April 14, 2014 Last Updated 9:43 am

Spies of Mississippi: Joe Zeff Design brings book and film to the iPad as an ‘Appumentary’

The app and design studio Joe Zeff Design (JZD) has released an important new app this weekend into the Apple App Store. Spies of Mississippi: The Appumentary is a free iPad app based on the book by Rick Bowers and documentary film by Dawn Porter and brings it to the tablet platform.

Spies-iPad-splashThe new tablet app tells the story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, established in 1956 to preserve segregation in the state and spy on the civil rights movement. The book by Rick Bowers was published in 2010 by National Geographic Children’s Books as Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement.

The documentary film by Dawn Porter was produced for PBS and originally broadcast in February of this year as part of the Independent Lens series.

Spies-Book-cover“We wanted this story to be told in schools, in particular the schools of Mississippi,” Joe Zeff told TNM.

“Seventy-one percent of Mississippi’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and may never have access to next-generation learning tools like the iPad, let alone paid apps. Hank Bounds, the Mississippi commissioner of higher education, was interviewed by The Washington Post on the subject of educating poor children. ‘What we’re doing is not working,’ he said. ‘We need to get philanthropies, the feds, business leaders, everybody, together and figure this out. We need another Sputnik moment.’ The iPad has provided a Sputnik moment for education, but that moment has been restricted to school districts that can afford tablet computers,” Zeff said.

“Mississippi struggles to provide basic needs, let alone tablet computers. The Daily Journal, a newspaper in northeast Mississippi, tells the story of a seventh-grader who neglected to complete a school project because he was uncomfortable asking his mother for a 50-cent poster board.”

JZD works closely with Adobe Systems and their apps are built using the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. JZD most often designs in landscape (their app for Fast Company being an obvious exception) and as the app contains quite a bit of video, this is a logical choice again here. Once downloaded and installed, the app weighs in at a modest 191 MB.

A happy coincidence led to the creation of the new app as Trilogy Films, the documentary film’s production company, is located in the same building as JZD, a church-turned-office building located in Montclair, NJ. (JZD created an app about their offices last year called The People in the Steeple.)

“We started with a book, a film, and a blank sheet of paper,” Zeff said. “We rallied around a set of goals, all of which I believe we achieved: deliver broader context, presented as interactive content; promote online and offline discussion; provide classroom tools; provide access to filmmaker, film subjects; build and strengthen communities of like-minded individuals; inspire youth to respond to situations through artistic expression; provide opportunities to take action.”

“There’s no reason these same tenets couldn’t be applied to news or enterprise reporting. I hope that we inspire news organizations, filmmakers and authors to push the idea of an appumentary even further,” Zeff added.

“On the 50th anniversary of several landmark events of the Civil Rights movement, Spies of Mississippi shows how far we have come as a nation over the past half-century and prompts a national conversation about how far we still have to go.” – Joe Zeff

The app opens with a definition of an “app•u•men•tary” and some background on the book and film. The app then dedicates a tablet page to the app’s supporters: AARP, PBS and The Andrew Goodman Foundation (Andrew Goodman, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were killed by the Klan in 1964.)

The app then proceeds to a video introduction by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), as well as videos featuring the author Rick Bowers and the filmmaker Dawn Porter. Then a timeline from 1954 to 1973 provides a broad background of events before the app moves to the section on the film.

Although JZD has brought the story to the iPad, they downplay their own contribution to the actual content.

“The storyteller is never the star. The story is,” Zeff said. “We made decisions about design, content, flow and interactivity intended to make the content more understandable and the user experience more intuitive. That said, I couldn’t be more proud of our team, in particular Emily Ragle. She worked closely with Dawn’s colleagues at Trilogy Films and made the app infinitely better.”

Although the new app is called an “appumentary” by Zeff, it is built off the work of Bowers and Porter. But there is no reason to think that another app could use the app format first to create its documentary work. Unlike a book, an app can provide multimedia material; unlike a film, an app can link to outside sources, provide reading material, etc.

“Even with all of the tapping, swiping, parallaxing, scrolling and SnowFalling out there, storytelling remains very primitive,” Zeff said. “Someone tells a story; an audience passively consumes it. An appumentary strives to be different. It turns a story into a starting point.”

“An appumentary infuses a story with layers of context. An appumentary contains resources for people to learn more, and to respond in some way. A story told well doesn’t have to end. It can inspire other stories.”

Joe Zeff Design has launched some brilliant and important apps since the launch of the iPad. Its Above & Beyond: George Steinmetz was the first to be featured on TNM, and an interview with Zeff with Pedro Monteiro was featured on TNM (as well as Monteiro’s own blog at Digital Distribution. Interviews with Zeff also make up the final chapter of the interactive eBook Talking Digital.

But Spies of Mississippi: The Appumentary may be the firm’s most important work to date, its relevance made all the more obvious by the news this weekend that a former Klan leader shot and killed three at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas.

“On the 50th anniversary of several landmark events of the Civil Rights movement, Spies of Mississippi shows how far we have come as a nation over the past half-century and prompts a national conversation about how far we still have to go,” Zeff said. “AARP heroicly funded the development of our appumentary, to tell this important story in a way that would facilitate classroom discussion. We are hopeful that a charitable foundation will take this story further, by providing tablet computers to every school district in Mississippi to ensure that the conversation takes place in classrooms among the children and grandchildren of those most directly affected by Spies of Mississippi.”

See more screenshots from Spies of Mississippi ➡

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