage needed. In London 3D coverage was added at the request of the BBC and NBC. Super Hi-Vision footage (quality beyond HD) is also being produced by OBS for a trial by NHK and the BBC.

For some events the BBC and others also place their own cameras at events so they can fill in any shots that OBS won't provide, such as dedicated tracking of British athletes.

Surely OBS can't have a staff of thousands just for Olympic years?

There are a full-time staff of a few hundred and production companies are hired in Olympic years to produce the actual content.

Some London 2012 broadcasting stats

Stats for your inner nerd... For London 2012, OBS are providing:

  • 230hrs of 3D coverage.
  • 50 mobile units and >1000 cameras including 40 super-slow-motion cameras.
  • >5600hrs of footage in HD with 5.1 surround sound of which 2500 are of sporting action.
  • Footage to 204 territories with an estimated global audience of 4.8 billion - the world’s largest broadcast operation.

Update: Super Hi-Vision (SHV) bonus stats (via Ilicco Elia)

  • SHV images are produced at 16x the resolution of HD TV (7680 x 4320 pixels) with a frame rate of 60fps.
  • Sound is 22.2 multichannel sound with speakers at 3 different heights (9 on an upper level, 10 in the middle, 3 at the lower level and 2 for bass).
  • The uncompressed data for SHV imagery is 24 Gbit/s, which is compressed to 260 Mbit/s for transmission over a high-speed network.
  • There are 3 SHV cameras in existence. All of them are at the London Olympics.
  • The viewfinders on SHV cameras don't show enough detail for camera operators to focus them. Instead it's done remotely.
  • The London 2012 opening ceremony was the first live public broadcast in SHV, shown on big screens in the UK and Japan.

Sources: OBS / Broadcast (pay-wall) / Ilicco Elia / Wikipedia / E&T.

Questions / corrections? I'm @bensmithuk on Twitter.

Apr 23, 2012

I rather like the Olympics - I attended both the Athens and Beijing Paralympics and I'm signed up to volunteer at London 2012. It's not a political, sporting or 'legacy' thing, I just find the enthusiasm and good will between attendees infectious… a reminder that somewhere in human nature there does exist the ability to get along. It's quite refreshing.

I also understand many people - for a variety of reasons - don't like the event. I respect those views and acknowledge there are plenty of valid criticisms to be made.

However, the Games will take place this summer. The venues are built, the volunteers recruited and tickets issued. The money is spent… Judging the value or worthiness of it all is an exercise we can return to afterwards. The money cannot be unspent and London's bid cannot 'un-win'.

Now we must make the best of it - regardless of our feelings for the Games or the institutions behind them. It would be a waste not to and gain for them is not our loss.

There's far more than 'wanting it' needed to deliver a successful Games and those that want to have now taken their roles, but to the eyes of a watching world the way the UK acts as hosts will make just as great an impression as the sporting competition.

When things go wrong - as they certainly will - hind-sight will be easy: it will be tempting to mock the mistakes, complain about inconvenience or even cause disruption to further personal agendas. But we can choose not to... to see the bigger picture and seek-out ways to fix what's broken (even when it's the organisers getting it wrong) rather than celebrating or exploiting it. It's often said that having problems doesn't matter, but how you deal with them. We should apply that collectively.

The respect earned by co-operating to make the most of this occasion - could equal any technical or sporting legacy.

May 5, 2011

Having written a brief summary as @uktrains shut-down yesterday, I was surprised that the numbers I'd been keeping track of casually (and manually) were a lot higher as I checked them 'properly' for the final time...

  • At peak @uktrains was followed by 19,562 people.
  • Over its lifespan the @uktrains accounts issued 85,007 tweets.

@uktrains tweets

@uktrains followers

May 4, 2011

I'm sad to announce that @uktrains - my side-project for the last two and a half years - is closing down today as the BBC withdraws the Backstage services which powered most of the tweets it published.

The service operated for approximately two and a half years, was followed by almost 20,000 people at peak and issued over 85,000 travel tweets. [Updated: Previously I'd used underestimates of 10,000 followers and 50,000 tweets]

I'd like to thank all those who supported it - especially those who submitted crowd-sourced reports and wrote about it. I'd also like to acknowledge the enthusiasm of the team at National Rail Enquiries who were keen to use the lessons learned in the creation and growth of their set of official Twitter accounts providing disruption alerts.

There's more details and a comment on the work still to be done on the service's Wiki. I've also created a Twitter list of 'tweeting train companies' to track those also offering customer service via social media.

