#Moments of Resilience — and coverage (NPR, WUSA9)

Some news: we have repurposed our DC storytelling system to start gathering stories of community resilience around Covid-19 and recent protests. This effort is based at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and was profiled by NPR and WUSA9 (see below).

Callers can still hear amazing oral histories of DC residents from the exhibition A Right to the City (including recordings from prior callers). But the hotline has also become a way to gather audio stories from the street and from residents without easy access to fancy apps or recording equipment. Initially, we were focused purely on Covid-19, but once the protests arose, the museum’s director embraced the need to capture resilience around the “dual pandemic” on DC streets.

Stories can be called or emailed in:

NPR broadcast a story about the project nationally (“The Smithsonian Is Collecting Coronavirus ‘Artifacts’ To Document The Pandemic” by Mikaela Lefrak, May 20, 2020).

WUSA9 also covered the project on TV news (“Anacostia Community Museum wants your local ‘Moments of Resilience’ stories for digital exhibit” by Mikea Turner, May 27 2020).

Playful Reflections (pt.2): Future Design Ideas

This is part 2 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you have not read part 1 about my insights on designing playful community experiences, you can do so here.


In my previous post, I shared some of my insights from working on the DC Storytelling System. Now I want to share some of our playful ideas that build on our previous experience and take advantage of the affordances of Hive Mechanic, the AU Humanities Truck, and our existing system. Some of these ideas are ones we are working on now or planning to implement in the future, while others could serve as inspiration for others who want to pursue similar playful projects.

Concept 1: Oral History Audio Tour

Our current hotline does a pretty good job sharing interesting audio stories, but could be more effective at tying the stories to physical locations. Thankfully, the Humanities Truck provides a great anchor to embed the stories within their communities of origin. We could park the Humanities Truck in a central location in the community and use it as a starting point to direct participants to notable places in the area. When participants arrived at those locations, they could call/text the hotline and hear original recordings about those locations.

Our postcard map for the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, as well as a sample historical image sent by the system.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

This is similar to what we’ve done before with the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, except it takes full advantage of the audio capabilities of Hive Mechanic. Alternatively, you could also use a platform like ARIS to help strengthen the connection between story and place. If participants ever get lost, or if they want to learn more, they could return to the Humanities Truck and expert guides could provide them with more information. Multiple audio tours could be created for multiple communities across DC, and the Humanities Truck could drive to those various locations to help initiate and facilitate their interactive audio tours.

Concept 2: Community Photo Sharing

Recently I worked on a project in collaboration with the Playful City Lab and El Studio called Alley Hoppin’. Alley Hoppin’ is an exhibition designed to change the way we think about alleyways and showcase interesting ways that alleys are being used in DC. One of the notable features of the exhibition is its interactive alley collage. Participants take photographs of their alleys on their phones and text them in to a system we built in Hive Mechanic. That photo is then automatically printed out from a wireless printer and then added to the growing physical collage of DC alleyways.

Our wireless printer from the Alley Hoppin’ exhibition set to automatically print out user-submitted photos of alleyways.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

We could easily implement a similar system designed specifically for the Humanities Truck. During public events featuring the truck, we could encourage participants to share photos with us that fit a given theme. As the photos are texted in, we could print them out automatically using a wireless printer connected to the Humanities Truck’s wi-fi. Once printed, we could then mount the photos (either on the inside or the outside of the truck) so that everyone could see the collage we’ve created together.

Concept 3: Hello Humanities Truck

Similar to the existing project Hello Lamp Post and our current “Talk to a Statue” project, what if people could strike up a conversation with the Humanities Truck itself? Using a tool like Hive Mechanic, we could create an interactive chat bot using SMS. Players could send text messages to the Humanities Truck (possibly initialized with the phrase “Hello Humanities Truck”), and then have a conversation with it. We could give the truck a personality (i.e. maybe it’s friendly? Funny? Sarcastic?), use it as a way to share content (such as by sending pictures, videos, audio files, or links through text messages), or more use it to share more information about the truck and its ongoing projects.

