Monthly Archives: May 2011

Apps as data visualizations

I’ve been stuck on Koven Smith’s challenge from IgniteSmithsonian to disambiguate the digital from the physical. In several meetings now on a variety of topics, I’ve found myself recognizing how easily we take the preconceptions we have about how things are done in the world, extend them into the digital realm, and how restrictive they can be. So, it is especially refreshing to find not one, but two new apps that embody that challenge and let you interact with large masses of content in new and interesting ways.

Planetary by Bloom Studio is an amazing little app that acts as an alternative front end for your iTunes library. It’s already gotten written up by Wired, The New York Times, CNET, and others. I like this review from Read Write Web, though.

Two amazing things about Planetary are the way the data visualization is the organizing metaphor for interacting with your music, and the extent to which it’s interface is based around tablet gestures, not buttons and icons. Planetary doesn’t act like a web app or a phone app scaled up for a tablet. It’s its own new beast.

Planetary is based around the metaphor of your music collection being a galaxy. Artists are stars, albums are planets, songs are moons. You can zoom in and out of your library and see all the albums orbiting a given artist, zoom in further to see tracks, and tap one to start it playing. It’s mezmerizing. When you play a song, a progress bar extends from it along its orbital path. As I played with it, the care that went into the app started to become manifest. Planets orbit at speeds based on their length, so 1 orbit = 1 song length. You can tell how long songs are relative to each other by their orbital periods. All the junk that’s usually a list in my iTunes window was there, but as a visual representation, rather than words or numbers. They do have all the usual controls down on the bottom of the screen, but I didn’t bother with them. It was so impressive to see how easily they’d converted all the information I wanted to see into moving images.

Planetary is by no means a perfect app. It completely locked up my iPad twice, forcing a hard reset. And the interface currently only allows you to search by artist. My lovely and talented wife, stoically sitting through another, “Honey! Check this out!” moment with me, felt that Planetary seemed a trifle too limited. She wanted to view artists by genre and see who’s related to whom, and explore connections between artists. Maybe v2? I got that feeling too, more than once, like they were 80% of the way to something incredible, and decided they had enough to launch with. It’s a free app, by the way, so take all this pining for more features with a grain of salt.

What intrigues me so much about Planetary is what it signals for mobile apps. An app that uses a killer, intuitive interface on a big database full of structured data that it displays on the fly as a changing visualization of a data set. Substitute your museum’s CMS for your iTunes library and imagine the possibilities.

Download Planetary here and try it out.

Biblion: The Boundless Library– is an iPad app from The New York Public Library, and a potentially a platform for NYPL delivering new ways to explore their holdings. The launch issue of Biblion (note the language) focuses on The 1939-40 World’s Fair. According to NYPL, future issues of Biblion “will open up another of the Library’s collections, services, or programs by providing exclusive content in an innovative frame.” In other words, this is the first installment of many. So is Biblion an app, a magazine, an exhibition, or a platform? I’m not sure, though it seems to have elements of them all.
Biblion’s been generating some heat out in the world. Bill Barol from Forbes hated it,  the New Yorker liked it, and the Atlantic thinks it might be the magazine app of the future. It’ll be interesting to see.

What I like about Biblion is the way they’ve managed to make a large, potentially unwieldy collection of primary source materials understandable, browsable and coherent. It really felt like I was sitting with a very knowledgeable curator while they showed me stacks of materials, told me interesting stories about what I was looking at, and made connections between pieces to draw out some larger themes. It feels like a lot of thought went into the content design and that always warms my heart.

The primary interface for Biblion is the Wall, a collection of stacks of materials that are grouped into themes like “A Moment in Time” and “Beacon of Idealism” and so on. The topics cover a lot of ground; women and the Fair, racism in 1930s, celebrities at the Fair, visions of the future… There’s probably some entry point for you. When you select a theme, you are presented with a collection of images and introductory text on the theme, and probably more, but the controls are a bit daunting, and I purposefully didn’t not avail myself of the help screen. When you select an image to explore, you are presented with a larger version of the image and more information. Swiping will take you from page to page, pinching will move you back up to a theme. It feels very much like a mature iPad app.

