After chaos came community, creativity, and connectivity


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I live in Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand. It’s a city that three years ago was struck by a series of devastating earthquakes; the most serious on 22 February, when 185 people died. Our central business district and several outlying suburbs where reduced to rubble.

Three years on, Christchurch has been named the world’s second-best place to visit in 2014 by the New York Times. Living here, it’s hard to understand why; I mean the place is a mess! Of course, one-in-100-year rain events are not helping either, for a city with a compromised storm water infrastructure…

As part of its feature  “52 places to visit in 2014” the New York Times called Christchurch a “city in transformation”, experiencing a “rebirth with creativity and wit”. 

Institutions like the Christchurch Art Gallery have looked for alternatives while doors remain closed – using blank walls and spaces to create “outer space” exhibitions. And with a lot of our heritage buildings reduced to rubble, there has been an increased interest in documenting and sharing heritage resources online.

Public artwork by Wayne Youle; photo Jared Cantlon.


Some of the positive, interpretative outcomes of tragedy – both live and digital – that have grown from the rubble over the last three years include:

Cool online maps

Quakemap – this became the go-to website for all Cantabrians, with people flocking to Quakemap after every aftershock. This animated map shows where rumbles are centred, their depth and magnitude with a series of colour-coded spots. You can look back and watch series of shakes by timeframes of your choice. Conceived and developed by Paul Nicholls of the University of Canterbury’s Digital Media Group (Christchurch).

More recently, Google map-based resouces help tourists find the ‘Neat Places’ in Christchurch, to make the most of a visit to our torn-up town.

Strengthening communities and individuals

Neighbours who may have never spoken before turned to help each other post-earthquake. Many of these communities continue to support each other through the rebuild, via neighbourhood forums and events. The Rebuild Christchurch website offers a tool for people to build an online community, based on their neighbourhood.

The internationally acclaimed Student Volunteer Army was a social media movement that mobilised over 11,000 students to assist in the clean-up of Christchurch. It began with one young man starting a Facebook page to generate and guide volunteers amongst his peers. The group is still active, and were out in force this week cleaning up after the latest storm. In 2012 Sam Johnson was named “Young New Zealander of the Year” and Prinz communicator of the year and is a compelling speaker on using technology for social change.

Digital archives – sharing the stories

The collective experiences of a crumbled city are being collated via several portals, several under the auspice of the University of Canterbury’s CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquake Digital Archive project.

Quake Studies is CEISMIC’s formal digital archive to document the Canterbury earthquakes by collecting reports, documents, stories, photos and film to be available to researchers in perpetuity, access-controlled.

Quake stories is for more personal stories, memories, experiences and photos of the Canterbury earthquakes and how they affected people, including the aftermath and ongoing story of the rebuilding. It’s described as a living memorial.

When my home shook is also personal accounts, but aimed specifically at school children, years 5-12, as a part of the recovery process.

Kete Christchurch is a creative commons digital archive compiled by Christchurch City Libraries, and includes several kete or “baskets” of knowledge, including the Christchurch earthquakes.

History these days is told via multiple voices.

New apps and innovations

CityViewAR is a mobile Augmented Reality application that allows people to see how the city was before the earthquakes and building demolitions. Using an Android mobile phone people can walk around the city and see life-sized virtual models of what the buildings looked like on site before they were demolished.

HitLab have taken this even further and used CityView AR to test their ‘Googleglasses’ – the first truly wearable computer for the masses. CityViewAR on Glass also shows panorama images taken after the earthquake, allowing people to look around them and use the head-tracking capability of Glass to see a full 360-degree photo of the city damage.

High Street Stories – NZ Historic Places Trust collaborated with HitLab and NV Interactive to create ‘High Street Stories’ website and a smartphone application, with over 100 stories of the central Christchurch street’s past. Users can wander around the area using an android phone or mobile device and see images of the now demolished heritage buildings and the precinct as it was before the quakes whilst listening to history and anecdotes about life in the area.

High street Stories

Read more about High street Stories in the summer 2014 issue of INNZ Insights

Creation of new groups, trusts and organisations

The response of many individuals after the earthquakes was to do something creatively positive and gather in the energies of others. And because the projects were all temporary by nature, it was a license to ignore the fear of failure – it was just about having a go!

Gap Filler –  temporarily activates vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects for community benefit, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city. Wall murals, poetry, sound garden, pallet pavilion (an open air events venue) and Dance-o-mat are some of the groovy projects, with the latest join the portfolio – the Inconvenience Store – selling things like ‘eyes in the back of your head’!

Greening the Rubble – sticking true to Christchurch’s soul as The Garden City, Greening the Rubble was a grassroots movement to create temporary gardens and public green spaces in vacant sites. Hero projects include the Sydenham Street Coffee Zone, Sound Garden, Nature Play Park, and Pod Oasis.

Children play in Greening the Rubble's Nature Play Park while buildings are demolished around them; photo S Mankelow

Children play in Greening the Rubble’s Nature Play Park while buildings are demolished around them

Ministry of Awesome – watering the seeds of awesome in Christchurch, Sam Johnson and others created this organisation to gather ideas and inspiration, and create events to provide opportunities to see some of those seeds take root.

Yes life has changed since the earthquakes of 22 February 2011. I still have to drive a long way to buy milk as our dairy and supermarket have gone. I can get lost in my home town as every street corner looks the same and there are road works at every turn.

But there’s a ‘new’ creative Christchurch amidst the rubble and vacant spaces. It’s a blank page and we’re colouring flat out, without worrying about going over the lines.

I live in Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand. Come visit.

Lorde! New Zealanders talk funny … ah where is that again?


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“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” William Shakespeare

Lorde performs on September 28, 2013 at Showbox at the Market during the Decibel Festival in Seattle, Washington; photo Kirk Stauffer.

Lorde; photo Kirk Stauffer.

Our whole country has gone Grammy-mad this week, after Kiwi teenager Lorde won two awards. All our news programmes, radio, social media networks are a buzz with this achievement.  There’s no mistaking the fact that she has become world famous in New Zealand. Even her fingernails have their own twitter account.  There hasn’t been this much hype around one person since… well since Peter Jackson won his first Oscars!

Watching the awards show I learnt three things:

  • Americans really know how to put on a good show.
  • Celebrities are experts at using twitter
  • Being famous does not automatically make you funny.
  • Music is the one universal language.

OK so that’s four things. But the last one got me thinking. It got me thinking about culture and communication. And the challenges of getting it right when your audience potentially is the whole world.

How does an awkward teenager from a group of islands somewhere near the South Pole co-write a song that explodes across the globe, in a way she described as mental”? (Yes New Zealanders talk funny). Well, you can read how she did it in this interview with her manager; “How to make it big online”.

Social media has bought people around the world together, regardless of cultural differences and geographic boundaries – creating a global village. It exposes us to new ideas and differences of opinion. It encourages interactions, conversation, debate. It’s a powerful tool. No wonder interpreters are drawn to it like moths to Tilden’s flame.

The downside to all this sharing is that sometimes its hard to maintain a unique voice. Despite the distance, NZ is heavily influenced by all things American, especially in the entertainment industry. This point was bought home to me when listening to my five-year-old talk to her friend during imaginary play – they were talking for their make-believe characters with American accents! Bits of our own culture are being ‘acquired’ too – there’s an American company called Kiwi, unashamedly named after our national bird, and someone in Germany trademarked the name Moana – which means ocean and is a popular girl’s name for our first peoples – Maori.

A lot of the content shared online by interpreters is written and this is tricky too – with slang, colloquialisms and spelling differences even between countries that use the same language. You may have noticed I like to spell programme with two mms and colour with a u.

So with all these extra challenges, how does an interpreter communicate successfully via social media? The advice from Lorde’s manager is that success for a musician starts with a good song. The same goes for interpreters.

Start with core principles.

  • Make it enjoyable.
  • Make it relevant and meaningful.
  • Make it organised and thematic.
  • Make it personal. After all, if its not personal, its not interpretation.

Lorde has struck a chord that has resonated around the world, by writing about what she feels and what she has experienced. But she is a real person, and that’s where it starts – she’s keeping it real. And we are prodigiously proud of her.

Check out some other kiwis doing their own version of her Grammy-winning song. (I didn’t say it was good.)

Lorde's home town sign is altered in a play on the lyrics of 'Royal'.

Lorde’s home town sign is altered in a play on the lyrics of ‘Royal’.

Musings on Amazing Technology


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Edited Jan 23 to fix broken link

If there’s one thing that we like to emphasize with Media Platypus, it’s that technology is just a tool for interpretation. Technology is never a substitute for good subject matter and development, and it isn’t a substitute for using good principles—being thematic, being factual, connecting with the visitor, and being relatable to people’s lives and experiences.

Having said that, learning about and playing with technology excites my inner geek. Publicly I love to work on my little farm and eat the fruit that we grow, to mill lumber from the trees I fall. I love to make sawdust in my shop, and both delicate mechanisms (such as pocket watches) and brute force engineering (such as steam locomotives) seem to fit my desired ethos by being both visually interesting and a form of problem solving—to tell the time, build a mechanism that counts regular intervals that you can understand. To travel several hundred miles, create a contraption that uses the expansion of boiling water to make steel wheels rotate on strips of steel. Very kinetic, very direct, very understandable, even if both are awe-inspiring in their physical ingenuity.

Technology seems, in contrast, to be a bit like junk food. It’s fun and intriguing, but ultimately to what end? Just how many interpretive sites have you visited where the “high-tech” stuff is mostly broken, or seems to have been jammed in whether or not it seems appropriate? I’m guilty of this myself. I really like using QR codes for “added value” interpretation, but generally I’m light on adding the value. In a current exhibit that I have something to do with, we have a so-called interactive where a visitor pushes a button to show a graphic tracking the development of railroads in the 19th century, but we used an old junky laptop that doesn’t allow the display to work in quite the way it was quite intended. We are, in effect, using technology for technology’s sake, rather than using is to properly communicate what we would like to say. It does the job, but not as well as we would like.

With all that as prologue, I recently ran across several genuinely astounding examples of technology being used in advertising to captivate, provoke and amaze. I have to credit Robert Krulwich, who writes the NPR science blog Krulwich Wonders, for writing about these ideas. Mr. Krulwich is a science writer, not an interpreter, but what he discusses here are advertising ideas that use technology to reach four interpretive goals:
• Provoke the viewer’s interest
• Using drama, uses wonder, uses the viewer’s imagination in artistic ways to captivate and enthrall them
• Using fantastic, virtual experiences to relate to the viewer’s everyday life and experience, or perhaps their dreams for the future.
• Goes way beyond mere information, but conveys valuable information in compelling and thought-provoking ways.

Take a look at the three videos that Krulwich highlights. I’m not surprised that they are all British—there are many astonishing examples of brilliant British advertising. They are amazingly creative, often edgy, and nearly always fun. As communicators, the creative people who developed these campaigns are simply brilliant.

However, closer to home, I was blown away a few years ago when I traveled through the Hartford Connecticut airport on the way to the NAI National Workshop. Those of you who flew in just have to remember the wonderful interactive video display for Traveler’s Insurance. It has no point except to reinforce their brand name, but it does so brilliantly. Take a look at the engagement of passers by:

At the time, I just filed this away as a cool moment, but just a few years later, interactives such as this, or this really interesting (and again, British) McDonald’s interactive

get me excited about logical possibilities because they are are getting simpler and less expensive to create for interpretive sites.

Things like these specific examples may be still a bit more sophisticated and involved than many of us might want to conceive of or implement, but the same technology that I still think is sort of mental junk food is often astonishingly inexpensive and rapidly advancing, and this will benefit many interpreters and institutions that need to stay relevant and vital to successfully communicate with our visitors. What used to cost a fortune now is within everyone’s reach, and the trend will continue. Just consider what your smartphone can do today compared to the cost and complexity to do the same things in 1991:

Reader Comments: All Things in Moderation


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There’s nothing more disheartening to me than reading anonymous comments on social media and news websites. I try to make it my own personal policy not to read comments at the end of articles on news websites, especially if those articles have anything to do with climate change, religion, or the designated hitter. Regardless of the topic of the article, reader comments inevitably degenerate into incomprehensible nonsense, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. And if the content of the comments section on news websites is not enough to ruin your day, the grammar surely is.

Because of this aversion, I tend not to comment much on articles or Facebook posts from mass media organizations, but there are occasions when I can’t help myself. I was recently perusing my Facebook news feed when a post from “CBS Philly” linked to a news article with a caption about a grocery store employee being “bit” by a scorpion. My first reaction, because I am a jerk, was “They mean ‘bitten,’ not ‘bit.'” My second reaction, which I actually left as a comment on Facebook, was “Scorpions don’t bite. They sting.”

My comment received a handful of likes and a couple of responses—enough to make it the first to appear under the post because comments were ordered by “top comments” rather than chronologically. I checked back a day later to see if there had been any further response and was mildly startled to find that my comment was gone, presumably deleted by the page’s moderator. I wondered why. The comment was not profane or libelous—maybe a little pedantic, but is that a reason to delete it? All I could figure was that the page’s moderator was embarrassed by the mistake and wanted to get rid of a comment that called attention to it.

I was not annoyed, but the incident had piqued my professional curiosity. So I did what any sane social media user would do. I sent the page a note through the Facebook messaging system. When I did not hear back, I looked up the phone number for the CBS Philly newsroom and called to speak with the social media editor, who was in a meeting (presumably about the biology of scorpions). I left a message, assuming that I would not hear back (which I did not). I considered calling every day until I reached the responsible party, but I felt that I had already over-stepped the bounds of normal behavior, so I unliked their page (that will show them) and let it go.

My interest in this subject was reignited last week, when fellow Media Platypus author Lisa Keys of the Association for Heritage Interpretation in the UK wrote about a project that will rely on crowdsourcing for content. (It’s cool! Go read about it!) Lisa wrote that “the website will need to have a degree of moderation.” I am going to assume that this is representative of that Great British trait of understatement that we all love so much.

Moderating content on social media and other platforms is as much art as it is science, and there is no specific formula for it. (Anyone who has ever been involved in developing a social media policy for an organization knows how far this rabbit hole goes.) Moderating a media outlet boils down to what sort of comments will you allow and what will you disallow. Then beyond that, you have to ask yourself how you make sure the best comments rise to the top. This is usually done through some sort of rating system—letting readers vote comments up or down—but some sites, like Deadspin and Gawker, have sophisticated evaluation techniques that, in my opinion, make their reader comments the least awful out there. (No joke: I think their algorithm bans commenters who say things like “Slow news day?” and “First!”)

Moderating reader comments is one of the most potentially explosive aspects of the social media world. Remember that any time you remove one of your follower’s comments, the potential exists for that person to make a huge stink over it, causing all sorts of bad publicity—whether it’s warranted or not. The most important thing you can do is have a clearly stated policy and follow it religiously. A reasonable starting point is to state that you will remove all spam, hate speech, profanity, libel, and commercial advertising. Interpretive sites would certainly be within their rights to go beyond that and state that they would remove content not related to the content they interpret.

The most important thing when it comes to comment moderation, in my mind, is to remember that while you can control (to a certain degree) the dialogue on your pages, you cannot control what people are saying about you elsewhere. If one of your followers perceives that they have been wronged by faulty or inconsistent moderation, the public relations consequences can be distastrous.

Crowdsourcing and heritage interpretation


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I think it is fair to say that ‘crowdsourcing’ in heritage is only just starting to mean something to me. Social media and heritage, yes. Been there, got the t-shirt (have a long way to go but I still have the t-shirt). But crowdsourcing….

Crowdsourcing was coined in 2006 by the editor of American ‘Wired’ magazine to describe the process of ‘outsourcing to the crowd’. This process (according to Wikipedia) ‘combines the efforts of numerous self-identified volunteers…where each contributor of their own initiative adds a small portion to the greater result’.

