In the first post of 2013 I decided to pick up where we left off last time; catching up with all the different Digital R&D Fund projects (just recently we spoke to Scratchr and Punchdrunk) to see what’s happened and what’s next now most of the projects have completed their research & development stages. This week I caught up with Paul Cutts, chief executive of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, to find out more about what’s happening with the Dickens London Trails app…
“Our ambition was to make the technology available to other small-scale arts and cultural organisations, enabling them to break into the digital market at low cost,” said Paul when I asked him what was going to happen with the app technology now the project had completed its R&D phase.
The group are now in discussions with a trust in the north of England, who is interested in using the app tech to develop its own series of trails around a world-famous heritage site.
“It would not be appropriate for me to name the organisation at this stage, as we’re in discussions currently and it may not come to fruition,” added Paul. “But I will be going to Newcastle to lead a workshop for them looking at what they need to consider, how to avoid some of the pitfalls we stumbled into and how to ensure the tool they create gives audiences what they want.”
I caught up with Paul Cutts, chief executive of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, to find out more about the the Dickens London Trails app and how the project was coming along…
1. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Charles Dickens app is and how it works?
Dickens London Trails is an iPhone app that enables users to experience London as characters from Dickens’ fiction would have. It leads you through the streets of London on a series of unexpected cultural encounters. You also discover more about Dickens’ eventful life and some of the secrets of Victorian London.
Your guides are characters from the novels who introduce dozens of places mentioned in the novels and the stories behind them. Each character also represents a particular theme that’s as relevant today as it was in Victorian times. The trail of Artful Dodger (from Oliver Twist) covers themes of childhood, poverty and power; Abel Magwitch (Great Expectations) embodies crime and punishment; Lady Dedlock (Bleak House) is the trail for those interested in the lives of women in Dickensian London and Samuel Pickwick (from Pickwick Papers) leads the food, drink and leisure trail.
Users can choose to follow a thematic trail or randomly select destinations. Each has a map, an accompanying image and – if a cultural destination such as a museum – telephone details and website inks. You can also share your favourite destination on social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) as well as tell people where you are through Foursquare.
2. How has the project been progressing?
The app went live in late April so progress in terms of editorial and technological build was quick and we’ve essentially finished what we set
out to create.
3. Have there been any real eye openers?
A number of things – the consumer focus groups were really helpful in clarifying our thinking. We ended up with something less ambitious than
we’d envisaged and took different editorial options largely in response to the feedback from that initial audience research. The main success was
having so many editorial partners from across the London cultural sector contributing free content. Our primary ambition was to develop a tool in partnership and collaboration – we ended up spending far less on content generation than budgeted, which gave us flexibility to spend elsewhere.
That said, we’re happy with the content and because it’s not time-sensitive it will have ongoing value. The Dickens theme was – for many of us –
secondary. The primary purpose was to create a collaborative forum that could be populated with different content. We negotiated with our
technology partner to have ownership of the IP so we can license it at low cost to other arts organisations. We’ve got interest expressed from a few others already.
4. Equally, what have the main challenges been, and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was probably the under-estimate of how much marketing and comms we really needed to raise awareness; we relied on our own networks to a large extent and the take-up rate was much lower than we’d have wanted.
There’s also an issue in only having been able to fund an iPhone app rather than Android and other platforms. With the increasing take-up of
alternative platforms we missed a large potential audience. We also had a challenge in terms of visibility on the Apple iTunes app store.
There’s a case I think for the whole sector to push for the inclusion of a dedicated arts channel on the app store – there are so many apps out there it’s easy to be drowned in the digital noise. We’ve not overcome that problem but it’s worth pushing for, I think.