So far, nothing groundbreaking, right? But what Biblion does is organize the content based on how you’re holding the device. I was holding it portrait, like a piece of paper, so I was given “Book View” – a white background, smallish image and text. An icon at the bottom of my screen prompted me to rotate the device to enter a gallery view. The background went black, the image expanded to fill the screen and the text disappeared, replaced with a headline. When I selected it, I could get back to the text I had been looking at. That’s when Biblion grabbed me, and that’s why I’d recommend you take a look at it. All the same content was there, but if you wanted to look at pictures, and then read, you could. If you wanted to read and look at pictures, you could do that, too. The app allows you to move back and forth through two ways of interacting with the content and I really appreciated it. Some topics spoke to me and I wanted to read, others didn’t and I could flip through the images as fast as I wanted until something caught my eye, and I’d stop and dig for details. I think it’s genius.

The app is not without v1.0 issues. The interface has a lot of subtle cues that are telling you tons of things about where you are and where you can go, and what awaits you there. But unless you go to the help screen to learn about the interface, the orange or blue bars aren’t going to tell you much. Maybe as Biblion becomes a platform, people will get used to them, but for now, the navigation and design vocabulary can be problematic. It’s big, and on my 1st gen iPad, it sometimes felt a bit sluggish. On the whole, though, I think it’s a viable model for how museums could be thinking about mobile experiences that really take full advantage of the affordances of the medium.

Download Biblion now and try it out

UPDATE: The CMS to iTunes library comparison seems to have struck a chord with people.

Chad Weinhard tweets:

@drbouchard tweets:

Not quite sure what this means, but I hope we’ll hear more.

Suse Cairns tweets:

Her response is brilliant. She takes my pretty narrow look at a couple of apps and places them in a theoretical framework that lets you consider the big questions of how we choose to represent knowledge. As a useful thought experiment, she quotes a post from Mia Ridge’s Open Objects blog (you already read it, I trust) that asks us to imagine what our museums would be like if we were Amazon, or a pub, or a festival. How would we organize and present our collections, our data, our “stuff”?

If you’re interested in the idea of exploring different metaphors for representing museums’ information, then give her post a read and add your thoughts.

Mobile Apps for Museums book launch!

One of the hardest parts of writing is the waiting period between the writing and the publication. Earlier in the Spring, I wrote a piece for AAM’s latest e-book, in the midst of a zillion other things, like exhibition openings, planning for conference presentations and whatnot. So it’s a bit of a surprise to me that it’s finally coming out. Not surprisingly, AAM was saving the launch for the AAM conference, so you lucky few in Houston will get to get copies before I do. I can’t wait to see how all the other essays! If you’re interested, here’ the blurb from AAM:

Appropriate for the subject, Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy is being released by The AAM Press as an e-book, along with a separate print edition. The new title is edited by a leader in the field of mobile technologies for museums, Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution.
This collection of thoughtful essays and insightful case studies by an international team of leading practitioners is intended to help guide the museum in its planning and strategy as it explores this exciting and rapidly developing new terrain. Mobile Apps for Museums examines the promise and potential of mobile apps in expanding exponentially the museum’s audience outreach and engagement.

Also, for you folks at the conference, Nancy Proctor will launch the e-book, I imagine at the AAM Bookstore, but check with them. It will happen Monday, May 23, 4–5 PM

Update: @davepatten snapped a pic of it in the bookstore.

Boston Museum Geeks assembled!

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Last night, a varied group of folks who are interested in new technology in museums convened at the Eastern Standard for the first of (hopefully) many regular, informal meetups, where we can get to know each other better, share what we’re working on, and seek input from each other, and generally build more community.  Huge props to Jesse Kochis from the MFA for getting us started by picking a place and time!