Concept 4: Hive Mechanic Game Jam

During Global Game Jam 2020, the Playful City Lab hosted a short jam session focused on building games in Hive Mechanic. While this was a fun and informative experience, it showed us that there is plenty of room to expand it into a full event. What if we invited coders, hackers, designers, and community organizers to come together and create playful community experiences in Hive Mechanic? We could either focus the jam on a specific problem or theme (e.g. what games could we design for the Humanities Truck?) or leave it open for people to focus on their own local communities.

Concept 5: Arcade Mounts

Our mounts have already gone through numerous iterations to become more professional and engaging. But what if they were even more playful? Currently our team is experimenting adding various new ways to interact with the mounts beyond just the phones. Some of the ideas we are testing include using embedded touch screens, arcade buttons using Makey Makey, interactive LEDs, and raspberry pis. This could offer many more ways to create games that could utilize our mounts…

Concept 6: Arcade Truck

…But why stop at just making the mounts more interactive? What if we turned the Humanities Truck itself into a game controller?!? We could set up buttons on the inside and the outside of the truck and then use the interior and exterior screens to display feedback and instructions. Maybe players inside the truck have to relay information to players outside the truck so that they can push the correct buttons on the exterior of the truck? Maybe the truck could serve as a command center that sends instructions out to players within the community using Hive Mechanic? By changing or creating new ways to interact and play, we can create a wide variety of novel games that capitalize on the affordances of the Humanities Truck.


This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Playful Reflections (pt.1): Personal Insights

Over the past year, I’ve been iterating on the interactivity of the DC Storytelling System. Primarily, I’ve worked on updating the hotline, deploying installations at DC Public Libraries, and sharing our system at a variety of community events with the AU Humanities Truck (such as Adams Morgan Day, DCPS Development Day, and Busboys & Poets’ Saving DC’s History & Culture). I’ve learned a lot from working on these projects, and I want to share some of my personal insights on designing playful community experiences. While this won’t be an exhaustive list of all of our lessons and findings, I hope that my insights are helpful to others who want to create their own playful experiences.

Insight 1: Use physical objects and staging to spark curiosity

When people initially encounter our system at events featuring the Humanities Truck or our desk payphone, their first question is often “what is this?” While at first blush this question might seem negative, it’s precisely the question you want to provoke. Curiosity can be powerful, especially when it drives us to explore and engage with things we don’t understand. So when someone asks “what is this?”, we see it as a solid signal that they are willing to engage.

Our mobile payphone (using a cellular data plan) at a Chinatown event for the A Right to the City exhibition
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

One way I’ve found to consistently pique curiosity is by using physical objects in unexpected places. Payphones today are becoming rare, so seeing one at an event immediately makes people wonder why it’s there. Similarly, a large, bright red truck parked in an unusual locations (i.e., the AU Humanities Truck) makes people want to know what’s inside. Both of these are examples of how staging physical objects in unusual contexts can help attract people to your system that normally may have been overlooked.

Insight 2: Continuous systems need a sense of urgency

The DC Storytelling System was intentionally designed to be as accessible as possible. It can be accessed in person from the “A Right to the City” exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, and at several installations at DC Public Libraries, or from anywhere in the world using your personal mobile device. But while the system is technically accessible from anywhere at any time, a significant proportion of our recordings have specifically come from community events. This is due in part to the number of people at these events, but I also think it’s at least partially due to the urgency and interpersonal connection that events can bring.

A collection of some of the locations where you can access our system.
Photo credits: Benjamin Stokes

Technically speaking, our system can be accessible long after an event is complete. For some people, calling later on their own phone might be much more convenient. But when people feel like they can do something at any time, many will put it off and forget about it. But because the event itself is only happening for a limited time, people feel a sense of urgency to use the system immediately. This sense of urgency can be extremely effective at boosting engagement for a continuous system.

Insight 3: You always need to compete for attention

Just because you have a booth or a tent at a community event does not mean people are going to pay attention to you. Often there will be many other exciting things happening at the same time that are also fighting for attention. If you want people to notice you, you’ll need something that helps you stand out. For us this was often the Humanities Truck, but as mentioned before anything that sparks curiosity can be very effective for this.

