BBC Domesday Reloaded

by Matt Hamilton on May 13, 2011

Long before Wikipedia existed, or Facebook, or even the Internet Archive existed. Back when computer memory was measured not in gigabytes, or even megabytes, but in kilobits. Before the Internet was really available and X.25 networks and X.400 messaging ruled the world, there was a project to take a snapshot of daily life in Britain.

Launched in 1986, the 'Domesday Project' -- a collaboration between the BBC, Philips, Logica and Acorn computers -- was a multimedia archive containing text, images and video. This was probably the first occurrence of 'User Generated Content' that we are so used to these days with the internet.

The project was to mark the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, an 11th century census of England and was compiled by schoolchildren across the country.

I was not personally involved with this (I was 9 at the time and living abroad) however I was very fortunate in that a few year later I went to a school in the UK that could afford to buy the "Doomsday Player" which was a modified Laserdisc player which connected to a BBC micro with a SCSI interface and some custom hardware and used a trackball to navigate.

Doomsday reader, photo from wikipedia

I remember using the system and navigating around the UK and reading and seeing what goes on around the country. Finding out what other schoolkids were doing.

The project divide the whole of the UK up into 2x3 mile blocks (called D-blocks) and photos and articles were written for each of those blocks. The articles were about the ordinary goings on, and may have seemed mundane at the time, but the entire point was to capture a snapshot of life at that time, which future generations can look back on. Being written by schoolchildren they often pick up on elements that adults might not comment on.

An example entry for central Bristol:

 I woke up at 7.30 a.m.  Mum said we   
 were going to go down to the Bristol  
 Docks after dinner to see the Power   
 Boat racing.  When I was dressed, I   
 went to call for Sharon, my friend.   
 We went down to the market.  She      
 bought a red coat costing £19.99. I   
 bought a  dress costing £9.99.  We    
 went home and had dinner - pork,      
 potatoes and cabbage.  After dinner we
 went to the Docks.  All the boats were
 zooming round the course, going really
 fast.  It was very good.  Afterwards  
 we went to the  Lifeboat Museum  to   
 see all the old boats.  When we got   
 home it was 5 p.m. I went out on the  
 playing field till 8 p.m. then I came 
 in, had a piece of toast, watched     
 "Murder She Wrote" on T.V. till 9     
 p.m., then I went to bed and read till
 10 p.m.   

I know there has been issues regarding preservation of the data, as the discs were a non-standard format and that the data on them was also non-standard (this was before JPEG existed, remember).

Well eventually, the BBC have been able to extract much of the data and now made the project available online as the Domesday Reloaded. There is a fantastic short video about the Doomsday project which is well worth watching, including some nice retrospectives of the people original involved.

Doomsday Reloaded screenshot

Bearing in mind that that data is only 25 years old, I think it highlights a lot of the issues we will be facing as a society as we go forward if open standards are not adopted for future information. This is not just the realms of software, but in the case of the Doomsday project, the hardware required to read the data is long gone. Think about all those floppy discs that are now obsolete... even things like Zip discs, MO drives, Travern tapes are all obsolete.

What are future archeologists going to think when they uncover our vast caché of Microsoft Word documents in a hundred years time? I only got married three years ago, and already I have to actively maintain the digital archive of those photos to keep them alive (moved physical media several times, dealt with Flickr Pro account expiring and Yahoo! buyout). My parents have a box of slides and prints in the cupboard of me as a baby that I can still view 30 years later. My daughter, in turn, is only 3 months old and already I think the photos of her will be hard to keep that long in digital medium.  According to wikipedia, some of the video footage for the Doomsday Reloaded project was retrieved from the analog 1" video tape as it was (I guess) easier to recover than the digital data on the discs.

Darren Grant
Darren Grant says:
May 17, 2011 09:21 PM

Hi Matt, the photos on the laserdisc were made up of analogue video frames, the only digital data on the discs was the text. The photos were copied from slides to a video tape for the purpose of the domesday disc, many of the slides were then returned to the photographer. The best quality copy of the photos that therefore exist were on the master 1" video tape.

There is a 'Domesday Special Interest Group' at http://www.domeday1986.com for people who are interested in discussing domesday.

Baz Basil
Baz Basil says:
Jun 21, 2011 03:27 PM

Having just listened to a reference on R4 I can't make the link to what's offered here.

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