Corona Diaries: Open-source project chronicles pandemic life via voice notes

The World
A map of Europe and North Africa with blue pins designating where recordings.

On March 28, 1944, the Dutch minister of education, Gerrit Bolkestein, sent a message to radio listeners asking them to “preserve your diaries and letters” of their experiences of World War II.

“Only if we succeed in bringing this simple, daily material together in overwhelming quantity, only then will the scene of this struggle for freedom be painted in full depth and shine,” he said.

As in 1944, the world faces an unprecedented challenge with the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has put tens of millions of people under lockdown, with restrictions preventing many from going outside except for essential trips.

With some turning to their diaries to document this incredible time, fellows from Harvard University's Neiman Foundation for Journalism had a different idea to chronicle daily life.

Fellows Francesca Panetta, Uli Köppenm, Tanja Proebstl and James Burke teamed up with developer and sound artist Halsey Burgund to create the "Corona Diaries" — an open-source audio project where anyone can contribute their audio story. The project is supported by Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality.

“They phoned me up and said we've got this idea about recording the sounds and the stories as we go through this pandemic,” Panetta told The World. “And they knew that I came from an audio background, and I've done quite a lot of open-source audio projects. And so we tried to figure out technically what that meant and how we could put something together that anyone could contribute to.”

Visitors to the website are given a few prompts to narrow down what they want to record — such as, “How was your day?” or “What's troubling you right now?”

Then they can select their location and hit record. Panetta said a visitor may add their story one time or submit daily diary contributions. “We're also interested in how this story changes for individuals over time,” she said.

In one recording, a contributor says she’s been under lockdown in London for four weeks but is still finding ways to connect with friends.

“Today I’m thinking a lot about bread. My friend Natty, who has been doing this for a while, volunteered to teach me how to bake sourdough bread on WhatsApp. It seems to be inordinately complicated … and to be honest I don’t really like bread … anyway, we did end up with some semi-edible bread, and what I really did like about it was getting to spend the whole day with my friend.”

In another recording from New South Wales, Australia, a pilates and yoga instructor says government officials are allowing people some exercise, but they recently had to close the beaches nearby to stop high numbers of people from sunbathing.

“It’s still nice being able to get out and exercise … but it is quite busy considering we’re all supposed to be in isolation, which, I think is quite concerning. But it’s also, I think, a side of Australian life that people are so active and outdoorsy and are very resistant to danger until it’s right there in their face — which is also an impressive part of the culture but a bit of a problem now.”

The Corona Diaries creators said they deliberately made the project open-source and under a Creative Commons license. That means the recordings published on the site are available for anyone to download and use.

“For now, we hope to give people a tool to express themselves and to make it accessible for others,” Uli Köppen said. “Ideally other people will make use of it for art, journalism or projects we can’t even think of.”

While many people have picked up their pen and notebook or are documenting life under lockdown with smartphone apps like TikTok, narrowing in on audio for the Corona Diaries project was intentional, Panetta said.

“Audio, as you know, is really intimate,” she said. “It gives you a closeness and a connection to people.”

If you want to make a recording for the Corona Diaries, click here.

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