A visit to the abandoned Aldwych tube station

Went to visit Aldwych station last night, one of London’s abandoned tube stations. The tour was run by the London Transport Museum, in partnership with TfL, and I was organised enough to buy a ticket within the 24 hours before they sold out.

It’s impressive. Lots of layers of history on top of each other. Passageways and lift shafts that were abandoned unfinished before the station even opened in 1907. A platform 2 that was used for storing artworks from that National Gallery during World War I, and the Elgin Marbles during World War II. A platform 1 that was used as a bomb shelter during the Blitz, with up to 3000 people sheltering there overnight.

There’s also lots of bits left over from having been used as a set for film and television. Reproduction old advertising posters, a continuation of the green tiling painted onto hardboard – even the “station closed” with old London Transport roundel was a fake.

The station is used quite as bit – and not just as a filming location. The one working platform still connected to the rest of the network is used for security drills and evacuation training.

The duty manager for our visit mentioned the London Underline concept for transforming some of the disused underground tunnels into a subterranean cycle path – in the news recently after winning a ‘best conceptual project’ prize at the London Planning Awards – and asked us to consider just how practical this was as we walked down, and up, the 160 steps of the spiral staircase (the two lifts having long ago gone out of service).

As it is, the station is a mini museum in and of itself, a Grade II listed structure with a Grade I listed section of original track still in situ.

The London Transport Museum hope to open up an additional three abandoned Underground stations for tours later this year.

2014 in theatre

I really love going to the theatre (I took Theatre Studies as an A-Level), and the past year I resolved to try and attend as many shows and theatrical events as I could.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what I saw:

Jan 16th: Richard II. A Royal Shakespeare Company production, with David Tennant as its star, I can’t remember too much from it, other than that it was pretty good.

Feb 7th: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I booked tickets for this off the back of it being a production of the Handspring Puppet Company, who also worked on War Horse (which I missed). It was great – funny even though I’m familiar with the play and its jokes. The puppetry was sometimes clever, with the ‘Bottom’ donkey rig being a great gag, but some of the best puppeteering used the simplest of props: lumps of driftwood or umbrellas.

Feb 15th: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production, this took place in an old Royal Mail sorting office near Paddington. There are plenty of reviews and detailed descriptions of the production out there, so I won’t try and explain it. Instead, let me tell you what I thought: it was amazing. I went with Fiona, and we both loved it. There was so much there that it was impossible to follow every intricacy of the plot and the characters, but I felt under no pressure to: the thing that hits you instead is the overall oppressive feeling and mood of the seedy film studio world you’ve stepped into.

Feb 18th: Circa & Debussy String Quartet. This was a combo of a string quartet playing on stage at the Barbican Theatre with a troupe of exceptional acrobats, who jump, swing, hang and spin through the air. The astonishing thing was how well the moves reflected the music and vice versa. Sometimes you’d be watching the daring stunts intently, whilst at others you’d focus on the music and the acrobatics would become a kind of visualisation.

March 9th: The Grand Budapest Hotel. My first Secret Cinema experience, in this one the film wasn’t a secret, but you still didn’t know quite what to expect, other than to arrive in character and fancy dress. I had great fun here, despite missing many of the set pieces with the actors. The sheer scale of it was impressive – and the movie was wonderful too (as I’d hoped it would be).

March 28th: Grimm Tales. A promenade performance in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, this was simple in concept (fairytales adapted from the Brothers Grimm by Phillip Pullman), but fun, and atmospheric. It seemed to be pitched at a level that was suitable for children but enjoyable for adults too. A new, scaled-up production of this (at least in price), with different tales, is currently running at the Bargehouse.

April 14th: King Charles III. Performed at the Almeida Theatre, this was a comedy speculating on a future where Charles becomes King and causes a major crisis by refusing to stick to a ceremonial role. Whilst there were some good laughs, and the actors’ impersonations of royals and politicians were uncanny, for me it feel a bit flat from not really going far enough. What was billed as a provocative satire seemed to end up playing it safe and not really critiquing much.