The event came together at the last-minute, but it was a total score as far as I’m concerned. We had almost a dozen people on no notice, and my email filled up with regrets from people who apparently need at least 2 days notice to go to evening events.  People were swapping business cards, people were saying “Is there some way I can…?” and other people could reply, “Sure! You need to…” It successfully captured some of that conference energy, and obviously has a much lower threshold for participation. I want more!

I polled the last six stragglers, and the back room at The Field in Central Square, Cambridge was voted as the next venue. We’re currently planning on a Wednesday or Thursday, either June 15 or 16. If you’re in the Boston area and would like to attend, cast your vote for a date by emailing me!

Who made it:

  • Jan Crocker, Jan Crocker Museum Associates, @janmagnolia
  • Ari Davidow, Jewish Women’s Archive @aridavidow
  • Phil Getchell, MFA
  • Sandy Goldberg, SG Scripts @sgscripts
  • Jesse Kochis, MFA @jkochis
  • Ed Rodley, MOS @erodley
  • Jeff Steward, HUAM
  • Patty Toland, Filament Group @pattytoland
  • Ben Wilson, MOS

Jesse started a public Google Calendar to keep track of dates, so if you’re interested in joining us for the next meetup, you should subscribe to this calendar. We’re currently looking at June 15th for our next meeting.  Join us!

Boston Museum Tech Meetup, May 11, 7PM

So a bunch of us Boston-area types were sitting at the bar at Museums and Web saying “We should do this more often…” We decided then and there that the Boston Museum Geeks deserved a meetup of their own. Thanks to Jesse Kochis’ initiative, a place and time have been chosen. Sorry for the late notice, but if you’re interested in joining our Meetup group, we’re going to be having our introductory gathering at the Eastern Standard on Wednesday, May 11, starting at 7pm.  If you’re into in new technologies in museums, either as a producer, developer, vendor, or just interested party, then come hang out. We’ll talk shop, swap stories, and hopefully become a useful community of interest.

Tell your friends, and tell me too, so I know if Jesse and I are going to be nursing drinks by ourselves. For extra credit, let me know if you have been part of/would like to be part of a MeetUp group to facilitate the setting of dates and whatnot. It costs money to start one, so I’d like to mitigate my exposure to risk before starting one.


NOTE: Directions might be nice, too…

Eastern Standard
528 Commonwealth Avenue,
Boston, MA 02215-2606
(617) 532-9100

User trends and mobile app ideas: What are people already doing?

I’m going to stop writing about Kristen Purcell’s MW2011 keynote… right after this. In our discussions of mobiles and visitors, we tend to go straight to our comfort zones and strengths – content and controlled delivery thereof in highly scripted, well-designed chunks, assuming that’s what people want to do.

One of the most useful bits of Kristen’s presentation were findings about how US teens are using mobile technologies. Between 206 and 2009, texting had grown by 27%. More than half of teens use mobiles to text. Landline usage is dropping, and SNS use, IM, and talking are slowly increasing.  I was a little surprised to see that emailing is on the decline.  I never thought  it’d turn into a geezer technology, but it certainly seems to be something only us old folks use now. If you have something to say to teens , it seems that texting is the communication channel they are using more than ay other.

Pew’s research indicates that a typical U.S. teen sends about 50 texts per day. Girls tend to text in more conversational ways, and boys tend to text in instrumental ways. Girls have more fully embraced mobile phones for social communication and are more likely to… text friends daily, call friends daily on cell, and have long text exchanges about personal matters.

What I found intriguing were the findings about adult cell phone trends. U.S. adults (led by the 18-29 year-olds in every category) use their mobiles to:

  • Send a photo or video (54%)
  • Access a SNS (23%)
  • Watch video (20%)
  • Post a photo or video online (15%)
  • Purchase a product (11%)
  • Make a charitable donation (11%)

What ways could we get visitors to take and send photos and videos that were based in museum activities? Are any of you aware of museums that are already using picture taking and sharing successfully?

