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Urban stories and other thoughts: Digital Storytelling Unconference Vancouver, July 7th, 2012

This past weekend, I attended the Digital Storytelling Unconference at New Westminster’s River Market. In the morning pitch session, I introduced myself, then said I was very glad to hear that the Unconference was being held in New Westminster, and attributed to the revitalization of the Quay and its market as a phenomenon rooted in storytelling, and thus a very appropriate venue for the conference. My session was scheduled for the end of the day. There was a ton of good discussion, but I probably glossed over a few things that could have used a bit more explaining.

I attempted to start with a video about Participatory Chinatown, a game from Emerson College’s Engagement Lab which allowed people to get to know the lives of people living in Boston’s Chinatown, and wove it into discussions about the neighbourhood’s future. It’s an intriguing example of game dynamics being applied for the task of envisioning the development of a neighbourhood.

I then showed the website Disappearing Main Street. I think I mentioned that I have some mixed feelings about the project. In spite of that, it still strikes me as a great example of the kinds of stories we are able to now tell, where previously it might have taken a lot longer and reached a lot fewer people compared to being online now. I put this in the same vein as the interest in hyperlocal news, which I recall someone remarking on during the session as a “failed promise” of some sort. My opinion is that even if those early experiments didn’t pan out, I don’t think we’re seeing the desire to use our online tools for bettering and improving our understanding of our immediate surroundings; just that those experiments are still continuing to find their footing.

Aside from the technical plumbing questions of what data is available (although those are all very important), I am fascinated by digital storytelling for cooperation and coordination on either responding to urban issues or creating new things altogether. (Frankly, that’s probably been the thread tying together most of my obsessions since I started my undergraduate thesis on Toronto Transit Camp.) What I think is interesting is that planning is the existing institution with which we have traditionally addressed these issues (and for which we have a lot of language for describing the trajectory of change we want to see). What the tools for cooperation and collaboration allow us to do is scale up that conversation, although it doesn’t necessarily give us any shortcuts in understanding how, precisely, to work with each other on things we care about. That last bit of work still happens through the stories, and for that we need safe spaces to bring who we are into those tales. And, ways to find our interested audiences.

What I lacked the cohesiveness to say is how digital storytelling is becoming symbiotic with the act of placemaking. We can see this when we see that the most common question on a city’s Reddit board is often some variation of, “I’m in town for / I will be moving to your city in a day / a week / a month, where should I live / what should I do while I’m here?” I see the footprints we leave in the digital cloud (your Foursquare check-in today, your local restaurant review tomorrow) taking on the digital equivalent of foot impressions in wet concrete, our individuated marks in the informational infrastructure.

But stories also happen on different scales. As I mentioned in the day’s first session on mobile hardware for storytelling, the ideal (for me, anyway) is that we gather and archive these minutiae as the raw material for the larger stories we want to tell; they themselves can’t be a story. Jay Catalan relayed the experience of his friend who diligently kept a blog, then started using Twitter for a year. When he looked back at his blogs, he realized they stood the test of time much better, conveying a better image of where he was in his life; whereas his tweets hung there, its context long since faded, empty and meaningless. (As I said in response, from my personal experience, it is entirely possible to have a future-directed Twitter stream; it’s just not how most people use Twitter, so most people don’t do it, and that may impact follower count, etc.)

During the last part of the session, I brought up This Is Our Stop, which was kind of fun because both Denim and Steel‘s Todd Sieling and I were in the room, so I was able to speak to some of what I had when I came up with the idea (such as connecting with people sharing an experience of space and service, across time), and Todd was able to speak to how people have actually used This Is Our Stop (as well as how it has been received by TransLink and how it has fared in its incarnations in other cities). As I’ve blogged before, I think there’s a great deal of wisdom behind the way TIOS was implemented, as an extension of the somewhat fleeting experience of interacting with strangers at a bus stop. Just because our digital tools can do certain things in exchange for hooking up with our identities in other systems, doesn’t mean it should or would be particularly beneficial.

As an aside, I did mention that, in my opinion, This Is Our Stop strikes me as one of the more intriguing and interesting uses of TransLink’s GTFS service data, and I haven’t been aware of too many others (either specific to TransLink or from other transit agencies) aside from mobile scheduling applications. TransLink is holding a developer camp on Wednesday, July 18th (no additional information out of TransLink’s Buzzer blog aside from a brief mention) for app developers interested in working with TransLink’s API, as part of its I Love Transit week activities. Those interested in keeping abreast, TransLink has a Google Group for their API developers.

Reading Raul’s blog post on the value of storytelling reminds me of something I had wanted but didn’t get to bring up in the session: why stories for policy? Aren’t the big decisions of government too important to worry about the stories or one or two or ten people? For those who argue for the use of dialogue in policy decision-making, stories have everything to do with who’s telling them. The issues at hand are often so complex that stories end up to be the primary way by which we understand why people think certain things — such as what the most pressing parts of an issue are, what the causes of those issues are, and what effects result from those issues. To take an example from urban planning, affordable housing is a huge issue affecting large swaths of the people living and who want to live in Vancouver; but how are questions of what gets built affected by our stated goals, such as compact development, transit-oriented development, or access to greenspace? What are we willing to trade off on, and who wins and loses when we decide that (or if we don’t decide at all)?

Since the conference I’ve stumbled on yet another interesting experiment in this space, this one also by TransLink: the Buzzer Blog is doing a series of blog posts on the topics of planning for the future. I really have to applaud them on highlighting the tradeoffs inherent in the activities that further TransLink’s goals. Even though, as one commenter put it, there is a sense of, “How does us knowing or talking about this change anything?” the fact is that systems have stories too, and even the largest, most powerful individuals or entities in the region influence that story at best; they don’t have the singular ability to write it.

See my Storify page on the Digital Storytelling Unconference for more tweets, pictures and hopefully blog posts as I find them. There was a really great session on interactive conversations where I had some interesting ideas which I’ll perhaps write about another day…

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