Survey of Location-Based Storytelling Tools

Looking out my living room window in Providence, RI I see a changing neighborhood. I wonder who the various people were that inhabited my apartment over the past 100 years, and what the buildings looked like that once stood in the parking lots that now surround my building. Cities are rich with layered histories, but accessing these histories can be challenging. Everyday more location-based storytelling tools enter the market attempting to solve this problem from a number of different approaches, and several have developed into promising platforms for urban exploration. However, I am still looking for the mobile tool that satisfies all of my city storytelling needs.

Starting closest to home, Brown University’s Brown FACADES is an app that provides an interactive tour of the university’s architecture. Produced by professor Dietrich Neumann with the help of his undergraduate students, the app provides a comprehensive guide to campus architecture including buildings old, new and even some that no longer exist. FACADES might be the best geo-locative storytelling app I’ve seen when it comes to usability. It has filters that allow you to search its buildings by architect, function, year and distance. I especially like that you can build and map your own itinerary of campus architecture through the app’s “bookmark” function. The app is intuitively designed and easy to use. It’s no surprise that Princeton Architectural Press is adopting the FACADES platform for their campus guide app series, and has asked Neumann to be editor.

The problem with FACADES is that few people know that it exists. It’s rich with quality content that you can only access if you’re one of the lucky people who found out about and downloaded the app. This problem would be helped to a large degree if it were a mobile-enabled platform. If mobile-enabled, you’d stumble upon its content by searching online for any of its 132 buildings; an impossibility as an app. What FACADES also needs are physical cues alerting passersby that stories about the buildings surrounding them are only a click away. Because, when you most want to learn about a building is when you’re standing right in front (or inside) of it. At the very least, the university should add “FACADES” stickers to the signs outside of every brown-owned building as a public service.


Walking through a city, I’m unknowingly walking past so many stories. And sometimes the best stories are those that come to me when I least expect it. This is the concept of Field Trip, an app developed by Google’s Niantic Labs. Field Trip runs in the background of your phone, and when you approach something interesting (according to filters you’ve already selected) it sends you a notification that directs you to its app. Field Trip is a guide to the “cool, hidden, and unique things in the world” around us. Unfortunately, it rarely works as it’s supposed to. If you don’t actively use it all the time, the app essentially goes to sleep and you never hear from it again.

Detour is the platform for urban exploration that’s getting the most publicity, likely because Groupon founder, Andrew Mason, is its developer. Detour is taking what might be the most intimate approach to geo-locative storytelling: sound. As Wired explains it, Detour “uses a phone’s GPS tracker to guide users on audio tours of neighborhoods, providing background information and directions as listeners arrive at different landmarks, or ‘narration triggers’”. Detour calibrates to your own pace making for a seamless experience. The stories are lesser known and hyper-local, featuring prominent neighborhood voices. At this point the only tours available are in San Francisco and need to be purchased as a package for $24.99; though Detour does have international ambitions and promises to launch tours in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles this year. Each tour is a major production, making the growth of the platform slow and its reach small. Later this year Detour will be releasing Descript, the “engine” behind its tours that will enable anyone to create their own audio tour experiences. I’m not clear how this will work, or what the cost will be for either the tour creators or users, but I look forward to seeing how it unfolds (A more simple alternative to Detour is Podwalks out of Denmark. The platform is free for tour takers, but at 200 euros /mo, costly for producers).

These are all great tools in their own ways (I didn’t even mention this neat augmented reality tool being developed in Chicago), but I’m still not satisfied. Most of these tools (except for Field Trip which is unreliable) require the user to be an active tour taker. It assumes that people are searching through the app store for tour experiences of a city. But I’m interested in more than that odd person actively searching for such experiences. Instead, I’m interested in a platform that will satisfy that active participant, in addition to engaging those who least expect it. I know how to access history and other information when I’m searching for it, but it’s most fun when I stumble upon it unexpectedly.

Walking Cinema: Posts from Gloucester might come the closest to what I’m looking for in a place-based storytelling tool. Walking Cinema’s founder Michael Epstein was hired to create a digital storytelling tool to bring life and history to the harbor redevelopment of Gloucester, MA. What he created, under the direction of Cambridge7 Associates, is the most dynamic and engaging mobile storytelling tool I know of. Epstein integrated his digital storytelling into the physical environment of Gloucester (see video excerpt above) with the use of real world installations such as granite markers, a boat and a fisherman’s shack. The granite markers attract you as you walk by and invite you to further experience the area’s history through downloading the app. The app casts you in the movie of Gloucester, which you experience with the use of physical props to make its stories come alive. As you travel through Gloucester history you can take pictures along the way, which are saved as postcards for you to share through social media.

I haven’t been to Gloucester yet, but it’s on the top of my bucket list. When I go, expect a postcard.




Architecture for Everyone

For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to attend the annual conference of the Association of Architecture Organizations (AAO), which just wrapped up in Chicago yesterday. It’s always exciting to connect with and learn from inspiring people around the country (and a few from other corners of the world), all dedicated to enhancing public dialogue around architecture and design. We shared ideas about building audiences around architecture, facilitating hands-on learning for kids, managing citywide architecture festivals and even incorporating augmented reality into our tours. It was a great program. But ultimately, I think we missed an opportunity to seriously explore what should be our number one concern as we engage with the public: diversifying the field of architecture and design.

