Open souce: Mashin' it up
A ‘mashup’. Depending on your personal background and circumstances, this term might conjure up some interesting images in your mind. Perhaps a entrancing amalgamation of two distinct dance songs by a particularly skilled DJ? Or a drug and alcohol fuelled ‘session’, inspired by the adventure and experimentation of youth!?
Now, however, the term is being used to describe a quite different and (arguably less exciting!!) phenomenon- the art of combining data, or functionality, from different computer programmes to create a new application. Many of the web based tools we use on a daily basis (google, facebook, flickr, wikipedia etc) are ‘open source’ – this means that developers can take the basic code that runs the programme and adapt, augment and re-write it to create something akin to the original, but enhanced or altered in some way. This is both good for the developer (they get the ‘bulk’ of code for a working popular programme to use as a basis to create something new, meaning less work), the original programme creator (it extends the programme’s functionality, versatility and popularity) and the consumer (the programme is continuously being developed and the experience of using it improved).
All very interesting… But what on earth does it have to do with heritage interpretation?!
Well, the easiest specific example with which to illustrate the raft of exciting possibilities open source programming offers us is with the ubiquitous google mapping products – ‘google maps‘ and ‘google earth‘. I’m sure you’ve used one or both of them before – ‘Maps’ is an online map of the world with which you can plan routes, check co ordinates, find places and orientate yourself. ‘Earth’ is much more interactive and shows contours, graphic details (check out the Great Wall of Chine or NYC!) and can illustrate how different stimuli – climate change for example – can gravely alter our planet.
As ‘open source platforms’, we can take either google maps or google earth, and the incredible wealth of data and easily accessible interface they provide, and use them as the basis upon which to create exciting and interactive interpretive experiences quickly and cost effectively. The maps can be combined and enhanced with interpretive text, imagery, audio, video and 3D graphics to visually explain, for example, urban development and growth, environmental change, historic geographic processes and the origin of objects and artefacts, all using a framework and tool with which users are generally familiar.
Check out these two examples – the BBC utilises the platform to interpret the destructive effects of the triangular slave trade, vividly showing the sheer distances through which West African slaves were displaced. Here, it is used to illustrate the geographic spread of US presidential birthplaces.
I’m sure you’ll agree, the potential for this is quite astonishing. We could even deploy it to act as a platform for our visitors too – they could geographically tag wildlife sightings or oral history deposits, and even use the service to create their own personalised trails around a landscape or environment.
Being able to enhance the basic premise these tools offer with rich interpretive content provides us with a truly blank palette – why not even combine them with visitor photographs from flickr, video from youtube and blog entries to create integrated social experiences, or ‘mash ups’? Imagine that, visitors able to not only show off the wonderful photographs they’ve taken at your site, but where they’ve taken them too, so others can join in the experience?
Google maps and earth are only examples. The potential the rapidly developing world of open source web applications offers us both within the exhibition space, through mobile devices and on websites is vast, exciting and very real. We have the opportunity to take a range of ready made web programmes with which users are familiar and combine them with sound interpretive planning and quality content creation to compose bespoke, accessible and exciting experiences – it is an opportunity we surely have to take?