Sakonnet Historical and the GPS Humanities Revolution

August 27, 2013

In the final months of his presidency, William Clinton ordered the United States military to unscramble the satellite signal it uses for global positioning, increasing the accuracy of civilian GPS from a 100-yard margin of error in the year 2000, to about 10 feet today. Immediate benefits included improved navigation for boaters and hikers, accuracy of systems utilized by emergency responders, and resolution of U.S. Geological Survey topographical quad maps. The Clinton administration also foresaw a boom in GPS-related industry and profits. The global GPS market is projected to be worth almost $27 billion by 2016, more than three times its value in 2000.

But it’s unlikely that President Clinton—or anyone else, for that matter—foresaw the benefits of highly accurate GPS to the humanities field, primarily through the linking of GPS and Smartphone technology.

On July 1, 2013, the Center for Public Humanities, in collaboration with the Little Compton Historical Society and the Tiverton Public Library, and with funding from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, launched Sakonnet Historical, a native Smartphone app and website for exploring historic places in Tiverton and Little Compton, Rhode Island, known collectively as Sakonnet. Students in the Public Humanities MA program served as researchers and writers, and they organized a community workshop in Tiverton. The students who have worked on the project so far are Gerald Carbone, Erendina Delgadillo, Abigail Ettelman, Ashley Bowen Murphy, Marjory O’Toole (who is also Director of the Little Compton Historical Society), undergraduate Josette Souza, and Anna Wada.

Users may explore individual sites through text, historic photographs, audio recordings, and videos; follow suggested tours; or conduct research using keywords and tags. The app currently includes 26 individual sites and tours of Tiverton, Little Compton Commons, and Adamsville, a village within Little Compton. The Adamsville tour grew out of an initiative of the Little Compton Historical Society called, “Remembering Adamsville.” The project included oral histories (some are included on the app), an exhibition, interpretive signage, and a book. The content on the app is not based on particular themes; instead it is a cross-section of people, places, and events that make the Sakonnet area unique. The history is hyper-local, but the researchers and writers often connect local stories to broader trends and events.

The project is part of a recent explosion of cultural and historical Smartphone apps. In Rhode Island, apps are being developed—or have already launched—for historic Newport and sites associated with H. P. Lovecraft (launches in late August). Mobile apps like Sakonnet Historical have begun to supplement or replace “traditional” site-based interpretation such as road side markers, guided tours, and cell phone tours. Some mobile apps use augmented reality, or AR, to enhance the user’s experience. AR is “a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.”

One of the better-known AR historical apps is Streetmuseum, produced by the Museum of London. This app allows users with GPS on their Smartphones, to hold cameras up to a present day street scene in London and see historic images of the same location appear on the screen, offering a “window through time.” Perhaps more accurately, the app allows users to shift visually in time from present to past and back again. This sort of visual overlay is of great use in “recreating” architecture, urban planning, and archaeological sites, and comparing them with present reality.

More recently, graduate student and digital humanities entrepreneur John Fisher launched Chicago Poets, a GPS enabled arts magazine. When users comes close to a hot spot—a work of art or a place associated with a piece of writing or music, determined by Chicago Poets—their Smartphone will alert them. Users will be able to view the text, sound, or video contained on the app.

Sakonnet Historical is still in its Beta phase, and we will continue to add content. It may also prove to be a model for similar undertakings throughout Rhode Island. It is available for download for Android and Apple Smartphones.

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