The program started off with an introduction provided by Michelle Boone, Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. She remarked on the fact that she was the only African-American person in a room full of white people, myself included. She noted that she did see a tech guy who shared her complexion, no one else. It’s no secret that architecture is one of the least diverse professions. Only 1% of all members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are African-American, and 3% are Hispanic. Those statistics are going to be hard to change if those of us educating and inspiring the public about architecture are uniformly white, as the membership of AAO seems to be (I did see someone from India, I believe he was the only exception). Kids are most inspired by those whom they see themselves in, and most children of color truthfully aren’t going to see themselves in me. Until we make diversifying our field our biggest priority, we’re coming up seriously short of our shared mission to inspire the public, everyone in the public, to discover why design matters.

A good start to solving this problem is found in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF) commitment to quality over quantity in their approach to fostering diversity in their youth education programming. Gabrielle Lyon, VP of Education and Experience at CAF explained this in the context of their reputable Teens program. They take a small yet dedicated group of teens, mostly from minority backgrounds, on a multi-year in-depth and hands on exploration into the field of architecture. I met a couple of these teens while walking through the Architecture Biennial at the Chicago Cultural Center. One student, Roberto, gave me a truly awesome introduction to one of the exhibits. He wowed me with his thoughtfulness and knowledge as he helped me look at the work on display with a fresh, new perspective. He was clearly on his way to change the world.

CAF Teens

CAF Teens (image taken from

One important element of diversity that the AAO conference did touch upon is that of gender gap in architecture. Only 17% of all AIA members are women. This of course all adds up to meaning that most of our architects, designers of our cities and our neighborhoods, are white men.  Caroline James, co-founder of Design for Equality, gave a rousing presentation on the importance of giving women equal credit for equal work in architecture. Central to her efforts in Design for Equality is a petition to the Pritzker Jury asking for recognition of Denise Scott Brown’s work in Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize. In only honoring Venturi, the jury made a statement that Brown’s role as Venturi’s wife trumped her role as equal partner in their decades long collaboration. At an awards ceremony in 2013 Brown rightly declared that it was time for her to share in the prize. She said, “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.” Venturi has signed the petition along with more than 20,000 other people. As recounted in a New York Times article about the petition, Brown recalled the sexism she experienced on a daily basis by saying, “When we married I suddenly was being told, “Look, let’s just keep this photograph of architects,’” she recalled. “I’d say, ‘I am an architect’ and they’d say, ‘Would you mind moving out of the picture, please?'”

I applaud Denise Scott Brown, Caroline James, Michelle Boone and countless others for standing up against the inequalities in architecture. Now it’s time to be joining their fight as educators. There’s little sense in sharing ideas about our architecture centers and programs, if we’re not first addressing the lack of diversity in our field and in the “public” we’re truthfully reaching.

Reflections on OHNY

It feels like years ago that I was struggling to find my way in Chicago. I was leading architecture tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) and writing weekly posts for my architecture blog between my work in an art gallery, nannying, and leading food tours of all things. My dream of making a living through sharing my excitement about architecture with the public, felt completely ridiculous at the time. Had I sat down and written myself the job description of my dreams, I would have still come up short of the opportunity I was soon presented with by CAF: to coordinate and eventually manage Open House Chicago (OHC), the biggest and best architecture festival in the city.

For one weekend each year, we provided the public with behind-the-scenes access to 150 great places and spaces across Chicago, for free. Suddenly I was in the awesome position of giving tens of thousands of people a set of keys to the city one time every year. Most of the weekend I’d be stuck inside answering calls and orchestrating our 1200 volunteers, but I did always get a few minutes to step outside and see swarms of people equipped with their OHC event guides, dashing to and from participating sites. After each event I’d spend hours reading visitor tweets and sorting through photographs of the weekend on instagram and flickr — seeing OHC and Chicago through the eyes of others.

The program has only grown in popularity and success since I left it to attend graduate school in Providence, RI last year. Luckily there are Open House festivals, and similar events under the Doors Open brand, throughout the world. Recently, I finally had the chance to attend Open House New York (OHNY). The OHNY team was integral in helping us develop the OHC program. We looked to them as the model for everything from how to recruit sites to manage volunteers. Despite this, I never got the chance to attend OHNY in person because it always took place on the weekend preceding OHC. So I was understandably giddy as I finally made my way last weekend to the far ends of New York City, exploring its greatest architectural treasures, while proudly wearing an OHNY pin.

I dragged my mother, who was kind enough to join my adventure, between Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens checking out the architectural wonders of NYC. If I had to pick, stepping inside Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center was probably the highlight of my weekend. This landmark of modernism had been closed for fourteen years, re-opening to the public for OHNY. We traveled two hours to JFK airport — a grueling trip through the NYC subway, forever under construction. My guess was that only a handful of OHNY visitors would embark on such a journey. I was completely wrong. Thousands of people filled the building, and we were all bursting with excitement to be there. It was thrilling to see so many people so genuinely excited about architecture.

My hat goes off to you OHNY. You continue to be the role model you’ve always been. I can’t wait to see what next year brings.