Testing! Testing! Putting The BBC Homepage Through Emergency Procedures
If you were up surfing the web around midnight last night, and visited the BBC homepage, like the proverbial visitor going down to the woods, you were in for a bit of surprise, as we were testing our new Breaking News, Breaking Sport and 'Lite' procedures. There are some systems that you can do as much testing in development as you like, but you'll never feel 100% confident in the system until you've seen it used on the live site. Putting the homepage into these modes is one of those applications that I wouldn't be happy to sign off until I have seen it work for real. The last thing I want is to be debugging when there is a news-driven emergency taking place.
We also tested the 'lite' version of the page, for when we are experiencing heavy load, but the excellent backstage.bbc.co.uk supported BBC Homepage archive didn't pick these up. I'm not sure if it just happened between 5 minute intervals, or whether the very different source code of the page confused the script. So I don't have pictures - for once I didn't stay up myself in order to monitor the testing from home.
Following the bombings and attempted bombings in London in July we obviously reviewed the way the page had operated - as there is no point having emergency procedures in place if you don't learn from them and refine them every time they are used. As a result we have made some changes to the systems we use to instantly modify the page - and it is my sad duty to report that no longer does moving the page into "Breaking News" mode literally involve pushing an on-screen HTML "big red button".
(Catching the theoretical edge cases for emergencies is also always fun, you end up, well, I end up, sitting in a meeting saying "but what if a plane carrying a politician crashed due to technical failure into a sporting event, that featured a UK sportsman who was married to a celebrity, that was being held in Europe but also featured sportsmen from the Americas and Africa" and trying to work out which of the News feeds we use would require de-duping.)
It also makes us think about issues of security. Naturally you want a clear set of people who are defined as having the authority to put the page into these modes, which has to be a mix of journalistic editors from BBC News, editorial staff, and technical staff who may need to make the decision for traffic peak reasons. What you don't want to do is find yourself with a list of names and access so restricted that in an emergency you find that none of the designated people can get to a computer. We've opted for a long list of people and reasonably loose security - frankly there is no point working on the homepage of the BBC website if you don't trust the people around you to think carefully about what they are doing with the page.
However, my dream of a WAP interface so that in the event of an emergency we would be able to change the status of the page from our mobile phones still seems a little way off.