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VoiceMap app: a platform for storytellers to give personalised location-aware tour guides

The Revolution Route, one of the routes on VoiceMap, begins at the Grand Parade, right at the bottom of the statue of Edward VII, in front of Cape Town City Hall. It is here, amongst homeless men and women lying around in the hot sun, that Iain Manley and Lauren Edwards from VoiceMap and I begin to take the walk. Gael Reagan, the storyteller, is a legendary journalist and activist. She begins by telling the history of the Grand Parade, City Hall and, in part, the history of South Africa.

The story is historical and this divorces it from the men and women lying at the base of the statue of Edward VII, trying to figure out what they are going to eat next and where they are going to sleep. The story is apathetic and delusional but historical. I had thought that VoiceMap was an app to obliterate the apathy of tour guides but this story fails to tear itself away from that trap. The route begins at the Grand Parade, heads out to District Six, goes up to Buitenkant Street, passing District Museum, turns left on the Book Lounge and heads right into Parliament, then out to Gardens and ends at Church Street.

VoiceMap is a platform for location-aware audio guides. It all materialized this year, initially in Singapore and then further development happened in Cape Town. Like any business idea, it has long been coming, taking different forms, dying and then resuscitating itself after some time. In February of this year, plans to create VoiceMap began. Two months later the round of first funding was secured and they began building their web and iOS app. The app, though expansion plans are afoot, in fact it will be on Android by end of October, is only available on the Apple Store for now. In just six months VoiceMap is being used in US, UK, Thailand, China, Argentina, Tunisia, France and Italy.

VoiceMap's map

Iain had travelled extensively around the world and had always been bothered by the homogeneous voice that sells cities.

“I’ve had almost all of my best experiences when a local shows me their city. It immediately cuts through all the abstraction of being an outsider, because you become a participant, with a point of reference that helps you to identify with a place. You get to share somebody else’s feelings for their home.” Iain explains. In fact, only a year ago, he and Lauren worked as outside contractors to update City Sightseeing’s commentary.

VoiceMap, Iain explains, was created to give tour guides that were in personal perspective, driven by emotions.

Open buses use the same location-aware method that VoiceMap uses but instead of personal anecdotes they use generic voices. In South Africa, VoiceMap is the only ox in its kraal but internationally it competes with similar apps like Detour, started by the former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason. There are other apps similar to it but most of them are distractive. iTourMobile for example, is unnecessarily complicated and impersonal and this is what VoiceMap is trying to get away from. Also a user needs to watch a screen to use iTourMobile, something that revolts Iain.

“We are not interested in video. VoiceMap has been designed as such that one puts it in their pocket, put on headphones, walk and forget that it is even there,” Iain explains.

VoiceMap doubles as a publishing tool. It is less like other travel tour guides and much more similar to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. The app combines a story in mp3 format to GPS co-ordinates. Users record these stories and then sell them off at VoiceMap and make a profit. At the core of it is that it obliterates the folly of travel agents and travel guides. Its service, and this is one of its best advantages, is that it is subjective and allows users to tell both the personal and historical anecdotes.

This is important because the problem with visiting a place only by the word of a travel agent is that often a travel agent sells every place as a utopia notwithstanding its shortcomings. A travel agent will, instead of looking to the left, where a heap of rubbish sits, glue their eyes to the right, where the grass is green and the sun is shining. They will not tell you about the ghost that roams the place in the dark. With VoiceMap, one can sample their routes for free and then buy the one they find appealing to them.

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Shereen Habib has lived all her life in Bo-Kaap, she remembers running the streets as a child, and has seen Bo-Kaap at its most enjoyable and disagreeable. Notice the details in her tour, which is a requirement for VoiceMap guides so a storyteller does not lose the listener.

Hello. My name is Shereen Habib, and I will be taking you on a walk through the Malay Quarter. Thank you very much for taking my route. 
Today I’m going to tell you all about how our people arrived in the Cape. I’ll need to explain a bit of context, to make sure you understand what we see today, so take a seat on the benches outside the Bo-Kaap Museum while I give you the basics.

Iain Manley, CEO and Co-founder of Voice Map, is a giant. He stands at 6’8 feet. He was not born in Cape Town. He came here from Johannesburg when he was 15. That was 16 years ago now. He studied English Literature at UCT and then in 2006 he travelled for 18 months across 20 countries, wrote travel stories, lived in Shanghai for three years, went to India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mongolia and then came back to Cape Town. During our walk, narrated by Gael Reagan, because of his tall height, I kept looking up at him, the sun blurring his face.

