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This is the last of a series of posts looking at how cultural institutions are using apps and other mobile web technologies to engage their audiences. The previous post took an in-depth look at apps. Here, I’ll be looking at some other mobile web technologies.

19 October, 2012

Let’s consider what organisations can achieve if they decide ‘not to app’. Bearing in mind the prediction that by 2013, most of us will be browsing the web on a mobile device – there has never been a better time to think about adapting online presence for mobile. There are many things that cultural institutions can do in this area. Here are just a few:

Create a mobile-friendly website
This need not involve a complete re-design (although if one is already planned, mobile access should certainly be factored in); there are basic improvements that can make a site more accessible to the full range of mobile devices, as well as quicker to download. Keeping the design simple, text well spaced, and very large files to a minimum, is a good start. And you can find an in-depth view, together with some practical solutions, in this series of online presentations by Mind Unit’s Ian Budden.

Bring the mobile web into the gallery
Engaging mobile web users doesn’t have to involve the creation of bespoke, platform-specific content. For sites where 3G coverage is limited, a free WiFi network can be used to encourage visitors to text, tweet or blog your collections using their existing networked services. Sites like FourSquare already allow users to share and comment on locations while earning rewards for attendance, but do require access to the mobile web.

Offer streamed or downloadable content
Many institutions offer regular podcasts in a range of formats, from audio to video and from magazine-style to feature-led. The National Gallery Podcast, presented by the author since its launch in 2006, is offered in audio and ‘enhanced’, or audio slideshow, versions and reaches audiences of up to 25,000. It’s interesting that the release of the National Gallery’s Love Art app, sadly free no longer, doesn’t appear to have diminished interest in the podcast; many comments posted to the iTunes Store by Love Art users mention the desire for further, deeper analysis of the collections; some even request a podcast.

This suggests that users welcome interpretation in a wide range of formats and that consumption of an app does not rule out the need for other forms of digital content. In addition to podcasts, institutions such as Tate and the V&A also offer streamed audio and video clips through a dedicated website, described as a ‘channel’. But much simpler solutions could include downloadable screensavers, ring-tones, or even a regular feed of quotations or aphorisms, delivered by e-mail or SMS.

Experiment with QR codes
For spaces already connected to WiFi, or covered by 3G networks, ‘Quick Response’, or ‘QR’ codes can be a simple way to allow smartphone users to access a range of interpretational or incidental content. QR codes are a form of digital barcode, commonly used by airlines on downloadable boarding passes. Users capture the code through the built-in camera, and a dedicated QR reader app provides access to the associated content, which can consist of text, a webpage, a vCard contact, or an e-mail address. QR codes enable visitors to efficiently access and share content, even in contexts where signage and interpretation is limited. So it’s no surprise that they are already being used at outdoor sites, like the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area DigiTrail, in Georgia, USA. Because of the element of discovery, it is easy to imagine how museums might create ‘treasure hunts’ using this technology. QR codes are easily created through any number of free ‘QR generators’, here’s a review of the top seventeen. Because they can withstand a reading error margin of up to 30%, they can also be custom-designed to incorporate a simple image, logo or text; in this way, even the code itself can form a part of themed interpretation or design. A classic example is Takashi Murakami’s playful, manga inspired design for Louis Vuitton. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get it to work, despite trying several QR readers. But it’s worth a look for sheer design inspiration: given the current interest in this technology within the design world, there may be opportunities for institutions to acquire custom-designed codes for free by running a competition.

Partner with your peers
Most institutions are already used to collaborating over exhibitions and public engagement projects. The mobile web offers new and exciting opportunities to collaborate over the way collections appear in the mobile space. There are already efforts being made to standardise the structure of data; the recently-launched LIDO project suggests a standard format for descriptions of works of art. But there are also projects that experiment with the way collections are presented and put into context. The Google Art Project draws together over a thousand artworks – images and interpretation – from institutions around the world. Using StreetView technology, users can move around the galleries virtually, clicking on artworks to discover more. Each institution has also nominated one artwork for super-high-resolution capture. These images contain around seven billion pixels, allowing users to zoom in and see extraordinary levels of detail, much of which would not be visible to the naked eye. An additional function allows users to save favourite works into an image gallery that can be shared with friends online. My interview with Amit Sood, the Head of the Google Art Project, has more.

