Doug (U1564650)

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 27 November 2006

Bad news travels fast, and thanks to the internet it is now able to travel faster. Last week I was saddened to learn via email correspondence of the death of one of my friends and ex-colleagues from the BBC, Doug.

I worked with Doug for the best part of two years, and just before leaving the UK I interviewed and hired him as an Assistant Development Producer to join my own team. He had worked for some time prior to that on an ad hoc basis as part of the department's editorial group.

As part of a small team working on handling the huge volume of email sent in to the BBC's central new media services he helped me greatly in setting up ways to monitor the feedback from the public when we launched initiatives like the special Dalek or Live8 versions of the BBC homepage. He was also the first to tell me how badly received by the public our switch of the default weather location on the homepage from Central London to Glastonbury had been.

At the time of appointing him in that role I had some debate with my own manager, who wasn't necessarily convinced that there was in fact a permanent role there to be fulfilled. I suspected that given the opportunity, Doug would seize it and carve out a role for himself, which I'm pleased to say he duly did.

The last time I saw him was when I visited the BBC's offices back in August. He was sitting in the odd little top floor pod where we had worked together, that overlooked both the new Wembley Stadium and the old GPO Tower. He was showing me how the XML output of the voting system I had been involved with for so long at the BBC was now being used to populate Flash movies to make the votes attractive to children on the CBBC site. I was happy to see one of the products I had left behind being used to its potential, and in obviously safe care.

For sometime alongside me Doug acted as a host on the Points of View message board, which is where the nickname Doug (U1564650) comes from. Like me, I'm sure he found the task of hosting on a BBC message board to be a curious mix of the annoying and infuriating, with the rewarding ability of being able to help people and provide answers in a semi-official BBC voice.

His last few posts on the board are typical of the way he actively engaged with the BBC's audience - seeking to find out more details of a reported technical problem, or gently pointing out to someone who wanted the BBC to go pay-per-view that they were currently only paying 85p per hour for their 3-hours-per-week BBC TV consumption, and were getting the radio and the website for free into the 'bargain'. His death has just been announced to the community there.

For a long time he also handled a lot of the quirky technical enquiries sent to the BBC via the website - and I remember a real favourite set of correspondence. Someone had emailed the BBC to say that the BBC homepage was hacking their website, as everytime they visited their own site after visiting bbc.co.uk it broke the navigation frameset on their site.

Doug came to me saying that he knew there was no way that we were possibly attacking the site in question, but, to his astonishment, the error was actually repeatable. Eventually we tracked it down to the way some browsers retain window target names across different sites, and the guy's site had a navigation window called the same name as one invoked by some JavaScript on the BBC site.

Having checked that the dependencies for the BBC to change their code were significant across the whole site, Doug wrote a very long and comprehensive email to the guy, who promptly wrote back to say he didn't believe him, and that he was going to take further action about the BBC attacking his website with his MP, or some threat of that ilk. Visions of "The BBC broke my website" headlines in a local newspaper, or questions in the House floated before us.

In the end to prove to the guy that he was right about the source of the problem, Doug built a similarly coded frameset on one of his own sites and sent the URL to him to show it could be replicated, and took the time to point out which bit of code needed to be changed to stop it happening.

It was in those kind of moments that Doug showed his skills, to be able to assess a situation, understand the technical side of it, take the time to make sure he was 100% right, find a solution, find out whether that solution was feasible, find a work-around, demonstrate it working, and then to find the right way to communicate that to someone in order to resolve it.

Those were the kind of skills that would have made him a great producer within the BBC, one with a real eye for what the audience wanted, needed, and was responding to. And as I understand it he had just gained a promotion into the role of Development Producer, barely a year after first being hired as an Assistant Producer.

The sudden death of someone so young, Doug was only 27, is a terrible loss to their family and friends, and I also think Doug's death will be a great loss within the BBC. He was a very vocal champion of user engagement via the online medium, and one of the people who during my time at the BBC really 'got' how new media communication avenues provided the BBC with a unique opportunity to improve their services, and become closer to their audience.

I'll miss seeing him every time I go back into the BBC's offices.

1 Comment

Doug will be sorely missed by many people online. He made a huge difference to the people he took the time to help

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