AR and the Ubiquity of Wikipedia: Implications?

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Wikipedia.

Conceptually, I think it is fantastic. A hub of free, user-driven content represents the democratization of the web like few other projects can. It’s wildly popular: it draws over 65 million visitors each month, and counts more than 85,000 active contributors working on more than 14,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages. As of today, there are 3,193,356 articles in English. These are amazing statistics for any reference site.

However, it does not come problem free. Despite a built-in system for oversight and management it can be factually-challenged at best, and incomplete or flat-out wrong often enough. I’ve found that it can also contribute to student (and professional) laziness (hey, why use any other resources when I can find basic stuff on Wikipedia?).

To my staff and students, I recommend that Wikipedia be used carefully, and mostly as a link to help reach other resources. My policy in the past has been to largely ignore what I’ve viewed as inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and/or bias on the site’s many entries. After all, with the nature of my personality I could spend the rest of my life making changes…is that the best use of my time? Also, as one who views history as histories and seeks to connect visitors to their own understanding of historic sites like the one I work in, what makes my take any better than anyone else’s?

My relationship with Wikipedia is beginning to change, and I now realize that I’ll need to wade into editing certain key entries. What’s prompting this change? Well, primarily the plethora of Augmented Reality (AR) and location-based based programs for smartphones and mobile devices.

Currently on my iPhone, I use Yelp, Layar, Robotvision, Wikitude, and Geodelic for AR-related activities. Due to its ubiquity, Wikipedia is the (or a) default source of information for most of these as well as a slew of others on other platforms. Thus, when you use one of these programs on a smartphone or other mobile device at Fort Vancouver NHS, you don’t link to our official park page; rather, you link to the Wikipedia page entry. We’re certainly not alone; my anecdotal research shows that when pointing my smartphone at almost every historic house, park, site or building that is not a functioning for-profit or non-profit business (like a restaurant or foundation), a Wikipedia page is the primary link that pops up.

I’m sure there are valid reasons for this, especially due to the ease of connecting to an omnipresent site like Wikipedia. So, I recommend that we all check out our historic sites’ Wikipedia entries and triage accordingly:

  1. make sure any basic information (hours of operation, location, contact information) is valid;
  2. make sure that, if nothing else, there is a link to any official website;
  3. include links to supplemental information that we think may help readers understand or connect with the historic site;  and
  4. consider entering edits that help organize, fill out, flesh out, balance, or correct the existing narrative.

When considering the latter, some of the more helpful things we can do to a Wikipedia entry are 1) organize the information and divide it into palatable sections, and 2) add references and citations.

If we choose to wade in we should plan to be in it for the long haul, making sure to check our entries early and often. Remember, Wikipedia is a dynamic organism. Also, we should make it a point to explore the discussion and revision history pages for our site’s entry (accessible as tabs near the top of the entry). Here, we can track changes to the entry, learn valuable information about who is making changes and when changes are made, and even open discussions with contributors.

For folks wanting to connect with people who share a passion for your site, look no further than the people who have been volunteering to add content to your site’s Wikipedia page!

Question for readers: What is your take on Wikipedia? How have you interacted with it at your site? What other tips can you share?


Programs for Creating iPhone Apps

One of my techie-related roller coaster rides at work this week centered on development of an Apple iPod/iPhone app for Fort Vancouver.

I’ve long wanted to develop one, but my personal time has all but disappeared with a second child at home and several huge projects at work. Thus, the growing number of companies that will do the job for folks like me – online, even – present quite an attraction.

Last week, I bit on a Mashable tweet about PointAbout’s new online iPhone app development program, dubbed AppMakr, that reportedly will build a quick app based on your RSS feeds. With a promotional discount lowering the cost to $49, I figured it was worth checking out.

What is this program?

The niche of programs like AppMakr, MobBase, Swep Apps, and others is a quick-and-dirty app set-up for those without the time and/or skill set to do it. For the do-it-yourselfer, app development is possible – Popular Science and others have outlined the process online – but it is not a project for the faint of heart. In addition to a sizeable capital investment (you must have an Apple and it must be newer and Intel-based) you also need to enroll in the Apple iPhone Developer Program and have quite a bit of time and patience to devote. I had none of the above, coupled with a dangerously small knowledge base and an attraction to anything bright, shiny, and new, so I passed on the do-it-yourself option and went for the instant gratification that these new programs pitched.

How do these programs work?

Generally speaking, once registered at one of these sites (a free process), you pick and choose from a short list of design options, add images from your library or the web, and then identify and link specific data you want to feature (usually an RSS feed or webpage URL).  With most of these programs, you can see your design changes right there on your screen, and actually road test the app as well.

