Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives for the Smithsonian, and Halsey Burgund, sound artist and creator of Roundware.org, discuss the Access App project, its origins and aims as part of their proposal to MuseumNext 2014.
This project is currently seeking partners and funding. Below is a draft project proposal; we welcome input and feedback on both it and the project overall!
ADDRESSING THE NEED
When visitors with disabilities come to museums, they can often feel marginalized because they may be unable to fully immerse themselves in exhibitions, for personal enjoyment and learning, due to design limitations. Indeed, as universal design research has taught us, all museum visitors differ in how they like to access content and experience cultural sites. We are now in the era of unprecedented potential for responding to visitors’ differing needs and preferences through digital platforms and mobile devices. We propose to develop an open-source mobile platform called the “Universal Access Mobile App and Platform” to revolutionize accessibility for cultural audiences. Nicknamed the “Access App”, this platform will be jointly created by a diverse consortium of museums and cultural organizations, under the leadership of some of the most experienced accessibility and technology professionals in the field.
A successful prototype of the Access App was launched last year for the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) American Stories exhibition: the Access American Stories app provides a platform for crowd-sourcing visitors’ verbal descriptions of the iconic objects displayed using their own smartphones. Their recordings are then used to make the content accessible to others including visually impaired visitors who download the freely available Access American Stories app to their own Android or iOS device, or by borrowing one at the Museum. Using the app, visitors can listen to and record their own descriptions of the objects on display, as well as share their own stories and impressions of the collection and exhibition. Their recordings can be accessed immediately through the app by members of their party and other visitors to hear. This instant feedback demonstrates that visitors’ contributions are making a difference to the Smithsonian visitor experience in real time. Visitor contributions are helping us fulfill our mission while adding an engaging and inspiring personal touch that enhances the overall visitor experience for some of the Smithsonian’s most famous collections. In addition to listening to recordings made by both museum staff and the public, visitors can also “like” and “vote up” their favorite verbal descriptions or alternatively flag user-generated content that may be inappropriate. Although we have not yet had any questionable content submitted through the app, this functionality helps to continuously maintain and ensure high-quality content provided through the app, as new users hear and respond to the tone and approach used by the most popular contributors to the app.
With a tested and proven prototype, we now seek to make additional enhancements, as well as to make our mobile application technology and learnings broadly available to any institution or individual who wants to use or build new features for their own “Access App.” We seek funding support and collaborators to:
- Thoroughly test the platform and proposed enhancements with target audiences to refine specifications and requirements, including testing various technologies for wayfinding and location-based app content delivery – critical to supporting the experience for people who visit the museum without the benefit of sight or a sighted companion;
- Turn our working prototype app and platform into a robust, reusable product;
- Create documentation to enable other organizations to reuse and implement the platform for their own collections and audiences;
- Conduct outreach and training sessions with cultural organizations to support their adoption of the “Access App” platform while simultaneously raising awareness of the need and opportunity for organizations to use mobile technologies to increase accessibility; and
- Establish an “Access App Users Group”(AAUG) to support early adopters and create a community of practice around the platform which will sustain its development into the future.
With little promotion during the last 16-months, the prototype app for American Stories Access has been downloaded over 1,000 times and we have added more than 160 recordings. Marketing in this pilot phase was limited to discrete signage in the galleries and a link from the Smithsonian Mobile Application in order to obtain usage data while we fine tune the functionality. Currently, a Smithsonian staff member regularly listens to new recordings after they have gone live in the app, but no editing or other content manipulation is required as the Roundware platform we are using does all the work to record, control length, and play back the recordings. The Access American Stories app functionality has also been repurposed to develop three additional Smithsonian apps for crowdsourcing oral histories.
The partners in this grant application aim to adopt and customize the platform for their audiences as well. Introducing this free mobile tool to the cultural community will not only help the museums to make their mobile offerings accessible to all, but the open-source platform for building accessible apps will ensure all museums are able to customize the tools they require to ensure both the effectiveness and sustainability of the platform for their needs and audiences. The software we develop will be available for anyone to reuse and extend at no license cost. Our overall design plans allow for accessibility to be addressed for other audiences as well, including through the addition of sign language content and way-finding tools.
People with disabilities constitute the largest minority in the United States at more than 19%, and are the fastest growing population as the Baby Boomers generation ages and develops new needs. These visitors are the target audience for the Access App. We are also developing the tool to take into account the desired shared experience of the companions who travel with people with disabilities, and the need to make an accessible solution that improves the museum experiences of everyone. One of the most important findings of our pilot Access American Stories is that everyone enjoys the verbal descriptions contributed by visitors, as both listening to and contributing descriptions of collection objects opens the eyes of sighted visitors to the museum as well. We believe the Access App platform can be a model of universal design.
One of the other far-reaching benefits of our efforts will be sharing the open-source platform, at no-charge, with the idea that components of the app can be easily repurposed for future applications developed by other Smithsonian staff and external parties. This approach extends the investment in the app’s development efforts and creates a community of organizations who are actively adding new enhancements, incorporating best practices, tools and resources to make the app even more useful to all visitors. Some organizations will be in a position to enhance and add technical developments to the Access App platform that will then be reusable by others; others will contribute their expertise in audience research, accessibility, design and marketing. We will promote coordination through the formation of the Access App Users Group, a central body comprised of the diverse and committed community of practice, and plan opportunities to ensure that best practice is shared, resources pooled, and the project sustained by a distributed network of cultural organizations. The impacted population will be national as well as international, from small community organizations to some of the largest urban cultural and art museums.