Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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ABC Innovation’s Sidetracks – a mobile heritage pilot featuring some Powerhouse content

November 11th, 2008 by Seb Chan

ABC Innovation has launched their Sydney Sidetracks project.

This is a lovely experiment in developing a mobile heritage application which takes some of the archives of ABC TV and Radio and combines them with static imagery and research from the cultural heritage partners – Powerhouse Museum, State Library of NSW, National Film & Sound Archives, Museum of Contemporary Art, the City of Sydney Archives, and the Dictionary of Sydney.

ABC have sensibly hedged their bets so the diverse content is available as an interactive website with a simple map interface, and as a multi-platform mobile Java application.

Whilst the mobile application is not yet location-aware, it does provide a simulation of the potential experience that awaits in a future version. The phone version can be ‘sideloaded‘ to a huge range of different devices. Being out and about with the content changes your experience of it greatly but suffice to say, mobile is still in a very immature phase – with significant usability issues to be overcome. Partially to get around these, a whole lot of the ABC Archives content can be downloaded, separately, to your phone to be accessed as podcasts.

Importantly for the promotion of Sidetracks, ABC Radio 702 is engaged with the project and will be driving listeners to the website (and hopefully the mobile application) to explore.

I conducted a short interview with Sarah Barns, the producer and researcher behind the project, who worked with ABC innovation.

Q: Sidetracks (re)tells some great stories of our city. How did you choose which stories to tell?

Sarah Barns: I was pretty motivated in my selection by finding archival material that had been recorded on location. The original focus for my research was on ambient audio recordings, and embedding them in whatever ways possible (whether that’s mobile, ipod, hypertag, short-wave radio or whatever..!) to enable the listener to tune in to the sounds of another era while looking at a contemporary environment. Obviously there’s a lot of historical tours and commentary and podtours and the like coming out now, and my interest has been to try to decipher what can be made of actuality audio recordings for such purposes. While additional formats were later included in Sidetracks, I remained pretty focused on material that could be uncovered in a very site-specific way.

I also have quite an interest in ‘lost places’, whether demolished buildings or radically transformed environments, and using archives to excavate an area – an archeology of recorded action, rather than surviving artefact – which obviously becomes more potent the more a place has changed. So a lot of the stories are based on those two premises – ambience and disappearance.

I love this quote from Alec Morgan (Hunt Angels, et al) when he says

“It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the cultural essence of Sydney lies embedded in its architecture. It’s structures, buildings and monuments. I find this method of interpreting the past, this reliance on concrete and real estate, a faulty and unsound foundation upon which to build an understanding of the forces that shape the distinctiveness of the city…I sense that there is another city lying undiscovered beneath these bloated, familiar carcasses and that cultural interpretation by architecture is too impoverished to satisfy a secret desire to connect to something of Sydney’s past that is more elusive, more sensual, than a pile of bricks and mortar.” Alec Morgan (2004)

It’s a quote that marks out the imaginative potentiality of the ‘invisible’ terrain.

Q: I like it that these stories traverse multiple content pools – the ABC, NFSA, SLNSW, PHM, DoS etc. How important is the cross-silo approach to the project? How has it been working with these partners? Have you been able to greatly enrich the stories as a result of these partnerships? And, are there any stories that could not have been told *without* additional content?

SB: The cross-silo, cross-institutional aspect has been very important as a background motivation – eventually I’d hope to see a more site-specific approach to the way archival collections can be accessed, enabling an interested user to navigate the range of resource available on a given location. All possible in the world of geo-tagging, etc. But it’s technology developments like geo-tagging that have motivated this interrogation of the archives: if geo-tagging is now possible, if mobile phones and ipods mean we can take material with us, have it beamed down to us depending on where we are etc – then what kinds of archival material is best suited for such purposes and what stories can be unearthed? This is a focus of my doctoral research called Jaywalking Sydney, and commenced with my research of the National Film and Sound Archives collection in March 2007.

Initially this project going to launch with ABC-only content, which could then be expanded to include other collections. Starting with the ABC’s collection influenced the selection of a number of the points of interest (POIs), which in turn led to questions about what else was a available on these very specific locations. If I’d started with the PHM collection, for example, there’d be a different set of stories, I think. Having said that I was really motivated by the PHM exhibition on Pyrmont and its wonderful anecdotes about the area as a “place of ferny gullies” and the working conditions of the quarries etc! But the Dictionary of Sydney, for example, they have a very different curatorial approach and so obviously the stories that feature there will be very different.

Q: Sidetracks is impressive for its depth – even in its very first iteration. The ABC Archives must hold many hidden gems. What were the difficulties faced in unearthing them? How have you dealt with IP issues?

SB:I’ll start by saying that the ABC Archives were an absolute pleasure to work in and with – in terms of the super-duper people, the systems they have in place, and of course the amazing content. Difficulties included some frustrations around loss of audio for early TV footage (as this stuff gets dubbed over, the original audio has been lost in some instances), some minor cataloguing anomalies and yes, some rights issues.