Back in 2011 the University of Iowa crowdsourced the transcription of a set of civil war diaries. By putting digital versions of the diaries online the University got good transcriptions, more donors to support their work and they dramatically increased site traffic (Trevor Owens 2012). Transcription of archives is not a new phenomenon, it has been happening across public record offices, certainly in the UK, for decades, by enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. But through crowdsourcing transcription, made possible through the web, a greater number of people were provided with access to unique documents, from anywhere in the world, they were able to uncover the diaries’ secrets for themselves, and were able to transcribe at a time that was convenient for them.

In October 2013, English Heritage, the UK Government’s advisor on England’s historic sites and places, announced that it was developing a crowdsourcing project to help protect heritage at risk. In their announcement English Heritage stated that ‘working with other bodies in the heritage sector and local authorities [we aim] to provide the means for members of the public to carry out surveys of England’s 345,000 Grade II [listed] buildings…The move is expected to enable thousands of passionate heritage fans to get more actively involved’ (English Heritage 2013). Ultimately English Heritage will develop an app that will make it possible for the ‘volunteer heritage army’ to record data while they are out on site and for that data to be published online once verified by local councils.

So what opportunities does crowdsourcing present for heritage interpreters? Well lots…

I’m going to use an example from my part of the world. ‘Treasures of Cumbria’ is a new web-based project (it is officially launching next week – you saw it here first!) that asks users to share ‘something that is meaningful to you’. A ‘treasure’. The website suggests that a treasure can be anything: a place you love visiting, a person, an object, a building, an event, a tradition, a recipe, a song. Once registered to the site users can post pictures, text, sound or film about their ‘treasure’ and locate it on a map of Cumbria. If it works, this project will give the great public, the heritage audience, their chance to interpret what Cumbria is. It will help local people and visitors to understand what Cumbria is and who lives there. It will explore the identity of Cumbria; what is Cumbria and what exactly does ‘Cumbrian’ mean.

Of course, as with any project there are risks and challenges. The website will need to have a degree of moderation (the ethics of moderation and biases that could result are for another blog at another time). It will need to be populated by the public (who not only have internet access but are reasonably web-savvy) and not biased by the enthusiastic heritage professionals who want to promote their site/museum artefact/nature reserve (which of course is fine, but is another artefact from a museum really what our great public treasures? I’d like to think so but in many cases I’d be wrong to think so).  It’s a brave project, but one that I applaud. One I am excited by.

The Association of Heritage Interpretation believes that interpretation helps people to explore and appreciate the world, past and present.  I personally believe that heritage interpreters can facilitate this through crowdsourcing heritage. Let’s give our audience a voice. Let’s help our audiences to understand, protect and appreciate what they think is important. By encouraging people to put forward what they ‘treasure’, what they value, we may just open their eyes to a whole other world of treasures and a whole world of possibilities. Glass half full? Yes. Naïve to think it can work? Yes possibly. But I have faith in people and without them ‘heritage’ does not exist.

Lisa Keys, Trustee and e-News editor, Association of Heritage Interpretation

We’re Heading Towards A Jetsons World, And I’m Worried About It.


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image of the robot C-3PO from Star Wars

I have a package for you!

In the past week, there have been several technology announcements that you may or may not have heard of; with one exception, they don’t seem to have gotten the exposure that it seems to me that they should have.

On the December 1 broadcast of 60 Minutes on CBS, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about a prototype delivery system where packages weighing five pounds or less could be delivered by an Amazon drone, right to a customer’s doorstop. According to Mr. Bezos, delivery could happen within 30 minutes of placing an order. On December 4, Google let the world know about a project where Googlians are playing with the concept of robots delivering packages using self-driving cars.

Neither of these things are possible today; there are huge practical and regulatory hurdles to overcome; for instance, I’m sure that the FAA would have a fit with drones flying all over Washington DC or Los Angeles, and I can’t even visualize the double takes people might have at having a driverless car with a robot in it pull up to their grandmother’s curb to drop off a fruitcake.

Human-robot interactions have been conceptualized and explored for over a century. Writers such as Isaac Asimov (I Robot,) Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric! The Pedestrian and others,) Television and film writers such as Rod Serling (Twilight Zone,) Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek Next Generation,) Michael Crichton (Westworld,) William Goldman (Stepford Wives,) even Hannah-Barbera with The Jetsons have postulated fictional human environments where we interact with robots in daily life, generally with unintended consequences. In most cases (even the Jetsons,) the result is dystopia. The phrase “unintended consequences” is, to me, inadequate for most of these examples.

After I saw the Google robot story, I did a search for  ‘Robots in Museum’ on Google. Thank goodness that most of what I found involved exhibits ABOUT robots and robotics, but I did run across a paper available at describing the results of an experiment involving a robot guide at the Smithsonian. “Minerva” is actually a second-generation robot used for a limited trial as a guide in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for American History way back in 1998. The paper primarily describes the mechanics and theory that guided how Minerva was built to navigate and interact with people and its space, with nothing substantial about how the bot communicated or shared information with humans.

More importantly, how does this tie into interpretation and technology? Hopefully not very much at all, but one never knows. As I’ve pondered this idea, it occurs to me that we’re already interacting with artificial intelligence, and most of us hate it.

