Application from Brazil’s Agência Pública combines journalism and geolocation

A mix between journalism and Pokemon Go – this is how site Agência Pública defines its first application, Museu do Ontem (the Museum of Yesterday). On the platform, instead of capturing monsters, the user explores the Port of Rio de Janeiro in search of news reports, excerpts of books, and audio, to understand the region's past and present.

As points on the map are approached, geolocation technology unlocks stories dating back to the Portuguese Royal Family, carries the user through dark episodes of the Military Dictatorship, and also showcases more recent reports, like this one about steel beams missing after the demolition of the Perimetral viaduct.

A Pública chose the port for this project precisely for this richness and diversity of stories. The area is known as Little Africa and houses the Valongo Wharf, the largest slave port in the Americas in the 19th century that was recently recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. In the context of the 2016 Olympic Games, the region was revitalized as part of the so-called Porto Maravilha, a public-private partnership that ran into serious funding problems this year.

For Natália Viana, co-director of Agência Pública, it is important that the place is recognized as an asset of Cariocas and Brazilians.

"The historical importance of the place, now identified by the period of slavery, was very undervalued in the revitalization of the port,” Viana told the Knight Center. “It is an area that attracts many tourists and there could’ve been an initiative like this to bring the public closer its history. The idea is to bring journalistic information to other audiences."

In addition to collecting points when unlocking places, it is also possible to venture through one of five themed tours: Corruption, Terror, Samba, Ghosts and History of Brazil Express. In the script of the ghosts, for example, sad episodes and little discussed topics that haunt the port are revealed. Some may take up to three hours to complete.

After collecting the stories, users can review them from anywhere. A simpler remote version will be aimed at those who are not in Rio de Janeiro. "But the cool experience is to go there," Viana said.

The application took a year to launch, from conception to research, text development and mapping of the sites. One of the concerns was to stick to the safest regions of the port to ensure a pleasant experience. Currently, there are 160 sites, but the public can suggest other points of interest. It is possible to explore the port both by the current map and by a drawing recreated by artist Julian Russo that shows how it looked in 1832.

The team of journalists who participated in the application development focused on extensive documentary research, in addition to interviewing experts and sources from more recent stories. A Pública reports have also been updated with new information relevant to the game. Information related to places also includes non-journalistic texts and excerpts from Laurentino Gomes's book, 1808. All entries went through a fact checking process.

Viana emphasized the different way the team produced and told stories. She explained that Pública found old ads for the sale of slaves and had singer Anelis Assumpção record them.

“Audio in particular already has a great emotional impact. It's a primary story, it's the ads themselves. The intermediary is eliminated and a very powerful result is created," Viana said.

Dutch developer Babak Fakhamzadeh, who is based in Rio de Janeiro, explained that he devised the platform according to the situationist philosophy. The idea is that in urban centers, we are guided by our daily activities and do not open ourselves to the experiences that the city offers. In this sense, the engagement of communities with their urban spaces would provoke new understandings and possibilities for dialogue.

In the application, this thinking translates into the user having control over the decision-making process. “Instead of using a guide book, the user has to discover it himself. It is very different than when he is guided from place to place. We don’t give him strict directions. It’s up to him decide where to get from there. He has a more heightened experience with the place,” Fakhamzadeh told the Knight Center.

Fakhamzadeh has previously worked on applications with similar concepts of urban exploration, such as Dérive and Kompl. However, none have a journalism component. "I really think that what we did here is very innovative, he said. “I have not seen an app or a solution that is not only about the discovery [of space].”

The application is under the umbrella of Casa Pública, the cultural journalism center created by Pública to host debates. This particular project is part of LABS - Laboratories for Innovation in Journalism, which was set up to experiment with narrative formats. 100 and Vigilância, two reporting projects with narratives presented in nonlinear ways that are navigated by the reader, also emerged from Casa Pública.

"This app is a step further, the user walked around, looked at the houses, the information gets deeper," Viana explained. "We wanted to introduce the possibility of experimentation. These projects are envisioned from the start as a mixture of journalism, technology and art."

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.