Lauren Edwards

After we had stood at the Grand Parade, Gael led us up Darling Street into District Six, nudging us in the right direction with information, pointing out monuments on the way, similar to a tour guide. Her talk was also mixed with music, speeches and poetry. There is a major difference though between VoiceMap and a tour guide. A tour guide walks in the pace of their own, some walk in big strides and some take forever to walk. The other advantage with VoiceMap is that one can take to the walk all by themselves and not have their pace dictated to by a group.

The art of holding a listener captive

Amongst many arguments that plague writing is how long should sentences be. The writing world is split in half on this argument. Ernest Hemingway was notoriously minimalist in his writing. Dinaw Mengestu, the Ethiopian-American author is the complete opposite. Some of his sentences are as long as some of Hemingway’s paragraphs are. The length of a sentence is of grave importance when writing for audio, especially that people will be walking when listening to the routes and do not distractions. The sentences have to be concise and detailed. This is to give the person listening to it easy grasp. Details are also important. They need to guide a stranger in an unfamiliar city and not get them lost. Less details is like, essentially, setting out a stranger in a strange city in the dark and asking them to find their way around. And Gael’s talk had these elements.

However, this pedantic way on how the tours should be written and read, Iain interrupts, upon sharing my reservations for dry storytelling, that VoiceMap is not an enemy of poetry. As a writer himself, Iain, understands that unimaginative writing died a long time ago. Writing now has to draw the listener in, seduce and leave them wanting more. Reading Iain’s own writing, especially his travel writing, the detailed sentences are there but they are coated in poetry. In a post titled ‘The curse of Gokarna: A dispatch from the Malabar Coast’, Iain writes.

“Gokarna is a village growing awkwardly and uncomfortably into a town. It is in this sense an adolescent, unsure of itself in the modern world, but in every other sense Gokarna is old, with a history that stretches into the remotest parts of human memory. For most of this time, it has been a village of fishermen and farmers with a single distinction: a temple that is believed to contain the soul of Shiva.”

Because Voice Map users, though not exclusively, are unfamiliar with the surroundings, it is mandatory that the stories must be tied to specific things people can see. One could mention a yellow gate that swings in the wind producing a clinking sound or mention the street and to which direction it sets out to or a landmark that lines on that street. It is in this that details are important. The Revolution Route, which I took, when one heads out to District Six, instructions are clear. Cross over these robots here and head out up Darling Street and stand in front of the graffiti work on the wall and have a seat on the lawn, the voice says.

Accuracy of GPS

There is a lot of interference with the GPS coordinates and they are not completely accurate, at least not all of the time. At times, Gael abandoned me behind and at times I galloped ahead of the storytelling. She instructed me to stop at Homecoming Centre after a minute of walking past it but because the story has details, landmarks, I was only lost for a short time.

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The process of planning a route

Voice Map, in some aspects, is still in its infancy stage. Nothing about it is definite. Some things about it are working and those that do not are being tweaked for optimum use. Whilst, on that hot Saturday, Iain and Lauren led me through the city of Cape Town on the Revolution Route, a few kilometres from Cape Town, in Kenilworth, Chanda Pwapwa, Voice Map developer, was hunched over his laptop, nit picking every little fault and reinventing VoiceMap. Iain appears unperturbed by it all, there is nothing he is bound to about the app, it changes as much as it needs to and will continue to do so, until it is at its most efficient.

One of the aspects of Voice Map that present clear problems, which Voice Map acknowledges, is their editing process because it restricts and is not build to give the user optimal freedom. No user wants to clear the way they want to use an app with the developer. Though the advice from Lauren Edwards, editor of Voice Map, is that stories need to be concise and detailed, restricting the freedom of users might be the ultimate downfall of Voice Map. The process also is quite elaborate.

Storytellers, at the moment, are required to email their script as text, it waits for approval and then if changes are required they email back to the storyteller. Once a final version for the text is available, only then can a user record and upload their tracks. Even that is not the final hurdle, VoiceMap then listens to the tracks and need to approve them and then, upon receiving approval, a user is free to upload their route. Iain explains that this process is being revised and reworked and he is right to do so.

But this is tricky too. Every story has problems of gaze. VoiceMap editing perhaps eliminates this and eliminates badly researched routes but any app should give optimum freedom to the user. VoiceMap must strike a perfect balance between these two. How they do it will be interesting.

Royalties

Users make money on VoiceMap by pricing their own stories however they want. But people can also upload free routes.

There are two ways in which royalties are earned. One is selling within iOS app and the other is within VoiceMap website. Users can select any price between US$0.99 and US$9.99. Routes can also be sold in bundles and this does not affect royalties.


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