Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the Web, featured during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

As you’ve probably noticed, the 2012 Olympics are underway in London right now. A massive logistical exercise and a global spectacle, the Games have also given the BBC another opportunity to impress with their semantic technology skills. And impress they most certainly do. Only, I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity for a bolder and more modern piece of data sharing, more in keeping with both the Olympics spirit and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s tweet during his appearance at the Opening Ceremony; ‘this is for everyone.’

As readers of SemanticWeb.com are no doubt aware, the BBC is no stranger to semantic technologies. Their music pages are stuffed full of semantic goodness, and trust Musicbrainz and Wikipedia to supply them with artist information. Their natural history pages take the same basic ideas, and extend them still further. And, in a precursor to the work driving their Olympics coverage, the corporation’s sport pages received a major overhaul that made it far easier for journalists and visitors to the site to make connections between players and teams, teams and their opponents, and game results and overall rankings.

Jem Rayfield discussed the BBC’s efforts in a blog post in April, and followed up in June with a presentation to the Semantic Technology & Business Conference in San Francisco. Fluid Operations (press release) and Ontotext (case study) provide the core components that the BBC combines and extends in order to support a rich and powerful workflow. Historical data, context-providing news stories, and up-to-the-minute results combine to create a rich and seamless whole. For the Olympics, the source data comes from a lot of different places (more on that in a moment), but the BBC cleans, enriches, and adds structure and linkage to the data before putting them to work on the web site, in the parallel streams of online video from every venue, on the 24 dedicated BBC Olympics television channels available to UK-based viewers, and in the tools available to BBC commentators and journalists.

The BBC does not have a monopoly over the Olympics, of course. There are other news agencies and broadcasters in the UK. There are also broadcasters from other countries in London to cover the games (sometimes hours later), and all of them (including the BBC) are dependent upon various pieces of Olympic infrastructure. There’s an Olympic Data Feed coming from the International Olympic Committee. There are the Olympic Broadcasting Services, which presumably provide much (most/ all?) of the video footage that the BBC and others then show. There’s an Olympic Delivery Authority and a London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG).

Territoriality, jurisdiction, greed perfectly rational sponsorship arrangements, and bizarrely antiquated notions of broadcast rights serve to further complicate the picture. No legal access to Olympics footage in the USA until NBC deigns to broadcast it? That is almost as bizarre as local requirements that visitors to Olympics venues only buy things with [sponsor] Visa’s cards or eat chips (fries) sold by [sponsor] McDonalds, whilst being careful not to wear [non-sponsor] Nike trainers (sneakers) in case [sponsor] Adidas has us ejected from the venue.

But surely, in the world of data, we can do better? The BBC is receiving data from ODA and others, and enriching it for its own purposes. Indeed, the BBC has even flexed its muscles in order to require that data be provided in a particular form more amenable to ingest into the semantic content management system. That’s great. But why not pass the data and the enrichment along to others who might also be able to benefit from it? Who knows? The arrival of a steady stream of rich metadata might just be the thing that tips other broadcasters over the edge, and has them embrace semantic technologies too. Broadcast rights are so carefully carved up, and so fiercely protected, that an NBC commentary made better by some BBC-powered context cannot possibly lose the BBC viewers to NBC, so the commercial objections to sharing appear weak.

The BBC has demonstrated an awareness of the power and importance of an open web. The UK government is committed to open data (you can even download the Olympic Delivery Authority’s organogram as RDF!). But here, when countries from around the world have come together in the UK as our guests, we appear unable to share some of the excellent infrastructure that we have built for ourselves with public money.

A conscious (and crazy) business decision by the BBC? I doubt it. An oversight, because no other broadcaster thought to ask? Possibly. Or something that was hoped for but blocked by the revenue-maximising insanity that appears to have gripped these Olympics, to the ultimate detriment of the Games, the sponsors, and all of us? I truly hope not.