Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 4 - An Iodhlann
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
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An island app.
Why let a small thing like no mobile signal get in the way of developing an app to open up the archive on the island of Tiree? Frasan (‘seeds’ in Gaelic) lets locals and visitors alike access artefacts in a new and immediate way.
Ambition and energy around digital R&D in the arts is not restricted to urban centres or mainland facilities. Neither are the technical and technology skills – the app was developed by Tiree inhabitants.
An Iodhlann curated some of the key artefacts from their heritage centre, geolocating them to the 32 townships on this peripheral community of around 700 residents. Using HTML5, you can download the app and use it offline as you move around this gorgeous and wild landscape of the Inner Hebrides.
An Iodhlann, Tiree – Frasan App
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“The app has raised the centre’s digital profile, it has dragged us into the 21st century and has made us realise what we might be able to do” Janet Bowler
An Iodhlann, the heritage centre and archive on Tiree, worked with two technology partners based on the island to create Frasan, a multi-platform app that collates some of the archive’s artefacts and links them to the island’s 32 townships. The Digital R&D project fits into a wider move on the island towards becoming more digital, and is strongly linked to a continuing campaign for better internet access and more co-ordinated digital communication. The app also has links to other digital projects and collaborations with partners off the island, and the partners hope to develop it further in the future.
An Iodhlann has a collection of about 15,000 artefacts, including books, letters, sound recordings, photographs and maps, which are housed in the heritage centre’s building near Scarinish, the island’s main township. Some artefacts had already been archived digitally on An Iodhlann’s website, which is now being developed to complement the Frasan app.
One of the project’s main aims was to get more people to engage with the heritage and landscape of an island that has only 650-750 residents, where the main attractions for tourists are windsurfing and other watersports.
“Our problem is reaching out,” says John Holliday, chairman of An Iodhlann, and the island’s GP. “Not many people come into the building – some people find museums a bit intimidating, and one of the problems on Tiree is that much of our summer visitor influx is watersport-oriented. They rush past the museum on the way to the beach, and we wanted to give them a facility to engage with the history and culture of the island.”
There was also a desire to engage with the resident islanders, and making the centre’s artefacts available digitally allowed access to a younger demographic. “There’s a lot of young people on the island who don’t come in here. They’re quite daunted — it’s pretty text-rich and they’re used to using screens. Getting their attention was a big factor in taking part in this project,” Holliday says. “People like to use mobile screens in their own space and their own time. That’s key to younger audiences – if you want to work with a younger audience then you have to engage with them.”
The initial idea for the project came from Alan Dix, who lives on Tiree and is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham. He joined Mark Vale, a computer programmer on the island, to create the technology partnership. “We are at the edge here, and digital technology is more important because of that. We’re really trying to grapple with that tension of its importance and its difficulty at the same time,” says Dix.
That tension between the need for digital technology and the practical difficulties of accessing it was one of the project’s main challenges. The lack of web access and mobile phone signal meant that the app needed to work without the internet. “The island internet and mobile connection is a big problem,” says Dix. “The internet itself is quite low-grade, but from a mobile point of view there is literally no connection. You’re lucky to be able to get a phone call, let alone do anything that’s data-oriented. Our problem was how to design that in a way that would work easily with multiple phones, yet also work when people have got no signal.”
Dix used HTML and HTML5 to create the app, allowing users to download all the information and use it without internet access. Holliday then worked with Janet Bowler, An Iodhlann’s archivist, on creating the content.
Holliday’s interest and expertise in local place names led to the idea of geo-locating the artefacts, linking them to Tiree’s 32 townships. “I've got 3,500 place names on the island with stories attached, so I can locate the historical narrative to particular places,” Holliday says. “My role was to geo-locate the 3,500 place names, and Janet worked to go through the 15,000 items and find what we call our crown jewels — the ones that are particularly interesting and located in a specific place.”
The project is part of a wider digitalisation of life on Tiree, which islanders are embracing while attempting to maintain the island’s traditional way of life. “Tiree’s digital profile is actually very good,” Holliday says. “We’ve got websites, and a high-quality digital technologist on the island. There’s a lot we could develop for our own use, but we want to face outwards too to bring people here and to interact with the outside world. This app is part of it. I’m a terrific believer in the usefulness of digital powers to small, peripheral communities like this.”
The app will also be used to link the island’s data to other communities. “The way you’re visible in the modern world is through digital data, and we’re looking to become an open data island,” Dix says. “There are wonderful things about technology, but its easy to do things that are global in the modern world. The crucial question is how we can use digital information not to become global, but to enhance and open up and make rich and share the richness of our historical locality and our current local traditions.”
