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January 01, 2021

The 'essence' of storytelling with and for citizens

Wondering how citizens can bring the stories of a city to life? With a wide range of data and information sources available, cities offer various storytelling opportunities. In the ESSENCE project, VRT Innovation explored how we can use the available information and data to create stories that engage citizens, together with Nokia Bell Labs, Digitopia, Research[x]Design(KU Leuven), Sentiance, the imec City of Things team, SMIT and IDLab (imec research groups at VUB and UGent). We developed new technologies to physically integrate stories into a city and engage citizens in their urban challenges and those of society by extent. After two years, the project has come to an end and we look back on some insights and results.

The origins of ESSENCE

Temperature, air quality and mobility are only a few of the many sources of information controlled by sensors in a city. In addition to this, there is also qualitative data, provided by citizens themselves. Within the ESSENCE project, each partner has developed a technology, from a mixed reality application to a hyperlocal chatbot, to turn the variety of data into a story, integrated in the city itself. This way, it becomes possible to notice trends and share information that is relevant for a specific time and place. For example, you might find that many citizens actively request and share information about waste, indicating that there is a need to provide information about it.

The Storymaker, a prototype to tell any story

As part of ESSENCE, VRT Innovation developed a technology that allows media makers to easily search, tag and process large amounts of unknown visual material, such as user-generated content, for editing or online distribution. This technology, called Storymaker, collects input from different channels, such as a radio app or a website form. This way, media makers can easily use submitted photos and videos to create stories that are tailored to the world of every Fleming.

During the lockdown, people were able to send a message to their loved ones via Eén. This "Eén voor allen" action was very successful, which also meant that a lot of data and video had to be processed. VRT Innovation's Storymaker offered an efficient way to search and archive the visual material.
Nikolaas Dewilde, chief editor Eén digitaal

In the meantime, several VRT brands have already been using the Storymaker, including Eén, VRT NWS and Klara. In the summer of 2020, the technology was used for a test set-up at Radio 2 in Antwerp. At the studio of Radio 2 in Antwerp, you could find local screens with stories based on visual material submitted by local residents. In addition, passers-by and residents could interact with the screens by using foot pedals to give their opinion on local themes and to help shape the stories on the screens. This way, the test set-up offered a way to connect people, despite the physical distance, by bringing stories together from the neighbourhood.

What we learned about storytelling in an urban environment

  1. First, grasping the context is necessary.

The developed technologies within the ESSENCE project collect all local data available in a city, which gives a clear picture of the current situation and allows for targeted storytelling. These technologies also help to stay informed about potential stories that are relevant for a certain time and place.

2. Urban storytelling shows similarities with social media.

For 'ephemeral' media such as Instagram Stories or Snapchat, stories need to be delivered in bite-sized formats, preferably without sound (e.g. using subtitles as a substitute) and consisting of a single storyline, as media users consume these stories in between, in so-called 'third spaces'. The urban environment is also such a third space. 

Another similarity with social media stories is the way in which stories are discovered. You are more likely to find such stories by chance. Locally consumed stories (stories-in-place) can even encourage citizens to stay longer than usual in a particular space, to watch videos, interact and even participate in conversations. 

Similar to stories on social media, interaction is a way to engage citizens in the shared stories, for example by using interactive features such as foot pedals to vote on a display, a smartphone application to experience augmented reality or a public screen.

3. Although the format of stories-in-place is similar to social media, they are considered reliable and stable.

This offers opportunities to share information that is more comprehensive than the display of pure data (for example, the temperature or time on public screens). For VRT as a public media, it means that it can be a valuable starting point to reach a wider audience with (local) news.

New ways to find and share stories

With the results of ESSENCE, we will continue working in the CityStory project, in which we look for new ways to capture and manage stories in a city. Here, we are expanding Storymaker's technology to make audio content searchable as well.

We also explore the possibilities of telling stories with data in the ParCos project. Together with end users, we look at innovative techniques to discover stories in qualitative and quantitative data and tell them in an attractive and accessible way.

ESSENCE is an imec.icon research project funded by imec and Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen.