Diamond Street is the second in a trilogy of books by Rachel on London streets. On Brick Lane was the first and both will be followed by a volume on Portobello Road, also to be published by Hamish Hamilton. Find out more about Rachel by visiting her site.
After receiving the fantastic news in 2012 that my application to the Arts Council to produce a digital app to coincide with the paperback edition of my latest book Diamond Street: the hidden world of Hatton Garden had been successful, I have spent the best part of a year working in collaboration with an amazing team of experts in the digital media, film, design, literary and historical fields to produce this new media project.
The development of a digital app may at first seem like an odd choice for a non fiction writer with absolutely no experience of or skills in this type of 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. I have always worked in a very multi-disciplinary way, having trained as a sculptor before becoming a writer. My creative practise currently involves writing of course, alongside walking, intensive archival research, photography, audio recording, painting, site-specific art installationsand making short films. The multi-media capabilities of a digital app seemed to offer a good way for my readers to experience my work not just as a printed text but also through digital space, new media and in real time.
Before starting this project I spent a long time imagining what a digital app could offer that a printed book could not and how new technologies could be used not to replace but to enhance and support a book.
I wanted the app to offer new insights for my readers into both the stories in the book 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. Mainly due to the exceptional team I have been collaborating with who have made this magic happen.
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 beactivated 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 Production who produced and mixed the extraordinary sound files for the app. Phantom consist of an amazing team of audio producers headed by the multiple-award winning sound artist Francesca Panetta, who runs the Guardian’s audio team. 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, worldwide leaders in the field of GPS activated apps.
Before working on the back end of 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 hundreds of 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 smartphone in your pocket and your headphones in your ears the secrets of the streets around you are revealed. Have a listen to some of the sound files we used on the Diamond Street App here.
After spending a lot of time in different archives, deciding on which images to use in the app and editing down some of the text from the book, we had all the content ready to go. 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 Calvium’s specially developed platform for GPS located apps.
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.
I really did jump into the deep end with this project. I had to learn a whole new language fast, as developers and digital artists asked me questions about ‘front ends’ and ‘back ends’, ‘story zones’ and ‘location zones’. To try and explain what I mean, below is a screen shot of the ‘back end’ of the app in development.
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 store and for the Android market. 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.