However, it’s very important to remember that the fight for attention never ends. Even after you’ve managed to convince someone to try your system, you need to hook them and keep them engaged. Otherwise, they’ll just move on to something else that feels more exciting. Through repeated iteration we’ve managed to make our system more engaging in a few ways:

  • Polished Mounts: Our mounts have gone through numerous iterations to look more visually appealing and professional. This is especially helpful for initially drawing people in.
  • Radio-Style Introduction: We’ve stitched together clips from various stories on the hotline and put it as the first thing you hear when you pick up the phone. This does a much better job of setting the stage and hooking the audience than immediately launching into a dry navigation menu.
  • Random User-Submitted Stories: We’re curated a selection of user-submitted stories and hosted them on the hotline for people to listen to. The user-submitted story you get to listen to is random so that there’s a reason to return to the hotline multiple times.

We’re still trying out new ideas for how to make our system more engaging (some of those ideas are outlined in part 2), but these are a few tested ideas you could try out in your own playful systems.

Insight 4: Your system doesn’t exist in a vacuum

Sometimes it’s easy to think that your system is working in a vacuum. But often, your system exists at the intersection of several other community partners and projects that are working towards similar goals. If you don’t reach out to these potential collaborators, you could be missing out on opportunities to enrich and inspire each other.

One of our proudest inspirations to come out our collaboration is the Brookland Oral History Project. Created by the Brookland Civic Association and students of Brookland Middle School, it is a collective, inter-generational conversation between youth and elders in the Brookland community to break barriers and build better collaboration. It is intended to document and share Brookland’s community stories of history and civic engagement. The people behind this project were directly inspired by our project after Woodridge Library’s Eric White and the President of the Brookland Civic Association Dan Schramm visited our satellite exhibit at the library. Dan recorded an excellent story on the phone. We were thrilled to see how the project then evolved with the students at Brookland Middle School with Smithsonian Chief Curator Samir Meghelli to learn more about oral history, including a visit to the library. The AU Humanities Truck was going to be the perfect platform for the students to share their work and engage the public at Porch Fest 2020.

Unfortunately, due to the situation with COVID-19, the project’s community debut had to be delayed. But we are so excited to see how this project has grown and can’t wait for them to show off their work.


This was part 1 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you want to read part 2 about our future design plans, you can do so here.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

For Teachers: Bundled Cards and Learning Standards (DCPS Development Day)

Sometimes it’s not so hard. Sometimes an approach “for teachers” can be as simple as putting a rubber band around 20 cards…

One of our big ideas is that our system must be adaptive, and fit to the community in form and function. We have tested our storytelling system in a variety of different settings (from cafés to libraries to street festivals). In this post, we are going to look at how we positioned our storytelling system for DC high school teachers. This is the other half to success, since an adaptive system only helps if you take the time to position it.

The Humanities Truck in front of Cardozo Education Campus for the DCPS Development Day. Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

Our approach is event-based (i.e., we resist the “anywhere, anytime” mantra as a false and unproductive hope for local organizing). In this case, we attended the DC Public Schools Development Day event hosted at Cardozo Education Campus. This event was primarily attended by high school teachers; they were open to applying alternate teaching methods and materials (such as our storytelling system).

Classroom sized bundles of 20-30 calling cards. Photo credit: Mitchell Loewen

Next, we modified our calling card design to be more applicable to a classroom setting. Unlike our normal cards, these only emphasize listening to our featured stories rather than sharing your own. We then pre-bundled the cards into packages of 20-30 cards so that teachers could easily grab enough cards for their entire class. We packaged our system in this way specifically to make it easier for teachers to use for provoking classroom discussions.

Our handout which highlights the potential uses of our system in a classroom setting. You can view the full pdf here.

We also reframed our system’s potential impact around student learning by creating a learning goals handout. This document was based off the DCPS high school curriculum, specifically the Social Studies and the English Language learning standards. This helped to highlight to teachers the ways our system aligns with their needs and how they can utilize it on their own terms.