Working with rights issues for the web is one thing (and that’s big enough) but for mobile its still pretty prohibitive trying to tackle re-purposing existing ABC content on this platform, and as the cross-platform spread still being worked out at the research stage I obviously had to play it pretty safe. The Sydney Stadium for example – a whole slew of infamous gigs there, but I wasn’t able to include this footage. Documentaries were also difficult (due to production components for mobile) and so I mostly had to stay clear of these. For the moment . . .

Q: Sidetracks is also part of your PhD research. Tell me a little bit about the overall PhD.

SB:The overall PhD is basically looking at this intersection between the emergence of situated technologies like 3G mobile phones and geo-spatial technologies on the one hand, and the history of the city on the other. I’m keen to interrogate the claims of enthusiasts such as Adam Greenfield et al that mobile phones can ‘improve the public spaces of the city’ by exploring the layers of public participation, conflict and change that lie beneath the streets – to connect with a longer history of how ‘new’ media technologies have shaped the urban experience.

And so rather than pursuing the opportunities of mobile phones etc for the sake of the mobile phone industry (!) I guess I’m interested in what the added element of site-specificity might add to way people not only interact with each other, but also with places. I’m thinking here of mobile phones as homing devices to discover the history of a place – in this instance, Sydney. And with a title like ‘Jaywalking‘, well, that gives me a bit of licence to get a bit distracted with all kinds of other interesting topics as well . . .

Q: It seems that you’ve sensibly hedged your bets by offering multiplatform delivery. What are your expectations around the uptake of the mobile app over the web version?

SB:History is an unusual area for mobile content – it’s not so mass market or young. I guess there is an expectation that given the extra steps involved in actually getting the app to your phone, it will have lower uptake. The ideal scenario is that you are (probably a tourist) in a location or area and are offered the chance to access some of this material when you’re there. That’s ideal, but the ABC is not quite there yet in terms of distribution options.

The ABC has also deliberately stayed away from GPS at present due to some potential consumer issues around data charges, they are playing it safe there as they don’t want a user being told something is free and then being stung by a $100 data fee. Not good! But that extra precaution also means you can access the mobile content on your mobile phone anywhere – home or at some of the locations featured, for example – which I expect will also limit the experience a bit, in that fewer people may actually travel to the locations to listen or watch the material. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is from listeners.

Q: I’ve noticed that you are inviting UGC. How do you think that this is going to work? Are there any precursors to this sort of hyperlocal storytelling in Sydney?

SB:Not that I know of…But I’m sure they’re out there, perhaps not so focused specifically on archives. It would be great if this UGC component manages to unearth some gems – I’m struck at times at how little there is of some locations or events available in the public sphere, given their prominence. It would be nice to build more freely available collections based on the principles of ‘public authoring’.

Sarah’s blog contains a number of detailed highlights of Sidetracks to get you started.

Go and dive in and check out Sydney Sidetracks.

We’ve also popped a little landing page on the Powerhouse site in case you want to look at the Powerhouse contributions. Many of the images used are from the Tyrrell Collection which you can grab from our contributions to the Commons on Flickr. I’ve created a set on Flickr that features these.

Tags: 3 Comments

  • AG

    Please note that I do not consider myself an “enthusiast” regarding mobile/ubiquitous services, nor have I ever claimed that the use of mobile phones can improve public space – or anything else, for that matter,

    I’m gratified by your interest in my work, but would appreciate it greatly if you didn’t mischaracterize my positions regarding the utility or desirability of “improving” urban experience with mobile technology.

  • Hi Adam – I’m really sorry you feel mischaracterized here, and perhaps that’s fair enough. It was a paraphrase, made late at night…I was referring to the quote: ‘Through interviews, case studies, analysis and illustration, The City Is Here makes the case that these technologies can help us rediscover public space’.

    To be honest it’s your really insightful thinking about this whole area that has provided some of the impetus for me to excavate (hidden) instances of urban activism in site-specific ways. Part of what ‘rediscovering public space’ can mean is knowing about what has taken place around you, and what forces, events, or individuals have shaped certain developments, past and present – making the city what it is. That’s why I’m researching archives in this way.

    So I’m being a bit literal when I suggest that I’m ‘interrogating’ these claims about public space etc – I don’t mean simply undermining those claims, more that I think they’re worth testing. So that’s what I’m doing.

    Many props to you. Sarah

  • AG

    Thanks so much for that quick response. I truly don’t mean to unload on you, Sarah, but it’s been a continual theme these last few months – I feel as if I must not be speaking very clearly, because I keep seeing articles characterizing me as a “communist” or a “utopian” after my talks. It’s been a little bizarre, and to be honest I’m just a little bit on edge about it.