Have you ever spoken with ‘Julie’ at Amtrak? Try calling 1-800-AMTRAK and you have to speak with ‘Julie’ no matter what your issue is. ‘She’ will ask leading questions and then try to interpret your response using speech recognition algorithms. There’s really no way to directly call an actual human at Amtrak; ‘Julie’ is the gatekeeper. ‘She’ is particularly annoying to me when I’m trying to get train status info, because no matter how late a train may be, ‘she’ will cheerfully remind me that “late trains can and do make up time!” Such trains may exist, but none that I have ever ridden.

In addition to ‘Julie,’ there are many companies where your interaction is limited to a silicon chip somewhere, and it’s difficult or impossible to speak to a human. As a species, we hate them all, yet they continue to proliferate. Our other common option for these common business interactions is probably through an app on a phone or tablet device.

And this is where we’re getting into the interpretive realm. We have apps for travel, for banking, for dealing with our utility company. We also have apps that will guide us through Museums, along historic byways, and help us understand history and nature. The success of both business and interpretive apps ultimately depends on public acceptance, which is partly based on what I call “user ergonomics,” i.e. how easy and intuitive and logical these are to use, as well as the usefulness of the content. A couple of years ago, I worked on evaluating some tour guide apps for a professional group. Some of them were great, and I was really pleased to learn about them, but a couple of them were about as useful to me as the tourism books I find in hotels; full of ads for crap I would never be interested in and high cost attractions that I couldn’t care less about. Once again, my maxim that content is far more important than technique (in this case, technology) was proven true.

The third tech news announcement in the past few days that interpreters really should be more aware of involves iBeacon from Apple. A “beacon” is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter that can send information to your phone and act as a sort of micro-GPS signal to pinpoint your location relative to itself, feeding you sales (or other) information. Though it’s being promoted primarily for commerce, what about using this to trigger interpretive content? This might sound similar to NFC (Near Field Communication) technology that’s used in some Android devices, but it has some important differences.

NFC technology uses a chip in an object that is sensed by your device when you’re close to it, with a maximum range of about eight inches. By contrast, BLE transmitters transmit data up to about 150 feet. In use NFC technology involves passing your device near a sign or object containing the chip to receive the information. With BLE technology, you could be “greeted” by your device and it could direct you to the object or feature in question when you’re within about to 150 feet of it. In an airport or a baseball stadium or other large indoor space, beacons could help you navigate an unfamiliar setting much more accurately than a standard GPS, because it can pinpoint the location of your device (and presumably you) in relation to itself. The downside to all this is that, without a good and complete understanding of what information is being exchanged between the BLE server and your device, you might not have any idea of what information you’re providing to the provider, and who knows where the information goes from there? By the way, these beacons were apparently activated in all Apple stores last week, but they’ve already been in use in other locations, such as Citi Field, home of the NY Mets.

So what does this all mean? I’m generally a fan of Google culture. I’ve been able to work with some Googlians regarding mapping and geospatial issues. Google Earth is a wonderful research tool for history, nature, geography and culture. Google maps are my go-to navigation technology. Yahoo and Bing are poor relations in the search engine realm. The Chrome browser is so much slicker to use than Firefox or Safari. I have a more nuanced relationship with Amazon. My personal ethos is to purchase things locally from physical vendors, even at a slightly higher price, because it helps make a healthy economy, but Amazon is my go-to for basically anything that I cannot find locally. That’s becoming more and more common for me these days. I also appreciate and value technological innovation.

But the drone and robot ideas make me more than a little nervous. I can’t help but compare Amazon drones with military drones. I can’t help but wonder about how they could be hacked, or shot down by unhappy people being buzzed. I can’t help but be creeped out by the thought of having C-3PO ring my doorbell and ask me to sign for a package (worse yet, do a fingerprint or retinal scan!)

Honestly, I think that these are colossally stupid ideas. I’m a bit more sanguine with the thought though, that these are merely PR puff pieces. It’s not lost on me that the 60 Minutes story aired on the night before cyber Monday, and that the Google story was just a few days later. These two notoriously closed-mouth companies never, ever really talk about upcoming innovation that they’re working on.

Apple’s iBeacon idea is something I think I need to digest some more. I always worry about my privacy online, and I do check privacy policies for social media sites I use. I’d like to know more about what a beacon gleans from my device. On the other hand, as a content provider, I really like the idea of having my visitors have the opportunity to get enhanced interpretive multi-media information simply by coming into proximity to the feature I want to interpret. Done properly, again concentrating on content and a simple interface, the possibilities really intrigue me.

But what will ideas like these lead to for interpreters? Have we lost ground professionally by adding more apps and technology to the list of interpretive tools? Will we, or could we eventually be replaced with robotic interpreters? Content and talent is always more important than tools. Regardless of whether we are interacting with a visitor one-on-one or whether they are viewing an exhibit on-line or listening to a phone tour, themes and well thought out material will always enlighten, inform and enthrall in a much better way than any flash or fancy technology can do on its own.

Still, this all just makes me a bit nervous.

Digital Dysphoria, or I Use Both An iPhone and Android, Sometimes Simultaneously


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photograph of two cell phones
photograph of two cell phones

iPhone 5S and Galaxy SIII

I have to admit that I’m a huge Apple fan. Not as big as I used to be, since I’ve lost about seven pounds in the past month, but I really like Apple products. So it was with a lot of geeky delight when my brand-new iPhone 5S arrived in the mail. It replaced my three-year old iPhone 4.

