Earlier this month, members of the wider Pararchive team were invited to host a 90-minute breakout session on our project at the Connected Communities festival. I closed the segment with some reflections on our approach to design & community storytelling; here’s my talk…
Hey everyone, my name is Imran Ali. I’m one of the founders of Carbon Imagineering, a digital innovation and R&D practice. Much of our work is around understanding the impact of emerging technologies and synthesising new opportunities from disruptive innovations. For the next quarter hour or so, I thought I’d reflect on the design and technology approach to Pararchive and share some of our insights from the first half of the project.
Back in Autumn 2012, Simon and I first met as part matchmaking programme that brought together academics and technologists. Over the course of four caffeine and cake fuelled days, we deliberated and ideated on storytelling, memory, institutional archives, journalism, personal collections and where technology was enabling and disruptive all these areas.
From these conversations we created a concept called Pararchive, an app for exploring stories around the London riots of 2011 by bringing together social media, open data, personal perspectives and large media archives.
More importantly than a design, it surfaced a few key principles that would guide a larger research project. We’d seek to build, created a neutral space, focussed on narrative rather than truth, that orchestrated pieces of media from various places, respected sources and created a fabric of connected stories.
By this point, we’d used fictional personas we’d dreamed up ourselves and it was time to begin working with real people and stories. Hosting an ongoing series of small co-design workshops it became quickly apparent that we had a access to remarkably committed and passionate group of people with astonishing stories.
Being used to designing for millions, it was quite a privilege to be able to design for dozens and this meant care, empathy and respect became as important as our design approaches. As we developed friendships with those we worked with, an acute sense of responsibility became central to our work. But we did have to balance our needs to move workshops forward without prejudicing them with foregone conclusions and our own biases.
After each workshop we’d take time to decompress and reflect on findings, capturing as much material as we could, looking for patterns and connections, mapping places, people and time to formulate ideas to test in the next round
This involved a lot of post it notes!
Around early Spring of this year, we began to reflect on what the smallest unit of a story, its atoms or DNA, would be. How are they created, discovered, connected and shared. We started to think about the notion of story “blocks” of personal or archival media, abstractions like places and people and what kind of tools might be needed to assemble them into stories.
We arrived at the notion of a block being almost a “paragraph” to which metadata and media could be added from archives, the open web and personal collections, enabling rich connections to form amongst otherwise unconnected stories. The tapestries we always imagined.
So far, our communities in Bute and Stoke have embraced this – they did indeed co-invent it! And we’re currently moving from using paper prototypes to an early digital tool to see if their stories can inhabit a series of storyblocks and honour the original narratives.
Here you can see that first digital tool taking shape, but this has also allowed us to move forward on designing some concept visuals you can see on these next slides.
In the last few minutes, I wanted to reflect on a smaller, but just as vital perspective we brought to the project in acting as scouts, staying abreast of the state-of-the-art in storytelling tools, introducing formats, products, apps and ideas but critically helping the wider group formulate a position and opinion, guided by the principles and co-design activities that came before.
Interestingly, the public website has become a great corpus of knowledge on these apps and tools, but also helped us filter out noise from an industry obsessed with storytelling applications!
Equally, some like Cowbird and the NYT have influenced our own choices greatly.
Finally, it’s worth noting that we also needed a project infrastructure to cohere communication and collaboration across the wider team, institutions, partners and community groups.
Thanks everyone and if you have any questions about our design and technology approach, please fire away!