May 17th: Secret Cinema 21. This was a secret cinema that was actually secret. Summoned to the stunning Hornsey Town Hall, again in character and costume, we had several hours of drama in a world of gangsters and speakeasies before watching the Miller’s Crossing. This was a step above our previous Secret Cinema experience, thanks to several clever mechanics. Firstly, each person in our group was given a separate entrance, and the name of a character to meet. Being split up from the get-go gave you more freedom to get into character, and carry out the different missions that you were given. Secondly, we were told to print out business cards for our character, and then several of the tasks involved swapping these with other participants (in my case, to inform on those who were drinking and gambling ‘illegally’). There were also lots of close encounters with actors, both friend and foe, and you could pick up on a story which went beyond even what was in the film. A great evening.

July 4th: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. Performed in the Hall at the Barbican, this was a story telling by Neil Gaiman, accompanied by projected illustrations and the Australian string quartet FourPlay. The whole thing was just lovely, and somewhat mesmorising. The music from FourPlay was so good that we’ve since bought their album, and I almost bought the comic book version of the story too.

July 5th: A Drowned Man. Returned to this, just before the end of the production. This time my group decided to split up, which definitely improves the experience, and I discovered a whole floor I’d missed the previous time, as well as seeing lots of different scenes.

August 3rd: Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future. This event became infamous for its delayed opening, but our show went ahead without any problems. I must admit, I’m not the hugest fan of the film, but the production was impressive in its scope, with plenty of scenes re-enacted beforehand, and several during the film itself. The whole thing was fun, but for me, the outdoors setting (in ful view of the Westfield shopping centre) removed the mystery and exploration that seemed so much a part of the previous events.

August 12th: A Bright Room Called Day. A small production of this 1985 play, which I’d not heard of before, at Southwark Playhouse. I enjoyed this a lot. It tells the story of a group of intellectual friends living in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party, with the tension rising steadily throughout. Well acted, and a good reminder of how engaging one set, one room plays can be.

August 27th: The Man Who Climbed Out Of His Face. A Shunt production at The Jetty (by the O2), this was a short, 45 min performance inside four shipping containers. It starts with you taking your shoes and socks off and placing them in a shoebox, which you then carry with you. They make the most of this twist, with several different textures and surfaces underfoot as you walk through a series of increasingly weird scenes. There was very little sense to be made of the whole thing, which felt like it was a bit a letdown, but you go in with such empty expectations that the few surprises there are make the whole thing worth it.

September 7th: To Kill A Mockingbird. Saw this at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (thankfully on a dry day). I’ve not read the book nor had I seen any adaptions before, so I really got into the story – and the end came as a surprise. I can see now of course why it’s such a famous text. The production was great, with chalked out sets bringing the acting to the fore – and seemed perfect for an outdoors staging too.

November 5th: Thorpe Park. You might not think of theme parks as overtly theatrical, but this was a Fright Night, and as such there were several ‘mazes’ to explore. We first walked through The Saw, based on the film, which I’ve not seen. It was definitely scary, but only really because it was dark and zombies kept surprising you. The downside is that once someone’s made you jump, your next instinct is to giggle, which made the whole thing a bit silly (and the trick got old by the end). We also walked through a maze based on The Cabin in the Woods, which was better, mainly because the paths kept forking, so you ended up in a small group, trying to escape the creepy clowns through some more varied rooms. Both had a huge number of actors, and seemed incredibly popular.

November 13th: Once. I booked this on a whim because it was cheap, mainly I think because Ronan Keating wasn’t yet in it. We went with no expectations and enjoyed it a lot – a simple but touching story with good music played live on stage by the actors.

Dec 5th & 8th: Henry IV part I & II. An RSC production at the Barbican, we saw both parts on consecutive days. A traditional presentation (period dress and a big wooden set), with just the one slightly odd contemporary reference to mobile phones at the start of the second play. Lots of great acting, and I realise now why Falstaff is such a famous character.

December 19th: Knight of the Burning Pestle. I booked this whilst watching it being plugged by Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) on Saturday Kitchen. It was performed at the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse theatre, which is indoors and candle-lit. Written by Francis Beaumont around the same time as Shakespeare, the whole thing’s a comic farce. Two of the actors sit in the audience the whole time (just a row in front of where I was sat), with their characters initiating an alternative play-within-a-play and constantly interrupting. The whole thing was very very funny, akin to Monty Python in its comic ridiculousness, and reminding me that theatre doesn’t need to be new to be interactive.

December 22nd: The Book of Mormon. I’m not really a fan of West End musicals, but I thought I’d give this a try after reading rave reviews. It was funny, but the jokes aren’t as frequent as I’d imagined. The songs were well sung and danced to, but seemed to slow the pace of it down a bit, which always feels like the flaw in musicals to me.