The 5S is the one with the fingerprint sensor, where you can get it in gold (mine is grey) and it has a blindingly fast processor that most of the current apps can’t utilize. I’m really glad that I have it, but when I paid the Visa bill, I had more than just a bit of buyer’s remorse. These things ain’t cheap, you know.

Coincidentally, about three weeks ago, my employer replaced my nearly five-year old Blackberry with a Samsung Galaxy III running the Android OS. It has a huge touch screen, seems a bit thinner than the iPhone, and has the feature that lets you ‘bump’ music files or other data to a friend on the same platform. I think that this is an NFC (near field communication) chip, but I’m not sure. It also runs flash, which is verboten within the Apple iOS. The change from a Blackberry with a physical keyboard to this sophisticated smartphone when I’m getting used to both a new iPhone but also Apple’s new iOS7 has given me what I can only describe as a bit of digital dysphoria (hey! look it up!)

I don’t want to be drawn into a pointless debate about which phone is “better.” If you like one platform over the other, that’s great, and perhaps I’m even interested in your opinion. You’re certainly entitled to it, but I wanted to share some of my personal observations. I’m thinking that outside of people who review these things for a living, there probably aren’t many people who regularly use both platforms., so here’s my very unscientific review of both.

“Wait a minute!” you cry, “what does this have to do with interpretive social media?” Quite a bit, I think. Here at Media Platypus, we’ve gone into many odd places, from talking about ceramic tiles used for QR codes in Brazil to analyzing Facebook metrics, to 3-d printers to our outright fawning over the genius of our patron saint, George Takei. I think that in this case, knowing something about the end user experience on different platforms should be considered by app developers and interpreters who use or utilize social media. So again, here’s my anecdotal review:

The Galaxy III has a larger screen, 4.8″ versus 4″ for my iPhone. However, it generally doesn’t look as crisp and sharp as the Apple Retina display. Turns out that this is due to something called “pen tile” display. According to engadget, Samsung believes that you’ll put the phone farther from your eyes than you would an iPhone, so the difference would not be readily apparent. To me, there is a difference in crispness. Additionally, Samsung is kind of cheating on screen size by incorporating the ‘home’ button into the screen. It is so small, and with a similar sized Samsung label on top, it’s difficult for me to tell which end is up when I pull the phone out of my pocket. The visible, round ‘home’ button on the iPhone makes this a lot more obvious.

The Galaxy III is louder than my iPhone, for ringtones, voicemail on speaker, and .mp3 files, but the speaker is pretty crummy compared to my iPhone. I’m not sure how a speaker half the size of a fingernail can have any fidelity, but my iPhone has better low-end response and resonates a bit more. I would call a draw on the included ring and alert tones, though I really love the Sci-Fi ringtone on my iPhone for my crazy friend Robert. On the Galaxy, I really like the default mail alert ring of a bell. It seems just right.

Ergonomically, I definitely like my iPhone better. There are a whole lot of bells and whistles on the Galaxy SIII that add more richness to the user experience, but things like a vibration when I go from landscape to portrait orientation, or a tactile vibration as I type on the virtual keyboard just annoy me and constantly make me wonder if something is loose on the phone. On my iPhone, there’s a resonant click when I use the keyboard, which seems a lot more suitable for something the size of a phone.

This goes into how users interact with technology generally, and frankly I like Apple ergonomics generally better than other manufacturers, whether it’s my Macbook Pro, my iPad or my iPhone. I also use a Lenovo laptop and of course the Galaxy phone, as well as a Dell desktop on occasion, but the Apple organization, tactile feedback and sounds just seem more organically appropriate, EXCEPT for Apple’s stupid refusal to adopt a two button mouse for computers, but even that is mitigated by the wonderful trackpad experience compared to any PC trackpad I’ve ever used, but I digress.

photograph of a cell phone and user's manual

The Galaxy SIII with its owner’s manual of 34 pages and safety information for 61 pages.

Closely related to ergonomics is the concept of intuitive use. How simple is it for you to divine how to use technology? Here, it seems pretty close to me, but again I’ll have to side with my iPhone, if for no other reason than comparing the instruction manual. The photos ought to show you which one the manufacturers believe to be more intuitive. For me, the most glaring disconnect with the Galaxy is that re-arranging the icons to get my most-used apps to come up first is just complicated enough that I haven’t really done it yet, and it’s disconcerting that my home screen seems to show different icon screens every time I unlock the phone. I’ll assume that this is probably user error. Ditto with my problem with apparently turning off the ringer at least once per day as I put the phone into its case.

photograph of an iPhone

iPhone 5S with its owner’s manual of zero pages

Just to make it weirder, I still have trouble figuring out how to shut down and re-boot the Galaxy. In fairness though, I also had to figure it out for my iPhone, but now that I know, it still seems more intuitive.

I’d like to be complimentary toward the Android keyboard, but it just doesn’t work for my style, though that’s probably because I am better used to the iPhone spacing, which is slightly different. My typo rate is probably 25% versus 10%, and the Android OS doesn’t do auto-correct, but instead suggests alternate spellings, if you’re smart enough to actually look at them, which I’m not. All things being equal, I honestly preferred the physical buttons on my late Blackberry, but that was pretty much the only good thing about it. By the way, on the Galaxy, the voice command button sits right next to the spacebar, and it’s hard to talk to something that you don’t really have much in common with, but in fairness, Siri and I are only mildly acquainted as well.

