I had the pleasure of speaking at Nesta’s ‘Digital Technology in Parks and Open Spaces: Busting Myths and Exploring Opportunities‘ conference yesterday. Whilst I had been invited to talk as a ‘digital expert’, I’d contend that my ‘expertise’ was borne from trial and error over time rather than anything more academic. With digital technology changing our relationship with place so rapidly, it is a time for us to test possibilities and share experience as part of a wider digital place-making movement. This is what makes digital so exciting and I’m glad to be part of the collective experience.
A couple of personal reflections
One thing that I learnt from the conference was that there is a distinct difference between the technology – the tool – and its application – the relevance to people. Technology can be seductive, meaning that its purpose as a tool can sometimes be overlooked. In particular, digital technology is usually about accessing relevant content – the information required by people for a useful purpose. Digital practitioners need to really think about this content and avoid conflating it with the technology. Rather than thinking ‘we need an app’, think about the content that such technology is meant to deliver and to whom.
Another reflection relates to the digital information itself. There is a need to think about how that content can be used and accessed after the technology to deliver it has long been made redundant. This implies that there is still a place for traditional archiving, activities and physical interpretation in an increasingly digital world. After all, who can still access those files and folders on floppy discs and even CD-ROMS that seemed like essential information at the time?
My presentation looked at digital technology and reaching new audiences, and in particular highlighted how in the context of parks and open space, the digital tool needs to be related to a marketing strategy. It is not a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Through experience borne from 3 case studies since 2010, I shared 3 lessons:
I hope that my own experimentation with digital in parks and associated sharing of learning helps contribute to better, more inclusive digital projects in the future. My presentation slides are set out below.
I’ve learned how important thinking about audiences is when undertaking digital projects. Reaching audiences is about marketing, which means you should consider already engaged audiences are potential advocates. The relevance of the information that your digital product provides is crucial. Content is king.
Digital projects are part of a bigger picture. Your digital product is there to connect you and your site to your audience, which is why it forms part of your marketing strategy. This bigger picture is always about people – until we are supplanted by machines as depicted in countless sci-fi movie scenarios, this will always be the case.
I have been working on digital projects in environment and heritage contexts since 2010, so have been able to refine project approaches since then.
Developing a trail-based heritage app at Coalhouse Fort in 2010 included the requirement for the app developer to use community developed content.
The Heritage Lottery Fund loved the approach, in particular the ability to involve local communities in creating the content for the digital heritage trails. The relationship developed with the Heritage Lottery Fund later unlocked a much larger grant for physical improvement works (a different story for another time…).
The experience at Coalhouse Fort drew the attention of Essex County Council, then involved in a European programme focussed on Forts and their landscapes as a catalyst for heritage tourism.
The project included 21 sites in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, including well known cities such as Lille, Bruges and Ypres.
Developing 21 apps would have been prohibitively expensive, so attention turned towards developing a simple ‘tool box’ that allowed partners to put together their own heritage trail apps. While this model was affordable and innovative for its time, the questionable quality of a few heritage trails demonstrated the importance of getting content right. It also felt as though marketing was an after thought for some. The project as a whole was a success however and the app has had well over 10,000 downloads to date.
The principles of community engagement learnt at Coalhouse Fort in 2010 were combined with the app-making tool box developed for the European ‘Walls and Gardens’ project in 2012 for a community-led project in Thames Chase Community Forest. Volunteers received training on the ‘toolbox’ and are now actively working to digitise paper trail leaflets into apps with visual content. These are actively marketed as part of the wider marketing work of the Thames Chase Trust.
There were clear opportunities for volunteers to write, take photos and film or record thoughts and feelings about local heritage and landscape. These represented the content used for the trails.
Reflecting on experience will allow you to do better next time…
The digital technology is there to link your audience to you and your site. It is therefore part of a bigger picture that includes marketing. Bear this in mind when planning your digital project.
Those audiences already believing in what you do are worth their weight in gold. They love what you and your site represent and so you should think about how their enthusiasm can support the development of a more robust digital product. Digital projects do not have to be technical and inaccessible to lay people. They can lend themselves to community engagement.
People come first. Not technology. As such, think about what your audience needs by way of information, and use the technology to get it to them effectively. Content is king!
Other thoughts… There is a huge body of open data out there that if organised and made accessible via digital technology can be relevant to a particular audience. Communities that are confident with open data have an exciting time ahead of them connecting needs to solutions using technology. Those without digital confidence can work with digital experts to build digital capacity through support arrangements. Empowering people through training and support is something that can be built into project plans and actively support project outcomes. Finally, commissioning skills are important as they allow you to shape your project in relation to the bigger picture. For example, you can specify requirements such as engaging with communities to create content, liaise with marketing teams to get the word out, and build in support packages that add value to project outcomes.
I was delighted to have been asked by Nesta to share my reflections at their ‘Digital Technology in Parks and Open Spaces’ conference. I would be equally happy to share any further thoughts or provide advice for your digital project. Just get in touch!