Finally, we chose to showcase ourselves in a way that set us apart from the other exhibitors at the event. Rather than tabling inside, we set up outside in front of the school with the Humanities Truck. This gave us more of a presence at the event, as well as gave us the space to set up additional materials such as phone installations and oral history recordings.

To summarize, here’s how we repositioned our system:

  1. Position within a specific event (e.g., DCPS Development Day);
  2. Position the materials for future action (e.g., card bundles that teachers were eager to take for future classroom use);
  3. Position and frame the outcomes in terms of student learning (not just community impact); and
  4. Position physically on our own terms (e.g., with the humanities truck outside, rather than the usual table inside), setting us apart from other presenters.

One lesson: our positioning was not just physical, but social, event-based and even about positioning the outcomes.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Iterations on the Mount for the Classic Phone

The classic phone mount has become our most popular way to display our simple installation (including in libraries and the Humanities Truck), both for portability and the small footprint on-site. How did we get here?

The initial box was long and unlabeled:

Classic Mount Prototype during initial discussion and testing meeting.
Continue reading Iterations on the Mount for the Classic Phone

Sharing our model — and slides — at the Connected Learning Summit (CLS19)

Will other cities similarly invest in connected storytelling infrastructure?

We were selected to present at a fantastic venue in California: the Connected Learning Summit. This is one of the country’s leading conferences to bring together academics with practitioners from museums and libraries who care about civic engagement and learning around digital media.

Continue reading Sharing our model — and slides — at the Connected Learning Summit (CLS19)

New voices? Counting photos? Reflections from Adams Morgan Day 2019

A primary hope for our storytelling system is to reach new audiences beyond museum and library walls. Did we do it? How many people participated? One of our researchers shares a few observations from our big outreach at Adams Morgan Day last month.

A quick panorama of our tent, Humanities Truck with exhibition content, and the stage we powered with the truck.

On the beautiful Sunday day afternoon, I walked the Adams Morgan Day festival speaking with the community about the Smithsonian “Right to the City” exhibition — and our storytelling system.

Our approach and the idea of the exhibition were well received. The average person on the street seemed amazed and pleased to hear that such an exhibition exists that tells the stories of the city while also providing a platform for ordinary residents to share their stories.

Most had not been to the museum for the exhibition. Nearly 90% had not visited the museum in the prior two years (88% of the 112 people surveyed). To avoid listening to the choir, we primarily spoke with attendees away from the booth, who I spoke to while walking the festival.

One resident felt ashamed of not visiting but seemed relieved to hear about the upcoming re-opening scheduled for later this month.

A significantly higher percentage of attendees had been to a neighborhood library in the same time period (60%). This affirms our hope that the satellite exhibitions in a handful of libraries were a good idea.

Overall, awareness of the exhibition — including from press, the museum and libraries — was still only at 81% of attendees.

Several residents left testimonies during the event. (We had listening stations in several places in the neighborhood.) What did they sound like? Here is one excerpt:

“….I am from DC and have lived here my whole life. I am Ethiopian, African American and African muslim. Many people don’t know about this culture that comes with our people… and the making of this Chocolate City…”

– A local resident’s story, left during Adams Morgan Day

We were excited to spread history photos to attendees — by text message. (Each photo was chosen by the Smithsonian’s curator for the exhibition to help tell a key story in the neighborhood’s history that relates to its identity today.) Between our history map and raffle, more than 210 people requested history photos during the event. Some repeatedly asked the automated hotline to send them another (and we hope they shared them with friends). After the event, one benefit of the digital system was that we could follow-up with everyone that engaged and provide a link to the exhibition, and instructions on how to request more photos.

Much of our research is focused on the circulation of stories, but as these basic metrics show, our presence at street events does reach a new audience for the exhibition — and a good number of residents left with a history photo on their cell phone as a calling card to learn more.