The beauty of the mobile web is that it enables the virtual mingling of collections that cannot physically be brought together. The possibilities are almost endless, but I often dream of a multi-stakeholder project to provide visitors to the Parthenon – or the British Museum – with a view of the complete Parthenon Frieze, using augmented reality technology.

Open up your collections through an API
An Application Programming Interface, or ‘API’, is a set of instructions that allows other programmers to interface with your website and web-based software. This allows outsiders to develop applications that can pull media from your site into a ‘mashup’: a combination of data and services from several sources. APIs can also allow the purchase of tickets and other products from a web shop, or provide access to information from geo-location tags. A recent example of this is the V&A’s Search the Collections project, powered by an API. Creating an API involves a significant degree of financial – and legal – investment, but the rewards, in terms of third-party, or even user-generated, content are potentially endless.

Consider the entirety of online presence
As suggested by Mike Kuniavsky on Boingboing, from an internet of data, we are moving towards an ‘internet of things’, created by real-world objects leaving an ‘information shadow’ on the web. The proliferation of the mobile web can only make these shadows denser and more detailed. Institutions, too, might be considered as ‘things’ within this context, and would do well to consider the entirety of their online presence, beyond the sites and services that they directly author. Approaching an institution from the point of view of a user, we might think about how it appears across a range of mobile media, such as a Google Maps, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter etc. Is there a way to try and curate those spaces? This isn’t about replacing or supplanting existing conversations within the mobile space, but about entering into the dialogue and shaping the terms of the debate.

Many of these options, the last two in particular, involve freeing content for discussion, debate, or even incorporation into content mashups, where proprietary content will be presented together with information and services from other sources. For many museum practitioners, the idea that curatorial interpretation can exist cheek-by-jowl with contributions from the general public, or other institutions, may be an uncomfortable one. However, such developments anticipate the sentient web, where the visibility – and hence survival – of data will depend on its ability to connect to other data meaningfully, in a wider context.

In any case, even in these days of the networked web, the genie is very much out of the bottle; far from being walled gardens, cultural institutions are increasingly open to all; or, as Nancy Proctor puts it, they are undergoing a transformation from ‘acropolis to agora’.

In such a potentially bewildering environment, institutions should remain focused on the need to continue talking to people wherever they are, bringing them into creative dialogue. In practical terms – whether with third-party suppliers, or in-house teams – cultural institutions should continue to specify the desired results, rather than any single technology that might achieve them. As Mind Unit’s Ian Budden suggested to me, “we should focus on the effect we want to create, rather than the platform used to deliver it, and then look to our audience for the answers”.

These are heady times. Constantly evolving mobile web technologies afford museums and cultural institutions a range of new, exciting opportunities for engaging audiences; from apps to APIs, from podcasts to QR codes, and from in-gallery WiFi networks to large, collaborative projects that transcend the boundaries of the individual institution. I hope that I’ve shown that these opportunities are too persuasive to be ignored, and even more, that museums, cultural institutions, archives and even music labels are in an excellent position to make effective use of them. As we continue to weigh up these diverse platforms, formats and technologies, I hope we can appreciate what they make possible: a deeper and closer relationship with our audience.

This was the last post in a series looking at how museums and cultural institutions are using apps and other mobile web technologies to engage their audiences.

On the 20th of October, I’ll be presenting on a similar topic at the WOMEX Conference in Thessaloniki. Titled Digital Culture, this time I’ll be asking “what can the world music industry learn from museums?” Together with my conference partner, digital museologist Elena Lagoudi, I’ll be trying to work out which tools, strategies and ideas can be applied to world music and how digital content in museums can inspire world music artists, promoters, labels and distributors to find news ways to broaden their audiences. More information, including time, date and location is available here.

I look forward to continuing the conversation.