December 26th: Edward Scissorhands. This is a dance version of the Tim Burton film at Sadler’s Wells. I was expecting hard-to-interpret ballet, for some reason, but instead there seemed to be a mixture of dance styles (not that I know much about the form) and the story was well conveyed (I’d forgotten the film’s plot) despite the lack of dialogue – there were even several jokes. A delightful, and festive, end to my year of theatre.


There are fifty Paddington Bear statues currently scattered around London. I saw one, was curious, then realised it’s to promote an upcoming film.

Also around are a series of painted Routemaster bus sculptures.

Before the bears and the buses, this summer there were 50 book-shaped benches, each one was painted to depict a different book.

This is a thing that cities do now. A series of identical sculptures, each one painted by a different artist, located in the public realm around a city. Promoted as a trail, selfie-friendly, and possibly with a charity auction at the end offering the chance to own one.

Other cities have gotten in on the meme. Bristol had its Gromits, and before then its gorillas. Newport has dragons. Kingston upon Hull has Larkin-inspired toads.

No major sporting event can now be without them. At the Commonwealth Games there was Clyde the thistle, and London 2012 had Wenlock and Mandeville.

I looked into the history a bit, and as far as I can tell it was the CowParade which really popularised the idea, having started in Zurich in 1998 as part of an art festival, with the cows then travelling to dozens of cities over the course of a decade. That in itself seems to have been based on an earlier Lion parade in the same city back in 1986, according to Wikipedia, although I can't find any references to this.

No doubt these sculpture have become part of the arsenal of events that tourist boards and marketing agencies can deploy.

I like them. They’re human-scale massive happy things. They’re a game (spot them all!) and also a casual fun intrusion upon your daily wanderings. Art for everyone.

That said, let’s not have too many. Especially not for movie premieres. One or two per city per year is plenty.

My favourite are the superlambananas in Liverpool. Designed by a Japanese artist, it crosses a sheep and a banana as commentary on both Liverpool’s trading history and "the dangers of genetic engineering". Originally there was just one massive yellow one. The city loved it so much, they multiplied for 2008 Capital of Culture, and since then a dozen or so are on permanent display.

The superlambanana is an now icon for Liverpool to rival the Liver bird (indeed minatures of both are sold side-by-side in local gift shops).

Cities and art. Hard to do right – but sometimes all you need is brightly painted fibreglass.

Open House 2014

I took part in Open House this weekend, the annual architecture event where hundreds of buildings open their doors to visitors, for free.

It was a bit of a whim. I didn’t plan it that much. I downloaded the app on the Saturday morning and then set out, initially to explore the places closest to me.

First stop was St Mary’s Church on Upper Street. I’ve walked past here loads of times (and waited at the bus stop outside), but I’d not noticed it much. Inside, helpful volunteers handed me a leaflet and gave me a brief intro to the building’s history. The main hall isn’t very old, having been rebuilt after being destroyed during the Blitz, but the tower survived the war and dates back to the 18th Century. I joined a tour to climb up the steps inside it, and was surprised by just how high it is, emerging just beneath the spire well above tree height with a great view across London.

A skyline of skyscrapers and cranes in the distance, above a tree’s canopy

I walked on to the offices of Pollard Thomas Edwards on Regent’s Canal. A firm of architects, I was familiar with their work from having seen a retrospective exhibition about them at the New London Architecture centre. Their building beside the canal is tastefully restored, and includes a courtyard filled with interesting sculptures.

Next up I visited the Bunhill Energy Centre. This is a project from Islington Council which combines a gas-powered electric generator in a shipping container with a thermal battery to provide both heat and power (CHP). The power is sold to the grid, whilst the heat is piped around the neighbourhood and used by several housing estates as well as two nearby swimming pools. The guide from the council gave a very detailed technical explanation of how it all works, both from an engineering perspective and also financially (the Council have to aim to be generating electricity at the times of day when the wholesale price is highest).

I ended the day with a trip out to Closed Loop Recycling in Dagenham. This is a big industrial plant which takes in waste plastic bottles and turns them into pellets for making new bottles (the Marketing manager called it a recycling facility, the Site Manager called it a manufacturing facility – I guess it depends on your perspective).

