Smithsonian Mobile 2013 Review, Strategy & Planning


On September 30, mobile practitioners and enthusiasts at the Smithsonian kicked off a series of meetings and workshops aimed at reviewing our mobile projects and learnings from them in the previous year, with the aim of planning our efforts for the year to come and revising our strategic plan as required.

    1. Tuesday, October 22, Mobile Strategy and Goals: discuss our 2010 strategic goals and “Recruit the World” mandate:  What do we want to keep? What should we change or add? What further info do we need to develop our goals for 2014 and beyond? What might “being there” mean in mobile over the next 2-3 years?
    2. Wednesday, October 30, Mobile Content and Experience Design: What kinds of mobile content and experiences do we need to be able to offer our audiences and collaborators going forward? Topics suggested at our Sept 30 kick-off meeting include:
      • Making mobile cross-platform: getting ‘network effects’ by connecting our mobile content and experiences to everything from physical exhibits to social media to marketing, branding and fundraising initiatives.
      • Making mobile fun! Gaming, interactives and engaging experience design
      • “Being there”: making SI mobile accessible, immersive, location-based, context-aware and personalized.
    3. Friday, Nov 8, Mobile Technology and Operations:
      • Making mobile compatible with central systems, standards and efforts – from digitization to the SI dashboard;
      • Making mobile location-aware in our museums through WIFI and related infrastructure
      • Making mobile accessible through on-site device distribution
      • Staff training, from mobile contracting to visitor services
    4. The SI Mobile Annual Review will be held Monday, 3 December at NMAI 4th floor, rooms 4018-19:
      • 10-12:30: Presentation of key learnings from the past year of SI Mobile
      • 12:30-2:00: brown-bag lunch and discussion
      • 2-5:00: Demonstrations and SI Mobile “petting zoo” – your chance to try all our mobile websites and apps and talk to the teams who developed them!
    5. Taking into account your feedback during from the workshops, annual review, and other conversations, the revised SI Mobile strategy and goals will be available in Jan 2014, with several opportunities to see and respond to drafts on the internal wiki before then.

From “Recruiting the World” to “Being There”

In the workshop on October 22, we’ll look specifically at our strategic plan and goals to discuss where they need to be updated and how we can focus better on new opportunities and tactics available today.

“Recruiting the World”

In its first mobile strategy, the Smithsonian recognized an unprecedented opportunity in the power and rapid adoption of mobile platforms around the world; we aimed to use the new mobile technologies to “recruit the world” for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” – the Institution’s 164 year-old mission. This approach was inspired by the idea that the two- and multi-way connected power of the new generation of mobile devices, which are now in the pockets of up to 70% of the Smithsonian’s visitors, offers unprecedented opportunities for engagement, accessibility and sustainability of content and collaborations on mobile platforms. Chris Anderson encouraged the Smithsonian to challenge the top-down approach that museums have traditionally adopted, suggesting a vision of the Institution as “the Wikipedia of the physical world.”

Nearly three years later, this principle of ‘thinking outside the audiotour box’ in mobile and moving beyond one-way broadcast models for cultural content and experiences has taken root. While the Institution has many great “tour apps” in its portfolio (see for all 40+) and recognizes a small but important percentage of our visitors expect compelling mobile tours from the Smithsonian, new opportunities for sustained engagement both within and beyond the museums’ walls have been realized in mobile apps that use crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer learning, and collaborative creation, such as:

      1. Leafsnap » free for iOS Identify tree species from photographs of their leaves, and in the process help create a biodiversity map of the US eastern seaboard.
      2. Access American Stories » free for iOS and Android Add your verbal descriptions of the Smithsonian’s collections to offer blind and sighted visitors new ways of seeing 100 of America’s most evocative historical objects.
      3. Stories from Main Street » free for iOS and Android The Smithsonian is creating a collection of oral histories about life in America’s small towns and rural communities: what’s your story?
      4. Will to Adorn » free for iOS and Android Designed to collect your stories about the choices you make everyday when you dress for school, work, fun, or special occasions.
      5. Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes » free for iOS Create your own collage art based on the incredible works of American modernist, Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

In addition to these and other strategic mobile initiatives, the Smithsonian has developed crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and even crowd-curating on other digital platforms across the Institution. Thanks to the White House, we recently welcomed a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows to the Smithsonian who are developing a pan-Institutional crowdsourcing platform to strengthen our collections while connecting them more deeply and meaningfully with global audiences. Three years after the founding of the Smithsonian’s mobile program, “recruiting the world” is an important part of the Institution’s culture.

“Being There”

This opens up a space for us to undertake new challenges in the mobile space, based on the tools and opportunities offered by the latest developments in mobile technology: location- and context-awareness (indoors as well as using GPS); augmented reality; and personalization, including integration with the social media and location-based platforms and tools that play an increasing role in people’s mobile habits. The Smithsonian was one of the first museums to work with Google to offer its museum floorplans as Indoor Maps. We use GPS outdoors to trigger augmented reality experiences in the Smithsonian Mobile and View NMAAHC (National Museum of African American History and Culture) apps, and are working on using computer vision to create location-based experiences inside our galleries in new apps for the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History. Indoor location-based services have been identified by many at the Smithsonian as a priority and an integral requirement of its nascent public wifi services.

