Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability

By Robert Stein

Sustainable Mobile Content
The 2010 Horizon Report for Museums highlights “mobiles” as one of two technology trends on the near-term horizon, noting that “Mobile technology has developed at a staggering pace over the last few years, and today affords many more opportunities for museums…” (Johnson, 2010) The recent explosion of mobile technology as an important way for museums to distribute content is undeniable. Dozens of new tools and companies have emerged in the past 24 months to address the needs of museums that are planning, producing and launching new mobile experiences. A recent Pew Internet survey indicates that 40% of American adults had access to the Internet from a mobile phone in 2010 (Smith, 2010), and studies from Gartner suggest that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common method for accessing the Internet worldwide. (Gartner, 2010)

With four billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, it’s clear that mobile devices and content will be an important means of access for museum visitors today and in the future. More recent anecdotal evidence suggests that these trends have continued to accelerate, and that an increasing number of museums are contemplating how they might deliver content via mobile devices. The Museums and Mobile Survey 2011 indicates that over half of large museums (annual attendance of more than 50,000) already have mobile experiences, and almost 70% of all museums say that their institution will “definitely” have in-house mobile content development within the next five years. (Tallon, 2011)

For museums, however, the relationship between museum content and technical change has always been challenging, given the dramatically different time-scales of the two disciplines. A museum’s primary “natural resource” is the content it produces in support of the concepts, collections, and programs that are the source of its mission. Museum collections evolve slowly over many decades, and the concepts and programming created to support the mission of museums are adapted continually, being more an evolutionary optimization of a consistent set of principled goals. This means that most museum content will remain relevant for many years after its creation.

Technology, on the other hand is defined by change. The well-known Moore’s Law states that the density of transistors on integrated circuits will double every 18 months. Applied to the rate of change in technology hardware, Moore’s law has proven to be an accurate predictor of technical innovation since the 1960s. In the last few years however, it seems that software innovation is out-pacing even this dramatic prediction. A recent New York Times article highlights the fact that innovations in software architectures and algorithms have recently trumped even the staggering pace of Moore’s Law for hardware innovation. (Lohr, 2011)

This defines a critical issue that is integral to understanding the relationship between museums and technology. How can museums flexibly adapt to the rapid changes of technical innovation while leveraging a body of content and collections that change at a comparatively glacial pace? Can museums create and maintain building blocks of content infrastructure that will last longer than any particular iteration of technology platforms?

The creation of open-software tools and standards for mobile tours and experiences that can be shared and referenced by museums and vendors would offer an effective way to answer many of these questions, and would provide a mechanism to ensure that content created today could be easily re-purposed and adapted to future generations of mobile platforms. Building consensus among museums and vendors for a description of mobile content, and building tools to aid in the adoption of this platform, are necessary steps to achieve the goals of content sustainability and cross-collection sharing that museums desire. A successful solution of this kind would provide a way to integrate and interoperate between a number of content-creation systems and mobile interfaces, allowing both vendor-provided and custom-developed application software to use the same set of content.

The key element in achieving such compatibility among mobile platforms is the existence of a specification—a common language—describing mobile content and the experiences they provide. In the summer of 2009, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) proposed a simple draft specification called TourML (pronounced tûrmoil) (Stein, 2009), which offers a working, but preliminary, example of what such a common language might look like.

In order to solicit a high level of input from the community, Robert Stein (IMA) and Nancy Proctor (Smithsonian Institution) organized several free community workshops, inviting museum staff members, academics and mobile vendors to join a preliminary effort to formulate just such a standard. In all, nearly 100 members of the museum community have played a significant role in these workshops, resulting in multiple subsequent revisions to the TourML specification. Notes from all meetings are available from the Museum Mobile Wiki, (Stein and Proctor, 2010) and the resulting TourML specification is available under an open-source license from the project’s Google Code Website. (Moad and Stein, 2009) A more complete discussion of the TourML specification was documented in a recent paper. (Stein and Proctor, 2011)

Figure 1. TourML used as an interchange format

Putting TourML to Work
Well-defined content specifications like TourML are particularly well suited to function as an interchange format or middleware between authoring tools and presentation tools. Figure 1 shows a proposed use for TourML as an intermediate layer in the publishing workflow for mobile tours. In this scheme, tour authors create content in museum-specific content management systems with support for TourML (i.e., the open-source content management system, Drupal). The content management system can then re-write that content as a TourML document. Both the document and all media assets needed for the tour can be bundled together in a single, platform-neutral package. Web applications or device native apps can be easily created to read the TourML document and access these media assets. Since the TourML document is platform agnostic, the same document can be used for apps on several different kinds of devices.

