Blog: Mission impossible

Thursday, May 9

Emailing and texting my colleagues from the moment I left the house to arrival in hotel in Florence. It felt a bit like that old TV programme – Challenge Anneka. Travel across Europe, find a wifi hotspot good enough for downloading a new full app, and then go on a treasure hunt.

Well that’s exactly what I did. I set off from home near Oxford, email coming in from Jo warning that the app might be too big to download, with David noticing some audio files had been muddled up, with Nicky getting worried she’d sent the wrong stuff over to Jo – that sort of thing. Meanwhile I’m texting and emailing the people in Florence to check there will be some people to trial with and that meeting are set up.

Radio silence as I fly across to Pisa and of course, land, turn on the phone and pick up another load of comments and progress reports. By this point Jo has left the office for other work and Tom has stepped in on app operation control. He’s confident changes are more or less made – but yes, the app containing both walks will be a big baby. 100MB: we’re so proud!

Phoning in ...
Phoning in …

Check in. Dump bag. Look at emails. No sign yet. Set off to phone shop to get a fast SIM card for the iPad to set up a hotspot to download the app. Get that, come out of the shop. Email arrives – ready to go. But I need to rejuice the phone … oh my God, I am such a novice at technology.

So I go to Palazzo Strozzi – there’s a cafe there and I remember being told good wifi. So coffee for me (essential), plug for the phone and wifi. The app is delivered. Its a beauty. Ready to go – and I even installed it on my mini iPad for better visibility.

So, having bought sundry SIM cards to set up personal hotspots for my trial group tomorrow , I made a last minute change of plan and email the trial volunteers to meet at Palazzo Strozzi where the wifi is phenomenal.

Well this is getting tedious to read. But you can see perhaps I found it all quite involving …

Set off out to try the new “route” starting from Ponte Vecchio. The app opens into the Bonsignori map – and then as I get near to our first location, it all fires off. In the crowd of tourists – I almost whooped. Here I am, walking in 2013 Florence, on what looks like the standard Google map shuffle (you know – head down looking at the screen, plugs in ears). Instead I’m an immersive historical experience – I can see the real streets and bridge, but also how it looked in the Renaissance on the map. And then Giovanni starts to tell me to look at the view from 1490 – the barges of goods coming up the river, the procession going by me, the bustle of hat and glove sellers,  and occasional butcher. And so on to the hanging man at the Bargello, the bread riots on Piazza della Signoria, and the street sellers at Mercato Vecchio.

Enough about that.

Friday, May 10

Morning tried out a few bits of the walk again. Palazzo Strozzi (originally missed off – an oversight) was fixed in a late-night marathon by Tom. He’s also moved a few locations and fixed a few gremlins I’d reported back. Thanks Tom.

Then into a meeting with Dr James Bradburne – Director of the Palazzo Strozzi museum. Really very useful; some excellent suggestions. But above all he liked it!

Then a quick “culture break” and I went round the “Springtime of the Renaissance” show in the Palazzo Strozzi – very much worth a visit. Many old friends, including St Matthew (of bankers’ guild fame – listen to the app!).

Then off to the outskirts near the airport for a meeting with the head of the Comune di Firenze tourism office. Again, another very useful meeting. They will help us with publicity. Fantastic.

Back to the centre – Palazzo Strozzi is beginning to think I’ve moved in. Meet my trial group – the heavens open. I’m sure that’s why we end up being quite a small group. Pochi ma buoni (few, but excellent). And patient. After we’ve set up the phones (no android, sigh!), we set off in what has settled in to be a steady rain to try it all out. I ask them to just do a couple, then we’ll go for a drink. They love it and we do almost the whole thing. They love the new navigation features (the map toggle, the instructions) and the content … well, they’d just like to have more!

After all that a few of us go for a drink and something to eat – and I try not to bore for England about the app.

Saturday, May 11

A new challenge. Today I go to a studio, meet Roberto Andrioli – the voice of the Italian Giovanni (Colin Guthrie does the English version) – and we go to a recording studio to record his scripts. Nicky is in England on Skype telling us how to do things, and the very professional Massimo also has ideas. Not good for me to be in the middle as the main interpreter. Anyway, we get things sorted, it takes a bit longer than planned, but we record all 19 pieces in about three hours. It then takes almost as long to get them sent over the internet some how. This is an 800MB “raw” baby … I guess it’ll have to shrink before it joins the final app.