Photo: Tambra Raye Stevenson

This post was contributed by Tambra Raye Stevenson, who is a Ph.D. student and research assistant at American University School of Communication in Washington, DC, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

6+ Nodes for a Special Event (Adams Morgan Day, 2019)

Up until now, the most storytelling nodes we’ve launched for a live event was two for a cafe at night. But earlier this month we headed to a neighborhood music festival to test a multi-node approach. Our goal was to see how breadth might add up to more than the sum of the parts.

We successfully featured four phone installations (from restaurant to community center), and two multimedia nodes to spread historic photos by MMS: a treasure hunt and a raffle. We anchored our street presence with the Humanities Truck, including a history exhibition inside and a musical stage on the street.

Our first node was already set up at the nearby Mt. Pleasant Library. Unlike the rest of the nodes for the event, this was a permanent installation, and we hoped to boost awareness of the ongoing opportunity to engage.

The second installation was at the LINE Hotel, with a low-key phone at the entrance to a special exhibit in their community center:

A “classic phone” installation in the LINE Hotel, at the entrance to a special exhibit. Photo Credit: Mitchell Loewen

We were excited to embed the phone at the entrance to the special exhibit from Hola Cultura on Explorando Historia Oral, an oral history project focused on the DC Latino community at the Adams Morgan Neighborhood. Given the similar intentions of our projects, we hoped to cross-promote and build awareness of how stories are circulating in DC.

We had a third installation at Songbyrd, a local cafe and music venue:

Songbyrd interior with phone installation
(Photograph by Benjamin Stokes)

…with food and drink, this space for hanging out provided a different set of possibilities for recruiting listeners and stories to local history. The cafe was a primary host of the stage music for Adams Morgan Day, in part because its own basement regularly hosts bands and local shows. The cafe had additional lures for Adams Morgan Day, including specials it advertised outside.

Most visibly, we had our desk payphone on the main street, right beside our Humanities Truck:

Photo Credit: Benjamin Stokes
Continue reading 6+ Nodes for a Special Event (Adams Morgan Day, 2019)

Spanish Hotline and Dual Phones (“not an accident”)

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we created a Spanish version of our hotline and installed a direct line at the Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library (on 9/17/2019). This library is a focus for Latino events and activities in the DC area, and was eager to refine their installation for the A Right to the City exhibition.

Our classic phone in Spanish and English. (Photo by Hazel Arroyo.)

Having the two phones next to each other immediately made the entire set-up look much more intentional. This helps with a barrier to use that we had observed with just the English phone: some people still wondered if they were supposed to interact, or if it was an accident. With two physical phones, the intentionality is clear and the invitation is stronger.

Continue reading Spanish Hotline and Dual Phones (“not an accident”)

At a Local Café: Two Phones and a Truck (Busboys & Poets on 14th Street)

Photo Credit: Dan Kerr

How can a sidewalk experience connect to a special event inside a café? We recently tried pairing our truck and phones with an event panel on our Right to the City theme, titled Saving DC’s History & Culture: From Chocolate City to #DontMuteDC.

We used different technology inside and outside, and call this kind of activation “inside-outside storytelling.”

Photo Credit: Dan Kerr
Continue reading At a Local Café: Two Phones and a Truck (Busboys & Poets on 14th Street)

Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

The AU Humanities Truck last year at Adams Morgan Day. (Photo credit: Playful City Lab)

We will be returning to Adams Morgan Day for a second year to anchor the “Community History” section of the Festival with the Humanities Truck, an experimental recording and exhibition space on wheels. The truck will feature stories about historic Adams Morgan from the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s “A Right to the City” exhibition, in partnership with the DC Public Library.

We will be featuring several interactive and digital elements of our DC Storytelling System, including a raffle that sends historic photos of Adams Morgan from the event. In addition to everything happening around the truck, we plan to station a couple of our “Classic Phones” at select local businesses for the day so that more community members will be able to participate in the storytelling system.

For the history section, DC Public Library is sponsoring the performance stage of music and dance with an international flair reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood. Stop by the library booth to get a library card, check out books, and learn about neighborhood history resources in Washingtoniana!

This community history section will be at the intersection of 18th and Belmont Streets NW from noon-6pm on September 8, 2019.

