A city's history, made mobile

Anne Trubek
Tech It Up!

When Kris Pickel moved to Cleveland to take a job with a local television news show, she wanted to learn more about her new home. So she downloaded Cleveland Historical, a mobile historical application developed by the Center for Public History and the Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University. “I've spent hours walking around using the app. It's a great guide and introduction to Cleveland's history. I love downtown Cleveland and this app definitely helped spark that feeling.”

Cleveland Historical, which is available as a native app for iOS and Android and optimized for display on the mobile web, is just one of several dozen similar apps, each with their own twist on digital history. The majority, like Cleveland Historical, take advantage of a smart phone’s GPS capabilities to guide the user through the history of a neighborhood or a city, via text and photos and video.

For Cleveland history, launched in 2010, Mark Tebeau of Cleveland State University helped to create over 500 geo-located entries about the city, ranging from the history of John D. Rockefeller’s 700-acre estate, Forest Hill, to a video of an African-American man’s memories of riots in the Hough neighborhood in July 1966. You can choose pre-loaded tours of Cleveland Food Traditions, Sacred Landmarks and the Shaker Lakes Freeway Fight.  Once you click on the green pins that appear on the map, you might be able to listen to a narrator tell a story about that spot, see an archival photo or read about the history of a house, intersection or monument.

Clevelanders have cottoned to the app: the site has been downloaded over 8,000 times and the website, http://clevelandhistorical.org, has had 50,000 unique visitors. Just as importantly, Cleveland Historical is knitting together a community of people interested in sharing the stories of their city.

“What is distinctive about Cleveland Historical is not just that the technology is cool but that the storytelling is coming from the community, “ says Tebeau, an associate professor of history at Cleveland State. “The most exciting parts of the app, for me, are the stories that teachers and students developed. We get to see history anew thought their eyes.”

Building the site has been collaborative. Over 200 Cleveland State University students, dozens of high school teachers and their students, as well as several community organizations and individuals have helped. Nowthey are offering walking tours for groups who want to look and tap at Cleveland’s present and past together. The contributors are adding about 100+ stories per year, and by training students, teachers and community groups, they expect to add 250 new stories this year, and perhaps even more in 2013.

Tebeau decided to launch his project on the mobile web, because “mobile is the future of digital. These devices are creating a paradigmatic shift in how we interact with digital and each other. It’s been claimed that 80% of all internet access will occur on mobile by 2016. So we built the app to tap into that economy of scale. We wanted our stories to be available to people easily, anytime and anywhere.”

Cleveland Historical uses Omeka, an open-source publishing system. Tebeau and the others behind the app are lending their model to other cities through its Curatescape mobile platform. Spokane, New Orleans and Baltimore have already signed on. “Each city is taking a different approach but using the same basic idea—to involve the community in creating the narratives,” says Tebeau.

The model behind Cleveland Historical is just one approach being taken by those developing historical apps. Time Travel Explorer takes you through London through old maps and historical photos. The New York Public Library’s Biblion explores the 11939-40 World’s Fair and was chosen as an “outstanding app for readers” by Wired magazine. In Pennsylvania, ExlporePAhistory.com developed PA Markers, an iPad application focusing on historical markers. In Portland, a social history app is making a case for itself on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, where their current campaign aims to raise $3,000 so they can go live.
Other apps promise to make tourism or trips back home more fun. With PhillyHistory.org, you can use with your GPS-enabled smartphone to see historical photographs and “map your memories.” (I used to live in  Philadelphia, and by tapping in the address found a 1950s photograph of my former house.) Montreal, Then And Now allows you to compare how places in that city look today to how they looked one hundred years ago.
It Happened Here describes famous events that happened in a number of cities (if you are visiting Boston, you can find out where the Boston Strangler murdered his first victim). They accept user-generated submissions for events.

Cleveland Historical allows users to share their impressions through Facebook, Twitter and email. Locals particularly love to hear the oldest voices, such as Mel Rose of Rose Iron Works, the oldest continually-operating decorative metalwork company in the UnitedStates. “I don’t have blood in my veins,” Rose says as historical photos of his craft ironworks flick across the screen. “I have rust.” Another popular story is the interview with Joe DeCaro, who sold produce at the 100-year old West Side Market. Shortly after Tebeau and his team taped the interview, DeCaro became ill with cancer, losing his ability to speak. Luckily, his words can still be heard. Just tap on your smartphone.

More History Apps:

History Maps of the World: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/history-maps-of-world/id303282377?mt=8

Timeline Eons: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/timeline-eons/id433352152?mt=8&ls=1

Virtual History Roma:

World War II Interactive: http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/world-war-ii-interactive/id437200190?mt=8

Freedom Trail Walking Tour: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/freedom-trail-walking-tour/id355207897?mt=8

History Hangman:

Gay History Project: http://itunes.apple.com/app/gay-history-project/id318764084?mt=8

Georeader: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.phodder.georeader