I call all that a pretty busy few days. And I cut it down! Certainly kept some variety there in my diet – you don’t get further from a day in the library. I confess I don’t get there as much as I’d like at the moment. Maybe when this is all over.

Fabrizio Nevola

 

Advertisements

Blog: Tales of the city

Getting into character

He gets into a brawl in a notorious downtown tavern. He flirts with a fruit seller in the Old Market. He stands in front of the Cathedral workshop and wonders if a young sculptor called Michelangelo might do something with a block of marble that’s been languishing there for years (a decade later that block became the statue of David). “Giovanni” has definitely come a long way in the last two months. As “Hidden Florence” developed, so did he, and by the end of it all he’d taken on a life of his own – as any fictional character worth the candle should.

Comparing notes: David Rosenthal, Fabrizio Nevola in Piazza S Piero Maggiore
David Rosenthal, Fabrizio Nevola in Piazza S Piero Maggiore

I say the end of it all, but the app’s not there quite yet. There is still the accompanying website to complete. There are also a few technical glitches to iron out, but all the major gremlins have now been sorted as a result of the April trial in Florence. Jo Reid, the app developer, talks about that side of things below. And Nicola Barranger, the audio producer, gives her take on recording Fabrizio Nevola and me on the streets as the rain beat down (I still owe her for half an umbrella), before we all watched on anxiously as about 20 people plugged in and switched on.  They liked it.  Some of them loved it. Result.

Since then, we’ve been in overdrive. We now have the entire “Neighbourhood” (eight sites) and “Centre” (nine sites) clusters, with each scripted Giovanni recording – by English and Italian voice actors – matched to an interview-style “Hear More” piece by the historians. A few days ago Fabrizio gave the almost finished article a second birl in Florence, and he’ll be blogging on that any moment now…

In the meantime, a taste of Giovanni. What I realised as things evolved was just how much could be conveyed in under two minutes by tightly linking place to character and story.

Piazza della Repubblica, with column of the Dovizia
Piazza della Repubblica, with column of the Dovizia

Take the Mercato Vecchio, the Old Market. It’s completely changed. The Mercato, and the Ghetto beside it, were demolished in the 19th century and the entire space was transformed into the neoclassical expanse of Piazza della Repubblica that you see today. So … you are guided into the zone by GPS, and you find yourself walking into the Piazza while simultaneously seeing your progress on a fantastically detailed 1584 map of the city (you can toggle back to a modern map if you get disorientated). Navigating with the 1584 map is part of the fun, though. It makes it feel as if the past is under your feet and all around you. And you can zoom in and out! Believe me, it’s pretty cool. You are then asked – using pictures and brief instructions – to find the column of  the Dovizia, the copy of Donatello’s lost original. Once you’ve found it, you trigger the audio and Giovanni begins:

“Yesterday I met Francesca right here, underneath the statue of the Dovizia, the Goddess of Abundance …”

App map: The Mercato Vecchio in 1584
App map: The Mercato Vecchio in 1584

Giovanni starts by pretending he was just passing the market, since it’s near his work at the wool bottega  (he’s a labourer in the vast Florentine textile industry). But then he admits he came looking for Francesca, one of the treccole or female street sellers that weave their way around the heaving market stalls carrying baskets full of produce. Francesca turns out to be the daughter of a certain Cesare, and Giovanni reminds you that he’s talked about this Cesare, a very unlucky dice player, when he was leading you around his neighbourhood (which you may not have done yet, it doesn’t matter). He tells you what you can buy in the market. He tells you that the market is also full of ruffians and pimps, that the public brothel is next door, that there was a knife fight the week before in front of an image of the Madonna. He tells you the treccole are sometimes taken to be prostitutes, which is why – so he says – he likes to keep an eye on Francesca. When he finds her, they have a brief, coy exchange, and he buys some eggs from her, which he later takes round to Cesare’s place. “You know … as a gift to the family”.

It’s a very simple narrative. But without much ado you find out what Renaissance Italians ate, about food coming into city from the contado, the countryside around Florence (Francesca gets her produce from Cesare’s relatives who work a bit of land outside the city). You get a sense of the journeys a man like Giovanni makes from neighbourhood to centre in his everyday life, about his social connections. You also get a sense of women in the streets. This is what the “Hear More” for this location deals with, the presence of women in “masculine” public space, the prescriptions of moralists (don’t leave home except to go to church) and how the realities are different, especially for Florence’s lower classes.

