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City Stories: Medical London iPhone app

Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies is a guide through the history of medicine in and around the Bloomsbury area of London. Complete with map, video and audio, this iPhone app is a collaboration between Joanna Rahim and Richard Barnett.

Joanna started out at BBC Radio 4 producing flagship programmes such as Start the Week, In Our Time and All in the Mind, as well as award-winning documentaries. Over ten years ago she moved into Internet and online content editing (for Yahoo, AOL and Orange), and more recently has been digital producer for NHS Choices. She is director of The Galton Lab whose clients include the Wellcome Trust, the NHS, ITN, Random House and other publishers.

Richard studied medicine in London before becoming a historian. He has taught at the universities of London and Cambridge and was a judge for the inaugural Wellcome Trust Book Prize in 2009. His first book Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures written with Mike Jay, was published by Strange Attractor Press and was Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Richard recently received one of the first Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellowships.

Joanna: The idea for the app came about in a series of serendipitous meetings. I have always been a curious walker and a blue plaque bore. Holidays often consisted of walks using home-made itineraries with maps glued together with photocopies of points of interest, restaurant reviews and literary cuttings.

As soon as I had an iPhone, I began to think about turning my favourite books and characters into literary walking apps; going on a physical journey through a story, in my own time and at my own pace.

After a talk I gave on public health information films at the Wellcome Collection’s club night with the Wellcome archivist the communications officer, Sophia Austin, asked my app-intentions before suggesting “Why don’t we collaborate on it? You could always look at Medical London.

Medical London is a truly wonderful book in three parts. The first is a volume of essays exploring some of the threads that medicine has woven through London life; the second is a definitive guide to London’s medical landscape, its museums and hospitals, grand monuments, secret corners, and the characters and events that lie behind them. Finally, six elegantly designed maps for self-guided walks.

I was thrilled by the idea – but I worried that Richard might not be happy for me to cannibalise his work.

Richard: Far from being unhappy, I was thrilled to have this exciting opportunity to collaborate with Joanna dropped (as it were) into my lap. Writing guided walks for Wellcome Collection and the Medical London project taught me that a good walk, like a good history, is all about story – drawing together disparate characters, places and threads into a narrative arc which can keep walkers captivated for an hour or two. Joanna’s idea for an iPhone app offered the chance to build an entirely new kind of interactive, multimedia walking experience around this basic structure.

Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies was the very first guided walk I had written, some four years before I met Joanna, and in it I tried to give a flavour of London’s medical history through the prism of life and death in Bloomsbury. The history of this area is immensely rich, and working within the framework of an app allowed us to bring in many kinds of material – engravings, extracts from letters and novels, music, and film clips – which the traditional guided walk format had great difficulty in getting to grips with. I loved the simplicity of the app format – the possibility of having a narrator, a map, and a portfolio of texts and images literally in the palm of one’s hand.

Joanna: It’s one thing having ideas for the content of a walk, and quite another finding an intuitive structure. As far as I knew, nothing like this had been done before and as there was no template, I had to draft in people with skills I could only imagine. An experience architect taught me the importance of simplicity and intuitive navigation when designing an app. I found my developer at a Mobile Monday event. Not only did he speak 14 types of code, he could bring my ideas to life as well.

Richard: One of the joys of leading a walk is the possibility of improvisation – that one can pick up on the interests and enthusiasms of different audiences, and adapt the walk as one goes along. The challenge of the app was to come up with an experience that captured this sense of freshness, allowing walkers to follow up their own passions and interests through extracts, film clips and web links. This in turn gave the story a little more space to breathe: through slideshows, some places and characters could now be shown, rather than described, to walkers.

Working with Joanna also brought a new (and much-appreciated) sense of discipline to my writing and speaking. As a live walking guide, I’m free to say as much or as little as I like at each stop on the walk. But rewriting content for the app made me think in a more regular and harmonious way, making sure that each stop had a crisp and concise three-minute audio piece. This, along with images and other audio extracts, would be another piece in the intricate jigsaw puzzle of the story. For me, this collaboration was a master-class in digital thinking – the process of taking a two-dimensional route on a map and turning it into a vivid, immersive multimedia experience.

Joanna: The title Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies – looking at the history of surgery, amputation, neurology and child health – led a colleague to exclaim, “No-one will ever download that!” But the Wellcome liked it, and that gave us the confidence that others would too. Walkers, historians and people interested in medicine blogged about us, which meant that we had people downloading the app from Korea to the Netherlands. When Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science) tweeted about us there was another flurry of blogs and downloads. And, since we launched, we’ve had messages from Canada to Australia (and, of course, Bloomsbury).

We’ve got plenty more in the pipe-line, from a series of literary walks (available on web and mobile) to celebrate 21 years of the Vintage imprint to the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs in the UK. But we plan a return soon to science and history, and matters of life and death.

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