Apps are one place where there is a clear difference, certainly in app production and sales. In a certain way, I do like the freedom of Google Play compared to Apple’s App Store. As of July, Android apps (roughly one million) beat App Store apps (roughly 900,000) but I’m not sure if quantity is a good metric of what is “better.” I’ve tried to set up the same apps on both the Android and the iPhone when possible, and frankly Google Play seems just a bit more easy going when searching and downloading apps than Apple’s app store does. Maybe it’s because I’m not rigidly locked into the Appleverse. In any case, though I’m not really a gamer, I’ve been impressed with all of the apps I’ve seen. Just to be fair, my tendencies are toward social media, productivity and apps that play old radio shows, and this probably isn’t a fair comparison to sophisticated gaming apps. In any case, the apps all seem to work well on each platform.

I could go on pointlessly for quite a while, but perhaps not. I’m learning to peacefully coexist with both platforms, even though there is some intermittent confusion. Both are good phones. I’m aware that the Android seems to drain the battery more quickly, but if I turn off location services on some apps I’ll get a longer battery life, but that might allow more people to call me, so I’ve gotta think about that.

I’d really appreciated (constructive) feedback about your experience on either platform, so feel free to let me know what you think. All in all though, I think that I’m pretty happy that I didn’t get a Windows phone:


Just Say Boo! Using social audio for interpretation and beyond


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This month’s AHI UK post comes from Dr Bill Bevan, Secretary of the Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI). Thanks Bill! I’ll see you in November. Lisa Keys, AHI Committee Trustee.

Over to Bill…

Social media comes in many forms, not solely the platforms available to communicate by. We can post using a range of media from 140 characters of sharp comment to complete movie channels. Audio adds another dimension to the communication tools we have at our disposal.

Two popular social audio platforms are Audioboo and SoundCloud. Both have feature-rich free accounts and fee-based upgrades. Audioboo allows you an unlimited number of three-minute ‘boos’, while SoundCloud gives away a total of two hours uploaded audio.

Both allow members to post audio, create groups of recordings, and to follow and make comments on other posts. Some of their most powerful features are the standard suite of sharing options, allowing you to post your audio on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter as well as embed audio into your webpages.

So what can you do with your audio? My focus is on Audioboo, which I have used regularly because I like the ability to post an unlimited number of clips and the focus on brevity required by the three-minute limit. With sharp editing, three minutes is long enough to communicate an idea while retaining audience interest. Examples of uses include a site manager, curator or live interpreter talking about a feature, object of subject, ambient sounds of a nature reserve, species-specific recordings, traditional or commissioned songs and music, a smartphone accessible audio tour accessed over the cell network or via wifi, an oral history excerpt or a clip from a conference presentation.

Source material can be recorded professionally or on-the-fly. I have recently used the AudioBoo iPad app to record excerpts from presentations from the recent AHI conference and uploaded them immediately to the AHI Audioboo account. Anticipation, contextual listening and timing are essential to create meaningful clips. In a wifi-enabled environment I was able, within a couple of minutes, to take a photo of the speaker, add a description and share the boo on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Geotagging was done automatically. I could even tidy up the edit there and then. These promote the conference to potential new members, enable menbers unable to attend to feel as if they are there and form part of the online publication of presentations.

AHI Audioboo page

The AHI 2013 conference Audioboo board of sound clips

I have also recently used Audioboo to publish clips from an oral history project from a community project in Sheffield, UK. Oral history interviews were recorded using digital recorders, and then three-minute clips were selected via written transcripts to be edited in Audacity. We have embedded these into the project’s WordPress site and used them to populate the Walkley Digital Memory Map.

With many other creative ways to use audio, it can give a different dimension to online and social media communication and interpretation by delivering the personal connection that comes from listening to a person talk or hearing sounds of place.

Dr Bill Bevan MAHI

Secretary, Association for Heritage Interpretation and owner,

The popularity contest everyone’s tweeting about!


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Forest and Bird e-poster. M Herrick.

OK so New Zealand has a lot of birds. And we’re pretty proud of how unique they are – I mean 87% of them are found nowhere else in the world! We’ve named ourselves after one of the weirdest ones – kiwi.  So it’s no wonder that when Forest and Bird Protection Society launches its annual ‘Bird of the Year competition’ we all jump up in a flurry of ruffled feathers to vote.

Forest and Bird e-poster. M Herrick.

Bird of the Year competition/campaign advisor, poster-designer and general go–to person Mandy Herrick  says that the competition is about celebrating our native birds and highlighting the threats they face.

“The voting page outlines the threats to each species of bird, and outlines how special they are by giving the public the latest (often rather grim) population figures,” says Mandy.

“Last year’s competition received 10,292 votes and we received just over $3,000 in donations.”

Look a little deeper, beyond the figures and the ‘pretty birds’ and you find that there are some very clever reasons why this competition is so successful. Here are three…

1)    Forest and Bird invites people to become ‘campaign managers’ for their favourite bird and makes it easy to do so.

Celebrities make great ‘campaign managers’ of course, but anyone with a passion for birds can be one. These ‘campaign managers’ tap into their own networks and connections, star factor, and ‘friends’. They make the most of the power of word of mouth. “Like me, like my bird!”

Last year, NZ comedian Raybon Kan campaigned fiercely for the karearea under the tagline “NZ’s got talons” and won the competition.

