Derive, a meandering around

A while back, a good friend of mine (who’s also very lax in updating his website, even though he’s doing all sorts of interesting stuff) introduced me to a digitized version of the Drift Deck, a seemingly somewhat tongue in cheek method for meandering around a city.

The Drift Deck is based on the concept of dérive, French for ‘drift’, which was defined in the late 1950s by a French Marxist as “[An exercise where] one or more persons […] drop their usual […] activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”.

In other words, a dérive is a meandering around town.

The concept of dérive has its origins with the Situationist International, a group of self-styled revolutionaries, founded in 1957, reaching its peak of influence in the general strike of May 1968 in France.
With their ideas rooted in Marxism and the 20th century European artistic avant-gardes, they advocated experiences of life, alternative to those typical within a capitalist system, for the fulfillment of human desires. For this purpose they suggested and experimented with the “construction of situations” or more specifically, the creation of an environment favorable to the fulfillment of such desires. Using methods drawn from the arts, they developed a series of experimental fields of study, including unitary urbanism and psychogeography.
The objective of unitary urbanism is for the (urban) surroundings to be blended in such a way that one cannot identify where function ends and play begins. The resulting society, while it caters to fundamental needs, does so in an atmosphere of continual exploration, leisure, and stimulating ambience.

Psychogeography is the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that modernist Neoism has some roots in the psychogeography of the 1950s.
In the late 1950s, the concepts behind psychogeography produced the idea of the dérive.

In a way, more recent alternate and augmented reality games, games that superimpose an alternate world on physical reality, typically, but not always, using modern technology to achieve this, also have their roots in psychogeography. One very good example, using more directed tasks but in many ways similar to the use of the Drift Deck, is SF0, an alternate reality game based in San Franciso.
In fact, the recent resurgence of psychogeography has resulted in an annual festival in New York (though I’m not convinced this year will see a continuation of the event).

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The analogue Drift Deck, a stack of cards with simple instructions to aid the user in his random move around town was put together by Julian Bleecker, and was the inspiration for the digital version which I saw last year. Now, this digital version has somewhat evolved into a collaborative digital project to make dérive ‘packs’ for multiple cities. Based on a post on, it could be concluded that the person behind this is Eduardo Cachucho (who at least updates his website regularly).

I travel regularly (and never enough), and find that, over time, what I draw my satisfaction from when traveling has changed. More and more, it’s the smaller attractions, let’s say the ‘hidden gems’ or the little chance encounters, the small surprises, which are much more interesting than the major sights, those which every tourist makes a point of visiting. Nor surprisingly, visiting a new place and only doing the latter results in an experience that’s no longer unique. This is no longer the time of the Grand Tour, everyone and their brother has visited the Pyramids.
So, to make a visit unique, or to look at an oft-visited location afresh, a dérive is an excellent concept.

Indeed, there are parallels between a dérive and urban exploration, often of urban ruins. That, however, needs preparation and in itself requires direction, whereas a dérive is a random, perhaps assisted, but not actively, meander.

Back in 2004, I created a dynamic and customizable cell phone based city tour of Delft, using the typical tourist venues of Delft as locations. In 2009, I expanded on this with j-walk, which uses QR-codes sprinkled around town, at highlighted venues, to allow for customized walking tours, both on the web and through a mobile device. J-walk stores the user’s meanderings, the result being available for download after finishing the walk.
I first created j-walk together with Ismail Farouk for Johannesburg, after which I also built a version for Chiang Mai before converting my original city tour of Delft into a j-walk tour.

Dérive, in a way, is turning j-walk on its head. Instead of allowing for a flexible platform that will allow the user to visit a number of fixed locations around town, there’s instead a clearly defined platform that opens up the city, to the user, focusing on the interactions, instead of the locations.

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I also realized that my appreciation of photomarathons is also because, for participants, they effectively constitute a psychogeographical walk around town.

No surprise then, that I’ve been toying with the idea of building a mobile app that presents the dérive cards to the user, while recording the user’s meandering, plotting any photos taken on a map, together with the tasks drawn from the deck of cards.
A few available apps that facilitate some of this come to mind. Recording a journey could be done by something like RunKeeper, while an iOS device (and I suspect an Android device as well) geotags photos by default. An app that’s limited, but records your meanderings, storing your location and any photos you take, is HipGeo. Annoyingly, their default standalone mapping features need some design magic. On the up, they’ve got an API through which it seems to be possible to do the trick of nicely mixing up the dérive with a recorded track and photos.
Update: I’ve since found a few other apps that are very similar: MobilyTrip looks and feels very nice, but doesn’t appear to have an API. The same goes for TripColor, though this app appears a bit less slick, as compared to MobilyTrip. Tripline doesn’t come with a mobile app, but can tie together several mobile services to create a browsable online map. Strangely, it still caters for the long defunct Gowalla and doesn’t allow for Flickr imports (but does for Instagram). Travellerspoint is similar. Trippy is another solution that’s similar, primarily focussing on the online experience, but also offering a mobile app.
Also, Google Earth now allows for recording multimedia tours.

As a tourist, you might not be in a region where your smartphone has internet access without excessive roaming fees. The app, therefore, should ideally not have to rely on an online connection

The dérive ‘app’ available over at the aptly named is a nice step forward form what I saw last year, but is lacking in several ways:

+ It’s not really an app, but a website optimized for mobile use. Internet connection required.
+ There’s no integrated tracking of the route traversed.
+ Photos are not stored as part of the app.

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Still, there are two dérives, nicely mapped, on the deriveapp website, and I talked with the author on how he managed this. He used maps+, not too dissimilar from RunKeeper in its functionality, and put the whole thing together using a custom Google Map.
A bit cumbersome, but workable. Except that he somehow needed to record which cards he drew from the digital deck, at what time, which requires quite the effor, particularly if you’re not familiar with the location where you’re doing the dérive. An online log of cards drawn at what time could solve that problem, I suppose via a spreadsheet and an import into Google Maps. Or at least some matching magic with the app tracking your location.

The dérive author is cool in releasing the code for hosting the ‘app’ under a cc-a license. A quick glance does reveal some room for improvement:

+ All the cards appear to be pictures, text and all. This makes making changes to the cards quite cumbersome. Also, this means a much higher demand on bandwidth.
+ There isn’t any logic behind the cards being presented. Nice for the randomness in the spirit of the concept of dérive, but annoying when you draw a card like ‘take a ride on the metro’ several times in close succession. Assuming there is a metro in your location in the first place.
+ There’s no logging of cards drawn.

And a bit more nitpicky:

+ The code comes with Google Analytics code included, presumably of the website.
+ Not all the code included is released under a cc-a license, though that’s not obvious from the package itself.
+ Not only is there no separation of logic and design, there’s also no templating, with some CSS being hardcoded in the HTML, some in the headers of pages, some in actual CSS files.

So, I’m putting some thought in how to take this to the next level. Probably first as a web-based ‘app’, similar to the current one, but with some added functionality, and assisted by a tool such as HipGeo. Then, if it turns out that doing a dérive is actually fun, perhaps as an actual app.

Watch this space.

The photo accompanying this article is a collage of a HipGeo screenshot, an image from the deriveapp website and a photo of the artists/revolutionists attending the Situationist International, taken from Wikipedia.