martes, mayo 22, 2007


Telling stories, the location-based digital way

What are the stories that lie beneath such city scenes? by Joe Lemonade, CC BY-NC 2.0Location-based digital storytelling overlays a physical landscape with a digital one in a way that enhances the experience of the physical with additional sights, sounds and stories. Think of a Google Map of your home town with your grandmother’s stories pinned to it here and there: to the open field where once a flea market bustled on Saturday mornings, or the old movie theatre where she once romanced.

This exciting and engaging form of merging physical and digital worlds is by no means new, but is becoming increasingly popular thanks to technological advances – making locative media devices, such as mobile phones and GPS-devices, cheaper and more pervasive – and the emergence of a range of new Web 2.0 services. In this article we will explore a few interesting location-based digital storytelling projects, and then look at tools that you can use to create your own mapped stories.

Imagine walking through a few city blocks that seem quite drab, the very ordinary sight of warehouses converted into offices and artist studios, no doubt colorful on the inside but not much to look at from the street. By just walking around you have no sense of the history of the place, the stories that lie beneath the surface. Scape the Hood is a location-based digital storytelling project that changes that: with a GPS-enabled HP iPAQ Pocket PC running location-based software developed by HP Labs, you can walk around the neighborhood and learn about its history and culture. As you move around, the pocket PC loads appropriate images and audio pieces. Now, knowing that a mural was inspired by the memories of the death of the artist’s mother or that the one converted warehouse was actually a canning plant transformed by artists into one of America’s first live/work spaces, suddenly gives new meaning to the few blocks of SOMA, San Francisco, that surround KQEDs Digital Storytelling Initiative, a partner of this project. You can hear the gurgle of a creek that ran where a street now lies, listen to the sound of trains that once carried corn oil to a mayonnaise factory that has since become a Starbucks coffee shop and also see images from this bygone era. What’s more, you can select sounds and descriptions from different eras to experience what life was like on a particular corner at a particular time. Abbe Donne, executive producer of the project describes this as “narrative archeology” because it “peels back the layers of the neighbourhood” which aren’t obvious from the streets.

Scape the Hood is a textbook example of location-based digital storytelling. The Mobile Bristol Centre, collaborators on the project, imagine a “digital canvas” painted over a physical environment where your presence and actions trigger the digital media experiences that augment the ambiance of the space. But not all location-based projects are context-aware in terms of a person’s physical movement through a space. Many cases allow virtual armchair travel. Third Ward, Houston, is a place and a collection of stories. The residents of this historically black community, which is now being gentrified and redeveloped, are trying to deal with the concomitant threat to their identity. The stories, mapped to specific locations in the area, are told by residents as they remember life in the neighborhood. America’s Highway: Oral Histories of Route 66 is the result of a university assignment to capture the history of one of America’s great, but now decommissioned, highways. In the summer of 2002, students Jay Crim and Shekar Davarya drove across the country on Route 66, interviewing people who lived, worked or traveled on the road. The result of that summer is part history lesson, part travel guide for those exploring Route 66 today. Both of these sites use text, audio and video to present their digital stories.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has teamed up with Google Earth to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In the Google Earth application, users see the Darfur region covered with flame-shaped icons donating burned villages, with links to images of burnt-out huts, tented camps that house displaced refugees, and photographic diaries of people who have lost family members and homes to the violence. The effort aims to create a “community of conscience” among Internet users.

Two great examples of projects that allow both context-aware discovery and virtual travel are [murmur] and Organic City. [murmur] is an “archival audio project that collects and curates stories set in specific locations,” that started in Toronto in 2003 and now includes Vancouver, Montréal, Edinburgh and San Jose. Walking around these locations, armed with a mobile phone, you come across [murmur] signs (of a green ear) that display a telephone number and location code to call in order to listen to stories submitted by regular citizens of the neighborhood. Currently the [murmur] team will interview storytellers to capture the content, but they are exploring the option of anyone submitting their story for a particular place. You can also take walking audio tours from your web-enabled PC, For example, explore Spadina Avenue in Toronto. But says Shawn Micallef, co-creator of [murmur], “you’ll be missing out on half the fun.”

Screen shot example of a map, telling a digital story. City is a community storytelling project that allows users to author and access stories related to the city of Oakland, California. The website is the hub for anyone to tell and find stories in text, audio and video formats. By creating a platform that can be populated by anyone, creators Seamus Byrne and Sarah Mattern have enabled the organic growth of the Oakland community’s collective memory. An interesting result of this type of platform, where information from various sources is layered over common, public spaces, is that the resulting stories are not the usual linear narratives, but rather non-linear threads that can be joined together in many different ways, collectively making up the whole story about, for example, a street corner.

That’s cool, but how can I do this too?

Thanks to Web 2.0 mash-ups that facilitate user-generated content, a number of mapping services make it easy to create your own place-based digital story. Google Maps recently launched My Maps, which lets you create and share personalized, annotated maps. All you need to do is create a Google account and you can begin mapping. By using different colored and shaped pins, you can communicate the aspect of time over the space, like the World of Hello World. Microsoft’s Live Search is a similar service.

In Flickr, the super cool image hosting site, it’s possible to add geographic information or “geotags” to photos, in other words to tell Flickr exactly where they were taken using latitudinal and longitudinal co-ordinates. The good news is that you don’t need a GPS or know-how to tell your location by looking at the sun to join in the fun. See the Flickr tutorial on how to geotag your photos and then use Trippermap to put a flash-based world map on your own website with those geotagged images pinned to it too. Trippermap’s Geotagger also allows you to easily add geotags to your Flickr photos using Google Earth. One other cool thing to do with Flickr is to add notes to a photo, for example Toronto, 1970s to 1990s.

MapBuilder is similar to Google’s My Maps. Community Walk and Wayfaring are similar services to MapBuilder, but they also allow paths to be drawn between locations. The downside of Community Walk is lots of Google Ads, while the upside of Wayfaring is that it lets you track who is interested in your maps and paths.

Joe Lambert, storyteller extraordinaire and Executive Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling, which has created StoryMapping, describes this work as a call to action. “We can now create maps that share stories about the places that matter to us, and place our life stories in countless geographic contexts.” Exactly where this is all headed, and for what, we have yet to find out. All we know is that the tools are there for us to create new experiences by blending the digital with the physical, be it for personal, educational, commercial, social change or other purposes. So, what are you waiting for?

Further links

  • StoryMapping. Interviews with the creators of [murmur], Organic City and Scape the Hood can be downloaded from the StoryMapping podcasts page.
  • The Mobile Art and Locative Media page provides an extensive list of mobile and locative art projects, including place-based storytelling.
  • Geobloggers: a blog about “maps for people, locations, stories and stuff … and sometimes flickr gossip.”

Pictures: What are the stories that lie beneath such city scenes? by Joe Lemonade, CC BY-NC 2.0
Screenshot example of a map with a digital story,, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0


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