Public service coding: the BBC as an open software developer

Juan Mateos-Garcia at NESTA: “On Monday, the BBC published British, Bold, Creative, a paper where it put forward a vision for its future based on openness and collaboration with its audiences and the UK’s wider creative industries.

In this blog post, we focus on an area where the BBC is already using an open and collaborative model for innovation: software development.

The value of software

Although less visible to the public than its TV, radio and online content programming, the BBC’s software development activities may create value and drive innovation beyond the BBC, providing an example of how the corporation can put its “technology and digital capabilities at the service of the wider industry.

Software is an important form of innovation investment that helps the BBC deliver new products and services, and become more efficient. One might expect that much of the software developed by the BBC would also be of value to other media and digital organisations. Such beneficial “spillovers” are encouraged by the BBC’s use of open source licensing, which enables other organisations to download its software for free, change it as they see fit, and share the results.

Current debates about the future of the BBC – including the questions about its role in influencing the future technology landscape in the Government’s Charter Review Consultation – need to be informed by robust evidence about how it develops software, and the impact that this has.

In this blog post, we use data from the world’s biggest collaborative software development platform, GitHub, to study the BBC as an open software developer.

GitHub gives organisations and individuals hosting space to store their projects (referred to as “repos”), and tools to coordinate development. This includes the option to “fork” (copy) other users’ software, change it and redistribute the improvements. Our key questions are:

  • How active is the BBC on GitHub?
  • How has its presence on GitHub changed over time?
  • What is the level of adoption (forking) of BBC projects on GitHub?
  • What types of open source projects is the BBC developing?
  • Where in the UK and in the rest of the world are the people interested in BBC projects based?

But before tackling these questions, it is important to address a question often raised in relation to open source software:

Why might an organisation like the BBC want to share its valuable code on a platform like GitHub?

There are several possible reasons:

  • Quality: Opening up a software project attracts help from other developers, making it better
  • Adoption: Releasing software openly can help turn it into a widely adopted standard
  • Signalling: It signals the organisation as an interesting place to work and partner with
  • Public value: Some organisations release their code openly with the explicit goal of creating public value

The webpage introducing TAL (Television Application Layer), a BBC project on GitHub, is a case in point: “Sharing TAL should make building applications on TV easier for others, helping to drive the uptake of this nascent technology. The BBC has a history of doing this and we are always looking at new ways to reach our audience.”…(More)