Sep 7, 2009

A lovely picture of me chatting to a 'heritage warden' in Trafalgar Square

The Really Mobile team were kicked out of Trafalgar Square on Sunday. By a 'Heritage Warden'. It is, it seems, managed by the GLA and there are specific bye-laws relating to filming or taking pictures there [PDF link]:

5. Unless acting in accordance with permission given in writing by (a) the Mayor, or (b) any person authorised by the Mayor under section 380 of the Act to give such permission, no person shall within the Squares:

(11) take photographs or any other recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment or any activity carried on by a person or body of persons, whether corporate or unincorporate;

So, without much hope, I fired off a query to the contacts address provided on their website:

Dear Sir / Madam,

On Sunday 6th September I was prevented from making a video recording of two friends visiting Trafalgar Square using a small hand-held camera and a hand-held microphone at Trafalgar Square by a Heritage Warden. The Warden told us that using microphone 'looked professional' and when told it was not for business or commercial purposes, stated that we may not continue and gave no other reason.

I've now read the bye-laws and costs associated with obtaining written permission and under normal circumstances they appear to require a payment of £500 per hour for any activity described as "recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with [commercial activities] or any activity carried on by a person or body of persons". Without the benefit of legal advice, this appears to me to describe any tourist in the square filming friends or family.

Is my interpretation correct and if so why was this rule not enforced uniformly? I was the only person prevented filming and the bye-law makes no provision for Heritage Wardens to determine when, to whom and to which equipment it should be applied.

Ben Smith

My question was answered by Paul Cavanagh from the Facilities & Squares Management Team:

Dear Mr Smith

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is responsible for Trafalgar Square and assesses permissions for photography and filming in the square. One of the GLA's primary concerns is public safety and it is responsible for ensuring that activities on the square are managed and assessed in relation to public safety. Photography and filming are permitted, but there are guidelines in place for commercial use.

Amateur and tourist photography or filming is permitted in Trafalgar Square. As it may be difficult to assess whether a photographer is planning to take images for commercial use, the Heritage Wardens will approach individuals if they have particularly large, expensive equipment, including larger tripods and lighting, or if models and props are present. Photographers and filmmakers not identified as professionals and using standard equipment will not be approached and will normally be permitted to take photographs.

The Heritage Wardens also try to ensure that filming or photographs taken on the Square will not be used commercially. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to determine a tourist or visitor as opposed to a professional photographer is by looking at the type of equipment they use. Whilst we realise that this may sometimes mean that a keen amateur photographer or filmmaker is prevented in taking photographs for his or her own use, it is often the only way that we can prevent commercial mis-use of the Square.

It appears from your description below that by conducting an interview with a microphone that this could have been construed as professional activity and the Wardens did act correctly within the guidance. Even though you stated that the filming was not for commercial use this statement by itself is not a clear indicator that the filming was for personal use only.

Yours sincerely

Paul Cavanagh Facilities & Squares Management Team

A clear and detailed response, but it didn't really address the problem that Heritage Wardens aren't able to judge what activities are for commercial use. So...


Thank you for this response.

Please could you clarify how 'keen amateurs' such as myself may use our video equipment in GLA-managed squares. Simply assuring the Heritage Warden that we were not filming for commercial use was not sufficient and we were harassed out of the square on the basis of using a £20 microphone from a high-street electronics store. Oddly other people around us were shooting static imagery with very high-end DSLR cameras and were not disturbed

Ben Smith

And the response...

Dear Ben

If you wish to conduct any further filming on the square can you email with a request detailing what the filming is for with a contact number and we will look at the request for you.

Yours sincerely

Paul Cavanagh

I can't fault Paul for the speed if his responses or the constructive answers - he is not the policy maker - but I am left feeling dissatisfied that - effectively - security guards are able to determine if you can take pictures or recordings around one of London's most famous landmarks. I'm also grateful for the offer of help with any future request, but taking rights away and offering them back on request isn't a good solution.

So long as the other rules about obstructions and safety are observed (which would require permission for anything more than a single handheld camera) the GLA should be obliged to clearly demonstrate filming is for commercial purposes before ejecting people (as they would have had to had we refused to leave). This might allow a small number more dishonest people to film for commercial use, but that price is worth paying to allow fair access for everyone else.

...and who would lose out? All you need to do to take commercial use images at the moment is to disguise your gear enough to fool someone with no knowledge of what professional equipment looks like.

UPDATE: I subsequently participated in the Photolegal podcast as a guest discussing this issue.

COMMENTS: In its previous home on Posterous this post attracted quite a lot of attentions - receiving around 10,000 views and 60 comments of support and advice. Several people responded that they had had similar problems - especially hobbyists using professional-grade equipment or professional photographers shooting recreationally.