Future Media unearths memories

It was considered to be the most interesting speech of the 1999 Oscar movie awards, a breakaway from the thank-everybody-and-their-mom gushing typical of most trophy recipients.

“My advice to the next generation of filmmakers: Just find some good stories to move people to laughter and tears. Never mind the gross, the top 10, the demographics. Just make films that reveal truths about ourselves,” Norman Jewison, the celebrated Canadian director, exhorted to his succesors while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Who knew then how much the students at the Canadian Film Centre, which Jewison founded in 1988, would take their patriarch’s words to heart? Who knew also it would be the centre’s new media students, and not the filmmakers, that would go about finding the stories – a possible treasure trove living in the minds of 28 million Canadians, waiting to be unearthed through the power of the Internet?

“In film and television, what you have are storytellers who make products for people,” said Ana Serrano, the director of the CFC’s Bell Habitat new media centre, on the occasion of the launch of the Great Canadian Story Engine – a new Web site designed to allow Canadians to tell their own stories, with detailed instructions on how to do it. “In new media, the storytellers are more like story enablers: People who create technology that allows for other people to become the storytellers.”

Hosted by the CBC, and created with the assistance of Toronto’s Immersant, Inc., a web consultant and developer, Serrano said the goal of the new website (


) will be to unearth the stored memories of Canadians across the country and upload them to the site for all to read. Understanding that many Canadians are still not Internet savvy, the launch of the site will be accompanied by a summer tour embarked upon by a Great Canadian Story Engine team who will traverse the towns and minor markets in Canada gathering stories from people of all walks of life.

“It was important for us to ensure that if Mohamed can’t come to the mountain, that we bring the mountain to Mohamed,” Serrano said.

Michael Simonoff, director of public relations for Immersant, said one of the challenges his company faced in designing the site was that same goal of universal appeal and easiness.

“How do you build a site that appeals to senior citizens, younger people, recent immigrants to Canada?” Simonoff asked. “It was actually a very interesting process.”

For Immersant, whose clients are made up mostly of financial services companies, taking on such a challenging project was the main reason for their involvement, as much of their time and resources were donated, added Ken Rother, Immersant’s CTO.

Both Rother and Seranno also had a previous working relationship at new media guru Don Tapscott’s Alliance for Converging Technologies.

“Because funds were rather limited, we did this whole project with open source software,” outlined Rother. “It’s a Linux-based application, we’re using a Pathview server, which is an open source Web server, and we’re using GNU JSP, which is a Java servelet engine, so we approached this whole project to hold down costs.”

Immersant also had to design a database for the stories, as well as an editorial workflow.

“So as people submit their stories to the story engine, they’re not automatically posted,” Rother said. “They go through an editorial process at the CBC, where they’re verified for suitability, and then the CBC augments their story with multimedia content from their library.

“It’s a worthwhile project. If it works the way it’s planned, stuff that gets lost in the ether, no pun intended, will now be recorded for people to share.”