Going Mobile, 2: Technology with Titus Bicknell

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative hosted a workshop on February 16 and 17, 2010 on mobile interpretive tools and strategy. Day Two on technology featured Titus Bicknell, Director of Information Technology for Experius Academy. You can find a detailed wiki page for this workshop here, including all of Nancy and Titus Bicknell's slides. See this post for Nancy Proctor's presentation and video interview.

Here's my interview with Titus, that helps give an overview of his talk (minus the highly technical content):

Titus suggested that you begin with what the audience requires in terms of content, and balance that with your technology infrastructure and business model. Do you have in-house capabilities? A central technology resource (like Balboa Park does)? Will you be using external consultants or services? Are you for-profit? Nonprofit? Do you have to demonstrate ROI? (Later, he talked about the importance of understanding your technology infrastructure if you are going to create a mobile tour or app. If the digital assets your tour needs to display are located in servers off-site, it might take forever for those assets to load on a phone in the gallery.) All these questions should feed into your decision-making process.

Titus offered a complex diagram for helping you decide on choosing a platform. (Slide 21 of his slide deck.) First consider: Is the visitor going to provide the device, or is the museum?

If the visitor provides:

  • No device with them (they visit your website and possibly download something in advance)
  • Stupid phone (they can do a cell phone tour)
  • Smart phone (they can download/play a podcast, use an app, or visit your website in mobile view)

If the museum provides:

  1. No-tech (map, wall text)
  2. Low-tech (provide a device with a pre-loaded audio/video tour)
  3. Hi-tech (wi-fi hotspot for downloading apps, tours, using social media, etc)

The goal is to find the perfect match for your site, given all these factors.

Keep in mind that visitors will judge you on what you offer, not what you don't, and that they expect 100% accuracy. They won't fault you for not having an iPhone app, but if you provide one and it doesn't work, they'll be unhappy. They don't expect you to offer a wand or iTouch with a mobile tour loaded on it, but if you do, it has to work properly 100% of the time.

Now for some tech stuff, Titus' Manifesto for mobile platforms:

  1. Content should not be required to be altered or created for a platform. That is, your assets (video, photos, etc.) should not have to be customized to fit a specific device, because the device will change.
  2. Assembly of assets should be managed by a metadata layer. This metadata layer can easily change for a new platform.
  3. Platforms should manipulate assets for optimized display automatically, filtered to ensure a good viewing experience. For example, a photo in your collections management system would be resized to fit an iPod screen if that's what the user is holding, without affecting the original in your system.
  4. Store assets in the most appropriate way for the asset, not the end content. For example, keep the original photos as raw files or TIFFs, so you always have that high-quality image to go back to.
  5. Be technically promiscuous to achieve the best solution for managing and presenting content. (Don't use only one technology, as that may not be the best solution for you.)

Make the most of what you already have in your collections management system; it's low-hanging fruit that can be turned into mobile content fairly easily.

Use as much off the shelf as you can (for 80% of the work) and then customize the remaining 20%. You want your customizing to show on the front end (to the visitor). Don't customize the back end, as it slows down your staff members who have to re-learn the interface. This is one example of why Wordpress might be a good platform for you, as many people are already using Wordpress for blogs and are familiar with the administrative panel and how it works.

If you are doing things in-house, document it. Don't assume people know how to do it. It's very easy to cut this step and you WILL regret it later. If you have a tech firm or consultants doing it for you, make sure that full documentation is part of their scope of work.

Two platforms he recommends are Drupal and Wordpress. They are both powerful, widely supported, and open source. If you're just getting started, start with Wordpress. You can migrate it later into something more powerful, like Drupal. There's been a full discussion of the relative merits of Drupal vs. Wordpress on the Museum Computer Network's listserv.

He then built a quick Wordpress site while we watched (in about 15 minutes), including the plug-in for the mobile view, which people could then see on their cell phones as he worked. The advantage to this is that you can get it up quickly, keep customizing, it works on any PDA, and it doesn't have to go through the iTunes store approval process like an app does.

This was a terrific two days and gave me some useful tools to think about incorporating technology and media into museum visitor experiences. My thanks to Titus for taking the time to do the video interview, and to Rich Cherry of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and Paige Simpson of the Balboa Park Learning Institute for bringing such stellar speakers to San Diego.


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