The Blog

Transforming a non fiction historical book into a GPS activated digital app

I have spent the best part of the last year working in collaboration with an amazing team of experts in the digital media, film, design, literary and historical fields, to produce The Diamond Street App. I wanted the app to offer new insights for my readers into both the stories in my latest book, Diamond Street: the hidden world of Hatton Garden (Hamish Hamilton) and the places and people I have written about. I’m really pleased to say that after a lot of hard work I really do believe this has been achieved.

Work on the app began with paper plans, budget discussions and meetings with Simon Poulter, Metal Culture’s digital arts officer who was co-producer of the project. We brainstormed on my original idea: ‘ to pick up on traces of the history of the place as you wandered around, with images, audio and text being activated by geo-technology.’ We literally ripped the printed book apart and imagined these pages being scattered around the Hatton Garden area, transformed into different digital media, which would then be activated as users passed by specific locations. The idea was to develop an experimental drift through an area, rather than a guided, chronological linear walk.

From paper designs formulated during this process we developed the rough outline for a design for both the virtual (armchair version) and the GPS on location versions of the app. The next stage of the development involved intensive meetings with Phantom Productions who produced and mixed the sound files for the app. Phantom consist of a highly skilled team of audio producers headed by the multiple-award winning sound artist Francesca Panetta, who runs the Guardian’s audio department. Francesca was one of the first to work on this type of GPS activated app Soho Stories App. Her knowledge and expertise has greatly enhanced the project and through Francesca I was introduced to Calvium, app developers based in Bristol, who are worldwide leaders in the field of GPS activated apps.

Before working on the back end of the app development I spent a considerable amount of time storyboarding the app. I found this a painful process, after five years of researching the area and its history and a book’s worth of material gathered and more, it was hard for me to cut this down. I eventually decided on 12 different story zones, which take you through the story of the historic quarter of Hatton Garden, from its time as a medieval rural monastic landscape in the Fleet Valley, to its transformation in the nineteenth century into a jewellery quarter and the contemporary story of the place today.

Even though I had already conducted many hours worth of audio recordings of people who work in the Hatton Garden jewellery trade, it was decided these needed to be re-recorded. The quality of my recordings was just not high enough for the project. So I contacted a number of people who had been involved in the book, from Iain Sinclair, to geologist Diana Clements, to orthodox diamond dealers and sewer flushers and then BBC broadcaster India Rakusen re-recorded my interviewees. These recordings were then mixed with bespoke soundscapes and music to create 12 beautifully produced and extremely high quality sound files, which really form the core of the GPS experience. As you walk around with your iphone/smartphone in your pocket and your headphones in your ears the secrets of the streets around you are revealed. Click here to hear a promo of sound files for Diamondstreetapp produced by Phantom Productions. 

 The next stage got a lot more techy! In November 2012 Simon Poulter and I attended an intensive training day with app developers Calvium learning how to use their specially developed platform for GPS located apps – Appfurnace. In collaboration with Phantom Production and Calvium we decided on location zones and then placed the sound files and images within these zones. A period of intensive testing ensued, with extensive notes on any issues on site (such as leakage of sound files from one zone to another, or places where sound files overlapped) being taken and then reported back to Calvium who made continual adjustments to the back end of the app. There were many small problems to iron out and a lot of testing was needed before the app was working well. Most of the testing took place throughout the coldest winter on record and I can’t say it was all an enjoyable experience, but hearing those stories come to life in place as I wandered around was undeniably really exciting, a very contemporary way of conducting pyschogeography in place.

Alongside intensive testing on location we began to develop the designs for the armchair version of the app, which eventually became a swiping timeline through the stories in the book, with embedded text, images, films and sound. I’m delighted to say the Diamond Street App has now been published and is available as a free download both in the itunes app store and for the Android. I’m really excited about the project, which I hope has achieved its aim of giving readers a much deeper, interactive, dynamic and live experience of the locations, people and stories described within my printed text. For me, working for the first time with these new mediums has completely altered my outlook on digital publishing and the potential of using new media to connect with new readers and audiences. I’ve found the collaborative multi-media way of working both really exciting and really challenging and whilst I’m looking forward to some quality time alone with my computer, cracking on with my next book, I can certainly imagine working on more digital app projects in the future.






















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.