Once you have it they way you like it, you check out (read: make payment) and then your app is pretty much ready to go. Of course, there are other critical steps before your app is live in the iTunes Store, but several of these programs will offer that service as well.

My experience

I began setting up an app using AppMakr and was very impressed with its simple graphics, the ease in which I could create a personalized icon and splash page (rather than select from a few prefab options) and the ability to connect RSS feeds. Here are a couple of screen shots showing my mock-ups:

View of a possible iPhone app icon in AppMakr, based on our park's standard Twitter icon design.

An AppMakr mock up of a Fort Vancouver iPhone app, with the park's Twitter feed selected.

Unfortunately, though, I didn’t pull the trigger on the project.

Why? Well, several reasons. The primary function of AppMakr and several of the other leading programs is to center the app around one’s extant RSS feeds. For a blogger, this would be wonderful match; for a historic site like ours that is less reliant on these feeds, it doesn’t seem the best fit.

As you can see from the images above, for zero initial cost I was able to build a basic app mock-up that featured our park’s podcast, Twitter feed, Flikr feed and news releases, but was unable to make simple links that a user might expect; links to core material including our operating hours, programs, maps & directions, etc. All of this info is readily available on our website, and it would have been fantastic to pull this data into the app, too.

After getting some feedback from colleagues, I opted not to move forward at this time because – while an app featuring these 4 feeds would be uber-cool – I felt that users might be more fixated on what wasn’t there than what was.  In other words, it didn’t meet the basic objectives I had established. Based on our website metrics, a smart phone user survey conducted by Prof. Brett Oppegaard at WSU-V, and anecdotal observations, our intended audience seems to be seeking the foundational plan-your-trip information that the website provides.

Perhaps there are other programs around that will allow this; I’ll keep looking. Perhaps there is a way to do it in AppMakr that I’m missing. In any case, I’m not deleting the prototype just yet; just not paying to finalize it. I’m also keenly aware of the changing nature of user needs and expectations, especially as the world of heritage tourism keeps growing. My goal is still for us to have the first NPS iPhone app, but I’m not going to rush us into it.

If anyone else has any experience they’d like to share, please do so. I still consider myself a recreational techie; one who is fascinated with the ways technology can be used to enhance historic site interpretation. In the future, I still think that smart phone applications (including ones on Android and other platforms) can be helpful tools in this process.

Location-sharing Applications

On the recommendation of Ranger Craig at Alcatraz, I’ve been playing with the Foursquare application on my iPhone since August. The jury’s still out, but I think there is a lot of possibility for this and other similar applications.  Mashable reported yesterday that Loopt has added a major new feature – tips – that makes it more competitive with the other apps, so I thought I’d share some observations and solicit some feedback from you readers.

Location-sharing applications -what are they?

The premise behind Foursquare,  Loopt, Gowalla, and others is fairly simple; they are applications for smart phones (or other mobile devices) that use the phone’s native GPS capabilities to connect and share information about places with other users. At this point, they are only available in some of the nation’s major metro areas, so that is a huge drawback to many of the country’s historic sites.

Primarily, the use is business oriented. You can go to your favorite coffee shop, for instance, and after checking in on your mobile device you can scroll through the user generated tips. You may see a note that recommends avoiding a particular panini or raves about the city’s best scone. You can also add your own tips or comment on previous ones. You can check in on daily specials, too, and connect to the venue’s official website. With some apps, you can “see” usernames of other people who are also there, let friends know where you are, view Tweets generated within a certain radius, and connect to other information-based programs such as Yelp to get business info and mapping help.

Some, like Foursquare, make a game out of the process. Users get certain points and earn badges based on the number of venues they check into and the number of times they do so.  Each week the scoring is reset, and a running tally is kept throughout the week so you can see how your scores compare to others in your metro area.

The primary market for these apps appears to be the 20-something crowd who goes out barhopping on weekend (and weekday) nights, and they provide yet another way to connect to other users with similar interests while also encouraging exploration of new places.

Can these be used in historic site interpretation? If so, how?

I think the answer is yes. Many historic sites are already up and running in Foursquare, since anyone can enter a venue and its basic information into the system. That’s right – anyone who is logged into the app. In fact, users are encouraged to do so (and even gain additional points in the process). Hint: nothing wrong with being proactive here; at least if you set it up for your site, you can make sure the core information is correct and to your liking. I’ve set up several in my Portland neighborhood as well as ones for Fort Vancouver, the fort’s bookstore, and Pearson Air Museum. So far, they are yet to draw much visitation, but there are some historic sites – such as Alcatraz – that garner significant traffic.

This significant traffic is, I think, the key to this being useful to historic site interpretation. To the user, it primarily provides a way to gain basic information about a site (operating hours, phone, address, link to the official website). It can also link to other social media programs, such as Twitter and Facebook, thus allowing folks to craft a more informed visit and link to content that you generate and control.