As you go around the other sites, you build up a picture of Giovanni – the way he thinks about honour, family, friendship, community. He’s wry, he’s proud, he’s a bit of a gambler and a tavern-goer – “I’m no saint but I do believe in the power of God”. He lives with his mother and sister. You get his full-throated opinions on politics, crime, public artworks, sacred relics. He understands only too well how Medici money and patronage grease the wheels of the city’s notionally Republican politics. He calls himself a “friend” of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and he’s a recipient of Medici patronage, but he’s also keenly aware that non-citizens like him are shut out of civic institutions, that the “game is rigged”.

I’m talking about him as if he is a real character, not a fictional composite that draws upon, and interprets, a body of scholarship. Maybe I’m in too deep. But then that’s the idea, to allow people to engage imaginatively with the “experience” of being in Florence, moving through its streets, as an artisan in 1490, an experience that did indeed link stories and characters to places. Oh, and did I mention you can zoom in and out … ?

David Rosenthal (historian)


Designing the experience

Jo Reid, with Nick Terpstra (left) and Niall Atkinson
Jo Reid, with Nick Terpstra (left) and Niall Atkinson

Within the “experience design” framework that we invented for developing apps such as Hidden Florence, we emphasise the importance of user testing on location and assuming design iteration based on those tests. This trip further confirmed the value in that approach. Whilst Fabrizio and David know Florence, the hooks for engaging users with that knowledge through present day street furniture relies on effectively relating what you hear with where you are and giving users a tangible and obvious anchor to ground their attention. It is in the minutiae of detail such as a phrase that gets you noticing something that you hadn’t seen before that help create the magic moments within an experience. The trip allowed us to hone the way our stories connect you with the streets and understand the best way to use Giovanni to help us transition back in time.

The user testing feedback was also invaluable for confirming the need to allow multiple ways of interfacing with the app :

  • a guided tour for those who prefer to be led
  • The ability to see a modern day map in addition to the 1584 Bonsignori map to help with way finding for those who might be concerned at getting lost
  • And finally the challenge of working out where you are by relating buildings that are on the Bonsignori map to those that are still there.

For me this “game” of piecing together the buildings you could see on Bonsignori with those around you was amazing and a real highlight of the trip. The other highlight was the pleasure of collaborating with such knowledgeable people and being able to eat with the locals.

Some things are always the same. GPS and Android phones are always problematic! But working out creative solutions to mitigate problems is all part of a developer’s lot in life …

Jo Reid (app developer)


Sound bites

“Could we try that again? Just one more time?” It’s something I normally find myself saying to a contributor in a nice warm BBC studio somewhere in the middle of London.

However here it’s pouring with rain, we’re outside sheltering under an umbrella and I’m holding a microphone trying to record an interview with David Rosenthal about life in the taverns in the 15th Century. Typical London weather you would think or Birmingham perhaps on cold mid-winter’s afternoon?

No. Certainly not Florence in April when it should be temperate, a light wind at most and above all – sunny. Sadly for us it was gloomy, heavy cloud and most of all … wet!

However here we were trying to imagine the student or tourist, hungry for more information about how people lived in the period. They’d be walking the streets of Sant’Ambrogio probably in sandals, and if they had any protection at all it would be from the sun.

Back in January at a meeting in Bristol with Jo Reid and Richard Hull from Calvium (the wonderful app people who have designed and built the thing) we discussed how to best take the general tourist and history student around unknown Florence without it sounding like a lecture.

“How about creating someone from the period to take us around?” We could invent a character from the 15th century, I suggested, taking the visitor around his home stamping ground. Suddenly we had given birth to a thirtysomething renaissance wool worker – Giovanni. David Rosenthal and Fabrizio Nevola would create this character and write his script and I would edit it for audio and then record an actor. Fabrizio also had an idea he’d first heard on BBC Radio 4 in the hugely successful series A History of the World in 100 Objects. However where my BBC colleague Paul Kobrak had interviewed a series of experts, here there were to be just two – Fabrizio and David. This does make the exercise far more difficult of course since by now we had got to know each other far too well, and it’s an old journalistic wisdom “Never interview your friends”. None the less, the situation in my opinion does have a couple of advantages; gentle persuading/bullying/nagging would be more acceptable, and we could do it do it again.