For general information on Adams Morgan Day, visit AdMoDay.com.

Here is the official press release from the event organizers:

Continue reading Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

Front desk at the library: “classic 1970s” telephone prototype

Beginning this week, you can find a new prototype at the front desk of the Woodridge Neighborhood Library.

We call it the “classic 1970s” telephone. Picking up the handset immediately connects listeners to the same storytelling hotline that is in the museum. Listeners can hear excerpts from oral histories from the Right to the City exhibit, or leave new stories of their own.

Continue reading Front desk at the library: “classic 1970s” telephone prototype

Origin story: “Classic 1970s” Telephone

Beyond nostalgia, the immediate recognition of a classic phone is very useful to set expectations. New kinds of interactivity are often very hard for people to figure out. Visual clues to signal the right verbs (or “frame the mechanics”) are invaluable.

For our recent library desk installation, we used a model that has 80 years of strong visual similarity, and is nearly identical to the 1974 version.

Ours was $45 from Walmart, purchase in 2018:

Model ITT-2500-MD-BK by Cortelco (from Walmart)

Touch-tone only arrived in 1963. Here is the 1964 version, which looks remarkably similar:

Continue reading Origin story: “Classic 1970s” Telephone

Mapping the story circulation for one neighborhood

by Olivia Williams, PhD Candidate at American University with Benjamin Stokes

To guide our evolving design for the DC Storytelling System, we wanted a “snapshot” of how stories already circulate. I focused on one neighborhood (Woodridge), and mapped the flow of civic stories. My goal was to look across organizations and media channels using a powerful framework from urban sociology.

OUR SUSPICION: Neighborhood leaders struggle to connect their face-to-face organizing with their online organizing to circulate local stories. If successful, our design intervention will significantly increase the impact of neighborhood stories on group cohesion by fitting to the ecosystem currently connecting groups and residents.

FIGURE 1: Different forms of local story circulation; photographs taken by the Playful Cities team

Clockwise from top left: Tweet from DC Public Library about PorchFest, a local event taking place in the Woodridge Neighborhood; Woodridge Neighborhood Library bulletin board (credit: Olivia Williams); our and Smithsonian’s payphone storytelling system in the library for PorchFest (credit: Benjamin Stokes) and a free-standing local history exhibit inside Woodridge Neighborhood Library (credit: Olivia Williams).
Continue reading Mapping the story circulation for one neighborhood

Press release: Smithsonian satellite exhibits launch

The Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library features a satellite exhibition of “A Right to the City.” Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Yesterday the DC Public Library and the Smithsonian announced the launch of five satellites exhibits for “A Right to the City.”

Our storytelling system was featured in the release:

The museum has also partnered with the American University School of Communication to develop the DC Storytelling System, which features a telephone hotline—(202) 335-7288—that allows listeners to hear oral history excerpts from the main exhibition and record their own personal stories.

Full release:

Continue reading Press release: Smithsonian satellite exhibits launch

Panels in Libraries (Connecting to our Hotline)

After passing the circulation desk on the main floor of the Mt. Pleasant Library, the satellite exhibit for “A Right to the City” is a prominent feature that demands attention. With its interlocking panels and dynamic visuals, visitors are beckoned to take a closer look at the new structure.

A closer examination reveals the subject of the structure – the neighborhood. For residents, perhaps it speaks about the events that they have witnessed and perhaps they learn about how their neighborhood came into its current state.

For those reminiscing and for those with curiosity, the participatory panel stands out. The dedicated hotline allows for participation for residents who look at the exhibit and think “I remember when…”. It also allows for the curious to explore their neighborhood through the eyes of those who helped shape it.

Library Event: Panel Dialogue at the Woodridge Neighborhood Library

The Woodridge Neighborhood Library sign.

Around DC, a series of events at neighborhood libraries are beginning in collaboration with the exhibit “A Right to the City” at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

Dr. Samir Meghelli (Left) and Dr. Joy Kinard (right) discussing the pushback for building the North Central Freeway.
Continue reading Library Event: Panel Dialogue at the Woodridge Neighborhood Library