Apps in the park
With attendance down, Parks Canada looks to smartphone technology to get urbanites out exploring historic sites and the wilderness
By Graham Lanktree with illustration by Ksenia Nigmanova
|Illustration: Ksenia Nigmanova|
A monolithic concrete pillar rises above the hip new condos and offices that have replaced the hearts of derelict factories on the shores of Montréal’s Lachine Canal. Its inscrutable purpose seems lost to time and is unknown to its neighbours and passersby.
|See what the neighbourhoods are like around the Lachine Canal.|
Yet from where I stand on the south side of the water, this giant’s secret is about to be revealed. In my hand is my iPhone which has been loaded with “Wave,” a new audio tour app designed by Parks Canada to guide visitors through the sights and sounds of this area’s industrial past.
In my headphones, a digital cascade mimics drops of falling water as a narrator explains that in the 1930s, molten lead was poured in a controlled drip from inside the top of the 50-metre-tall column. Forming tiny spheres as it cooled and fell into a pool of frigid water below, these lead balls created buckshot for the steel mill that once occupied the refurbished Art-Deco building nearby.
“The way that the canal appears today, you can see bits and pieces of its industrial past,” says Katy Tari, project manager for app production with Parks Canada on the canal. “But there’s no explanation here on the ground of why this is or what happened to the area before today.”
The people of Montréal, she says, are very attached to the canal and interested in learning more about its history. With the development of condos and other new building projects around the community, more and more people are heading out on the paths threading its banks to bike, walk their dogs and wander around enjoying the architecture and outdoors.
“These visitors don’t want a real guide to show them around,” says Tari. “They want their questions answered, but they want to explore the canal on their own. So it's very convenient and unobtrusive to have an app by their side.”
That's why Parks Canada is launching six apps for Apple and Android smartphones and a proprietary device called Explora at the Lachine Canal National Historic Site this May.
Each covers a different section of the 14 kilometre length of this manmade waterway, helping visitors explore the canal’s construction and the economic impact the old flour, steel, rope and paper mills lining its shores had on the city and the country at large as the birthplace of Canadian industry.
These geo-referenced tours harness the GPS within each device to locate the user’s position and alert them when they’re close to a point of interest. Loaded with archival images of some the buildings which still stand today, as well as audio, video and text, users can delve as deeply into the canal’s history as they’d like.
“By being there, visitors get a very different experience of the place,” says Tari. “Looking at the things around them, they’re suddenly inspired to examine details that they may not have noticed without the aid of this kind of tool.”
|The Lachine Canal “shot tower” near Atwater Market. (Photo: Parks Canada, M Boucley)
Using smartphone technology to reveal more about our city streets and the world around us is rapidly becoming the norm for urbanites and tourists who want to see beyond the landmarks that stand before them. In 2010, the popular travel guide Lonely Planet released comprehensive app tours of major international cities. And other apps, such as the Museum of London: Streetmuseum, offer a decidedly historical bent, letting users point their phone’s camera at London’s buildings to see archival images of what stood there before.
“In Montréal we have all sorts of people using these new technologies,” says Tari. “These things are part of the future and people are going to be working with them more and more.”
Despite predictions that a slower economy would mean more Canadians would get out to enjoy the natural riches in their own backyard, over the past decade Parks Canada has witnesses a steep decline in attendance at both national parks and historic sites compared with peaks in the 1980s and 1990s.
2009 alone saw a nine percent drop in attendance nationwide, and visitor numbers at a popular park such as Banff have only grown by one percent in the past five years.
Overseeing new media projects with Parks Canada, Tamara Tarasoft hazards a guess that the poor turnout is due to the fact that many boomers have put their camping days behind them and that a growing number of Canadians have never gone camping at all. Today, eight out of ten Canadians live in urban areas, and of those, 20 percent are recent immigrants.
“Creating apps is all about reaching people in ways that they want to and can be reached,” says Tarasoft. “From surveys, we’ve seen that people want to explore our sites with the help of technology, and I think that having apps will go a long way to attracting younger people and a more urban audience.”
Once out in the woods, though, urbanites won’t be left to fend for themselves. Tarasoft’s team is developing two new apps that focus on the basics of camping, such as how to launch a canoe and how to cook outdoors.
Other national historic sites and parks will be offering tours with mobile technology as well. Thirteen sites across Canada are either working on app tours or will have them up and running this summer, including Cape Spear, Signal Hill, Grand Pré, Fort Rodd Hill and Kejimkujik.
Actual guides, however, are still a very important way to experience these places and shouldn’t be forgotten, says Kevin Kee, the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing at Brock University. “If they’re good,” he says, “guides can bring alive things that you would have never been interested in before.”
As a former Parks Canada guide, he should know. Yet there are inherent strengths and weaknesses in both apps and guides, Kee says. “The strength of an app tour is that it’s essentially about the user, their time, pace and interests.”
Last October, when Kee and a group of his students launched Niagara 1812, a historical app tour, part of their goal was to create an experience that captured the strengths of interacting with real people. During the tour, users consult with ISAAC, an artificial intelligence, which sends them on a quest around Niagara-on-the-Lake to help pin down some uncertain historical facts about the War of 1812.
“We wanted to push the interaction that the user has with the app as far as we could,” says Kee. “At base, people like learning. And if you can allow a person who’s sitting on a subway to interact with the history and learn about what’s in the parks, you have a chance at getting them out there.”
With my iPhone in hand back on the Lachine Canal, Katy Tari tells me that with all the developments in the area, there’s a real urgency to hold on to what this place used to be.
“Our goal is for people in the community and Montrealers to think of the canal as something more than just a place for recreation, but a historical place,” she says. Like radio, the internet or TV, apps are simply a new way of spreading the word.