Saturday, February 20, 2010

QR Codes, Part 4: How can we use them in public history?

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

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 benefits:

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 most 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 on content -- 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 NPS Interpretation maven 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?

Friday, February 19, 2010

QR Codes, Part 3: DIY

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

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, Part 2: What's New?

by Greg Shine, Guest Blogger

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 wanted as a kid) 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 exponentially.

NOTE: Photo above of a QR Code at a bus stop in Munich, Germany, from December 2009. Courtesy of Bill Hayden.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

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

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

Over the past few months there's been a lot of interest in our use of QR Codes at Fort Vancouver NHS, so the following four posts comprise a quick primer on 1) what they are & how they work, 2) what's new about them, 3) how to make them, and 4) how they can be of use to historic site interpretation (and how we're using them). They are also posted over at my blog, too. Please share your thoughts; I know that we're only hitting the tip of the iceberg!

What are QR Codes? 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 (56 national park units in California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the islands of the outer Pacific) all sensitive equipment is given a bar code sticker for help in scheduling repair and replacement. Many park libraries also use the technology for controlling the checkout of books, similar to the way that many public libraries do. 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.

At Fort Vancouver, we're also using bar code technology (in the form of QR Codes like the image above) as one, small tool to enhance and compliment our historic site interpretation. We have a fantastic crew of staff and volunteers, but even their herculean efforts don't allow us to have round-the-clock personal interpretation in every building and site in the park. Plus, we know that that is not every visitor's desire. With QR Codes, we can connect visitors directly to content via the internet by building a specific URL directly into a QR Code. By using one of a variety of free (and paid) applications on a smartphone or other web-enabled portable device, visitors can simply point their device's camera at the strange assemblage of black and white squares and instantly access web content we've specifically chosen for that location. Pretty cool, eh?

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here (there are three more posts on the topic yet to come) but I am curious about the experience of readers of Northwest History. Have you found bar code technology in unexpected places? In places relating to Northwest history? If so, where? What impressions do you have?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fun with Digital Content at Fort Vancouver, Part 2

Over the past ten years, efforts at Fort Vancouver have focused on telling a more complete, holistic story of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and U.S. Army eras onsite, utilizing the extensive collections and archaeologically recovered artifacts to give voice to the past.

In the first 40 years as a national park site, the NPS had done an impressive job of researching and interpreting the contributions of Dr. John McLoughlin (and the dozens of clerks and other officers of the company) and utilizing their records and other evidence to reconstruct the stockade and buildings that are still a highlight of any visit today.

However, this story - this grand heroic narrative - was not a complete one; important parts were missing.

While the historical record provided wonderfully detailed information about the dozen or so employees making up the upper, gentleman class (and their families), with the exception of pay records it was largely silent on the hundreds of others - working class employees, their families, and others - that made up the greater Fort Vancouver community.

And this was some community. The fort's employee village, a few hundred yards west of the stockade's pickets, housed an incredibly diverse population of upwards of 600 people at times. In this village, English, French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and people from over 30 different regional Native American groups lived and worked under the watchful - and controlling - eye of McLoughlin and the company's officers.

HBC and Catholic Church records, along with a few images and other documents, provided tantalizing snippets of everyday life in the village, but it has been archaeological excavation and analysis that has finally helped us bring voice to the fort's village population.

From a maintenance boneyard and Himalayan blackberry patch, archaeology has helped transform the Village to a "place" again, complete with historic roadways, two replica employee buildings, replica fencing, wayside exhibits, and a trail connecting it again to the Columbia River waterfront via an internationally renowned land bridge.

What does this have to do with augmented reality? Well, stay with me; you needed the backstory, trust me. Anyway, as this "new" site within the park, we have been experimenting with the best ways to provide historical interpretation in the Village. How do we connect visitors to the artifacts found onsite, and how do we articulate what these artifacts reveal about Village life in comparison to life inside the stockade walls?

Sure, we've developed curriculum-based education programs, costumed interpretation presentations, and wayside exhibits, but the challenge is to serve what is largely a transient audience who experiences the Village while enjoying the trails and walkways; unless you're headed to a previously scheduled program we're featuring, it really isn't a destination.

Enter Brett Oppegaard. A dynamic doctoral student and professor in Washington State University - Vancouver's acclaimed Digital Technology & Culture program, he met with me and pitched an idea for developing a mobile storytelling project utilizing augmented reality at the fort. As I listened to his idea, I immediately thought of the Village; could digital technology help visitors better connect to the many layers of its history? Yes!