Arguably, the first generation of museums on the web was about digitizing, cataloging, and making collections accessible on an informational/library model. By “liberating” collections from their physical presence and the museums’ walls, the user’s place and time became less important, but the experience remained largely informational and intellectual, with knowledge transmitted uni-directionally from the museum to the user. Web 2.0 introduced social interaction, new voices and new kinds of content and conversations, as well as, in some cases, a transformation of traditional “top-down” museum power structures into more collaborative, less hierarchical models for audience engagement. Now people can engage with museum-inspired content not just anywhere at anytime, but also with anyone: the museum staff are no longer the sole gatekeepers to its discourses.

Perhaps ironically, the new leading edge of digital technologies restores a sense of the importance of place and time to museum encounters. Location-based technologies respond to where we are, when, and can be tuned to respond to our context and personal interests as well. It’s as if the great democratization of digital content on the web has come full circle – and opened the door to a new level of specificity in personal engagement with the museum. Locations, places, presence, matter again.

Mobile today allows us to be always connected in real time to an environment, an object, a person. ‘Mobile 3.0’ at the Smithsonian can use the latest location- and context-aware technologies to convey the emotion and transformational power of our collections – whether you are in our galleries, or elsewhere in the world. The 2013 edition of the Smithsonian’s Mobile Strategy therefore takes as its motto, “Be there”: create immersive experiences and environments that transport the mobile user to the heart of our collections, our research, our communities, and our mission.

What does “being there” entail for mobile experiences, strategy and tactics at the Smithsonian?

Immersion: tools, technologies, and most importantly, content and experience design that moves beyond the informational, interpretive and intellectual to create affect: emotional involvement on the scale of the encounter with the actual artefact, object, site, person or community – even if the participant is physically distant.

Accessibility: universal design principles and resources that ensure the Smithsonian’s mobile offerings are available available to the broadest possible audience in the formats that those audiences prefer. Accessibility is a wellspring for innovation. By creating Smithsonian mobile content and experience design to be flexible and adaptable to different contexts and design, this investment also becomes more sustainable across evolving technologies and platforms.

Personalization: technologies, content and integration with the platforms and content that Smithsonian audiences already use will enable them to tailor their experiences to their contexts and interests, creating deeper relevance and engagement. Personalization helps the Smithsonian ‘meet people where they are, and take them some place new.’

Location and context awareness: “being there” is not only about immersive encounters in the digital world, but also a response to the context in which participants communicate and cooperate, connecting from where they are to where they want to be. Perhaps even more importantly, the latest generation of location-based services are available in real time with constant network connectivity. They take us from being there in the “real world” to being there in “real time.”

How does ‘SI Mobile 3.0’ support to the Smithsonian’s mission?

By integrating places, stories and people into mobile experiences that are immersive, emotional and authentic, the Institution becomes a highly effective node in the network of conversations and communities around Smithsonian collections that span disciplines, generations and geographies. Through ‘SI Mobile 3.0’ the Smithsonian can “be there”, where people are, putting  opportunities for engagement and learning not just in their hands, but “in their time.” SI Mobile users can now “be there,” immersed in the moment as well as the mission that motivates these conversations.

One thought on “Smithsonian Mobile 2013 Review, Strategy & Planning

  1. We have the amazing SI Mobile intern, Valeria Gasparotti, to thank for helping formulate the position statement above for our conversations about SI Mobile Strategy. She also contributed these great questions and thoughts about what “being there” means for SI Mobile; please add your own below as well!

    • How does the shift from “recruiting the world” to “being there” affect current mobile applications which have their main focus on crowdsourcing?

    • How does “recruiting the world” relate to the expanded scope for SI Mobile strategy being proposed?

    • What have we learned from the original focus on crowdsourcing and collaboration, and what aspects of these can we put to use for the new strategy? Will “recruiting the world” remain an important feature of future mobile apps or is it a concept that had its existence only in a specific phase?

    • Crowdsourcing is a concept rooted in the founding work of the Institution (James Smithson’s democratic ideals; Joseph Henry’s crowdsourced weather map; Spenser Baird’s citizen scientists). Does this shift into “being there” find some connections with the funding ideals of the Institution?

    • We talked about location-based experiences and interior positioning as the leading edge that will bring us closer to the realization of our mission. What kind of technological implementations/investments on infrastructures will be necessary to fully realize such an objective?

    • How do we make such an effort sustainable considering that if today the leading edge is location-based experiences, tomorrow could be something else that nothing has to do with it?

    • Is this strategic shift also taking into account data related to visitors’ behaviors, expectations and concerns when using the current mobile offerings of the Smithsonian? If so, what kind of data do we have available that can further inform this decision?

    • What about those who don’t use/have a smartphone or don’t want to use their own device. It is clear that ultimately, the decision to experience mobile content depend on visitors. How do we guarantee and encourage access to such experiences for visitors who may not be willing to participate?

    • It is true that smartphones, social media and every kind of cutting edge technology has changed the way we experience many things. The possibility to share and connect are increasingly becoming expectations of people in many aspects of their lives, including when visiting a cultural site. But it is also true that many visitors still expect museums to have a top-down approach and deliver content/expert knowledge to them. So when talking about mobile, they often expect an audio tour which will tell them everything they need to know about a certain artwork.
    How do we react to this and how does this affect the new direction that we want to take? What can we do to “educate” visitors to these new approaches and what is our role in determining a cultural shift in this sense?

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