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A New App Illuminates the Hidden Histories of Everyday Places

'Poetic Places' uses geolocation to hit you up when you happen across a place described or recorded in literature, poetry, and paintings.

by Kevin Holmes
Apr 28 2016, 12:20pm

Images via Poetic Places

Walk around any city and you'll find indications of its past, be they buildings, place names, or other markers. But a lot of its stories, both historic and in fiction, will be hidden. A new app called Poetic Places, by Sarah Cole in collaboration with the British Library, helps people discover the locations that inhabit various poems, paintings, and works of literature. The app uses GPS and push notifications to let people know when they've happened upon a space of significance. They can then view archive material, information, and paintings associated with it.

"I'm really interested in how content—be it art, writing or something else entirely—can reach people when they're not expecting it, rather than them having to seek it out," Cole explains to The Creators Project. "Tours can be great experiences, for example, but we have to set aside time for them whereas I wanted to explore serendipitous discovery with minimal effort from the users. I was also intrigued by narratives of place and how we access them. There might be numerous depictions of any given place, both visual and written, but how might we discover them whilst there, and how might they change our perception of that place?"

All the material and content in the app, which currently only works in London, was sourced from open archives, collections, museum websites and their Flickr accounts, anything that could be used freely under Creative Commons licenses. Choices of places to include were also swayed by items that were out of copyright, due to both the practicality and expense of clearing them, but also to highlight the vast amount of information in the public domain that can be used creatively.

Cole says that part of the aim of the app, as well as helping people discover histories they might not know, was also to create a "replicable project." "I wanted to demystify apps for others and demonstrate what can be achieved with only a little time and money."

"Building an app from scratch obviously has its benefits but can require substantial resources and technical expertise. As such, I decided to see if could utilise a DIY app-building platform to make Poetic Places myself," Cole notes.

John S. Muller, ca. 1715–1792, German, active in Britain, Vauxhall Gardens shewing the Grand Walk at the Entrance of the Garden and the Orchestra with the Music Playing, after 1751, Etching and engraving, hand-colored, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

After trying various platforms Cole found GoodBarber gave her what she needed without being to difficult to negotiate or too expensive. "By combining maps, entires, and triggering I was able to create something that works on both iOS and Android devices, looks good, might survive OS updates, and works the way I want. And I didn't have to code anything to do it."

Cole has added content to the app outside of London and plans to go worldwide, too. And, although at the moment it's mainly historical, is also looking to include contemporary poets and writings.

So, if you're heading out for a psychogeographical drift around London, Poetic Places can help augment the experience and point out some of the fictions the spaces you're journeying through inhabited. It not only brings some revelations to bear on where you are, it's also an exercise in what can be achieved working with free resources and a limited budget. 

You can meet Sarah Cole and have a Poetic Places demo at the Creativeworks London Festival on Friday, April 29 at Kings College. Book your free place here.

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