The result of our initial brainstorming and Brett's subsequent leveraging of resources is the Fort Vancouver Mobile Project. For updates on the project and to see the project's mission statement, check out Brett's blog here. Here's a quick summary:
Our primary goal is to generate mobile interactive narratives, or stories that visitors to the site can immerse themselves in, through a connection with a mobile communication device. We also have been examining and researching various other modes of information sharing and platforms, from QR (quick response) codes to mobile social networking systems.
The Fort Vancouver Mobile project serves as a cutting-edge research laboratory for developments in mobile content creation that emphasize location, spatial and contextual awareness in relation to interactive and mixed-reality storytelling experiences, particularly those that take advantage of the new abilities of mobile technology to illuminate important regional and national historical narratives.
This project is very exciting for us; Brett is able to bring a fantastic digital skillset and connections with many helpful resources while we have a "place" as well as a vast array of data, science, and historical content to contribute. Perfect match? We think so. We'll certainly keep you posted as the project progresses.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fun with Digital Content at Fort Vancouver, Part 1

Thanks, Larry. Okay readers, Larry asked if I could spend the first few posts giving an overview of some of our digital efforts. Here goes!

As many of you may know, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is part of the national park system, with units in both Washington State and Oregon. In addition to teaching at PSU, I'm lucky enough to serve (as Larry noted) as the site's chief ranger and historian: what I consider to be an awesome job with a dangerous combination of management and specialist responsibilities. Like many historic sites, we’ve struggled with challenging budgets on one hand and record visitation and increasing responsibilities on the other. One of our biggest challenges has been this: How do we keep our units open, accessible, and relevant to an ever-changing population?

Digital content has been an important part of our response. We’ve chosen to add digital media and other online opportunities to our toolbox, and we use them to complement, supplement, and accentuate the existing person-to-person interpretive programs, publications, and exhibits (what in the biz are called personal and non-personal interpretation). By giving visitors a broader variety of interpretive options, we’ve found that we can be more responsive to their needs . . . and have a little more fun, too!

The digital media we use is pretty standard; it doesn’t require major capital investment and provides excellent metrics to help us track return on investment (ROI) and other stats helpful for managing the site. Also, we pale in comparison to the fantastic digital content conceived at national park sites like Glacier NP, Alcatraz, and North Cascades NP. We use QR Codes around the site, especially in our reconstructed and replica buildings and at special events. We’re very plugged in with social media; I manage our park’s official RSS and Twitter feeds (@FtVancouverNPS) , Flickr collection, Facebook page (now on hiatus while the NPS figures out a social media policy), and Foursquare content, to name a few.

Our website has also undergone dramatic improvements in the past few years, following a uniform agency switch to a common content management system (CMS). As the park’s webmaster, I continue to make additions and improvements to the site in the hopes of feeding quests for background and supplemental information provoked (we hope) by our personal programs and exhibits. My skills are pretty basic, though; no Flash until I can carve out some time to learn it!

My talented colleagues have digitized thousands of pages representing all of the major public domain historical and archaeological studies in our extensive collection, and are fast on their way to digitizing images of the 2 million artifacts curated onsite.

Not all of our digital content is low cost; in 2002 we received funding for two professionally-produced audio tours of the fort (adult and family versions are available for free with paid entrance to the reconstructed stockade). At the time, the MP3 players were considered cutting edge, but the swift current of technological change has rendered them (but not their content) somewhat akin to Sony Walkmans today. We hope to make the content available as a free download in the future; stay tuned.

One of my favorite side projects is audio podcasting, and I’ve long been a fan of radio shows in podcast format like RadioLab, This American Life, and The Moth. This past year the NPS’ Pacific West Region hosted a train-the-trainer workshop taught by several techie rangers and Chuck Tomasi, the author of Podcasting for Dummies and other works. As a result, we now have the Fort Vancouver Podcast (available here or via iTunes) as way to pull back the curtain and help give listeners a behind the scenes look at the site, its stewards, and its history. I mostly produce these episodes at home on my own time, but it is a labor of love; I also find it a great way for me to reconnect with the park and its many stories.