The value is not all informational, though, and it’s not all about controlling what folks access. One of the key values of these apps is the user-generated content. At this point, I think this is the area where we are most lacking today – allowing visitors to share their experiences, thoughts, and perspectives in an unmoderated (or relatively unmoderated) forum. To users, content created by fellow users (and structured positively as “Tips” in Foursquare) may seem more genuine and thus have an added value. Understanding the tips, likes and dislikes of others can also heighten a user’s interpretive experience, and these can be a valuable pre-visit tool, prompting users to form their own connections to the site and its offerings.

The biggest beneficiaries of user-generated content may actually be us – the staff at historic sites.  Unfiltered feedback has value –perhaps an added value. At its worst it can be annoyingly counterproductive and at its best it can help foster significant change onsite.  There’s no need to fear it, but one thing to keep in mind is that all feedback isn’t going to be positive. Some of it will be so bizarre you can’t understand it. Some of it you may not agree with at all.  Some of it will be helpful. However, it is important to recognize its value and see it as yet another tool to help you finely hone the visitor experience at your historic site.

What experience have you had with location-sharing applications?

What other benefits do you see for historic site interpretation?

QR Codes, Pt. 4: How can we use them?

How can we use QR Codes in public history and historic site interpretation?

I have to give credit to one of my colleagues, Prof. Brett Oppegaard of Washington State University-Vancouver, for planting the seed for Fort Vancouver’s foray into QR Codes. We’re working together on an optimistic AR (augmented reality) project for mobile storytelling in the Village of Fort Vancouver, and Brett suggested some beta testing via QR codes. Since then, I’ve tested them on waysides, in buildings, and at special events. Although still in its infancy at Fort Vancouver, I’ve noticed some positives and negatives to using this technology.

Thus far, I think the benefits of using QR codes outweigh the challenges. Here are a few:

Cost. As described above, the major costs associated with QR coding seem to lie in content development, not technical development. Staff can focus on crafting quality content rather than coding. Also, QR codes can be printed from a desktop to paper or stickers for pennies on the dollar. At our recent Christmas at Fort Vancouver special event, I
created ten QR Codes, printed them out on the staff printer, cut them out, and then taped them at various places at the fort. The majority of my time was spent pulling interesting factoids together that linked to the event and then creating a specific web page for each. That’s it.

Timeliness. Once a QR code is established (let’s say it links to a specific park web page), you only need update the webpage it links to, not the QR code itself. Here’s an example: The ten QR codes that I put up linked to pages with interpretive elements that were specific to the park’s Christmas event. Rather than take those codes down, I can simply change the content of those pages to feature something else, like an object found there archaeologically or a link to a specific quote or video of a ranger talk. This also makes QR codes great for information, too. A code on a visitor center door could link to different information daily to reflect park specific conditions, featured programs, etc., by updating the URL to which it links.

Supplemental interpretation & provocation
. These codes do not – and are not intended to – replace person-to-person interpretation. However, they are a wonderful resource for providing supplemental interpretation or a primary option to the folks who 1) might like to tour a site and learn at their own pace, or 2) can’t make a scheduled program. They are also a wonderful tool for provoking visitors into learning more about a site; we call this incremental hooking for interpretation. If a goal in interpretation is to provoke and help visitors connect to their own understanding of a site, then QR codes are a small but mighty tool on our workbench.  At Fort Vancouver, we can tell folks that a certain building is reconstructed from the archaeological and historical record, but why not show them, too? A QR code can link to historic photos, historic documents, flash videos, text; even a 3D image of an artifact found right there onsite.

Demonstrating that we get it. By using QR codes and other developments in technology, we’re tapping into a growing audience that has long looked at government employees and programs as behind the curve. This is particularly evident here in Portland; our park is unique in that it sits in the middle of the Silicon Forest, one of the nation’s most tech-savvy metro areas, especially when it comes to smart phone applications. We feel that we really don’t have a choice but get it. One of David Larsen’s mantras is also ours: be relevant or be a relic. We feel that technology is one pathway toward relevancy.

Of course, there are also many challenges. Here are a few I’ve identified thus far:

Accessibility – in the broadest sense of the word. It is impossible for most park visitors to access QR codes without a smartphone. While they are continuing to drop in price, they are not cheap. In addition to smart phone purchase, you’ll also need a data plan and some type of application to read the codes. This can add up quickly. Please note, though, that mere possession of a smart phone does not ensure access to QR Codes. We’re lucky enough at Fort Vancouver to be a national park in an urban center; the majority of parks are not, and basic cell coverage – let
alone 3G or 4G coverage – is neither possible nor probable. Also, in light of the NPS’ amazing work in making the parks more relevant to a broader, more ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse audience, this technology has the potential to exclude and/or alienate our prime constituents.

