This article was written by Stuart Dredge for The Guardian on the 18th of August 2014.
The last time Dan Snow talked to The Guardian about digital media, the historian, author and broadcaster found himself in hot water with some of his peers.
“I said that I believed apps were better than books, and some people got very upset,” he laughs. “But it’s true: an app is the entire text of a book with loads of stuff added into it: all the images, video, and geolocation. So clearly, an app is better than a book for history.”
The hot tap is turning as we speak. But Snow is in a good position to compare different ways of exploring history: he writes books, makes television programmes and – through his position as co-founder and creative director of startup Ballista Digital – releases apps too.
The latter include Dan Snow’s Battle Castles, Timeline WW1, Timeline WW2 and Timeline: American Civil War, based around timelines of historical events, with photos, videos, audio and interactive maps.
Making apps can be a tough, unforgiving business, but two years on from that first interview, Snow’s enthusiasm for technology’s potential for teaching history remains infectious.
“What’s been really exciting is realising that these things aren’t just apps on an iPad, they’re the way that people are going to learn in the future,” he says.
“We’re getting away from the idea that this is just a little icon on your iPad. It’s totally cross-platform, on every device in every single way: web-based, phones, tablets. And it’s the future of education.”
Ballista will soon be putting that theory into practice in another way: a partnership with the UK’s Institute of Education to provide a new app to British schoolchildren who are visiting first world war battlefields.
“It’s our app plus tools to take photos and videos, so that when they go back to give presentations as mandated by the government, they’ll have this all-singing, all-dancing presentation to give their classmates, with their own content,” says Snow.
“That’s why this is the future of education: taking kids out there, and giving them incredible information and rich, diverse archives of pictures, text and maps. They’ll be able to access the oral testimony and expert curatorial sources, but then add to it themselves.”
Snow stresses that in this case, the technology is still serving the experience of actually visiting the battlefields: less about children staring into screens rather than at the world around them, and more about using those screens to better understand what they’re looking at, while they’re there.
“My dream was always that while television is wonderful, the place you want to see that television isn’t when you’re sitting at home on your sofa. The place you need audiovisual information is when you’re at that place,” says Snow.
“We’ve been crawling towards this, due to huge hardware issues: battery life, mobile signal, roaming charges, you name it. But we’re finally getting there now. And this is all about enhancing the reason you go to these places: you’ve got more reason to now than ever before.”
Unsurprisingly, the first world war is currently a big focus for Snow and Ballista. Its Timeline WW1 app has been updated twice already in 2014 with new content, tying in to the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.
Snow has also made a series of short films for the BBC’s WW1 Uncut coverage of the centenary, initially distributed through its iPlayer service, before transferring to the broadcaster’s YouTube channel.
“It’s the first war in history that had a really rich, moving archive of audiovisual material, including lots of oral testimony recorded on good formats, with proper film cameras,” he says.
“This is one of the biggest wars and disasters in the history of the world, and it’s a unique opportunity to work out if the audiovisual revolution that’s happened since the late 19th century is going to radically reinvent the way we think about the past.”
Snow thinks this is particularly important for engaging younger people in the first world war – what happened, and why it’s important, 100 years on – suggesting that the multimedia archives may be the key to ensuring the conflict doesn’t feel like “ancient history” in the way that, say, the Boer war of 1899-1902 does.
“If, after four years, we’ve managed to maintain the freshness and immediacy of the first world war for 12 to 15 or 15 year-olds, just as it would have felt fresh for their grandparents growing up in the 1950s and 1960s when people were still talking about it, that would be amazing,” he says.
“It’s an opportunity to experiment with these different platforms from the beginning of this database of content which is really immediate and moving and wonderful. It’s the first modern war in that respect.”
Snow plans to continue making short films about the war over the next four years – the 100th anniversary of its armistice will be 11 November 2018 – which will be incorporated into Ballista’s apps.
The company is also forging partnerships with museums, including London’s National Maritime Museum and The Tank Museum in Dorset.
It will make versions of its timeline-based apps for both in the coming months, with elements of their digitised archives then able to flow back in to Ballista’s other apps, including the upcoming battlefields app for schoolchildren.
“What they’ve got is loads of content: stunning archives of pictures, half of which have never even been looked at before, let alone logged,” says Snow, praising The Tank Museum in particular for its work on Facebook.
He is no slouch himself on social media though, picking up nearly 85,000 Twitter followers so far. He’s relishing the experience – “I know that’s the fashionable thing to say” – particularly when away filming for TV shows.
Snow tells the tale of a trip in 2013 to North Africa, looking for second world war sites and using social media to help interpret some of the finds.
“You’re able to take pictures, stick them on Facebook and Twitter, and within minutes have experts from Italy saying ‘Yes, that’s an Italian-issue sardine can, so Italian soldiers once occupied that position’,” he says.
“You’re creating the programme and doing the filming, but you’re also crowdsourcing the research. It’s electrically exciting: totally brilliant. I enjoyed that more than just going out with a script and reading it to camera. I now have a group of people on Twitter who help with many projects: they advise, they research... They’re involved.”
Two years ago, Snow sounded very frustrated at the speed with which the television industry was adapting to new technologies – “TV people are still very conservative...” – but has that changed in the intervening period?
“There’s still work to do, but people are working out how people get paid for things, and we’ve managed to get the BBC to open up a lot of its back catalogue. There’s a willingness to think about these things more,” says Snow, citing the WW1 Uncut series as an example.
“The BBC is coming, it’s slow but these things take time. It’s easier if you’re one person like me with a small and committed team of early adopters,” he adds.
“But the museums are realising how rich they are in terms of content, and then you’ve got Pathé, who are getting a titanic number of people on YouTube watching quite obscure clips. That’s to be celebrated: this is what that archive is for, preserving the incredible work done by those cameramen a long time ago.”
Pathé is one of Ballista’s partners, while Snow recently filmed a two-minute explanation of why the first world war started for its YouTube channel – a quickfire format he’d like to experiment with more for other complicated historical events.
Decoding, untangling, explaining... these are the principles behind Snow’s work in apps too, which brings us back to the touchy subject of apps versus books, and the way multimedia might make history more accessible without dumbing down.
“The big problem with history books is that the maps are separate from the text. It’s a major failing. If you’re reading a book about Waterloo, you need the map open beside you all the time to have any sense of how the battle progresses,” he says.
“Fiction publishers are struggling [with apps] because fiction is fiction: it’s all about the fantastic narrative that you get lost in. The fiction is the words. But for history, apps are a complete joy, because they are enabling us to go into more detail. Particularly for history, the app is better than books.”