Street Stories: Designing Networked, Narrative Places of Community

Warren Sack and Michael Dale
Digital Arts / New Media Program
University of California, Santa Cruz

Places have stories associated with them. Some of these are commonly-known stories; others are personal narratives associated with, for example, the house of one's childhood or the place along the old train tracks where the sweetest blackberries grow. But when people move elsewhere or (sub)urban development paves over an area, the stories are decoupled from the places and the places lose their vernacular particularities. In short, places are transformed into much more generic spaces. As increasing numbers of geographically-based communities are displaced by network-based structures, the places of community - and their associated stories - are lost. The goal of this research project is to design new places of community for the network society through the creation of a new practice and technology of place-based storytelling. We call this practice and technology Street Stories.

It could very well be a mistake to propose a new technology for Street Stories. After all, most of us have such stories to tell and a very simple means to tell them to our friends, family and neighbors: we walk through the neighborhood of our childhood and - orally -- describe what it was like to our friends; we drive by the new shopping mall and explain how it covers the ground of the farm that existed there for decades; we tell our family about where we met a friend, or about the walk to a new workplace. We tell these stories by talking as we walk or drive through the area.

But, we do propose a new technology for Street Stories for two reasons. First, it is now often the case that children grow up in a place geographically distant from the childhood home of the parents. War and economic globalization has forced or encouraged many of us to move. Oral storytelling traditions based in particular places cannot survive these effects: a place loses its stories if no one is there to tell them. Second, many cities and towns have undergone - and continue to suffer - a radical homogenization of architecture and urban planning. As chain stores replace local businesses; as local building craft methods and materials are forgotten or displaced by large, construction corporations and prefab materials; as cars and airplanes overrun walking, bicycles, and trains as means of transport, the intimate places of community are paved over with ubiquitous, homogeneous spaces.

For example, the Ohlone Indians lived on the banks of San Francisco Bay and, over the course of five thousand years of eating shellfish from the Bay, built an enormous shell mound next to one of their villages. "Shell mound" is now the name of a street in Emeryville, California and the site of the Ohlone's original shell mound is now paved under a parking lot for a large mall. When, in a case like this, public place becomes private, pedestrian-unfriendly space, the powers of oral storytelling need some help. To survive, they need to be amplified and extended by a new media technology. It is for these reasons that we propose a new technology for Street Stories.

For these reasons, this technology must fulfill two criteria that, in non-networked media, would seem to be paradoxical: (1) It must be simultaneously local and global. Many of the people with stories to tell about a given place will not be there, at that place. At the same time, many of the people who will want to hear those stories will no longer inhabit the place. And, (2) the new technology must leave a trace on a place and yet leave no visible trace. This must be so it does not clutter or destroy the place it is meant to enhance and, also, so that it can remain even in a place that has been plowed under and paved over. Both of these criteria are met by new media that, through the powers of wireless networking and global information systems, allow one to "place" information at an exact geographical position and "remember" it again either by physically traversing the geographical place or by retrieving it online from a map of the place.

We have developed two versions of the Street Stories technology and are working on a third. Version one was designed and implemented with students at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall and spring of 2002. For their master's project Mahad Ibrahim, Craig Rixford, Mike Kim developed a version of the system for Compaq's iPaq technology. The Compaq iPaq is a handheld computer with - if it is extended with an additional card -- global positioning system (GPS) capabilities. Using the Global Information System (GIS) ArcView/ArcPad software and Visual Basic, Ibrahim et al. developed an application that allowed one to place pre-recorded, audio stories on a map. Traversing the geographical area of the map with the iPaq, one can listen to the audio stories associated with one's current position simply by running the application while one walks.

Ibrahim et al. worked as documentary media-makers interviewing and recording the stories of a particular neighborhood: the neighborhood of César Chávez Street in San Francisco. This is an area of the Mission District that is animated by diverse populations: the homeowners and renters who live on César Chávez , the day laborers who wait - sometimes all day - on the sidewalks for work, the tourists, community organizers, police, city politicians and, the commuters who traverse it every day on their way to work since César Chávez is a major conduit between the freeway and the central areas of San Francisco. Ibrahim et al. layered this neighborhood with a heterogeneous set of local voices, each telling its stories about this hybrid place/space. Walking down César Chávez with a properly equipped iPaq, depending upon one's chosen route, one was able to listen to a series of stories retrieved (via geographical position) from the database of collected stories.