We were in Florence to hear what had been already recorded in situ and to test the idea of interviewing the experts on the streets. For me, it did mean a couple of very late nights, editing the audio in my hotel room hacking back an average six minute interview to about two, but frankly what a small price to pay for working in Florence. Jo would then upload the audio onto the app overnight. On the last morning of the trip, a team of students and academics working in Florence gathered in the Café letterario at the Murate on via Ghibellina to try it out for the first time. We collectively held our breath. Would they like it? Would they manage to download the app successfully? What would they think of David and Fabrizio’s interviews?

Again please: Nicola Barranger, Fabrizio Nevola
Again please: Nicola Barranger, Fabrizio Nevola

It was a delight to follow them around the streets of Sant’Ambrogio (now in sunshine but be-puddled the day before) with earphones and looking up at the spots David and Fabrizio had chosen. And then best of all, the smiles afterwards confirmed that yes, we had got it right. A few niggles of course, but then, this was our first audience, and there were still a few gremlins to sort out. They loved our Giovanni and finished the tour wanting more, which is always a good sign. However the real test will come when our historical baby grows up and we really have to let our 15th-century imaginary Giovanni go out into the real 21st-century Florence.

Nicola Barranger (audio producer)

Blog: Giovanni who?

In January this year Fabrizio Nevola and I began a project to create a history tourism app for Florence. The basic idea – the USP, if you like – was that instead of going to monumental sites such as the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, we would show people aspects of the Renaissance city that mass tourism doesn’t usually bother with. Now, a month later, we have a bare-bones prototype, a list of places we want to visit, a pot of ideas about what we want to get across, and a way of presenting it through a character we’re calling Giovanni (more on him shortly). Smartphone technology offers urban historians all kinds of fascinating possibilities, and plenty of challenges. This blog is intended to document the development of this free, AHRC-funded history tourism app and the discussion informing it, as well as give some sense of what is shaping up to be a white-knuckle ride as we bring the project from drawing board to download by the middle of May.

Why make an app at all? In fact the project didn’t begin life that way. It started within the confines of the Tavernsproject (and is still closely linked to it – which is why this blog has a home here). The original plan was to create an online GIS (Geographic Information Systems). The point of entry was a little-known document from 1593, where a certain Bastiano de’ Rossi describes a “dream” in which he walks around Florence in a desperate and fruitless search for an open pub (The barfly’s dream). The idea was to recreate this imaginary pub crawl on the detailed “Buonsignori” map of 1584, feeding in data from a census of 1561 and attaching an analysis of the key place of taverns in the social geography of the city.

This idea was quickly dumped. There is a big project currently underway at the University of Toronto that is using the same Florentine map and census to GIS the whole city. It was pointless to replicate a small part of that. Instead, we thought, why not take Bastiano de’ Rossi’s virtual itinerary of drink and turn it into an actual walking ‘tour’? After all, the underlying historical concerns were the same, essentially the relationship between space, movement and identity. Indeed, there is something immensely attractive about asking a person to imagine past places and past journeys as they walk the same streets in the present day, especially since a significant strand of recent work in urban history (channelling theorists from Walter Benjamin to Michel de Certeau, and in a more general sense the psychogeography movement as a whole) is so closely linked to the idea of walking in the first place. The only stumbling block was that to the best of my knowledge not a single architectural trace remains of any Florentine tavern of the 16th century. You couldn’t have somebody plugged into their smartphone in front of a shop, apartment or streetcorner (and many taverns were at streecorners) without anything to look at.

However, this wasn’t a major problem. It simply meant expanding the focus. The project as it now stands, elegantly titled “Street Life Renaissance Florence: a Digitally Triggered Location-based Tour in an Augmented Reality Environment”, still takes a close interest in Bastiano de’ Rossi’s taverns, but isn’t centred around them. It’s also still using the Buonsignori map and census data, but now it is an attempt to capture the texture of a city that was criss-crossed every day by thousands of journeys: daily rhythms along habitual routes, to the tavern, streetcorner, piazza, workplace, church, apothecary shop, food market; unplanned diversions that often started or ended up in these same places; and the more choreographed movement of the procession – local, civic, sacred, secular.