NOTE: I take this as validation of the feasibility of my idea for a “Spot the broken thing” app where visitors could take pictures of things that they thought were out of order send them to the museum. We’ll see if that idea ever gains any traction. 😉

MW 2011 themes for the coming year

It seems to be shaping up to be the kind of year where I keep making myself promises to be a more deliberate learner. So, in addition to soaking up all the smartness I could from all the smart people at Museums and the Web, I thought it’d be good practice to try to distill ideas to carry ahead in 2011.

Figure out who the audience is. Hint: “New” is not an adequate descriptor.
Jasper Visser put his finger on a pet peeve of mine that was a constant undercurrent at the conference. We still don’t have a firm enough picture of who our mobile audiences are, and too many projects are going ahead that have “attract new audiences” as a goal, as if “there is a remote and undiscovered country full of people with nothing to do. We only have to give them the right media and technology and they’ll come running to our museums and archives and heritage sites.” Certainly in my own work, the kinds of projects we’re planning all envision people who are in the Museum or planning to come to the Museum as the audience. They’re not new. We already know them. We’re just meeting them in a new space, and (hopefully) delivering on our mission in new ways.

Find ways to let visitors make a meaningful contribution. And keep it focused.
Molly Hanse over at the Technology in the Arts website echoed Jasper’s point about visitors and also highlighted the prevalence of participatory experiences among the most talked-about things at the conference. I would totally second that and add to that the idea of simplicity. Many of the crowd favorites, like Old Weather, do one thing, and do it really well. Finding that one thing should take serious consideration and research. And judging by the current crop of participatory apps, finding that one thing should pay off in visitor engagement.

The other undercurrent that I hope will become a full-blown theme in the coming year is sharing content across institutions. It’s been bubbling around for awhile, and I think it’s only a matter of time until somebody launches a successful effort that draws content from multiple institutions.

Find ways to tell stories with your stuff.
Another theme that I kept hearing was one that Suse Cairns also noted – narrative. My interest in narrative is both professional and personal. As an exhibit developer, any technique or tool that might increase my ability to communicate to visitors is interesting. As a writer, creating stories resonates deeply with me. As a learner, I know narrative works for me. I turn everything into stories, maybe even when I shouldn’t. What is interesting about Suse’s post to me is that she connects the use of personalized narratives to the issue of how people do (or don’t) interact with our websites, harking back to Koven Smith’s provocation about how outdated our design philosophy is. I’ll just quote her here, but the whole post is worth reading,

“Museums might make beautiful looking and functional websites, but unless visitors have reason to personally engage with the site and to connect its contents with their own lives, then surely the relationship will be superficial at best. Engagement will come when visitors have an emotional connection to the site and a reason to invest further in it – like when the experience is emotionally rewarding (and maybe even fun!). Personalised narratives can provide a vehicle to get people in, and lowered barriers of engagement can give them a reason to broadcast and share those stories with others. Therefore, when designing museum websites – or apps – maybe we need to consider why someone would personally engage with the site, and how to ensure they broadcast their engagement to get others involved too.”

Find out what data exist (or don’t) to support your desires.
I happened to be in San Francisco this week at the same time as Kate Haley-Goldman from the National Center for Interactive Learning. We met up, had #tweers, and plunged into discussing issues. She works with lots of different museums who are trying many different ways to connect with their audiences, and she expressed reservations about the benefits of narratives outweighing the limitations they saddle developers with when it comes to educating people.  This debate about storytelling also segued back and forth into talking about gamification, which lots of people seemed to playing around with (pun intended) this year. We only scratched the surface of the topic and I look forward to carrying on the discussion in the coming months. There’s a lot of energy around both topics, and lots of projects being undertaken, but I’m not up to speed on what the research says about the efficacy of either in museum contexts. Maybe it warrants somebody convening a gathering similar to the Tate Handheld conferences. “Storytelling, Games, and the Museum” anyone?