Frasan was launched at Tiree Tech Wave, a biennial event organised by Dix that brings technologists, artists and product designers to the island. Other digital projects on the island that are linked to the app include a digital communications development programme. “There’s a variety of projects that are separate but are all coming together to try to create some sort of integrated infrastructure,” Dix says. “Everyone thinks in a rural community that everyone knows everything – telling people about events and keeping them informed is actually very hard. We’ve got 650-700 people – the size of a medium to large street in a city – but we're spread over an area the size of Manhattan. So we’re also starting to install a number of information screens around the island to improve communications.”
Digital improvements have made a huge impact on the island. “People here are completely and utterly connected to the real world,” says Holliday. “The community used to look backwards, now it looks outwards and forwards. The internet has profoundly changed the culture and the intellectual environment of the island, the way the Second World War did, when 2000 servicemen were stationed here.”
The relationship between the four participants was good, and worked well, although the team’s small size meant that the workload was significant. The technical side of the project also encountered some challenges, particularly in developing the app for Android browsers. “There are technical things we’ve overcome, and if we’d known about ahead would have made us better prepared,” says Dix. “Technically I know an awful lot more now about the issues, and I would like to document that.”
There were also frustrations regarding the limitations of the app, both in terms of the amount of data that could be stored, and the problems of connectivity for the geo-location facility. “The fact that it’s been a very small-scale project has in some ways been frustrating,” says Holliday. “We’ve got a very big collection and we’d love to make a lot of this much more available. Where the project will lead is an interesting subject.”
Working as a team based on the island was key to the project’s success, and provided a set-up that will sustain future collaboration and projects. The centre will continue to develop its website, and John Holliday wants to use the knowledge he has gained about geo-location to expand his project on the island’s place names.
“One of the big things from an archiving point of view is that the geo-location skill is now embedded in our work, and that allows future presentation of the data to be much easier. That’s a huge step forward for a small place.
“We still need better coverage and to make the app data richer and to get over some of the technical limitations. Until we can do that then the potential is limited – this is right at the limit of the technology. But the project has produced a team that can do it in the future.”
Overall the team feels the project was a success, and that it has allowed scope for more digital development. “This has been a mind-enhancing process,” says Holliday. “I’ve got the chance to present some cherished, historical cultural items to a bigger audience, which is deeply pleasing. I’ve loved working with the team – it’s been great.”
“I didn’t realise before the project just how absolutely remarkable this centre is,” Dix adds. The quality is enormous, so to be a little part of making that more available is absolutely fantastic. As an academic I've been involved in multimillion-pound projects, with huge budgets, but I have never been more excited about anything than this.”
“I look after An Iodhlann’s website and am developing a new website for them, placing the archiving system on the web, so it’s completely accessible to the many people that have an interest in Tiree but aren’t here.
“There was a small group of us who moved here nine or ten years ago and we needed good IT connections because of our jobs, and there weren’t any – Tiree was a long way down the list for broadband. So we started a community broadband network fed initially by a satellite feed, and supplied about 40 households. It now covers about 120 households. It’s becoming a requirement of life – people won't book a holiday house here unless there’s broadband.
“Digital means more here than it might do in the middle of a city. There are things you can’t access here directly, but through a digital medium perhaps you can. It allows for remote interaction, for example Skype, or even just email. They are things that bring a physically remote community closer to the rest of the world.
“There’s a social shift that would potentially be of benefit to the island — with better communications, infrastructure and technology people can spend more of their time here. We have an issue around population numbers but we’re seeing a shift, and it’s changing the population of the island. That is all driven by digital infrastructure.
“The project was challenging because all of us have many other things to do. Scheduling was surprisingly difficult, but working together was easy and it worked very well. There were some issues around communication, and there are things that need polishing.
“There’s the will and the technology for the app to develop – it’s all quite open and modular and scalable, its ready to be changed. It’s just about pinning down what the progression will be.”
Archivist, An Iodhlann
“My work involved seeing what would relate in the most interesting and accessible way to the landscape. I tried to think of it from a user's perspective – what would they find most interesting while they’re out and about.
“It involved creating a text database and geo-coding all the items. The idea was that you could walk about the island and the app would flag up something close to you in the archive relevant to that position in the landscape.
“You could be standing in Scarinish harbour, for example, where there’s an old wreck of a trading ship, the Mary Stewart, and you could be looking at the wreck and also looking at a photograph from the archive of the ship in full sail – so it would really take you back in history in that one step.
“This is the way forward for archives, especially one as remote as this. A lot of our enquiries come from the descendants of Tiree people who emigrated, and for them to come here is quite problematic. We’re developing the new website to allow people to search online, so instead of coming to me, they can do it themselves, remotely. It’d take a lot of work, but ultimately we’d like everything in a digital form.
“The app has raised the centre’s digital profile, it has dragged us more into the 21st century and has made us realise what we might be able to do. We always realised that we would have to make the collection available to view online, and this was the first step in showing us how to do it.
“It was a lot of work, very interesting, and exciting to create an app for our little archive on our little island, putting us forward into the 21st century.”