Making mobile work; success strategies revealed

The Smithsonian Institution has had to think creatively about how to offer access to its scientific, historic and cultural information on mobile applications, an official said.

“The depth of our content is very challenging to present through the small screen,” Nancy Proctor, director of mobile strategy and initiatives for the Smithsonian, said July 28 in a Web presentation sponsored by the General Services Administration.

With 4 billion cell phones in operation in the world, including more than a billion smart phones, the Smithsonian can't ignore those audiences, she said.

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About 40 percent of the Smithsonian’s visitors have a smart phone, Proctor said. While viewing the collections, those visitors can access applications on smart phones that supplement, and in some cases replace, other tools such as museum audio tours. “Mobile learning is where we will be focusing attention,” she said.

Mobile also is a disruptive technology and can transform society because of its dual nature as a personal and social tool, Proctor added.

She gave as an example a protester at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010 who displayed a personal iPad playing an art video by David Wojnarowicz that had been banned from public exhibit in that gallery.

Although that exhibit and the protest were controversial, there is potential to take advantage of the disruptive nature of mobile in a positive way. “We do not want to just repackage and rebroadcast our messages,” Proctor said. “We want to think about what is special about mobile.”

Sometimes the “special” nature of an application is not obvious until people start using it, she added. For example, with the Smithsonian’s Leafsnap mobile application available on iPhone and iPad, users can check a database of photographs of tree leaves to identify the tree species. It was co-developed with Columbia University and the University of Maryland. Although it was initially intended as a research project for scientists, it has been popular with the public as well, Proctor said.

“When you go for goal A, sometimes you get goal B,” Proctor said. “Leafsnap is not just about adding to the database for research or a bar code scanner. It is really getting you to look at trees, at the bark and the berries. It fulfills a learning experience."

“Mobile helps the Smithsonian Institution overall in its strategy and principles, including providing broader access, educating, connecting communities and strengthening collections,” Proctor said.

Additional goals for the mobile strategy include equipping Smithsonian staffers with leading-edge tools to stay in the forefront of their fields, updating users’ experience of the Smithsonian and developing metrics for accessibility, quality, relevance, sustainability and accountability of the Smithsonian.

The institution has 14 mobile applications, including seven that are accessed on mobile websites. They include the “GoSmithsonian” information guide to visiting the museums, “Chandra Mobile” news from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the “MeAnderthal” application to mash up users’ photos with images of cavemen and -women.

One of the more difficult parts of developing a mobile strategy was to balance a need for centralized standards and policies with a need for autonomy by the individual museums, Proctor said.

On the Web, the Smithsonian museums had a lot of autonomy and their websites each have a different look and feel. In mobile, the goal is to have a more unified look to the Smithsonian offerings, Proctor said.

Some of the tools being explored are Extensible Markup Language and open-source Drupal code to ensure that content is platform-agnostic as much as possible, she added.

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