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.


Stuart said...

Can you explain further the reason for using audio tour guides. I realize that a savings in labor will be a quick return item. However, purchasing mp3 players, and now new units, and the production costs of the tour, I just wonder how cost efficient audio tour guides really are? How long is it estimated before you will see a return on investment?


Sydney said...

Hello! You talked about expanding digital media and other online opportunities. Would a full online interactive tour of the site be in the future?

Lea Scott said...

Thank you so much for this information! I can see how down-loadable information would be good, visitors can upload that info onto their own audio equipment-so you dont have to buy it, almost everyone has an mp3 player now. I also like the podcast idea and am a fan myself of this american life- but hadn't heard of the other two-thank you, now i do, and will check them out!