Geo locative audio = new opportunities for journalists


In the course of being in the UK, I’m coming across, and hearing about, many geo locative audio apps that are pitched at different audiences and presented in many different guises: from heritage apps to onsite novellas, to location based sound scapes. Here’s a couple of examples where journalism and geo locative audio apps are working well together.

The first one, Fixing Point, was produced by Blast Theory – a Brighton based group renowned for their ground-breaking digital work. It came out in 2013, had a very simple app framework, was done on the smell of an oily rag and has been rolled out at several festivals. To be clear, this app is no longer in operation, nor have I tested it out on location. But after speaking with Matt Adams from Blast Theory in Brighton recently, and checking out the webpage, I think I get what’s going on, and I think it’s worth mentioning.

As it reads online, Fixing Point “traces the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. What lies hidden and where are we silent?”  It is based around the disappearance of Seamus Ruddy who was killed in 1985 by members of the Irish National Liberation Army in Paris. His body has never been found and he is one of a number of victims who disappeared during the conflict in Northern Ireland. On the Fixing Point app, so Matt tells me, we get both an original score and stories (as in discrete audio files that are GPS triggered) of an interview that Blast Theory producer Ju Row Farr did with Seamus’s sister, Anne. At that time of the interview Anne was still waiting for news of her brother. Fixing Point invites festival goers to a certain location (as part of the festival program) to search for “metal fixing points whilst hearing from Anne as she talks about her missing brother.”

Because Seamus’ body was never found Blast Theory’s, the actual fixing points are not dependent on any one site. In other words, this can be experience most anywhere and in doing so, it is playing on the knowing that Seamus could be buried… well anywhere, even right beneath our feet. As Matt says, it could be rolled out at a festival tomorrow. “We’d just have to brush off the coding.” There must be plenty of similar stories that highlight the brutality at the hands of the pro-British unionists too. But the point here is not which side is right or should be heard: the point is that geo locative audio now affords a powerful and intimate platform for these sorts of stories, these voice to be experienced in relation to a space. Hearing Anne talk about her brother while searching for a metal bolt in the ground where Seamus could have been buried, surely bears this out. The Australian project, Vanitas, a more performative piece than Fixing Point, also speaks to a site generally but instead of being a document of the missing IRA casualties, it is concerned with the mystique of cemeteries. It too also plays at festivals allowing for the app to be repurposed time and time again in different locations. This is an important thing to consider for those who wish to mitigate the cost of making an app each time anew.    

Unlike Fixing Point, the second geo locative audio app is firmly grounded to one site. Consent, by Chris Brookes (the man behind Battery Road), is based on a sexual assault incident in St. John's, Newfoundland in Canada that came to trail and was a much-contested case: The app takes us on a “walk through downtown locations where events of the case took place.. and includes information about sexual assault and Canadian law, as well as links to crisis centres and hotlines…Testimonies heard in the app are taken verbatim from the public record of the trial. Names have been changed to protect identities. Voices heard in the app are those of actors.”

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 Putting a story about a rape case up and into the public realm is nothing new for journalists. But, crafting it into an on-site auditory experience, outside the bar where she walks late at night, at the site where the police car picks her up, hearing the testimonies, the equivocations, the ambient sounds of nightclubs and police radio: this is new. This app is sonically rich and bold in what it sets out to do. It has a clean and easy to use design, is simple to operate, is carefully paced narratively and neatly scripted. It marries audio, transcript and images at each site numbered 1-14- and demonstrates a fine understanding of the geo-locative creative tools now on the table. At the same time, with its myriad links for further information, Consent also serves as a powerful stepping stone for people wanting to finding out more rape and where the line is drawn.

Consent presents a very different proposition to Fixing Point: as in, it is not something that happened years ago: it happened right here and the people who continue to live here are probably well aware of this. Having worked in this field for five years now, I know full well that a well-produced geo locative audio app can be a highly affective way to build empathy, albeit engage us with the issues. The makers of Consent seem to knows this too and to great effect.

Both Fixing Point and Consent are not the only ones out there like this. But they are reminders to journalists that there are viable alternatives to the twenty-four-hour news cycle paradigm. And as more people look to their mobile phones to make sense of the world around them, these sorts of well delivered projects are only going to continue. But if journalists are considering going down this road, then they need to understand one or two things: This is all about the art of audio by way of delivery. Audio helps us unpack a place and the world around us. Secondly, this is as much the field of the artist and storytellers as it the news reporter. In this mix, users are not passive participants. They are actively involved on location as events are creatively unfolding around them. As a result, this sort of work is likely to slow users down rather than speed them up. For it is the voice and sounds, the songs and stories – as they pertain to the real lived physical world around us - that hold our attention, and not our screens, nor the written word. Just like the shift to podcast has caught many journalists off guard, this approach to digital storytelling affords a wholly different set of considerations. I’d suggest that if you’re a journalist out there wondering where to next, then pay close attention to the world of geo-locative audio. Maybe start playing around on one of the fee apps available. For when it comes to this new and exciting field, the train’s already leaving.   




Hamish Sewell