Building a mobile guide to Ironbridge at Museomix 2013

I attended Museomix this weekend. It’s a sort of hack weekend, but in a museum, and where the output might be an exhibit, as well as perhaps an app or a website. The name and structure originated in France, and this was the first UK version.

The event was held at the Enguinuity museum near Telford in Shropshire, a hands-on science museum. It’s part of a wider group of museums dotted around Ironbridge Gorge, which is promoted as the “birthplace of industry”, largely because it was here that the technique of mass-producing iron using coke was invented. Iron was smelted in huge blast furnaces, one of which is preserved at the museum as the 'Old Furnace'. Also along the gorge are museums about china, tiles, tobacco pipe making and a recreated Victorian town. And there’s the Iron Bridge itself, built in 1779 and Grade I listed, which gives the area its name.

I arrived on a frighteningly early train on the Friday morning, and the first activity was a short tour of the immediate site. Then it was straight in to pitching ideas and forming teams. This was a bit of an abrupt beginning, as we’d not long arrived, but I had come with a rough idea to work on. Knowing how much the area itself contributed to the experience of visiting the museums, I figured it’d be a great opportunity to explore building something for mobile.

I’ve been talking to museums for years about the opportunities of mobile, but with a few exceptions, most museums have given more thought to the use of mobile devices within the museum than out in the wider world. This seems a bit wrong-footed to me, as once you’re within the museum walls there are already so many exhibits and panels and screens to give your attention to. Outside of the museum is a different story. There’s also a bigger audience outside the museum than in it, and the possibility of having a longer relationship than a one-off visit. This is especially true of museums whose subject is an area, as those stories relate to the landscape as much as to collected objects and artefacts.

My proposal at Museomix was to build a mobile guide to Ironbridge, using simple, proven web technologies, and to focus on including content that visitors really wanted to know. Despite this being the least sexy idea presented, I was relieved that my enthusiasm and spiel was enough to collect together a team of interested parties.

Once set up, we dived straight into an initial research phase of looking at maps at the area and identifying possible forms that the content could take, from audio commentaries and video interviews to simple text descriptions and historic photos. And then I insisted we all go for a walk.

We had a curator on our team, so our walk consisted of noticing interesting things and grilling the curator for information. Crucially, we asked some passing visitors some questions: what were they confused about, and which things had aroused their curiosity.

This walk taught us two crucial lessons which would shape our project. First, there was a LOT of interesting things to look at. The museum yard was littered with bits of iron and mechanical contraptions, and every building in the area had a story to tell. Second, nearly all of these things were entirely mysterious without a knowledgeable guide. Even an eight-foot high boiler outside the museum had no information on what it was or why it was there.

A big rusty orange boiler alongside other bits of old machinery
The big orange boiler, and other unexplained artefacts

Back at base, we set to work on the app. I set up a kanban-style board of cards and introduced everyone to Agile. We created GitHub accounts and triaged ideas. Our team had a strong content focus, which was great for developing something with content at its core. I was the only web developer on the team.

The next two days were a bit of whirlwind. I spent most of it writing code, and testing javascript on numerous mobile devices. My team colleagues selected content, filmed curators, sourced interesting information, wrote descriptions, recorded interviews, selected photography and more.

Somewhere along the line we broached the question of ‘how will people know this guide exists?’ We had a few ideas. First, the obvious: posters and leaflets. Then there’s simply telling people, perhaps from existing information desks. More ingeniously, we hoped to put an advert on the splash screen that guests see when connecting to the wi-fi (which covers an impressively large area).

We were lucky to have Matt on the team, who impressively works in manufacturing for a high-tech factory on the Isle of Wight. He suggested making some actual markers to put on things. This was easier than it might have been, as the museum had installed a FabLab for the Museomix event, which was full of 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, a huge laser cutter, and whatever a ShopBot is.

We wanted the markers to give some nod to the industrial origins of the area, as well a bit of a hint as to what they were for, so we created a design based on a magnet (representing iron) and wifi bars (representing mobile). It was also important that the markers didn’t detract from their surroundings too much, and so after laser cutting them from plywood and glue-gunning them together, Matt sprayed them with a can of sparkly 'iron-filings effect' paint hastily bought from B&Q, before painting the details in red and white.

The result was astonishingly good looking, and leant a physical dimension to a project that was otherwise entirely digital. It really showed the value of having a bunch of different skills on the team.

A hexagonal painted marker on a wall by some historic gates
One of the installed markers

The development process wasn’t without its interruptions. The Museomix organisers wanted to make sure that our projects were communicated back out to the wider online community, and so we wrote blog posts, filled in questionnaires and made a short video. This latter task was fun, but took a good while, especially as I had to try and remember how to use iMovie in a hurry.

