DigiDickens – where we’re at
In July 2011, Exhibition Road Cultural Group (ERCG) – on behalf of the London Cultural Quarters (LCQ) forum – successfully applied for NESTA funding to develop a digital platform to support the delivery of cultural trails across London. The platform launches in April with DigiDickens, a celebration of the life, work and ideas of author Charles Dickens whose bicentenary is in London’s Olympic year.
The ambition is to create a digital platform that is flexible enough to respond to different types of content as required by the broader cultural sector – from public sculpture trails to science trails, walking tours to exhibitions. There is also an interest from the project team in: building collaboration across the city’s cultural sector; influencing general audiences’ perceptions of the city’s cultural offer and connectivity; encouraging arts and cultural organisations to share their copyrighted material and intellectual property to enhance the public’s understanding of culture.
To our knowledge, no digital platform has attempted to link together such diverse assets from so many stakeholders and content partners across the city and make it available for free to audiences. This is both the challenge and the opportunity and has been at the heart of our development and (sometimes confused!) thinking since securing funding.
Stage 1 October-December 2011
We have been working closely with our technology and research partners – Seren and MTM – to map the direction of travel. Critical to this has been the development of a stakeholder team comprising representatives of the LCQ as well as some of their individual members and other interested parties such as the City Read project. All have an interest in digital technology and cultural apps to engage with new and existing audiences and a number have invested their own resources in developing ideas for site-specific apps on the Dickens theme.
It has been important for us to emphasise that the DigiDickens tool is complementary to rather than competing with individual ideas and digital offers that may emerge, which was a concern of other colleagues in the London cultural sector who are developing or have launched their own Dickens-related apps. What is critical is that we are able to map the Dickens-related content being showcased in 2012 and capture it in some way via DigiDickens – be it through simple listings (in the case of exhibitions and film screenings for example) or more detailed geo-specific exploratory content around Dickens objects and places of association.
This remains a potential area of conflict between different interest groups and we are working hard to ensure all interested parties are invited to meetings, have access to research findings and meeting minutes etc.
Stage 2 – December 2011
The wealth of potential content and the amount of activity already scheduled for 2012 and the Dickens Bicentenary felt overwhelming initially. However, we have benefited hugely from MTM’s excellent initial report on the general market for digital technology as well as from Seren Partners’ expertise in visual design for urban environments. This has clarified the core project team’s thinking considerably.
For stage 2 of the project, Paul Cutts (chief exec of ERCG and project director) joined MTM and its researchers for two consumer focus groups. The findings from the groups were encouraging, particularly in relation to the enthusiasm for cultural apps, a general sense of this being an under-exploited market and a willingness on the part of users to experiment with (and sometimes pay for) such digital experiences.
Six things resonated strongly:
1) the central role that engaging and deep content plays in encouraging users to continue with an app (an the cost implications of developing such content)
2) providing an ‘experience’ users would not be able to have otherwise (the need to think more creatively about shared resources and how to develop coherent curatorial narratives around diverse assets; treasure hunt ideas were very popular and are likely to influence our thinking moving forward)
3) the enthusiasm for seemingly accidental encounters with interesting cultural facts (which we now look to embed in the app – ‘accelerated serendipity’)
4) the added-value element of apps (such as discounts to local cultural or commercial offers, free coffees at museum shops etc)
5) the opportunity for commercial sponsorship for thematic trails (enabling the app to be delivered free at point of use but supporting richer content and development)
6) the relatively low visibility of specifically cultural apps (an opportunity to work with iTunes to create a dedicated ‘Culture’ category on the iTunes app store – providing brilliantly simple but hugely effective marketing collateral for DigiDickens and others)
In order to move forward on these, Seren – together with ERCG – convened a content meeting at Seren’s offices on 6 December. We invited numerous representatives from stakeholder groups, including the LCQ forum, local government, museums etc. Whilst conversation was limited to two hours – and raised in some ways as many questions as it answered – we did begin to form a consensus on target audiences, how content should be layered, and who should be involved.
Some of the key content hotspots in the city have now been plotted on a Google map, which we’ll be circulating to all participants and more widely. This will go a long way to helping us define the type of user experience we can create and also identify any obvious geographical gaps we need to consider plugging. We are now waiting for Seren’s analytical findings to be shared with us to begin physically collating content and defining user journeys by theme and location.
Stage 3 – January-February 2012
We see Stage 3 as the beginning of the practical realisation of our distilled ideas and content. ERCG is now exploring potential commercial sponsors to help support the delivery of the app. We have appointed a freelance fundraising consultant part time from January to support our corporate fundraising initiatives and are investing £10k (scrimped and saved from our own budget) for this. Whilst the fundraising will be primarily focused on delivering results for ERCG, there is an expectation that our fundraiser will identify potential corporate sponsors for the DigiDickens tool, as this is a headline project for us this year. We are also exploring with Seren Partners the commercial exploitation of the digital tool and I’ve been given an inroad to two global corporates. If we weree able to sign up either of them, it would be a massive coup for ERCG and potentially enable us to support a whole series of other cultural trails based on thematic content. Which, after all, was the ambition of our NESTA application in the first place…