South African Startup Shares the Potential of Location-Aware Storytelling with the World
With spring officially in the air, Cape Town is slowly emerging from its damp winter cocoon, awaiting the annual summer influx of tourists, eager to experience the diverse delights and sights of the Mother City and surrounds.
For the founders of VoiceMap – a pioneering company on the cusp of launching their innovative location-aware audio walks in Cape Town – it’s an exciting time.
Iain Manley met business partner Lauren Edwards last year, while creating new content for the operators of Cape Town’s familiar open-top tour-bus. “Open-top buses worldwide use location-aware systems that play commentary at specific GPS locations,” says Manley. “But most tell a city’s story with only one or two voices, which doesn’t allow for diversity or individual perspectives. Attempting to relate the story of the Bo-Kaap in the same way as that of the colonial Company Gardens, or the Grand Parade – where Mandela addressed 200,000 ecstatic people after his release from prison – was an immensely frustrating task. We struggled to capture emotion, without the personal opinions, anecdotes and sense of ownership reflected in the words, ‘I love’, ‘I remember’, and ‘I hope’.”
“My best travel experiences have been when a local shows me their city,” he continues. “It immediately cuts through all the abstraction of being an outsider, making you a participant, with a point of reference that helps you identify with a place. You get to share somebody else’s feelings for their home – and that’s exactly what VoiceMap aims to do.”
VoiceMap is a user-friendly mobile app as well as a unique, freely accessible online tool that allows storytellers to plan, narrate and publish routes of their own. The storytellers set the price, and earn half the proceeds.
Using the VoiceMap mobile app, you can find the walks closest to you, or browse through them by author. After purchasing a route for a nominal fee, the maps and audio can be downloaded and enjoyed offline, in the company of an informative, entertaining virtual travel guide.
“Nobody wants to be staring at a screen while they explore, so we’ve designed VoiceMap to be as unobtrusive as possible,” says Edwards. “GPS takes care of everything, and you can put your phone in your pocket and forget about it.” The app is currently available for iPhone, and will be available for Android at the end of October.
Apart from several exciting international routes, VoiceMap currently features 10 Cape Peninsula audio walks of varying lengths: five are located in Cape Town itself, with one in the Southern Suburbs, one in Khayelitsha and four covering locations along the False Bay and Table Bay coasts.
All routes incorporate prominent local landmarks and the little-known histories surrounding these, related by various knowledgeable, passionate locals, who offer private glimpses into their own lives. “Shereen Habib’s Bo-Kaap VoiceMap is a great example,” says Edwards. “Her route is historical, but it’s her story. She’s lived there all her life. She was there as a young girl, screaming down those steep hills on her bike, while Apartheid gained momentum. She was a part of the fight against it, as a young woman. And she’s still there, watching her grandkids scream down the hills on their bikes. By talking about all those things, she brings the area to life.”
“VoiceMap also allows for totally different perspectives,” continues Edwards. “We have two routes, for instance, that intersect in the Company Gardens, at the bronze sculpture of Jan Smuts. One storyteller writes him off as a ‘no-good precursor to Apartheid’, while the other praises him for his ‘huge contributions to our country’. VoiceMap allows walkers to access these distinctly different points of view.”
“Our aim is for VoiceMap’s publishing tools to be used by all sorts of people, to communicate in a variety of ways,” concludes Manley. “Tourists are an important part of our market, but we’d like to see locals using VoiceMap too, for murder mysteries to children’s stories – you name it. In the long term, we see it becoming a medium for more private communication: for someone to leave a record for their grandchildren of the street they grew up on, or for a neighbourhood tour for friends visiting from another city. For scavenger hunts maybe, and even for love letters. The possibilities are infinite.”
The Cape Town launch of VoiceMap is taking place on Friday, 26 September, at Truth Coffee on Buitenkant Street. It’s going to be an evening of exploration, storytelling and song. For details, visit bit.ly/ct-launch.