Hearing the presentation and walking around the plant (hard-hatted and hi-vised), I was astounded by just how much engineering effort had gone into solving the problems of separating different types of plastic, separating different colours of plastic, making sure it’s food-safe again, and putting it into a form that easy to work with (the pellets). Each step in the process needs a different specialised machine. Some problems are relatively easy: PET plastic sinks in water whilst HDPE floats, so tanks of water with paddles are used to separate these. One of the trickiest is colour-separation. This can’t just be done at the bottle stage as most clear bottles have coloured lids and rings. So after shredding, the flakes of plastic have to be analysed at high speed by cameras and computer vision software, with air jets blowing any coloured flakes into a separate hopper. It sounded imprecise and improbable, but seeing it in action was impressive. There’s a trade-off between speed and precision, so several passes of decreasing speed are used to gradually weed out nearly all the coloured plastic.

A warehouse of green conveyor belts and machinery

I couldn’t help but think that some of the problems ought to be solved ‘upstream’ at source – for instance by mandating that all bottles use clear plastic. We might have to get used to relying on the labels rather than the caps to tell the different types of milk apart, but it’d hardly be a major problem. At the very least, companies ought to stop producing nearly-clear bottles: the site manager at Closed Loop told us that Sprite Zero and certain cider brands use bottle colours that are particular difficult for their cameras to detect.

Sunday afternoon I was back out, and started with a visit of the City of London Marketing Suite. As the name suggests, this contains lots of promotional displays about how great the City is, but the main attraction is large 1-to-500 model of the square mile. This contains hundreds of detailed architectural maquette models of buildings both completed and in planning. Most striking is The Pinnacle, which gives the appearance of being almost as tall as the Shard (but which a guide explained would actually be around 20 metres shorter, however it sits on higher ground). Whether this design will actually get built now seems doubtful though.

After this I visited Guildhall, the historical town hall of the City of London which is now largely used for ceremonial occasions. There’s lots of impressive stained window work, a couple of huge wooden statues of gog and magog and a vault down below beneath stone arches. Bits of the building date back to the 1400s, but it’s been patched up and altered so many times it’s hard to tell what’s what. I was a bit put-off by the overall sense of pageantry though, not helped by some fairly awful paintings of dignitaries at lavish banquets.

My final visit of the weekend was to the Moorgate construction site for Crossrail. This is a huge shaft which will be one end of the combined Liverpool Street-Moorgate station. After an introductory video, one of the civil engineering managers talked us through the site from a viewing platform above it. The construction process was complicated, having to operate between existing tube tunnels, a road, two listed buildings and the abandoned (but protected) Post Office Railway. As well as this there’s a temporary gantry built above the shaft to house a crane used to lift spoil out and new material in. It’s a big project, and yet is one small part of the overall Crossrail scheme.

A concrete lined hole in the ground with a crane suspended above on steel scaffolding

I really enjoyed the Open House experience. Not just for the opportunity to see inside a variety of sites and buildings, but also for the generosity of many guides and volunteers who were happy to share their expertise and answer my questions. And I didn’t have to queue once!

Experiencing Digital

Last night I went to the new Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican, and a few weeks before that I went to the Digital City event at the Museum of London. Both events ‘digital’ as a theme, and had a variety of different exhibits to see or take part in.

At Digital City there was an art installation using receipt printers to print out machine-transcribed recordings, an LED screen which displayed waveforms of audio recordings of tweets collected during the Olympic Games, a life drawing session which invited people to either sketch a human model or a video project of the same model, and a silent disco.

At Digital Revolution there’s a room of early computers and early computer games/software (many of which you can play), a section looking at the CGI in the films Inception and Gravity, several new art installations using projection, sensors and computer graphics, a 3D printer, an installation/song by will.i.am, a section where you can play some contemporary computer games by indie producers, and, downstairs in The Pit, an impressive installation using lasers and smoke machines to create lightforms you can interact with.

In short: both were a collection of disparate exhibits, some more engaging that others. Both times though, the overall experience was less the sum of its parts.

I think this is because digital, on its own, simply isn’t coherent or meaningful as an exhibition concept. I can see why both organisations might feel the need to ‘do digital’, but in the absence of anything else, it makes about as much sense today as doing an event about ‘canvas’.

The Barbican event describes itself as a “the most comprehensive presentation of digital creativity ever to be staged in the UK” - a noble ambition, but one that it’s bound to fall short on (there's only so much space, after all). It would have been more interesting, I think, to focus on a particular form (video games perhaps, or digital film, or art apps) or, to maintain a multidiscipline focus, a particular subject (conflict, or privacy, or time travel).

