In 2011, the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) in Victoria created a mobile application for one of its exhibits, Aliens Among Us. Building on this success, the museum introduced an indoor positioning system called Wifarer in 2012. As the use of mobile and digital technologies in the museum community continues to grow, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) wanted to find out why the Royal BC Museum decided to embark on its own mobile shift, allowing patrons to “visit” the museum in new and exciting ways.
The Royal BC Museum (RBCM) has been in operation since the end of the 18th century. Its main objective is collecting artefacts, documents and specimens of BC’s natural and human history, safeguarding them for the future, and sharing them with the world. CHIN asked the RBCM what were the key success factors and lessons learned from the development of these two apps, so other Canadian museums could benefit from their experience. David Alexander, Communications Manager at the RBCM kindly agreed to answer our questions.
CHIN: What was the purpose of developing an application for the Aliens Among Us exhibit?
RBCM: The Aliens Among Us app was developed as part of a broader tool set for public engagement. The Alien Among Us travelling exhibition was first, travelling to nine communities across BC. A virtual exhibit was next, developed in partnership with the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) at virtualmuseum.ca. The iPhone/iPad app contains information on BC’s most notorious invasive species and allows users to post and track alien sightings using a Google Map interface. It was a logical next step as it interfaces with the virtual exhibit and encourages users to obtain information or post a sighting anywhere they have mobile coverage.
CHIN: Can you explain how the indoor positioning system works in Wifarer?
RBCM: Wifarer was developed by a Victoria-based technology company. The company generally works with airports, shopping malls and large commercial spaces, but were interested in branching out to museums and came to see us. Wifarer acts as a personal GPS guiding visitors around the museum. Visitors can choose to use Wifarer just as a map tool or they can access richer content such as additional text, images or videos. They are able to scan a QR code positioned in our lobby and follow the instructions to install Wifarer on a mobile device and explore the museum in a completely different way. The purpose of Wifarer is to allow us to add this richer content to the museum experience without flooding the physical space.
CHIN: How many people were involved in the development/distribution phase for the Aliens Among Us app? Did you contract out? How long did it take to develop?
RBCM: The virtual exhibit was an 18-month project, with the app itself being about a 9-month project. I used separate contractors for both projects and because the virtual exhibit and app needed to talk with each other for the alien tracking portion, it required a high degree of cooperation on the part of the contractors. If I did this again, I would have one contractor take on both projects; being the liaison between the two contractors and urging them to talk with each other added extra time and stress to the project. The mobile app was funded by the John and Joan Walton Innovation Fund, an internal Royal BC Museum fund. It cost $8000 and involved the time of two internal staff members. I was fortunate in that my colleague had experience managing and developing web and mobile projects.
For Wifarer, it was a different situation. In addition to their staff, we had an internal resource dedicated to creating content and managing the process. The involvement of other departments in the museum, including systems, collections, communications and marketing, was also key.
CHIN: Were there any difficulties/issues that you could share with us and that could help other museums looking to create an app of their own?
RBCM: Funding Aliens Among Us app was a big challenge. We were fortunate in that an internal museum fund covered development, but it was still a lengthy process getting there. Technically integrating the app and the virtual exhibit was also a major challenge as well as getting the public interested in using the app. The app is fairly easy to use, has received good media attention and every time the travelling exhibition enters a new town, it is widely publicized, yet we only have 50 posts – sightings contributors. If I had had more resources, I would have connected better with relevant online communities and not for profit organizations to promote the app and its unique benefits to users. With the rise of new media, digital platforms, and through User Generate Content (UGC), we place visitors at the core of constant interaction and exchange. This is the beauty of the Alien Among Us app, and I would have liked to better share that with others.
For the Wifarer project, the biggest challenge was setting up Wi-Fi in the museum – a 40 year old plus concrete building doesn’t lend itself well to Wi-Fi. But, with a will comes a way!
CHIN: How do you measure the success of the applications? Do you have some statistics to share?
RBCM: We measure success a number of ways. For Aliens Among Us the number of posts visitors leave (about 50), the number of times the app has been downloaded (over 1900 downloads since November 15, 2011), and the attention it has received. It has been listed as one of iTunes “Great Canadian Apps” and peaked in the top 30 overall iTunes education rankings. It was also widely featured in media including an article by the National Post on museum innovation.
For Wifarer, the number of downloads is about 500/month. We had a lot of media coverage. There were stories in the National Post, Globe and Mail, Forbes, and Vancouver Sun. These are the only statistics we can share at the moment, but we are very proud of it.
CHIN: Are you planning to improve the Aliens Among Us app over the months or years to come?
RBCM: We designed the app with a two-year shelf life in mind and are not maintaining it. The integration with the virtual exhibit and the app, especially the Google Maps portion, is technically complex and as iPhone and iPad iOS evolve, there is an increasingly greater chance that integration will either only partially work or fail altogether. We are pleased with the success and can build on our knowledge to create additional mobile products. Maintaining it would have been costly and the virtual exhibit remains the number one resource.
CHIN: Why is this app only available for Apple products?
RBCM: At the time we developed the app, iTunes was the biggest player with a majority of the app market. Since then, the Android market has grown considerably. If we were designing a new app today, we would create a product for both markets to reach a larger audience. Mobile changed rapidly in the nine months it took to develop the app. For us, we have limited resources for mobile projects and BlackBerry has never been a big enough app player to warrant investment.
CHIN: Overall, what are the lessons learned for museums looking at creating mobile applications?
RBCM: First of all, if you are going to create a mobile app and are going out-of-house, it is important to find a contractor that understands your audience and goals and that can explain technical concepts to a non-technical audience. It is easy to hand over development entirely to a contractor but being part of the process, the museum ended up with a richer product that met our needs.
The other lesson I found was: keep staff and the Board involved. They were among the first to download the apps and the first alien trackers. They are always the first to get excited and tell others about the product. Testing is also really important. For Wifarer, we had a group of museum users and staff test over and over again, and each time we did, the product got better and better. Also, if you know who your audience is going to be and what experience you want them to have, it will be easier to respect your timelines.
Another piece of advice, befriend a new tech company that might be interested in doing this to add to their portfolio for free or little cost, knowing that nowadays apps are easier to develop using template programs requiring limited amount of work.
CHIN: Would you repeat the experience?
RBCM: Absolutely! We have plans to launch a new tablet app in the next year.
CHIN How-to Guide
As David Alexander from the RBCM explained in our interview, there are several elements to take into consideration when creating a mobile app. CHIN is developing a How-to Guide for museums interested in integrating mobile technology into their day-to-day operations. The Guide will address both the issue of developing a web app (mobile website) and a native app involving Augmented Reality (AR).
What topics do you want addressed in this How-to Guide? Your suggestions will help us customize the guide to answer your questions. Please let us know in the comment section below, or contact us directly.