Rodinsky's Whitechapel

I have recently received the fantastic news that my application to the Arts Council for funding to produce a digital app connected to my latest book

Diamond Street: the hidden world of Hatton Garden (Hamish Hamilton 2012) has been successful. Over the coming months I will be working intensively on this project, in collaboration with an amazing team of experts in the digital media field.

This blog will document the research and development of the Diamond Street App, which will be available as a free download both in the itunes app store and for the android market from June 2013, coinciding with the paperback launch of Diamond Street.

I am hoping the information posted here will be useful for others who might want to create their own locative apps for various projects. I am also hoping that anyone with recent experience of working on a similar project will join in the conversation with comments and suggestions below. Either way, please get involved, all feedback is welcome.

The development of a digital app may at first seem like an odd choice for a social historian/artist/writer with absolutely no experience of or skills in this type of new digital medium but from the first time I heard about GPS technology being used in locative apps, I immediately recognised what a great tool this could be for me as a writer. I have always wanted my readers to become more involved in my projects, by visiting the places I write about and then sending me their responses.

For example, back in 1999, for part of Artangel’s ‘INNERCity’ series, I produced a limited edition (which quickly sold out) pocket sized guidebookRodinsky’s Whitechapel. tracing Rodinsky’s paths in and around Brick Lane. Readers used the guidebook to visit locations described in Rodinsky’s Room. physically moving through the landscape of the story. Rodinsky’s Whitechapelfunctioned as an alternate walking tour for that part of the city, a strange drift through memory and place. ‘You could stop off at the cafe where Rodinsky played the spoons, visit Mr Katz’s string shop and see the site of the former Kosher Luncheon Club, finally arriving at Elfes Stone Masons where Rodinsky’s headstone was displayed in the window’ (Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel).

Readers were also invited to send me their own memories/experiences of these locations by posting back to me a detachable postcard in the back of the book. If the technology had been available in 1999 when I completed this project I’m sure the obvious platform for Rodinsky’s Whitechapel would have been a digital app.

The more I think about it I recognise that the multi-media capabilities of a digital app are in fact an obvious way forward for an artist/writer like me, who has always worked in a multi-disciplinary way. Whilst researching all of my books I have taken photographs, conducted oral history interviews, made short films and gathered a vast amount of audio and visual material, which has more than often not been included in the printed book. Sometimes this extra material has been developed into multi media exhibitions after publication.

I’m hoping that after creating a platform for the Diamond Street App I will be able to reuse this extra material in new digital app projects for my other books, as well as additional information sent to me by readers after publication.

Some of the most interesting material in a long project has often arrived in the form of lengthy (and much treasured) handwritten letters, emails and packages from readers after publication. Readers have been very generous sharing their memories and photographs with me but I have often felt frustrated by the closed/fixed nature of a printed book, which has meant I have been unable to update my text with this new information (this would of course have been possible if my books had been reprinted many times over but apart from on one occasion, this has not happened).

Whilst remaining a passionate champion of printed books I am excited by the possibilities new media offers writers, with the potential to constantly update projects, making the book a living, organic, even collaborative document. I can also see how a digital app could allow readers to use new technology to explore a text and a place through digital space, new media and real time.

Before starting this project I spent a long time imagining what a GPS activated location based app could offer that a printed book could not.

What if whilst standing in front of a building whose history I have described, readers could also hear memories about that place from people who have lived and worked there?

What if archival images and documents about that place could also arise whilst readers were listening to these stories, along with historical data, excerpts from literature and printed material from my book?

What if film footage could pop up as you walked around, showing hidden locations both above and below the places where you walked?

What if there was a gaming element in the app, making readers work/search/investigate a place before the next part of the story was revealed to them?

What if readers could conduct their own investigations about these places, either virtually or in reality by visiting archives, sending images and comments directly to the app, changing and adding to the story all the time?

The options seemed limitless. If I manage to achieve even some of the ideas above I believe readers will have a much deeper, interactive, dynamic and live experience of the locations described within my printed text by using the related digital app. If I manage to achieve all of these aims, who knows, this project could have the potential to change the way that authors and others in the publishing field view the way new technologies can be used to enhance and support a printed book.

Another blog post will be coming soon, with details about the amazing team of experts working on this project and information on how we are starting to build this app collaboratively.

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