The vague notion of digital is particularly highlighted by exhibits where the digital-ness isn’t really the point. A silent disco might use digital codecs to encode and transmit the audio, but it could equally have used an analogue FM-style signal. Similarly, the lasers-and-smoke installation at the Barbican may use computer software to interpret the sensors and drive the laser projection, but this is invisible to the audience, and it’s at least conceivable that the effect could have been achieved with non-digital technology.

There’s plenty to be excited about within the realm of digital technology, but I’d like to see arts organisations treat ‘digital’ less as a novelty, and more as a regular part of their programming.

Culture Hack Data

I’ve been working with Culture Hack recently, on a project exploring open data for arts, culture and heritage organisations.

That’s a topic quite familiar to me, as it’s something I discussed quite a bit whilst working at the Science Museum, many moons ago (I don’t think we used quite that term, but the idea was the same). So it’s been interesting to see how things have changed since.

Culture Hack is a programme run by Caper (and Sync in Scotland) which brings hackers together with arts organisations to build prototypes and hacks, usually over the course of an event. I attended the ‘North’ event in Leeds a couple of years back.

One issue that developers have faced at the events is knowing what data and content is available. This has sometimes been addressed this by distributing USB sticks with links, spreadsheets and data dumps on them. That’s okay in the short term, but isn’t ideal.

Thanks to some funding from the TSB, Culture Hack commissioned me and Kim Plowright to create a new web resource listing and describing some of the best cultural open data out there.

The site launched last week, and is visible at data.culturehack.org.uk

Culture Hack Data website - showing a search box, filters, and some example results
The Culture Hack Data site

When planning the project, we didn’t want it to be a complex database. Instead, we’ve kept things simple. Our aim is to get people to the actual data as quickly as possible, and to describe the sources well.

The data sources are curated into eight broad categories: art, literature, music, performance, fashion, design, media and history, so if you’ve got a particular interest in one area, it’s easy to see what’s available.

A second key factor we identified is the size of the dataset. This is crucial if you’re in a hurry (at a hack event, say), as dealing with huge datasets requires a different set of tools (and often, more time) than smaller datasets, which can often simply be manipulated within spreadsheets. So we classify datasets into Small (less than 10 thousand records), Medium (10 thousand to 1 million records) and Huge (more than a million records).

We’ve also labelled datasets with the formats they’re in (e.g. XML or JSON), and the rights they’re released under, such as the various Creative Commons licences.

Where possible, we’ve included a sample of the data you can download too. This is especially useful for datasets you have to register to access.

We’ve included all the relevant sources that we know of, but the list will build over time. Thinking about ways for people to contribute was one of the trickiest aspects of the project, and I was keen to avoid building lots of authoring, editing and moderation features without knowing how the site would be used.

Instead, we’ve opted for an approach of accepting quick suggestions via e-mail (or Twitter), and for more involved collaboration, pointing people at the Github repository where all the code and content is hosted.

Using Git for managing content is a bit of trend – it’s a way of getting full version control and change tracking, without needing complex CMS interfaces. There’s also a growing ecosystem of apps, GUIs and tools around it (and GitHub). In particular, we’ve experimented with using prose.io – a lovely stripped-back editing interface for GitHub files.

Of course, Git is pretty developer-centric at the moment. Whilst that’s the main audience for the Culture Hack site, we also wanted to encourage participation from the institutions themselves. To this end, there’s some instructions on using GitHub, which hopefully take people through the process step-by-step.

One final quirky note about the project: we’ve given each dataset on the website its own numerical ID, which you might notice in the URL. Rather than simply start from 1 though, we’ve using ‘Artisanal Integers’. This is a fancy name for a simple idea: a collection of web services which generate unique numbers on request. This is useful because it avoids us accidentally assigning the same number to two datasets (which might happen if two people are adding pages at the same time).

Finally, in the spirit of open data, all of the metadata on the site, as well as our descriptions, are all freely available without copyright restrictions.

Building a mobile guide to Ironbridge at Museomix 2013

I attended Museomix this weekend. It’s a sort of hack weekend, but in a museum, and where the output might be an exhibit, as well as perhaps an app or a website. The name and structure originated in France, and this was the first UK version.

