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.





















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