Developing the Angel Island Odyssey App for Android and iPhone; future for Cultural Heritage sites

I first heard about Map2App from Elena Toffalori, our Italian phd student working with us at the Center for Digital Archaeology (CoDA). Her friend Pietro Ferraris is one of the designers of this platform that helps you make Apps for iPhone, iPad, Android etc. One of the first examples of such an App created through Map2App is BolognaSmart which is like a travel guide to Bologna with information linked to Google-map-based locations. You can go back and forth from map to information. That’s the basic principle of any app created with Map2App. It’s very neat! What I like is that the app can create a guide at any scale that can be mapped on a Google map. So maybe not your individual house (but wouldn’t that be neat!), but it could be a country, or a city, or an ocean, or a lake – or an island!

So I am trudging round Angel Island in SF Bay every weekend in March, and then April, along with my fellow production team-mates (and all my friends the actors and musicians) as we develop the Odyssey on Angel Island; this is a moving performance by We Players  of the Odyssey (based on Homer’s original) in which each of the 13 scenes takes place in a different location on the island, mostly a heritage building from the Civil War, First World War or Second World War or Cold War. I have a paper map in color of Angel Island from the State Parks marked with mostly ex-Army locations, but it doesn’t have all our scene locations marked. Then I have another paper map (black on yellow) with some scribbles indicating the scene locations. Both these paper maps quickly become crumpled and virtually illegible. And I am thinking – I need a map on my iPad or iPhone to tell me where the scene locations are…..I need to use that app of Pietro’s to make such a map!

I have to admit I was not as quick off the mark as I might have been. I stuck with paper until I could stand it no more. And I did not sit down with Pietro and Elena until 26th April. In Progressive Grounds on Cortland Avenue in my neighborhood of San Francisco, Pietro enlightened me to the wonders of Map2App and let me into its Beta testing world through the “back door” as they called it. You author your app through any web browser on your desktop/laptop (maybe also on your mobile device). I loved it!

You create a place, or a story, or an event. I started with creating places for each location of an Odyssey scene on Angel Island. This was a bit of a challenge because you needed (or I thought you did) Long/Lat Coordinates and I couldn’t find these for such places as Battery Wallace. I did eventually find them through various military history websites (it’s amazing what you can find there…). Too late for this project, the Map2App guys, Pietro, Michele Orsi and Simone Biagiotti, created an iPhone app called Map2app Mobile, with which you grab the location (through GPS) of a place, add media or text if you wish, and Map2App uploads it to your developing app. But I didn’t have that advantage! I then started to populate my places with content: text, images, or audio. I added very short rough descriptions, and added images of the place during its 19th/20th century occupation by the US Army (why those images? See below).

Angel Island Screenshot 1 Angel Island Screenshot 2 Angel Island Screenshot 3

Next step was to show a preview version to my “clients”: We Players, Ava Roy, Lauren Dietrich Chavez, and Rebecca Longworth. They seemed very happy and supportive, and gave me their go-ahead to develop the whole thing.. By now we were almost into performance mode (May 12); a special printed program had been produced that audience members could buy for $20. They provided me with a digital version, without which the app would have been very hard to develop in the given timeframe.  Its content included text to go into the “Odyssey Places” category, cast and crew bios for the “Odyssey People” category, and Ava’s and Lauren’s stories on developing the Odyssey, and Amy Brees’ stories about the Angel Island State Park for other categories. I used images from the wonderful collection by Mark and Tracy Photography, along with my own, and even some audio captured during rehearsals.

Angel Island Screenshot 4 Angel Island Screenshot 5

The Angel Island Odyssey App was published as an author-based app (therefore free to me the author) on June 11 for Android (download at the Google app store or here) and June 20 for iPhone/iPad (Apple has to review before approval) (download at the app store or here). Long before that I had had people testing the preview version of the app. So the app came out a little late in our performance schedule. But the audience members for last two weekends of performance received an email to enhance their preparation for the performance by downloading the app and many did. Everyone who used it seemed to like it very much, and seem to appreciate the “practical details” about resting, walking, and toilets that I added as the last step in the authoring process. It turned out that audience members really appreciate exploring the app before the show, and after it (just as one would with a paper program). And ours is the first app created with Map2App for the Western Hemisphere! By now there are several more, including Mukurtu Mobile that is based on Map2App. Thank you Pietro, Michele and Simone!

Angel Island Screenshot 6 Angel Island Screenshot 7

So what are the lessons learned from an app like this?

For a site-centered performance such as this, the app works really well – I would even say it was ideal. The element of surprise does not have to be lost. Rich content is very important, the more the better of text, audio, as well as images. Practical details are much appreciated and do not detract from the performative elements of the moment. For any cultural heritage place which comprises various locations that the visitor has to move between, such as the Angel Island State Park or the San Francisco Presidio, the apps that can be created with little or no expertise in multimedia production, have enormous potential to enhance a visitor’s experience, especially those who like to explore in a self-guided way and who appreciate rich media and textual content. This latter aspect is what peaks the interest of the CoDA creative directors…..

 

What I would have done differently?

This brings me to why I started with pictures of the US Army occupation as I developed the app. As an archaeologist and someone interested in history and cultural heritage, I have been enthralled by the idea of re-using the buildings for the We Players Odyssey production, each scene location being carefully chosen and developed with the existing historic buildings in mind. Originally I wanted to forefront this aspect in the app, but I lacked the time to develop it. I wanted to involve the Angel Island State Park more explicitly in the app to bring a sense of Now and Then to its images and text. Hopefully this app will develop into another Map2App app that does this for the Angel Island State Park itself.

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