Thursday, September 23, 2010

US Midterm Elections

On 2nd November, it's the U.S. Midterm Elections. I nerded it up quite heavily during the 2008 U.S. General Election, even finding a way to go to President Obama's Inauguration. I've remained interested in US politics during the last two years, but it's taken a new election for me to really get bogged down in it again. So here's what I know!

Who's being elected?

All 435 members of the House of Representatives will be elected (as happens every two years).

34 Senators will be elected (the bi-annual churn of 1/3 of the Senate) and 3 special elections will be held for the Senate seats vacated by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and the late Robert Byrd.

37 State Governors will be elected, plus the Governors of the Territories of the US Virgin Islands, and Guam. I get the chance here to use one of my favourite words - gubernatorial. Though, not in any meaningful context.

There will also be a bunch of local elections, judicial elections, and state ballots and referenda.

Who will win?

The polls are showing that control of the House hangs in the balance. There is a very strong chance the Republicans will take back control of the House, elevating John Boehner (is that pronounced "boner"? Surely not) to Speaker.

It is likely the Senate will stay with the Democrats. Of the 37 seats up for election, 19 of them were Democrat and 18 were Republican. The Democrats would effectively have to lose 9 seats to lose their voting majority. Most of the polls only show 6 or 7 seats as "too close to call".

Those 39 governorships are pretty evenly split as well - 20 (D) to 19 (R). There's no "balance of power" with governorships per se - they only have power in their states - but the big ones that are too close to call are Florida (I), Maryland (D), Mass (D), New Mexico (D), Minnesota (R), Vermont (R), and California (R - Arnie is retiring because of term-limits).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

U Ctrld Katy

Two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, the Executive Producer of the Scott Mills Show came to me and said "we want to put Katy Perry in a room for an hour, streamed live on the Internet, and for the audience to be able to tell her what to do. Can we do that?". Sure, I said, when? "On Thursday". Oh, OK then.

Well it wasn't exactly like that - we'd been thinking of Katy Perry ideas for several weeks, since her management had come to us and said "lets do something other than just a straight interview - Katy's up for most things". Various ideas had come and gone through the process of feasibility and approval, and I'd had wind of the U Ctrl idea a few days earlier, but it was only on the Tuesday morning that it was green-lit by Katy's management, meaning we had 48 hours to make it happen. The first things that go through my mind on an occasion like this are the following.

Where will we do it?

It obviously has to look right (in this case a big white space, like off of Willy Wonka), but it also has to be easy for Katy and Scott to get to (within 10 minutes of the radio station). We toyed with the idea of dressing one of our meeting rooms at Radio 1 Towers, but ultimately decided this would look crummy, and besides we had only 48 hours to build it (in fact less, if you consider the time needed to then rig cameras etc). Wherever it was we also had to consider the need for a strong upstream internet connection to get the thing online. Which brings me to the next point...

How will we stream it?

Our technology plan for streaming is well established - we designed it two years ago when we live streamed from Scott Mills' house, and it's done well or us all that time. It involves a video signal, an audio signal, an AV-DV converter that turns them into a combined Firewire signal, and a laptop running free Flash Media Encoder software to upload the stream to the BBC's Akamai accounts. To do this, we need a 1mbps upstream internet connection, with little or no contention.

Thankfully, we found a cracking location just around the corner from Radio 1, which had everything we needed. As a post-production studio, it was used to handling large files, and had something insane like a 40mbps upstream connection. It also had a small but perfectly formed infinity cove studio
with a lighting rig. So, we could put Katy in a room, film her, and put it out online. But the last piece of the puzzle...

How will we the audience control Katy?

We have a number of tools at our disposal for this - our Facebook pages, our Twitter, our SMS system, and a chat product called Cover It Live that we've used for more than a year now. The problem here was not the tools, but developing a human process to filter the good stuff out of those various sources (it's fair to say we were expecting a lot of, ahem, unusable suggestions from the audience).

We devised a system where three members of the team would select good suggestions from the audience, and filter them into a shared Google Document - sorting the wheat from the chaff. Scott's producer Emlyn was then the final filter, sorting through the wheat to decide what would get put into the... cake (sorry). He then published chosen instructions to the 'auto-cue' facing into the studio, as well as the Cover It Live window online. I hawked this diagram around all day Wednesday to help explain it to people (made using Popplet on iPad - show off, I know).

A note on Cover It Live - we decided not to use this for audience input, just for reflecting output. We felt that having a constant flow of suggestions alongside the video, with only some of them being carried out, would be quite distracting for the viewer. Having the audience input in a different place to the performer output was a peculiar user journey, but important to create a meaningful presentation.

Build-up and prep

We announced U Ctrl Katy on that Tuesday, on-air and on all our social spaces. During that time we deliberately encouraged people to think wildly about what they'd have Scott and Katy do. Obviously, during an hour-long broadcast we couldn't materialise props etc out of thin air, so this time was important to let us know that kind of things we'd need to bring to the party. My favourite here was the Potter's Wheel - a listener called Marshall Line on Facebook suggested that Scott and Katy should recreate the famous scene from Ghost.

We also knew that an hour of two people stood in a white room wasn't going to be completely sustained entirely by audience suggestions, so we planned a few other surprises like balloons, paints, swingball etc. During the show, we gave the Facebook and Twitter audience advance notice (5 mins or so) that these props were going to be brought out, to give them time to offer suggestions for instructions.

How did it go?

Well... you really had to be watching it to completely get the surreality of it all. Several people described it to me as like "being inside somebody else's weird dream". We served a good number of video streams - not our highest ever, but good for the time of day. Here's the highlights video and the photo gallery.

The main thing we learnt about this project is about volume! We received more than 7000 suggestions during that hour - that's two every second. Inevitably that led to some disappointed people. Some people even suggested it wasn't live and we'd made it all up - I can assure you it very much was live, which a read-out of my heartrate would have attested. In particular, a popular movement toward the end for Katy to put a shoe on her head wasn't picked up by the process, and was used by the doubters to 'prove' that it wasn't live. I wish that one had got through to us in the studio, but it didn't.

There are undoubtedly better ways to flow that data, perhaps using some automation/aggregation technology, a central control panel, etc. But given we had 48hrs to develop the whole proposition, I'll forgive us not getting this perfect the first time.

Where next?

I'd love to do it again. In a way, I think it's a shame that we started with one of the biggest stars in the world (though, that's clearly at the core of the audience appeal) - I like the idea of a series of U Ctrl, building up through the chart until we have people controlling Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, R-Patz. Whether anyone else is as open to doing it as Katy though, remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Google Instant A-Z

So, Google Instant is out. As soon as you start typing into Google, it offers you immediate results. No more hitting "search". It's scarily fast. And what are the nation searching for? It turns out we're a nation of shoppers!

A = Argos
C = Currys
D = Debenhams
E = Ebay
F = Facebook
G = Google Maps
H = Hotmail
J = John Lewis
K = KLM Airlines
L = Lotto
N = Next (clothes shop)
O = O2
P = Paypal
R = Rightmove
S = Sky
T = Tesco
U = UTube (no, honestly!)
V = Virgin
W = Weather (Google Weather inline, then BBC Weather as a search result)
X = Xbox
Y = YouTube
Z = Zara (clothes shop)

I love that nothing beginning with U is more frequently searched for than the mis-spelling of YouTube. Brilliant.