As a practical example of how TourML might be used, the Indianapolis Museum of Art released an open-source mobile tool called TAP in 2009. (Moad and Stein, 2009) TAP provides mobile tour authoring tools based on a Drupal CMS and publishes the tours as mobile apps for the web and iPod Touch/iPhone (Figure 1). As it builds mobile tours, TAP automatically encodes content elements using the TourML standard, so that whole tours can be easily exported from TAP to other platforms or future authoring systems. The goal is for at least 80% of a tour to be able to move directly across platforms, thanks to the TourML schema, minimizing the amount of human intervention required to customize the tour for its new environment.

Figure 2. Sample interfaces for TAP including mobile web and iPod versions

Since its release, TAP has been used by the IMA to provide five exhibition-related mobile tours and one outdoor mobile tour highlighting the museum’s Art and Nature Park. Figure 2 shows a few example screens from selected mobile tours. Since its release, TAP has been successfully downloaded and used by several other museums including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fleming and Kochis, 2011), and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. (Sully, 2011)
The Role of Museums and Commercial Partners
The prevalence of software vendors offering mobile products, and the lack of technical expertise on the part of many museums, leads to an important and nuanced relationship between the museum and vendor communities concerning the preservation of museum mobile content. The nature of commercial competition often makes it impractical for vendors to lead the charge for portability and preservation. In addition, without a consensus in the museum community regarding content definitions, tools that ensure content portability and preservation are all but impossible. Previous successes in defining content specifications and standards, such as those supporting collection metadata (LIDO, CDWA Lite, and Dublin Core), have been led by the content producers. In short, the onus of consensus and collaboration around content standards falls squarely on the shoulders of the museum community. But the importance of a healthy collaboration with a community of reliable vendors cannot be overstated. It is prudent to recognize the fact that museums cannot hope to keep pace with technical change without the assistance of commercial vendors who specialize in particular areas. Doing so allows museums to take advantage of the targeted capacities of the most advanced mobile products, while maintaining control of the creation and preservation of its content—a core priority of the museum. Partnership with commercial vendors to encourage adoption of standards, and ensuring that these standards help to enhance the vendor’s business, is the only sure way to secure the viability of such an effort.

Through a ratification of the TourML specification or another similar effort, museums can spearhead the adoption of this specification by the vendor community. In explorations of the feasibility of this effort, many commercial vendors have been very receptive to TourML as a potential specification for mobile content, and have been actively engaged in the mobile workshops that have been held. Some vendors have already integrated early support for the draft TourML specification into their products. Ideally, a healthy relationship and collaboration between museums and the vendor community in this process will result in a viable and sustainable specification that can truly produce the benefits we seek.


  • Fleming, Jenna, Kochis, Jesse, Getchell, Phil. (2011) “Launching the MFA Multimedia Guide: Lessons Learned.” Museums and the Web 2011, Philadelphia, Pa. April 2011.
  • Johnson, Laurence F., Levine, Alan, Smith, Rachel S. and Witchy, Holly. (2010) “Horizon Report: Museum Edition.” Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium, 2010.
  • Lohr, Steve. “Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law” – Technology – Bits Blog – 7 May 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.
  • Stein, Robert J., Proctor, Nancy. (2011) “TourML: An Emerging Specification for Museum Mobile Experiences.” Museums and the Web 2011, Philadelphia, Pa., April 2011.
  • Sully, Perian. “IPod/iPhone Mobile Tours for Everyone | Balboa Park Online Collaborative.” Balboa Park Online Collaborative | Museum Innovation Through Collaboration. 9 Mar., 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. .

One response to “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability

  1. Pingback: Embracing Mobile | Museum Minute

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