The event was held at the Enguinuity museum near Telford in Shropshire, a hands-on science museum. It’s part of a wider group of museums dotted around Ironbridge Gorge, which is promoted as the “birthplace of industry”, largely because it was here that the technique of mass-producing iron using coke was invented. Iron was smelted in huge blast furnaces, one of which is preserved at the museum as the 'Old Furnace'. Also along the gorge are museums about china, tiles, tobacco pipe making and a recreated Victorian town. And there’s the Iron Bridge itself, built in 1779 and Grade I listed, which gives the area its name.

I arrived on a frighteningly early train on the Friday morning, and the first activity was a short tour of the immediate site. Then it was straight in to pitching ideas and forming teams. This was a bit of an abrupt beginning, as we’d not long arrived, but I had come with a rough idea to work on. Knowing how much the area itself contributed to the experience of visiting the museums, I figured it’d be a great opportunity to explore building something for mobile.

I’ve been talking to museums for years about the opportunities of mobile, but with a few exceptions, most museums have given more thought to the use of mobile devices within the museum than out in the wider world. This seems a bit wrong-footed to me, as once you’re within the museum walls there are already so many exhibits and panels and screens to give your attention to. Outside of the museum is a different story. There’s also a bigger audience outside the museum than in it, and the possibility of having a longer relationship than a one-off visit. This is especially true of museums whose subject is an area, as those stories relate to the landscape as much as to collected objects and artefacts.

My proposal at Museomix was to build a mobile guide to Ironbridge, using simple, proven web technologies, and to focus on including content that visitors really wanted to know. Despite this being the least sexy idea presented, I was relieved that my enthusiasm and spiel was enough to collect together a team of interested parties.

Once set up, we dived straight into an initial research phase of looking at maps at the area and identifying possible forms that the content could take, from audio commentaries and video interviews to simple text descriptions and historic photos. And then I insisted we all go for a walk.

We had a curator on our team, so our walk consisted of noticing interesting things and grilling the curator for information. Crucially, we asked some passing visitors some questions: what were they confused about, and which things had aroused their curiosity.

This walk taught us two crucial lessons which would shape our project. First, there was a LOT of interesting things to look at. The museum yard was littered with bits of iron and mechanical contraptions, and every building in the area had a story to tell. Second, nearly all of these things were entirely mysterious without a knowledgeable guide. Even an eight-foot high boiler outside the museum had no information on what it was or why it was there.

A big rusty orange boiler alongside other bits of old machinery
The big orange boiler, and other unexplained artefacts

Back at base, we set to work on the app. I set up a kanban-style board of cards and introduced everyone to Agile. We created GitHub accounts and triaged ideas. Our team had a strong content focus, which was great for developing something with content at its core. I was the only web developer on the team.

The next two days were a bit of whirlwind. I spent most of it writing code, and testing javascript on numerous mobile devices. My team colleagues selected content, filmed curators, sourced interesting information, wrote descriptions, recorded interviews, selected photography and more.

Somewhere along the line we broached the question of ‘how will people know this guide exists?’ We had a few ideas. First, the obvious: posters and leaflets. Then there’s simply telling people, perhaps from existing information desks. More ingeniously, we hoped to put an advert on the splash screen that guests see when connecting to the wi-fi (which covers an impressively large area).

We were lucky to have Matt on the team, who impressively works in manufacturing for a high-tech factory on the Isle of Wight. He suggested making some actual markers to put on things. This was easier than it might have been, as the museum had installed a FabLab for the Museomix event, which was full of 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, a huge laser cutter, and whatever a ShopBot is.

We wanted the markers to give some nod to the industrial origins of the area, as well a bit of a hint as to what they were for, so we created a design based on a magnet (representing iron) and wifi bars (representing mobile). It was also important that the markers didn’t detract from their surroundings too much, and so after laser cutting them from plywood and glue-gunning them together, Matt sprayed them with a can of sparkly 'iron-filings effect' paint hastily bought from B&Q, before painting the details in red and white.

The result was astonishingly good looking, and leant a physical dimension to a project that was otherwise entirely digital. It really showed the value of having a bunch of different skills on the team.

A hexagonal painted marker on a wall by some historic gates
One of the installed markers

The development process wasn’t without its interruptions. The Museomix organisers wanted to make sure that our projects were communicated back out to the wider online community, and so we wrote blog posts, filled in questionnaires and made a short video. This latter task was fun, but took a good while, especially as I had to try and remember how to use iMovie in a hurry.