During the summer of 2002, Seema Moorjani, an undergraduate research assistant working with us, ported this system to a simulated cell phone, using the BREW programming environment (Qualcomm's development environment for cellular phone-based software). Even though we did not test this version, version 1.1, on an actual cell phone, the port was significant. Compaq iPaq's are expensive and unlikely to ever be common while cell phones with GPS and wireless network capabilities ar likely to be the norm in a few years. Our aim is to make the Street Stories system widely available to community groups. So, it is essential that the system run on commonly available equipment.

Version 2.0 was implemented by Michael Dale as an undergraduate and graduate research assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It incorporates two significant advances: (1) Using the Sun's Java development environment and Nextel wireless network support, Michael implemented this version of the Street Stories project on a soon-to-be common platform -- a cell phone with a Java (J2ME) programming environment, GPS and wireless network access; for this version he used Motorola phones (model i730). (2) While the first version of Street Stories required one to place an audio story at a specific latitude and longitude, version 2.0 supports "trails." For example, we found, when interviewing people about the neighborhood of César Chávez Street, that people often talk about the street - or a traversal of the street - and not just about a specific spot on the street (e.g., a street corner). In other words, narratives are oftentimes voyages from one place to another and narration is a storyline that connects together several locations or scenes.

There are two ways to record a story with version 2.0: with the cell phone, or with the web interface. Using a cell phone, one first walks the area of interest making a "trail" using the GPS and speaking one's story as one walk along. Using the web interface, with the directional keys, one draws a trail on a map, a satellite photo, or an aerial photo; and, then, using a microphone attached to the computer, records the audio to be associated with the trail. Here is a step-by-step description of the recording process using the cell phone.

Using the cell phone, one logs into the system and declares a user id and a name for the drawing that will result from walking the area with the cell phone. After logging in, the system starts up and begins acquiring one's current latitude and longitude using the GPS capabilities of the phone.

Every few seconds, as one walks and talks, the phone uploads the recorded audio and one's current coordinates to the server. Simultaneously, the server downloads a map, satellite or aerial photo of the area that one is walking. This image will serve as a background for the completed image.

When finished, one pushes the "Done" button and the trail and associated audio is saved to the server. The resultant trail might be, geometrically, quite simple, like this one:

Or, it could be a relatively complicated drawing or a scribble, like this:

Although the system supports any practice, of what is now known as, GPS drawing (cf.,, we are not primarily concerned with drawing. Rather, the drawing capabilities of the system exist to support complicated wanderings through a place: walks that are "off the grid." In other words, instead of conforming to the Cartesian grid implied by uniform latitude and longitude coordinates supplied by GPS systems, the cell phone interface is an attempt to allow the operator to make a, possibly complicated, drawing or trail by walking and then associate an audio story with that trail. The International Situationists' experiments in psychogeography and dérive provide an art historical precedent (Debord, 1956).

The recorded story can be accessed in one of two ways: via the cell phone, or via the web. Via the cell phone, while walking through an area containing a stories, the story is triggered by one's position and streamed from the server to the cell phone. Or, one can play a recorded story from the web interface.

After logging onto the web server that archives the stories, one is presented with one's "home page." Like a variety of other social software applications (e.g.,, one can link to one's immediate friends and colleagues. These links constitute a social network that can be used to access trails and stories of possible interest. Using the web interface, one can also search for stories by geographical position. After selecting a story of interest, the trail (and associate satellite photo) is presented and the audio story is played. A "player head" follows the trajectory of the trail drawn (via GPS) on the satallite image. This allows one to see the exact geographical location that the author has associated with each part of the recorded story. We are working with tour guides and neighborhood historians to debug and extend the capabilities of version 2.0. A version of the current system can be found here: Street Stories website. (Just press the "submit" button to log in to the system as "guest.")

Version 3.0 of the Street Stories system is being developed in collaboration with University of California, Santa Cruz historians Alan Christy and Alice Yang Murray. Christy and Yang Murray are investigating and documenting commemorative practices related to WWII throughout the Pacific, with one important element of their work paying special attention to spatialized strategies at sites of historical significance. We are extending the Street Stories system and specializing its database to allow inhabitants of various Pacific Islands (especially Guam, Saipan and Okinawa) and former combatants (both Japanese and American) to record their stories of the times and places of the war.