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5 reasons why TAP should be your museum’s next mobile platform

So, we’ve been talking about TAP a lot recently and hopefully you’ve been able to get a good sense of our thinking and direction from our previous blog posts (Tap Into It, Tap Analytics, An Early Look at TAP) and from our descriptions on the Museum Mobile Wiki.

We’ve promised this for a while, and today I’m pleased to announce that we have released ALL of the materials and source code we’ve used to make TAP as open-source, and freely available to the museum community.  I think it’s clear to many of us that mobile content and interpretation is an incredible opportunity for cultural organizations and the role we play in engaging and educating audiences about our collections and programming. Our hope is that the contribution of TAP might spur collaboration and contribution from other museums to further develop a tool – owned by the community – that can power and deliver those mobile experiences to the public.

I think it’s important for us to explain some of the foundational ideas behind TAP, and why museums might choose this direction over so many of the other options.  In that light here are:

5 reasons why TAP should be your museum’s next mobile platform

  1. First-Class Content Management
  2. Open-Source, community owned, freely available
  3. Open Standards (TourML)
  4. Multi-Platform
  5. Intuitive and Tested Mobile Client

1. First-Class Content Management

The task of creating mobile tours for museums is an art form in and of itself.  I’m not sure that we’ve  nailed it yet, and we’re certainly still learning a whole lot from our peers about what works and what doesn’t when engaging audiences on a mobile device.  One thing I know for certain is that creating these experiences is a lot of work, and the results are pieces of content that we would be well advised to preserve and reuse over a long period of time.  Along those lines, it is incredibly important that we treat the mobile content we create as a first-class citizen with respect to the other content our museums care for.  If we take this content seriously, we will necessarily store and manage it professionally and for the long term.  A proper content management system is critical in this effort.

The Homepage of the TAP CMS Showing Two Different Tours

TAP is based on an open-source content management system called Drupal (http://www.drupal.org) that the IMA (and many other museums) have used successfully over the years to drive all sorts of online experiences.  This means that any museum adopting TAP as their mobile platform will immediately benefit from the depth of experience in the Drupal community and from the possibilities for expandability and enhancement that come from an active open-source platform.

Because creating the tour content can be time consuming, we need to be sure that the tools we give content authors are as easy to use as possible.  TAP features a very simple user interface, and takes all of the guess-work out of creating a tour that is properly formatted for the web.

TAP's User Interface for Adding Tour Stops

For those of you who have authored these tours in other platforms, there is nothing worse than pushing content to your device platform only to realize that you missed some small little detail or that tour stops were mis-labeled, mis-linked or otherwise incorrect.  TAP’s CMS offers the ability to preview and view media and connections between tour-stops so that authors can be sure all the content is correct prior to publishing to a device.

TAP's Stop Preview Pop-Up for Video

2. Open-Source, Community Owned, Freely Available

If you’ve been paying attention to the mobile tour space over the past few years, you’ll already know that we are seeing an incredible growth in the number of options available to museums who want to create mobile tour content.  Many of these systems offer very nice interfaces for authors to create engaging content and offer very attractive pricing options and incentives for museums who want to publish tours on those platforms.

I can’t help but think we’ve seen this movie before…

In the past 5-10 years many museums adopted proprietary CMS tools to drive their websites too with varying levels of success.  To me, many of the available options for mobile tours today seem very similar to the kinds of options museums pursued to get collections and content on the web to begin with.

At the end of the day, I think we’ve seen now that only a few of those proprietary solutions have been successful over the long term.  Museums bear a responsibility for the preservation of collections and content as our primary and core business service to the public.  Certainly this is possible within a proprietary context, but I would argue that open-source platforms and solutions put museums in the driver’s seat with regard to their own success and content preservation issues.

We are releasing TAP so that others can take advantage of the work we’ve done in this area, and can extend and enhance it to meet their needs as well.  I think we’re all still learning all the features we want and need as a part of a mobile solution.  Our requirements will continue to evolve over the next several years as mobile computing cements itself into our audience’s expectations.  I’m hoping that those who use TAP will also contribute their changes back so that we can build a suite of tools and help each other succeed in this area.

Google Code Project Hosting for TAP

Source code and documentation for TAP can be downloaded from a Google Code Project (http://code.google.com/p/tap-tours).  Instructions for installing the CMS and configuring the iPod Client can be found there as well.  There’s also an email list that we will monitor to answer questions about using the tool.  While we’ve made the process of authoring tours very simple at this point, it will still take someone familiar with web and mobile development some time to correctly setup and configure the CMS and particularly the Apple Development environment.  We’re happy to help with this as we can and continue to document the process.

3. Open Standards (TourML)

As we think about ways that mobile tours are different than web pages, and more so, how we might encode these tours in a way that’s portable and future proof…  We eventually end up needing some standard description of a Tour, its content and its structure.

We’ve floated a proposed meta-data standard for mobile tours called TourML (pronounced Turmoil)  and have published this for comment on the Museum Mobile Wiki.  We’ve successfully used TourML on a few production tours now, and have shown how it can be used to drive many types of tours.  We’re certainly not saying that TourML is perfect, and would really love to receive input from the community on ways that it could be improved, but it serves as a useful (and functional) straw-man as we try to settle on a good standard.

4. Multi-Platform

Part of the reason TourML is important is that we can’t be happy just in producing tours for one device.  As we seek to let users take tours on their own hardware, we want to be able to support many different platform.  In addition, the pace of mobile technology development means that the device we’ll be targeting just a few years from now looks nothing like the iPhones and Droids of today.
A platform-neutral metadata spec like TourML lets us build a variety of clients while still maintaining a consistent authoring environment and reusable content.

5. Intuitive and Tested Mobile Client

In addition to the back-end CMS and authoring infrastructure, we are also releasing an iPod-Touch application client that we’ve used at the IMA for public tours.  The keypad based tour is not the only type of tour museums will want to offer based on the TAP platform, but offers a multipurpose and easy-to-use interface that is a great starting point.

We’re working on several different kinds of clients for future versions of TAP including web-based and outdoor versions of TAP tours.

The future of TAP

We have many plans for where TAP will go in the future.  The IMA will use TAP as a tool for mobile interpretation for the foreseeable future and will continue to develop and release enhancements to this system to the community.
A number of museums have already expressed interest in using the system to support their own efforts and I’m optimistic that many of them will bring a depth of experience and may release their own enhancements and features.

For our part, we’re working on a new set of tools for an outdoor tour for our 100 Acres Art and Nature Park which will include an HTML5 web client that visitors will use on their own devices.  We’re also going to add some support for GPS and mapping features so that visitors can locate themselves on trails throughout the park.  As a teaser, here are some mockups of our ideas so far.

Filed under: New Media, Technology

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