Getting information about blue plaques on your mobile phone...

I was in London on Monday for a mini-conference on 'mobile learning' for the museums & archives sector. My colleague James Boardwell was presenting, but I was just there to learn what other people were doing.

One of the things that struck me was that when museums talk about 'mobile learning', what they tend to mean is using mobile devices (PDAs, mobile phones and proprietary media handsets) as a platform for engaging learners within the museum. Quite often this is in the form of what you might call (slightly rudely) 'souped-up' audio tours. Nothing wrong with these - we heard from some interesting projects that clearly had positive benefits, especially for formal educational school groups on class visits.

However, I couldn't help but feel that this is missing a trick. The whole point of mobile technologies, surely, is their mobility. Mobile devices don't need to be confined to the internal spaces of a museum. Mobile learning can be be about learning 'out there', away from the museum, in the visitor's own time and space.

One of the few attempts at this I've seen came from the BBC Coast programme, where back during series 1, they made a collection of 'audio walks' available which you could download to your iPod and then listen to as you did their suggested walks. Not particularly interactive, but I always thought it was nice to see a TV programme encouraging people to switch off the TV and go out for a walk.

Another more recent example might be the annual RSPB Birdwatch event, where you're encouraged to spend an hour in the garden on the allotted date (which was last weekend, sorry, you missed it) listing all the birds you can spot, and then submitting your results. It's deliciously low-fi - you tally your results on a downloadable and printable score sheet and then submit them through the website later - but still 'mobile' in some sense, and certainly educational, even if the main aim is a bird survey.

With these in mind, I was thinking how this kind of 'mobile learning' might apply to the heritage sector, and as you might have guessed from the title, thought of blue plaques. You see them everywhere - especially when sat on the top deck of a double decker bus in London - and yet the plaques themselves never seem that revealing. You've often never heard of the person named, or perhaps only vaguely, and the only clue you're given is something like "scientist and electrical engineer" (Sir Ambrose Fleming) or "landscape gardener" (Charles Bridgeman). I always want to know more. Who are these people, what's the story about them, and why are they considered important enough for their home to be commemorated? I'd like to be able to find out all this, and to do so at the point at which I stumble across a plaque - which to me suggests something on a mobile platform.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll have seen me float this blue plaque idea last night. I asked if anyone knew where you could get geolocated data about blue plaques, and what a response I got!

Dan Karran's sent me a spreadsheet containing blue plaque data, which he was sent some years ago from the guy who ran a website at blueplaque.com, which is no longer available. He and Owen Stephens also pointed towards blue.plaquemap.com which I rather like. It's a full-screen Google Map with blue plaques in London marked with a push-pin, which are linked to a pop-up containing a photo of both the building and the plaque. Unfortunately, it's not hugely mobile accessible, it's limited to London and the information about who the people is pretty bare. Still, it's a good start.

Meanwhile, I did some digging around to see who actually 'owns' the information about blue plaques, and gets to decide where they go. Turns out that it's changed organisational hands a few times, from the Royal Society of Arts to the London County Council to the Greater London Council and now to English Heritage, who compiled this history. They have a list of blue plaques on their website. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be that up-to-date, and there are no geo-coordinates, but it's another useful source. Behind the scenes, I've also got Dan Zambonini asking them about the data (his company helped them update it), and for good measure I've sent in an FOI request too.

Unfortunately, the English Heritage operated plaque scheme is only part of the story, as other councils and organisations run similar schemes in other cities. Manchester, where I live, even has a colour coded scheme, with red and blue plaques as well as the familiar blue. Getting all this data together is going to be a bit of work - so let me know if you have any pointers for usable data sources. I suspect that any project will involve some proportion of user-contributed data. There's already a decent Blue Plaques group on Flickr which has 894 photos, many of them geotagged.

My final thought was that people should be able to suggest new locations of historical interest. The English Heritage website allows you to suggest a new plaque, but this is a slow process, and there's no reason why a mobile-enabled web service couldn't let people jump the queue and locate places of historic significance without having to fix an enamel plate to the wall. As mia tweeted:

"guerrilla blue plaques with QR tags FTW! Why wait for one official history when you can have hundreds from community?"

I'm off on holiday tomorrow, so I won't be doing any more on this for a week. I may have another play with the data at the Developer Happiness Days conference from 9-13 Feb (although I'm not sure how on-topic it'd be for a conference around Higher Education issues). I'd be equally delighted though if someone else takes the idea forward and does something interesting.

Update: I can't make the developer conference any more, but I'm still keen on this idea, and may submit it to 4iP to see if they'll fund me a bit of time to work on it. I've also collected a bit more data (including from Keir Clarke, who left a comment below with a link to his map containing London's blue plaques from A to C). Am still waiting for official data from English Heritage, via either my FOI request or a couple of inside sources...

Update 2: I've just found some more data on blue plaques in Loughton... My favorite: "Marine William Sparks DSM (1922-2002) 'Cockleshell Hero' Bordeaux 1942 was born here". Cockleshell hero?