The programme for the weekend included a couple of hours towards the end on Sunday afternoon for demo-ing the projects to actual members of the public. This was a brave but noble endeavour, as most of the hack days I’ve participated in culminated in a presentation rather than letting people actually try things out.

We had our working prototype early, so we subverted the schedule by putting out our poster and starting testing from first thing in the morning.

The app is fairly straightforward, code-wise. Each location has its own text file containing content in the Markdown format and metadata, including co-ordinates, in YAML format at the top. I selected these because they’re easy-to-read, and are supported natively by the GitHub web interface. This in turn meant that other people on the team (and potentially even others online) could easily contribute.

The text files are parsed by a simple Sinatra app, and then there’s a load of fairly hacky javascript I wrote to display them in a mobile and tablet friendly interface. One question we got asked a lot was whether the guide would still work when wandering through the areas where there’s no mobile signal. So from the off, I designed the app to store all the basic content in memory on initial load. (In practice, this wasn't so necessary, as the wi-fi proved so reliable in our test area – but it was a good thing to do.)

The only bit of ‘magic’ in the app is that it calculates how far away each of the locations are, and to tell you when you’re “at” one of them. Aside from some moderately complex maths, which I copied from someone else, this isn’t particularly difficult to do. The javascript API to ‘watch’ someone’s location (with permission) has been around a while, but I’ve not seen many web apps that make use of it. Having the screen alert you with a relevant message just as you approach a fountain feels quite remarkable – even though we’re well used to maps with a blue dot on them.

By the end of the Sunday our app had been used on 153 unique devices (I installed analytics, naturally), and we had received some great feedback from visitors. The museum’s board members all successfully tried it on their phones, and could see the possibilities for it.

Watching and talking to people using the app was really instructive. There were a few unexpected stumbling blocks. One person I spoke to hadn’t used wi-fi on their phone before. Another couple had location services turned off (I had to quickly learn how to turn enable this on Windows and Android devices). The most amazing was watching someone press DENY without a second thought when the app requested his location. When I asked, he barely recalled doing it. This was doubly problematic as un-doing this meant diving deep into the settings. Improving the messaging before asking for location permission ought to help. Thankfully, I designed the interface such that geolocation isn't required to access the content.

It was also interesting to note that a sizeable quantity of the people we tested with didn’t realise that geolocation uses satellites rather than cellular data, so they were pretty amazed that their phones knew where they were despite being in a mobile phone blackspot.

The nicest bit about watching people use the app was seeing people engage with the content. Our premise when producing the content was to answer people’s questions and tell interesting stories, and to do so in the most contextually relevant way that encouraged more and not less engagement with the actual environment. We didn’t get this perfect, as there was still a fair amount of people staring at their screens, but it was good to see people comparing old photos on their phones to how things look today, and listening to audio whilst wandering around.

Black and white photo of industrial workers standing proudly outside factory gates
Historic photograph of workers stood by the gates where one of our markers was installed

We also added a last-minute feature so that anyone at a location who wasn't satisfied with the information we’d given them could ask additional questions, via a simple e-mail link. We received about 7 of these, and made the effort to quickly find an answer from a curator and then to both e-mail them back and to update the app so other users could see their question and answer. This simple feedback loop demonstrates how responsive museums could be, delighting their visitors and improving their content. Though obviously it would need a lot of thought to get that to scale.

I got a bit of time before the end to look at the prototypes from the other teams. My favourite was a lovely projection onto the old furnace that showed how molten iron would’ve flowed from it into troughs, which really aided your understanding of how it would’ve worked. Another team turned an iron pot into a giant speaker which then told you, via poetry, of its story as a whaling pot. I’ve always liked the idea of museum objects talking in first person (something we explored in My Life As An Object), and so this was taking it a step further by literally having the object speak. In the same museum, another team took advantage of the fact that you were, unusually, allowed to touch the objects, by designing a game for children and adults using Pictionary/charades/Blind Man's Bluff style mechanics.

After that there was a brief wrap-up, then it was time to go home.

I hope the museum got a lot out of the event. Part of the Museomix concept is that it’s only about 25% museum professionals who take part, so that there’s plenty of input from people not involved in the sector to shake things up. As well as the prototypes themselves potentially being of interest, the process shows that experimenting and doing things fast can yield results.

The web app we made, Iron Insight: A curator in your pocket, is still online for people to use. We’ve even made a few updates to it since.

