Every digital public history project faces challenges during its development, and we faced a few.
Maps and Mapping
Finding sources to populate the site was not a problem, but we found that mapping those source was one of the hardest puzzles to solve. Layering georectified historical maps is a big challenge, especially when trying to serve a clientele accessing content over weak WiFi on their phones. Finding maps that are not merely illustrations, but that can be connected to real geographic points, is difficult. When writing the grant, we planned to use a certain set of protocols for layering and presenting the historical maps, but changed our minds when we started building the site. The server load was too heavy and response time took too long to work well on mobile devices connecting to the Web with weak WiFi. Prior to the development team’s custom plugin solution, the content team considered creating a short video to represent change over time and landscape in a visually-engaging way.
WiFi and Data Coverage
The project team’s decisions on design and development related to the realities of the landscape, and the strength and availability of WiFi on the Mall. When writing the grant, we expected the free public WiFi provided by the District of Columbia would strengthen and expand its reach onto the Mall, which did not happen. There are many dead zones between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Connectivity near and inside the Smithsonian museums, on the other hand, has improved tremendously.
The Great Outdoors
Through testing the WiFi, we were reminded that walking and reading on a mobile device is challenging, and that tourists are less likely to be glued to their phone as they walk from one site to the next. We specifically did not create walking tours, partially for this reason, but we designed the mapping plugin to follow a user as they traveled along the Mall’s path, refreshing the map with new pins highlighting places and events in that area. We like this feature, but also understand that environmental and social factors influence a user’s decision to read or follow content while moving across the Mall. The sun may be shining brightly, creating too much glare to read from a device’s screen. Or, someone traveling with family or a class must pay attention to the movements and activities of their group members. These conditions are out of our control as designers, but factors to remember when building a mobile public history project.
Reaching those visitors walking along the Mall was a our biggest challenge. The advantages we enjoyed by not being one of the Mall’s cultural institutions were balanced out by not having a physical space to promote the website once it launched. The project was supported from historians at the National Park Service (NPS), but the team was unable to place signs or visibly promote mallhistory.org on the Mall itself. Signage is tightly regulated by the NPS, for good reason. Negotiating among NPS’s different units proved difficult, as we could never get in touch with the right person to discuss how we could get brochures available in the most popular Park Service visitor centers. Site visitation numbers are in the tens of thousands and growing, which is reasonable, but demonstrate that we are not reaching as many Mall visitors as we would like. We see steady growth in visitation since launching, and we anticipate that usage will continue to grow after the grant ends.
When the grant ends, RRCHNM commits to sustaining the project over the long-term and will also shift to maintenance mode. The project team’s directors will oversee the site with assistance from a project associate, who will be a graduate research assistant provided by GMU’s history and art history department. Content creation will be minimal, as the project associate will focus on maintaining the social media plan. The social media postings will move to a schedule that highlights anniversaries and birthdays, and reactions to major events, such as the upcoming presidential election in 2016. The site’s web domain will be renewed and the digital assets will be maintained on an RRCHNM server for the long-term. A copy of the site and its content will also be deposited in George Mason University’s MARS digital repository.
Even when faced with these challenges, the project team devised ways of making the project attractive, usable, useful, and informative.