Potential for overreliance.
Historic site managers may be blown away by QR code technology and may see opportunities for cost savings during these times of tight budgets, but I urge restraint. Our studies show what we’ve
thought all along: that it isn’t an adequate replacement for other interpretive services. Visitors queried by Prof. Oppegaard, for example, still favor personal contact with park staff.

What other benefits and challenges do you see?

A QR code in a building at Fort Vancouver

QR Codes, Pt 3: DIY

How do QR codes work? How can I make one?

Here’s how they work.  First of all, it is staggeringly simple to make a QR Code. Although I’d love to say that it takes hours of coding and work on “the interwebs” to make a QR code, I’m hereby pulling back the curtain on the wizard.  It ain’t rocket science. All you have to do is this:

  1. Identify your data (i.e., the URL for the content you want to folks to access).
  2. Open your web browser and select one of the many QR Code generators. Here’s one I use:
  3. Enter the URL. Click enter or generate or whatever action button you use.
  4. Download the resulting image using whatever process you prefer (I like the right click save options).
  5. Print it out, put it up! Tweet your tweeple! Amaze your friends! Show it off to your boss!

As an educator, I still think the most important step is #1…but I’ll get to that in the next post.

QR Codes, Pt. 2: What’s new?

If bar codes represent older technology, why are they a big deal? What has changed?

Essentially, bar codes represent a mid-twentieth century technology. However, there are at least two major developments that make the technology very appealing to public history and interpretation projects.

One development is in the bar codes themselves. There are many different types of bar codes that serve many different functions. QR codes have been around since the mid 1990s, and are widely used in Asia for providing basic
information or entertainment; I encountered my first ones in Singapore and Malaysia in 2003 without knowing what the heck they were. These codes can store a breadth of media; pretty much anything that can be associated with a URL or phone number — or even a specific text or SMS.

A more important development is that of access. Companies are crafting more and more devices (and applications for devices) aimed at individual consumers.  The exclamation “lightning speed!” is not accurate enough to describe this celerity. A quick digression: six years ago, I had a blast – literally –while registering for wedding presents at one major department store. The clerk gave us a code reading “gun” reminiscent of a Star Wars blaster toy I had as a kid (which I quickly pried from Sarah’s hand) that allowed us to point and zap any product and immediately uploading it to our
registry.  We still joke about some of the wacky things I added just for the fun of it.  Now, a special device is not necessary to do this; a consumer only need point their smart phone’s camera at a barcode and it instantly reads and (in the case of some stores) uploads it to a wedding registry. Or a birth registry. Or a birthday registry. You get the picture.

By my rough count, there are hundreds of different applications that the general public can use to personally access bar codes. (I have three on my iPhone now.) Also, the number of people carrying smart phones is growing

QR Codes, Pt. 1: What are they? How do they work?

A QR code from our Christmas at Fort Vancouver special event.

There has been a  lot of interest in my use of QR Codes at Fort Vancouver NHS, so the following posts comprise a quick primer on what they are, how they work, and how we’re using them.  Please share your thoughts.

What are they? How do they work?

Generally speaking, QR (Quick Response) codes are a type of bar code, similar to those you find on products at your neighborhood grocery store. As our archaeologist Dr. Bob Cromwell (a railroad enthusiast) is quick to point out, one of the first uses of bar code technology was to help track the nation’s myriad railroad cars in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, the technology has been widely adopted (and adapted) for other retail and inventory uses. Most recently, it is becoming more consumer driven…and directed.

There are many places that you can learn about the specific bar code symbology, and I won’t attempt to go into detail here, but bar codes embed data in a way that can be easily and quickly read by another device.  The most common place that most folks encounter bar codes is at the grocery store, where scanners can “read” a product’s UPC (Universal Product Code). At the checkout, this technology allows the clerk (and us) to quickly identify the product and its price, but behind the scenes it also tracks the item from production to purchase, links to the product’s inventory, and provides other important metrics such as what it was purchased with, when it was purchased, and often where in the store it was purchased. This provides the grocery with valuable information about consumer choice patterns. The data embedded can vary greatly, too, and is not limited to what it is and when/where it was produced.

In national parks today, bar code technology is used in many ways. In the NPS’ Pacific West Region, all sensitive equipment is given a bar code sticker for help in scheduling repair and replacement. In some parks, equipment for seasonal firefighters is tracked through bar coding. Many park publications sport a bar code on their derrieres, and most of our park partners and cooperating associations use the technology in ways very similar to our local grocery stores.