“Enlisting people (celebrities or otherwise) who are passionate about our birds is key,” says Mandy. “One campaigner went to extreme lengths to raise the profile of their bird by inking his bird onto his body last year (the tieke). Let’s just say this really raised the bar!”

2)    They make the campaign visually rich by creating e-posters and sharing these via twitter and Facebook.

“We give campaign managers the chance to create their own poster or they can just give us a tagline and we’ll create a poster for them,” says Mandy.

Forest and Bird e-poster; M Herrick.


3)    They keep the “buzz” going with regular updates and postings.

“Last year, we did regular graphic updates of which birds were polling well. This always creates a boost in voting and pushes the smack talk to whole new levels,” says Mandy.

“(The competition) created a conversation about our birds and it’s fun. Some people run information-rich campaigns, others concentrate on more superficial characteristics of their bird; i.e. their looks. Any which way, it helps to raise awareness, and hopefully will lead people on a path to becoming more aware of our birds, and perhaps protecting them in the future.”

So, if you like this post, make sure you vote for the bird that INNZ is backing this year –wrybill/ngutu parore. Wading in with personality and pizzazz it’s the only bird in the world with a beak that is bent sideways – and always to the right!

Why vote wrybill? Because we are all a little bent!


P.S. there’s been no mention of rugby, hobbits or Flight of the Conchords in this, or my last post, so I’ll leave you with this tenuous link – Jermaine Clement’s Pretty bird clip.

How Does One Say “QR Code” in Portugese?


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Those who know how truly boring my thought processes are understand that I like QR code applications. Some people may study sunsets, or varve cross sections in sandstone, or the sociology of the poor unfortunates who don’t know how tasty peanut butter and dill-pickle sandwiches are, but I’m stuck with QR codes and a love of old films. Heck, some people even seem to focus on sports trivia. Can you imagine that?

A qr code set in a tile mosaic on a sidewalk

A qr code set in a tile mosaic on a sidewalk

A while ago, I ran across an article about the city of Rio De Janeiro embedding QR codes into sidewalks in tourist areas. In the photos I’ve seen, they are mosaics made of tiles, and in my limited knowledge of Rio, I think they look kind of cool. Perhaps more importantly though, they provide a somewhat reliable and obvious and presumably easy to spot information source for tourists and visitors in an unfamiliar place. Frankly the idea of embedding these in a pathway seems like such a great idea that I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about it earlier.

two women holding ipads over a qr code in the sidewal, trying to scan it with ipads

Here’s one problem when you’re not nine feet tall.

In the work I’ve done using these codes in signing or brochures, we’ve always been concerned about how they would fit in with the design and not detract from the written or photographic content, but those Brazilians went in the opposite direction by embedding it literally underfoot, making them hard to ignore.

I really, really like this idea. It’s a variant of hiding something in plain sight. Contrast this with the “PoP” or point of purchase display for popcorn that has a qr code linking to product information:

popcorn POP displayBy the way, I’m not unaware of the slightly amusing nature of a “PoP” display for popcorn. If you can’t see the QR code, it’s in the middle right, above the text. It would be easier for store visitors to see than you might think, but it’s not nearly as bold as Rio’s sidewalk placement.

So why is this important? Several reasons. It gives further legitimacy to the impact and persistence of QR codes. When I first started promoting use of these about three years ago, one of the adoption fears was that they might be transitory technology, soon to be eclipsed by Microsoft Tag, or RFID chips in phones. Today, QR codes are pretty common. I see them in ads, in technical documents and instructions, and I’m very pleased to see them in many interpretive sites. As for the competing technologies, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers seems to be nearly alone in using Microsoft Tag, and RFID chips for commercial transactions haven’t really seem to have gained traction in the US, though they are more widely used in Europe and Asia. No one other than me seems to worry out loud about id theft from RFID chip sniffers, but I noticed last week that some phone case manufacturers are advertising their cases as “RFID shielded” so that must be a problem after all.

But back to Rio– this is also important because Rio de Janeiro will also be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics, bringing in even more people to visit her beaches and spectacular scenery. Though English and many other languages are spoken down there, Brazil’s language is Portugese, which isn’t nearly as common as English or German or even Russian. QR codes (and the necessary blanket of wifi, long-range wifi, mifi or good cell coverage) can act as sentinels to people from around the world in a very kinetic and confusing place. Smartphone deployment worldwide continues to be astounding. Since I just ordered a new iPhone to replace my iPhone 4, I’m well aware of the sticker shock of a high-end smartphone, but the saturation of low cost smartphones is very high, and nearly all of these devices can read QR codes.

In reading about Rio’s deployment of these codes, people have worried about vandalism of the tiles– what if someone changes tiles to link to inappropriate content? Who would want to look at the sidewalk near those glorious beaches, the tanned and fit Brazilians on the beach? How do these fit into the overall aesthetic of Rio de Janeiro? These are really the same concerns we have with any use of these codes, or really any use of technology. We used to worry about anarchists putting “bad” qr stickers on our interpretive signs, but then again, every parent in my mom’s generation used to gripe about us watching the Three Stooges. “You’ll put your eye out!”

Oh yeah? Where are all the one-eyed people of my age then?

(By the way, since I don’t speak Portugese, I have to rely on Google Translate. According to them, “QR code” is translated as….. “qr code.”)




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