The University of Tennessee Community Partnership Center (CPC) has led the development of a mobile tourism application to encourage asset-based economic and community development in Knoxville. The CPC partnered with community organizations to develop content for Knoxville African American Tours of Cultural Heritage, a walking tour app to promote African-American heritage and cultural tourism in Knoxville.
The walking tour app features 14 historically and culturally significant sites in and around downtown Knoxville. Via a map of downtown Knoxville, tour app users can read brief narratives about the importance of each site, view photos of notable people and events related to a particular location, and view 4-6 minute videos on the historic and cultural significances at 10 of the 14 sites. “With this cultural heritage tour, we hope to create an immersive experience and a new way for people to view historic content and learn about notable people, past uses of particular buildings, or happenings at significant sites while standing at or near the site,” said Eric Ogle, the project’s leader. “Whether you are a visitor or a local, we think everyone one interested in Knoxville will want to view the tour.”
All the content in the app was created by local historians, artists, designers, and software developers drawing upon the remarkable archives of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. The Beck Center is a part of the Knox County Library System that researches, collects, preserves, and exhibits African-American achievements and culture. The Beck Center was the lead community organization involved with the project, while The Carpetbag Theatre, a local performing arts organization, created the digital stories, the 4-5 minute videos that provide virtual interpretation of ten sites on the tour.
The interface design and user experience was led by Sarah Lowe, Associate Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Art. Lowe’s research centers on the development of interactive educational experiences that explore various topics of cultural heritage. Speaking on the innovative aspects of the tour app, Lowe says “Researching information within the confines of an archive and then visiting its source site is often a disjointed experience. Mobile technology now allows us to present and immerse visitors in an archive’s information and location simultaneously.” Lowe was involved at an early stage of the project, including a group of her design students from the School of Art in the ideation of the preliminary web-based tour. Now working in the mobile environment, she designed an interface that facilitates user-friendly access to the Beck Center’s archives. Lowe adds “It is pretty powerful to go stand at the corner of Summit and Jackson and view archival photos and watch the video that shows what a vibrant community that area once was.“
Providing the programming for the iPhone app was software developer David Levi, who recently started up his own company, Double Apps, Inc. Levi was drawn into app development primarily through games, and has some gaming apps on the App Store, but the geo-location aspect of this project was of special interest to him. Levi is a software developer with 20 years of experience, and with the content available for this tour he was able to program a lot of functionality into the app while creating a scalable framework that will enable the Beck Center to add additional tour sites and content to the app for years to come.
“The beginnings of this project came before the iPhone and other smart phones even existed, so a lot of the pieces to app were already in development. We already had a web-based tour in development so with the popularity of the iPhone, it just made sense to develop an app for that platform.” Ogle added, “David put a lot of innovative programming into the app that operates behind the scenes, and when paired with Sarah’s intuitive design, we have an efficient and well-functioning app that will set the standard in location-based touring apps.”
In addition to the iPhone app, for non-iPhone users there is a mobile web version of the tour, as well as one tailored to laptop size screens that will be coming online soon.
From an economic and community development point of view, the project intends to attract people to downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, encouraging them to stay in the community as long as possible. This tour will get people walking around, eating, shopping, and visiting retailers at their own pace, all while exploring the history and culture of Knoxville’s vibrant African-American community. Perhaps as important, building on Knoxville’s rich historic assets, the tour app will serve to enrich the cultural identity of Knoxville and thus instill a sense of place and community among residents. Original funding for the project came from US HUD, with recent support from the Downtown Chamber of Commerce .
The CPC anticipates the Beck Tour to add more tour locations in the months ahead, but will initially launch with 14. Those involved with this app foresee the Knoxville African American Tours of Cultural Heritage as the first of many location-based tourism applications sure to come for the City of Knoxville and the State of Tennessee.