Recently, we’ve begun an exciting foray into augmented reality (AR), but I’ll save that for the next post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Introducing Guest Blogger Greg Shine

We are trying something new at Northwest History. This week Greg Shine, Chief Ranger & Historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, will be posting here. Shine is a pioneer in expanding interpretation at the National Parks into the digital realm. Check out Fort Vancouver's multimedia page for some of his work--podcasts, Flickr photos, a Twitter feed and slideshows--and you will see that this is not your father's National Park Service.

Shine is working on even more ambitious digital efforts at Fort Vancouver, including efforts to harness mobile devices to bring new levels of interpretation to park visitors. He writes about these efforts at his blog New Media & Historic Site Interpretation.

Shine also runs the Fort Vancouver Public History Field School camp and is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of History at Portland State University. Take it away, Greg!

[Photo: Greg Shine at work. The image is from the Fort Vancouver Public History Program page.]

Presentation at EWU: Assessing the Bureau of Reclamation Art Collection

Beginning in 1968, during a period of growing environmental activism and concern in the U.S., the Bureau of Reclamation commissioned paintings from artists willing to depict the "imaginative aspects of the Reclamation Program." The result was a collection of paintings, drawings and etchings that often worked within the well-known traditions of American exceptionalism to promote the Bureau's activities. The collection is an example of the Bureau of Reclamation's self-promotion and "issues management" public relations style, which set a trend that U.S. corporations would later follow.

EWU Professor of English Paul Lindholdt, PhD, will present on this topic at 10 a.m., Feb. 18, 2010, for the EWU Retirees Association. The event will take place on the EWU campus in the Pence Union Building, room 263/265 PUB. Everyone is welcome. Here is a nice Inlander article about Lindholt's research.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Brief History of Pretty Much Everything

More silliness! I wanted to get this out of the way before our surprise guest blogger arrives. This is a 2100 page series of flip books by an art student named Jamie Bell. Nice work, Jamie:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Night [Drinking] at the Museum

Tomorrow night the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture is again hosting BeGin, their monthly happy hour of music, exhibits, camaraderie, and spirituous liquors. The turnouts for these events has been terrific and this Friday promises to be bigger than ever, with music from the Hot Club of Spokane. There are even some tasty treats. While you are there you can check out the exhibits, buy something at the unique gift shop, and sign up for a MAC membership. See you there.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Google Docs in Plain English

I am surprised at how many of my students and colleagues don't know about Google Docs. I do a lot of collaborative writing projects (mostly grant proposals) and Google Docs has been a tremendous boon. This Common Craft video shows what Google Docs is good for:

But just recently I discovered another power of Google Docs, the ability to publish your document as a web page. Now when I create materials for my students I do it in Google Docs and publish it as a web page. Rather than upload a Word doc to Blackboard, I just post the link. If I need to make changes I do so in the Google Doc and click "save" and the web page is automagically updated--without having to go into the clicky monstrosity that is Blackboard. Some examples are the readings schedule for my public history class and my handout on How to Integrate Quotations into historical writing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Vanished Rural Schools of Spokane County

As part of a research project I had my student James Dupey take a 1927 atlas of Spokane county and make a Google map of all the old rural schools. These would have been one-room schools. The map reminds of us of the pervasiveness of this vanished institution:

View Rural Schools of Eastern Washington in a larger map

Mapping these mostly vanished sites is just the first step in what I hope will become a larger historical project involving one room schools in eastern Washington. The next step is to gather information. Another student, Michelle Reid, compiled a bibliography for researching the schools. We are also building a database of organizations that have archival information about the schools. The Eastern Region Branch of the State Archives, for example, has attendance records for almost all of the schools in eastern Washington, along with some architectural drawings for Spokane County schools and some teacher employment documents for Adams County in the early 1900s. Many small local historical societies have important caches of historic records and photographs as well.

What next?
We recently submitted an application for an NEH grant to carry what we are calling the Rural Schools Project forward. If it is funded, we will work with rural heritage organizations to host some public events to build interest in the project. We will scan documents in both public and private hands and put them online. We will conduct oral history interviews with people who attended and taught at these schools (and there are quite a few--some of these schools survived into the 1950s). Ultimately, we would like to create podcast tours that vistors could take that would lead them to the sites of some of these schools, providing historic information along the way. In addition all the information we gather will be geotagged and appear on the above map, so by clicking on a school you will bring up historic documents, photographs, and oral interviews from that school.

If the NEH doesn't bite, there are some other grants for which we will apply. The project could even move forward as part of a class if I can find the time to teach it.

If you have any information or leads on the rural schools of eastern Washington, please post it here.