Our first meeting in January, at the Bristol offices of app developer Calvium, produced “Giovanni”. Radio producer Nicola Barranger, who is doing the audio, suggested we needed a character to bring the app to life. We instinctively liked this idea. Being led around by a “period” character will hopefully make the sense of the past, and of place, more resonant. Apart from that, breaking the rules, inventing an individual, is an illicit pleasure that’s hard for historians to pass up. Who would this character be? That was more or less instinctive, too. If the app is about exploring others sides of the physical city, it’s also about the city as experienced in the everyday life of an ordinary Florentine. So we quickly decided that our composite Giovanni would be a wool beater, a “typical” worker in Florence’s huge textile industry and a member of the Renaissance Republic’s disenfranchised majority. The point is not to ignore the Florentine elites who built the imposing palaces, commissioned the now-iconic artworks and ran the government. The lives, spaces and cultures of rich and poor were far too intermeshed for that. But the app will take a ground level view of urban existence.

Giovanni's home turf: Piazza Sant' Ambrogio. Florence. Picture: ugo galasso http://www.flickr.com/photos/g_u/
Giovanni’s home turf: Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio, Florence. Picture: ugo galasso http://www.flickr.com/photos/g_u/

Both Giovanni and the way the app will work are starting to come together. There will be two clusters of sites, the “neighbourhood” and the “centre”. Giovanni lives in an outlying neighbourhood of the historic city, and he works in the centre, in a wool merchant’s bottega. More specifically he lives in the parish of Sant’ Ambrogio. In the prototype test two weeks ago (with Bristol masquerading as Florence) you’re guided by GPS into Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio and then asked to find a couple of marker stones wrapped around the corner of the church. Once you’re there, you trigger the audio and Giovanni starts talking – either in English or Italian. He tells you this is his home turf, that he’s a brother in the local confraternity that meets just behind you, that he rents a house off the piazza. He tells you that the signage in front of you has been put up by the artisans of his festive “kingdom” who gather there at Carnival or May Day. This is all done by a voice actor.

Do you hear a buzzing noise? App testing in Bristol, with Jo Reid, Fabrizio Nevola, Nicola Barranger, Richard Hull
Do you hear a buzzing noise? App testing in Bristol, with Jo Reid, Fabrizio Nevola, Nicola Barranger, Richard Hull

You can then choose to hear more. What you get are a few brief grabs by us sketching out the main themes: the social geography of the city; what these confraternities are all about; parish cults (Sant’ Ambrogio had a nice one that turned around a chalice miraculously filled with Christ’s blood); the ritual play of lower-class festive kingdoms.

It’s all work in progress. There will be about 15 sites that will put you – in any order you like – in front of a street tabernacle; inside the city’s old grain market; where a couple of notorious boozing and gambling dens once stood in the city centre; in the oratory of a charity that dispensed alms to the working poor; the central food market in what is now the Piazza della Repubblica. And so on. The app is designed to function at two levels, one for interested tourists, the other for students doing one of the many study abroad courses run in Florence. Apple’s app store has a 50M limit per cluster, which means less than two minutes of audio per site. So you can choose to “learn more”, which pings you to a website that expands on everything you’ve heard on the streets.

The creative challenges of producing the app are the province of Calvium (thank you Jo Reid and Richard Hull). For the historians, and the audio specialist, it’s the content. We want to cover a period from about 1400 to 1600, and we’re placing Giovanni around 1490, at the height of the power of Lorenzo de’ Medici. How change is dealt with is tricky – for example, the Piazza della Repubblica was also the site of the Jewish ghetto, constructed in 1571, long after Giovanni’s “time”. We’re going there, but we may leave it to the historians’ voice pieces. As for Giovanni himself, he’s in his thirties, but we’re still not sure if he’s married. He’s no puritan, but is he a guilty or a carefree sinner? Probably a little of both if you’re a typical renaissance Italian man. And of course he is a man, which makes sense for an app that’s primarily about public space (though artisan women were not as constricted as their patrician counterparts) but also presents the challenge of bringing the social history of women into the picture. Also, we’re still working on the tone of Giovanni – a touch wry, certainly, but does he always stay “in character” or do we allow him a little ironic leeway?

Early April in Florence is the first on-site trial. We’ll get outside the bubble and find out what real users make of all this. Will our Giovanni engage or irritate? Will anybody find the damn objects they’re looking for? For an unexpurgated account, see the next blog …

David Rosenthal