The people of Manchester, UK, recently gained access to an entirely new way to access local news and engage with their city: OtherWorld, a pilot news experiment from startup studio Like No Other and Google’s Digital News Initiative. OtherWorld uses Bluetooth and cutting-edge beacon technology to deliver geo-located news directly to your smartphone for free, without installing an app. Referred to on the OtherWorld website as “living media,” as users walk around the city and pass by story locations, a silent notification will pop up on their phones, disappearing again as they walk out of range. Because the news you see on OtherWorld is directly related to the space you’re currently occupying, the system ensures that the news you’ll see is relevant to you. This unobtrusive method allows users to choose whether and how they will engage as well as adding an evanescent, elusive quality to the stories; you could walk right by and miss one if you aren’t paying attention.
In this way, OtherWorld illustrates the layers of our cities that are often invisible to us, bringing them into focus and allowing a deeper level of exploration into even a familiar city neighborhood. Focusing on stories that involve a real-world experience, users could become aware of an event nearby, a volunteer opportunity, a public meeting, or any number of other possibilities—thereby involving themselves in the public space and public realm in a way they would not have otherwise been able to.
Though OtherWorld is, of course, available for anyone to use, its developers saw it as a particular opportunity to re-engage a younger generation who have outgrown more traditional forms of news media without necessarily finding a satisfactory replacement source. OtherWorld also saw this as an opportunity to give a voice to those who may not have access to major news coverage, such as independent businesses, to better reflect through media the important role they often play in a community. To find out how this news revolution is being achieved, we spoke with OtherWorld creator and owner of the startup Like No Other, Stuart Goulden.
Megan Fowler: What motivated you to develop OtherWorld?
Stuart Goulden: Personal experience and frustration. There’s a whole generation of people, like me, who will never buy their local newspaper but still value the role they could (and probably should) play in navigating and animating cities. We all carry incredibly powerful storytelling devices in our mobile phones and OtherWorld is an experiment to use them to breathe new life into the world immediately around us.
MF: How do you see OtherWorld affecting the way people interact with cities?
SG: My view on the storytelling possibilities of cities is best captured by this wonderful quote [from Patrick Geddes]: “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” Cities are beautiful, complex and constantly changing and nobody should be better placed to help people make sense of this than local news—however many local news organizations don’t view themselves in this way. OtherWorld is about interrupting our everyday routines with serendipitous news experiences and encouraging people to explore beyond the obvious. We’re injecting an element of surprise into local news that has long been forgotten.
MF: Do you imagine people going out to intentionally look for stories or do you hope it will be more spontaneous?
SG: I imagine it will be a combination of the two. However, while we’re piloting the technology and experimenting with different publishing formats and rhythms I’m careful to position it more as a spontaneous medium.
MF: Why focus on young people?
SG: OtherWorld is open to everybody, however I instinctively felt it would appeal to younger people who are glued to their phones yet do not currently engage with local news. It’s early days but the feedback so far is that our readers value geographical-relevance over everything else which has the ability to cut through all ages.
MF: How do you think OtherWorld will help young people become more involved in their cities and communities?
SG: OtherWorld is really lots of experiments hidden in one big experiment. Something I’d like to challenge is the view that the comment box is the obvious conclusion to an article.
A lot of our stories, therefore, carry action buttons that make it as easy as possible for people to act on what they’ve just read (be it by volunteering, attending an event, inputting into a planning consultation, etc.) As stories relate to the reader’s immediate location they are far more motivated to do so, too.
MF: Why is it important to you to keep the stories hidden unless the reader is in physical proximity to the subject?
SG: As we’re not on the same treadmill of daily news cycles we can afford to think and act differently. OtherWorld is testing people’s appetite for location-based storytelling without an app and it’s important the pilot stays true to that. If you access stories in this way it makes the traditional news article and homepage a bit redundant—something I think journalists and newsrooms would find extremely liberating.
MF: What difficulties do you foresee in implementing OtherWorld on a larger scale?
SG: The pilot includes 50+ content partners and involves careful curation of the stories on the beacon network. The biggest challenge in the future would be replicating this care of duty into multiple cities—something that could be solved with an editor on the ground in each city or as an extension of an existing news provision in that area.
MF: What do you consider the most important impact OtherWorld could have on cities and public spaces?
SG: My wife is an architect (at DLA Design) and so I think about this a lot. Cities are changing quickly and OtherWorld can play a small part in making sure nobody gets left behind. We’ve reached a tipping point in which more of the world’s population is now living in cities than not and it forces us to ask some important questions; not least about how we choose to live together and talk to one another.
Beyond all of this, OtherWorld has the potential to reach previously hard-to-reach communities or for them to create and sustain their own news ecosystem for less than $100. That’s something I’d love to help make happen.
Reinventing the homepage is not, in itself, a new idea. As technology has advanced and news has become more constantly and instantly available, news sources have tried multiple approaches to respond to the “on-demand” quality people are looking for. These efforts and the quest for personalization in a technology-driven society have led to a plethora of news-delivery options for today’s reader (or watcher, or listener) that can be endlessly curated, sorted, and filtered. Yet it can still be a barrage of information, and not all of it necessarily what you’re looking for.
In an era that is seeing a rapid decline in both traditional newspapers and news websites—with most people relying instead on the crowdsourced curation of news via social media—what OtherWorld does is create an ultra-personal “homepage” based entirely on where you are and what you’re doing at that moment, practically guaranteeing its relevance to your life and interests. Users move through their surroundings to discover stories and, in so doing, reinvest in their cities and communities. OtherWorld responds to both the instant gratification and personalization demands placed on today’s news outlets, giving it the potential to invigorate cities, bringing energy and pride of place to more citizens than ever before.