Exploring Your Landscape with Digital Public History

IMG_2872Today I explored Old Town Fairfax in Fairfax, VA with Clio (http://www.theclio.com) via a mobile browser (Safari) on my iPhone. I previewed the website on my computer first. I found that the website showed 3 historic sites in Old Town Fairfax, so I decided to drive to a park near the first location in Old Town and then walk from there.

Upon arriving in the park, I used the mobile site on my phone. It first asked for permission to access my location, which I granted it. It did a fairly good job of identifying my location (although it located me in the middle of the park, instead of along one side, where I was parked). Next, I clicked on the map and zoomed in to find the site markers, which were numbered 1, 2, and 3. It was a bit confusing though, because when I clicked on Site 1, it pulled up an info window for “Site 2 – Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center.” (See photo to the left.) Even so, the site in general, and the maps were very responsive, and were not too cumbersome to use on an iPhone.

Walking map produced by Google Maps

After clicking on the info window, a new page appeared, giving me more specific information about that site, including a description, map, address, hours of operation and a button to “Get Directions To Location.” I decided to try this last feature out. After clicking the button, my browser opened up a new Google Maps window, which supposedly gave directions from my “Current Location” to the site. Unfortunately, the map had my current location as somewhere in Maryland (instead of near Old Town Fairfax) and said it would take 46 minutes to drive to the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center. Once I refreshed the page and gave Google Maps permission to access my location, it then showed an accurate map with walking directions to the site from my current location.

Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center

Once I arrived at the first site, it was easy to toggle back to the Clio window and access the information about the site. The text description was very informative but was not overwhelming to read on an iPhone. If told the user about seasonal walking tours offered by the Center which showcased 3 famous buildings in downtown Fairfax: the Dr. William Gunnell House, the Ratcliffe-Allison House and the Fairfax County Courthouse. Later my walk between the three sites listed on the Clio website, I also walked right past the Joshua Gunnell House and the Ford Building, which were historically significant in their own regard. After my self-made walking tour, I wondered why these 4 other buildings were not included on the Clio website.

Overall, I had enjoyable experience visiting historic sites in Old Town Fairfax, as prompted by the Clio website. I created my own walking tour by planning out which sites to visit in what order by looking at the Clio map. I tried to use the “Get direction” feature as much as possible, just to test it out. Even so, because Old Town Fairfax is fairly small and I am familiar with the roads, it was easier just to look at the original location map and then find the way to the next site by myself, instead of constantly consulting the iPhone. My fiancé, who was with me, wanted to just keep walking from site to site, instead of waiting for me to get directions. Consequently, I spent a lot of time trying to walk and look at the phone at the same time, which did not work very well. Because I already knew the area, the mobile site was most helpful to me in identifying the locations on a map and then giving me short descriptions to read once I arrived. For out of town guests, I would assume that the giving directions part would be more necessary and helpful.

If this site (or one like it) were to be really helpful in assisting visitors in taking a self-guided walking tour of the historic sites in Old Town Fairfax, a couple things could be improved. First, more historic sites (like the ones mentioned above) need to be added. As I alluded to earlier, we literally walked by two historic buildings while traveling from Cilo’s Site 2 to Site 3. Because we were interested, we stopped and read the historical markers, which gave us similar information as Clio site did about each of their historic sites. These sites could easier be added to Clio’s website.

Ford Building
Ford Building













Joshua Gunnell House










Secondly, it would be nice to have an automated walking tour option. Because I knew the area and there were only 3 sites to visit, it was fairly easy for me to look on the map and create my own plan of which sites to visit in what order. But for visitors who are not from the area, it would be nice if this could have been automated. I could envision a site where you logged on and from your starting location, the mobile site would give you an overview map, with a path traced out. Then one might click “Get Started” and be taken to a directions page which would show you the Google Map walking directions to the first historic site. Once you arrived, the mobile site would recognize your geolocation (that you had arrived) and automatically show you the information about the historical site you were near. At the bottom of that page, there might be a button that said “Continue.” Clicking that would produce directions to the second site, and so on.

Right now, to produce an experience like this, one has to click on the info window of the first site on the overhead map, click on the “Get Directions” link, which opens a new window to show the directions. Then one has to manually toggle back to the Clio window, read the information, click the “Back” button, go back to the main overhead map, click on the next location, open its page, click on the “Get Directions” link, etc. This seems very inconvenient and might be frustrating enough to a normal user to cause them to discontinue their use of the mobile site. They also did not use any beacon or BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) technology to let you know that you had arrived at the site, or that you were passing by an important historical site. Using push notifications would have been helpful.

This site did not seem to be putting forth any of its own theories about history. It basically seemed to help a user locate (some) historic sites on a map and give a short description of each site. The text was just that — descriptions — and did not include much interpretation. If anything, it seemed to display the historic sites as separate entities, instead of part of one connected historical context (as most of them are important Civil War sites). Showing how these sites relate to one another would be helpful in creating a bigger picture of what Fairfax was like during the Civil War.

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