Playful 2013 sketchnotes

I went to Playful 2013 on Friday. It’s a conference about design, games and playfulness. This year’s theme was loosely playing with form.

On arrival I picked up a pack of blank playing cards and a Sharpie pen that Smithery and Mudlark had designed for the event. I think you were supposed to make a game with these, but instead I used them to sketch out some notes from the talk.

I kept it up all day, so I thought I’d share them.

Anne Holloday showed what some engineers had taught her about the process of making, with some clips from her The Makes of Things documentary series.

Ben Reade discussed the research and development he does at the Nordic Food Lab, and how he made some mould taste like foie gras.

Dan Catt showed everyone the best ever Snakes and Ladders board, and how he used computers to make it.

Dani Lurie talked about mischief-making and the experiments she did for Oh Comely magazine.

Duncan Fitzsimmons talked about some of the innovative projects he’s worked on at Vitamins Design, including folding-a-wheel.

George Buckenham discussed form and ‘play feel’ in video game design.

John V Willshire (Smithery) pushed a 'boxes' metaphor to its limits and said we should make things of the internet, not an internet of things.

Maria Lisogorskaya talked about vernacular architecture and play spaces, part of her work at the Assemble collective.

Marie Foulston told the story of her home-building within the Animal Crossing game.

Pippin Barr talked about some of the extroadinary video games he’s made.

Rob Lowe talked about art, optical illusions, and Moiré patterns.

Stefanie Posavec talked about her ‘vacation’ at Facebook, where she was an artist in residence.

Experiments with newsprint

I’ve been working with Newspaper Club for the past couple of months. It’s a company I’ve admired for years. We used it at both Rattle and Folksy to produce newspapers.

The main focus of my work there has been to improve the website so that it’s easier to understand the products and quicker to get started.

We’ve also launched some new printing options, making it now possible to order broadsheet and mini sized newspapers in low print runs (down to single copies for broadsheets).

I used this as an excuse to experiment with an idea I’d been toying with for a while: printing a newspaper of a year’s worth of Instagram photos.

So I printed a broadsheet newspaper with all of my Instagram photos from 2012.

I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Initially I included the original Instagram captions, but they felt oddly out-of-context on the page, especially the hashtags and user references. Removing them gave it a cleaner layout, and also had an unexpected side-effect: when looking through the paper, I have to remember why I took each photo, which itself is an enjoyable experience.

The paper is also inherently social. Showing it to people prompts their questions and a discussion – often with more engagement than in the original comment thread on Instagram.

Producing the paper also taught me something about how I use Instagram. It doesn’t tell the story of what I did in 2012, but rather the story of what I saw. Or perhaps more accurately, what I noticed.

I’ll be producing another 2013 edition of this paper in January. And I’m also investigating the best way of doing this for other people too. So if you’re interested in seeing your Instagram photos in newsprint, get in touch.

The Pedway: Elevating London

Went to see a film at the Barbican last night called The Pedway: Elevating London.

It’s a 40 minute documentary by Chris Bevan Lee about ‘Pedway’ elevated pedestrian walkways around the City of London area. This scheme was started in the post-war period, but only partially implemented, often in such a way that some walkways lead precisely nowhere.

The film told the story nicely, with plenty of archive footage, some contemporary slow-tracking shots of the decaying infrastructure, and a voiceover commentary by four experts.

Interestingly, the film has a made-for-Vimeo feel to it. The director was present for a Q&A after the film, and said that he deliberately avoided talking heads, as those are usually the moments when he finds himself second-screening.

The basic narrative of the film is chronological, following the conception of the walkways by architects at the London County Council, the building and use of them, then the decay and failings of the walkways, and finally a look at other schemes around the World.

The main conclusion of the experts in the film, which I’d agree with, is that elevated pedways are a flawed idea, as they require pedestrians to deviate from their natural desire-lines at street level. They also stem from a desire to separate people from motor traffic, which was as much about speeding up cars as it was about preventing accidents. The more modern ideal of slowing down and reducing vehicles in cities negates much of the need to segregate pedestrians.

Something I thought was missing from the film was a bit more of an in-depth technical look at the Pedway. It would have been interesting to learn more about things like the height and width of the walkways (which wasn’t particularly consistent), the various wayfinding systems, and specific design principles. A really good map of the system as-built would be nice too. I suppose that’s what books are for though.

One last thing to note is that I actually used a bit of the Pedway to get to the film screening. It seemed only right.