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?


One response to “Location-sharing Applications

  1. As of today (or yesterday?) foursquare has gone global. No longer is it restricted to a select number of cities. Time to start adding our park sites?

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