Digital Technology and the Humanities: A Nice Mesh and a Nice Niche

 

FloridaStories

FHC

Got a smart phone? If so, you might check out this app provided by the Florida Humanities Council and spearheaded by Jennifer Snyder (UF History PhD, 2013). Snyder is the director of digital initiatives at the FHC. She recently talked to the blog about the council’s Florida Stories program, her work on the program, and the path that led her to bridging digital technology with history. Read on–this is all quite interesting–and then download the app and hit the streets for a historic tour.

What is the Florida Humanities Council and the Florida Stories program?

The Florida Humanities Council is an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. We are dedicated to building strong communities by providing Floridians with the opportunity to explore the heritage, traditions and stories of our state and its place in the world. In order to reach an ever growing mobile population, the Florida Humanities Council embarked upon a new program–Florida Stories. Florida Stories is a GPS enabled app consisting of walking tours of towns and historic sites across the state. Florida Stories allows users to delve behind the scenes of Florida cities to learn more about our state’s rich history, culture and architecture. Tours contain audio narration written by noted historians and scholars, combined with synchronized photographs that make users feel as if they are being personally led through the sites.

How long has the FHC Florida Stories program been active and what are its origins?

Launched in 2015, St. Augustine is the first tour available on the app. Each tour is free to download from the Android and Apple stores and it works without an Internet connection.  As with most digital projects, the Florida Humanities Council’s  Florida Stories program developed over a series of brainstorms with partners, educators, and other stakeholders. The idea developed from one of our professional development teacher workshops. During a program in St. Augustine, we had an amazing guide who told behind-the-scenes history of buildings around the downtown area. When I checked to make sure there were any stragglers in the group, I noticed a few tourists joined us because they were curious about what was being said. St. Augustine suffers from the same issue as many small towns across the state–a lack of accessible, digital historical interpretation for the general public. As the oldest, continually occupied European city in the US, St. Augustine occupies a special place in Florida history. How could we tell this story in an engaging and digital way? Thus, Florida Stories was born.

What are the Florida Stories program’s objectives? Do you hope to establish a sizable repository?

The Florida Humanities Council received a generous grant from the state of Florida to help commemorate the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine. Instead of building an app that would only hold a St. Augustine tour, we instead decided to build a mobile platform that will accommodate up to 20 cities. We are currently working with a few cities across Florida and are hoping to open up a grant to encourage more communities to apply to be a part of Florida Stories.

Do you see any benefits of the program to scholars and teachers?

Absolutely! Florida’s Division of Cultural Affairs calculates that 74.9% of Florida visitors participate in cultural activities. Providing historic walking tours of communities encourages tourism and economic development. The Florida Humanities Council partners with scholars who are dedicated to bridging the gap between academia and the public. We plan to work together to create additional tours that are rich in content and highly accessible to the general public.

Education faces a lot of challenges, from diminished resources to an increased emphasis on standardized testing. Because it can be challenging to bring students to St. Augustine, we are working to bring the city and other exciting communities to them. We are collaborating with educators to establish a repository of lesson plans with every tour to also encourage collaboration between educations across disciplines.

How do you find your subjects and must they meet a prescribed criteria?

We are looking for 19 more cities across the state which have an interesting history along a safe and walkable downtown route about 1.5 miles long. The Florida Humanities Council will organize, record, and upload all tours while maintaining the software. However, we need good partners. Applicants and their community partners must be willing and able to research sites, write scripts, source high resolution images, and market the app .

Are you seeing more of these types of programs emerging across the country?

Programs like Florida Stories are not that widespread yet. But as of January 2015, more than 75% of Americans owned a smartphone, a number which has tripled from less than two years ago. We are rapidly becoming reliant upon smartphones for information and as we move forward, programs like Florida Stories will be integral to providing the population with high quality content.

What was your role in the development of the program and what is it now?

I am in a new role at the Council – Director of Digital Initiatives – so I was lucky enough to not only dream up the project, but also see it to fruition. I managed the conceptualization, design, and development of the Florida Stories app. I worked with the University Press of Florida and Dr. Buff Gordon to edit scripts, supervised the audio engineering, and uploaded the St. Augustine tour into the app. So, you can say I am a jack of all trades.

How did your training and work experience at UF prepare you for your work at the FHC?

My experience at the University of Florida helped my journey at every turn. Digital platforms are just another means with which historians can use to deliver information. Writing to a public audience, whether through a journal article, lectures or conference papers, demands a similar skillset. The research and editing abilities I refined during my time in the doctoral program have been absolutely critical for this project.

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