The programme for the weekend included a couple of hours towards the end on Sunday afternoon for demo-ing the projects to actual members of the public. This was a brave but noble endeavour, as most of the hack days I’ve participated in culminated in a presentation rather than letting people actually try things out.

We had our working prototype early, so we subverted the schedule by putting out our poster and starting testing from first thing in the morning.

The app is fairly straightforward, code-wise. Each location has its own text file containing content in the Markdown format and metadata, including co-ordinates, in YAML format at the top. I selected these because they’re easy-to-read, and are supported natively by the GitHub web interface. This in turn meant that other people on the team (and potentially even others online) could easily contribute.

The text files are parsed by a simple Sinatra app, and then there’s a load of fairly hacky javascript I wrote to display them in a mobile and tablet friendly interface. One question we got asked a lot was whether the guide would still work when wandering through the areas where there’s no mobile signal. So from the off, I designed the app to store all the basic content in memory on initial load. (In practice, this wasn't so necessary, as the wi-fi proved so reliable in our test area – but it was a good thing to do.)

The only bit of ‘magic’ in the app is that it calculates how far away each of the locations are, and to tell you when you’re “at” one of them. Aside from some moderately complex maths, which I copied from someone else, this isn’t particularly difficult to do. The javascript API to ‘watch’ someone’s location (with permission) has been around a while, but I’ve not seen many web apps that make use of it. Having the screen alert you with a relevant message just as you approach a fountain feels quite remarkable – even though we’re well used to maps with a blue dot on them.

By the end of the Sunday our app had been used on 153 unique devices (I installed analytics, naturally), and we had received some great feedback from visitors. The museum’s board members all successfully tried it on their phones, and could see the possibilities for it.

Watching and talking to people using the app was really instructive. There were a few unexpected stumbling blocks. One person I spoke to hadn’t used wi-fi on their phone before. Another couple had location services turned off (I had to quickly learn how to turn enable this on Windows and Android devices). The most amazing was watching someone press DENY without a second thought when the app requested his location. When I asked, he barely recalled doing it. This was doubly problematic as un-doing this meant diving deep into the settings. Improving the messaging before asking for location permission ought to help. Thankfully, I designed the interface such that geolocation isn't required to access the content.

It was also interesting to note that a sizeable quantity of the people we tested with didn’t realise that geolocation uses satellites rather than cellular data, so they were pretty amazed that their phones knew where they were despite being in a mobile phone blackspot.

The nicest bit about watching people use the app was seeing people engage with the content. Our premise when producing the content was to answer people’s questions and tell interesting stories, and to do so in the most contextually relevant way that encouraged more and not less engagement with the actual environment. We didn’t get this perfect, as there was still a fair amount of people staring at their screens, but it was good to see people comparing old photos on their phones to how things look today, and listening to audio whilst wandering around.

Black and white photo of industrial workers standing proudly outside factory gates
Historic photograph of workers stood by the gates where one of our markers was installed

We also added a last-minute feature so that anyone at a location who wasn't satisfied with the information we’d given them could ask additional questions, via a simple e-mail link. We received about 7 of these, and made the effort to quickly find an answer from a curator and then to both e-mail them back and to update the app so other users could see their question and answer. This simple feedback loop demonstrates how responsive museums could be, delighting their visitors and improving their content. Though obviously it would need a lot of thought to get that to scale.

I got a bit of time before the end to look at the prototypes from the other teams. My favourite was a lovely projection onto the old furnace that showed how molten iron would’ve flowed from it into troughs, which really aided your understanding of how it would’ve worked. Another team turned an iron pot into a giant speaker which then told you, via poetry, of its story as a whaling pot. I’ve always liked the idea of museum objects talking in first person (something we explored in My Life As An Object), and so this was taking it a step further by literally having the object speak. In the same museum, another team took advantage of the fact that you were, unusually, allowed to touch the objects, by designing a game for children and adults using Pictionary/charades/Blind Man's Bluff style mechanics.

After that there was a brief wrap-up, then it was time to go home.

I hope the museum got a lot out of the event. Part of the Museomix concept is that it’s only about 25% museum professionals who take part, so that there’s plenty of input from people not involved in the sector to shake things up. As well as the prototypes themselves potentially being of interest, the process shows that experimenting and doing things fast can yield results.

The web app we made, Iron Insight: A curator in your pocket, is still online for people to use. We’ve even made a few updates to it since.