Thursday, March 07, 2013

BBC's foreign monitoring technology Socrates Fails

Rather sad to read about technical challenges that are still plaguing BBC Monitoring, a lesser known part of the BBC which operates from a mansion house in Caversham Park, Reading. The Independent newspaper is reporting that an 8 million pound technology system built by the Cambridge based Automony company, still is not working, six years after contracts were signed. You may have heard about Automony and their huge public wrangling with HP who acquired them.
BBC Monitoring - but when? 2000?

I am curious to know when this photo of BBC Monitoring, which appeared in the Independent, was taken.  Looks like early 2000's to me with those monitors. And cassettes? Wonder who supplies them? I'm guessing this is a library photo culled from BBC Publicity years back. It helps the illustrate the problem BBC Monitoring is currently facing - namely that the new curating technology doesn't work. 

From the Independent article...

The 370-strong BBC Monitoring division, which analyses and translates into English radio and television bulletins in around 100 foreign languages, is having to monitor the world’s media with what one member of the team described as “antiquated and temperamental equipment that belongs in a museum”.
Socrates was meant to change that. A revolutionary computer system from the Cambridge-company Autonomy, it promised to revitalise the text-based Caversham system with artificial intelligence and the means to translate myriad languages from audio into written English. 

So sophisticated was this Technology Refresh Project that it was given a lofty acronym based on its anticipated benefits. Specialised, Open source, Collection, Reversioning, Archiving, Tailored, Export, System - Socrates!

It was supposed to be operational in 2009 but, six years after it was commissioned and despite an expenditure of £8,346,847 (a figure released by the BBC in response to a Freedom of Information request), BBC Monitoring is still using its old text system. Staff are especially angry because the computer spending has coincided with a £3m cut in the department’s budget and the loss of at least 60 posts. One said the computer system’s name was better reflected by the words “spending our cash recklessly on a totally empty system”. However, it is understood that not all the £8.3m costs will be borne by the BBC.

I know more than most about BBC Monitoring because I spent a fascinating 3 months there on a summer job contract in 1980. Whilst the name and obviously the equipment has changed over the last 30 years, the basic mission remains intact. The organisation tracks and translates (online) press, TV and radio reports from 150 countries in more than 100 languages. It keeps an eye and ear on what foreign media are reporting about events in their own countries. And it also tracks the media itself. 

For that reason they were an excellent partner when I hosted and produced Media Network on Radio Netherlands in the 1980's and 1990's. Because they were monitoring media for a different purpose, and in the local context, they discovered trends that wouldn't be noticed otherwise. And the Media Network audience, motivated by technical curiosity often found things on the dial that BBC hadn't discovered. That's because the BBC was monitoring scheduled broadcasts and the Media Network audience was hunting for the unusual.

BBC Monitoring has been the owner of Caversham Park House since the end of World War 2. This imposing mansion - the large building you see on the hill as you pass through Reading on the train - has long been a major employer in Caversham. But it has also always been very low-key. And, because historically it has also attracted so many foreign nationals from many parts of the world to work there, overall BBC Monitoring's presence has contributed immeasurably to the quality and richness of life in Caversham. This visit to Caversham was designed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of operations - a period where radio was still the mainstay of the work and satellite TV monitoring was only just starting. 500 people worked there at the time from 50 countries. I made the programme below in 1989. Still sounds fresh on the wireless.

Over the years there has been a lot of downsizing and there is still more pressure to cut still further. One of the frustrations I observed was that it was rare for editors to be asked for their analysis...the job was simply to transcribe and translate. And yet there were plenty of times when we tapped into the talents of BBC Monitoring Richard Measham and Chris Greenway to understand what was happening in the media in Russia and the Middle East.

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