Sunday, May 13, 2012

Group Project - War of 1812 Smart Phone App

(Note: I started this blog post on April 24, the day we handed in our final project, as per usual life got in the way, and as a result I have just now finished it!)

This morning, I handed over the final draft of our public history group project.  A good portion of our time this academic year has been devoted to the development of content for a War of 1812 Historical and Commemorative Smart Phone App.  This project has certainly been a learning experience, and not just about local history related to the War of 1812.

A little background about the project:  We partnered with the War of 1812 South Western Ontario Region, Tecumseh Parkway Committee, and Western Corridor Alliance to produce a regional smart phone app.  Our portion was to provide the historical content about Procter's retreat from Fort Amherstburg in the fall of 1813.  This included researching 22 sites from Amherstburg/Windsor area to London relating to this campaign which culminated in the Battle of the Thames where Tecumseh was killed.  To make the project a bit easier to manage, we were divided into four groups of three, and each group was given a selection of geographically close sites.  (My group had all the sites in the Amherstburg/Windsor area.)

Tour of 1812 Sites
We started by taking a bus tour of most of the sites last fall.  We were accompanied by representatives from South West Ontario and Tecumseh Parkway, to give us some background on the area and the 1812 sites (as much of this was new to us.) We learned how after the Battle of Lake Erie, the armaments from Fort Amherstburg (present-day Fort Malden) were used to outfit the HMS Detroit, leaving British General Procter low on supplies and with little choice but to retreat from the approaching Americans lead by General  Harrison and Commodore Perry.  The leaders of the First Nations alliance, most notably the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, did not wish to retreat.  However, retreat they did, up the Thames River, until the two sides met on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, just two miles outside of Fairfield.

It was a significant victory for the Americans, seeking revenge for what they considered the River Raisin Massacre.  It was also quite a blow to the First Nations - whose leader Tecumseh was killed during battle - and the British.  General Procter found himself court-martialed the next year as result of the retreat and the battle, effectively ending his military career.  (This has been your cliff-notes version of Procter's Retreat...)

Once the groups were decided and sites assigned, we commenced our secondary source research.  Books such as Glenn Stott's Greater Evils: War of 1812 in Southwestern OntarioSandy Antal's A Wampum Denied, and George Sheppard's Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada were passed around the office, and each small group hunted for resources pertaining to their particular sites.  

We started to visualize what we wanted the app to look like, and how we hoped people would use it.  Grand visions of interactive time-lines, moving maps, and fancy interfaces left many of us feeling overwhelmed and in over our heads at first.  As we started to scale back and just concentrate on our content - developing an interpretive plan, and coming up with a narrative - the project started to seem more manageable.

After turning in our secondary source research report, we had an opportunity to talk with the company we were told would probably be handling the technical side of the app.  We had been contracted for content, they were taking the content and creating the actual app.  Reality set in as restrictions on images, audio, and video became a reality.  But at least now we had a framework we could work in.

Image from Windsor Community Museum
Following the winter break it was time for primary source research.  My group made plans in January for a trip back to Amherstburg and Windsor to spend the day at the Windsor Community Museum, as well as visiting the sites we hadn't had time to stop at on our first tour.  The visit to the museum was extremely helpful in acquiring many of the images that were ultimately used in the app.  We also spent many afternoons going over the resources at Western's Archive and Research Collections Centre, and hours pouring over digitized documents and images from Library and Archives Canada, National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress.

We turned in our carefully detailed primary source research reports, and it was time to start writing.  Hours of research now had to be summed up into 300 word text boxes with images and audio.  For some of us, keeping it short, sweet, and to the point was not easy.  We had to discuss with others what they were writing as well, to make sure not to waste precious words repeating ourselves.  Along with the 22 sites, we had also decided to address some of the themes we found reoccurring throughout the research, such as farming, transportation, and family participation during the War of 1812.  It was also necessary to provide an introduction, not only to the war, but also to Battle of Lake Erie to put the retreat in to context (as it is all about context...), and have a conclusion to the retreat and the war itself.  
Mock-Screen Shot for First Draft

Once assembled, this first draft needed to be edited.  We were taking content  about 29 different sites and themes, authored by 12 different people, and making it into one cohesive narrative.  That was a very long weekend for the group leaders and editors...

During the time between the first and second drafts were were thrown a curve-ball.  The partners had contracted an entirely different company to create the app.  The technical framework with which we had been working was going to change.  Work temporarily paused, and we knew that new specification from this company could change some of our plans.  How many images would there be per site?  What were the format requirement for the audio and video?  Was there a limit on the number of sites?  These were all important questions we had to address before we could start ordering digital copies of our images, paying for the rights to use them, and record our audio.

After a Skype call between our team, the partners, and Weever (the app company) we were all - for the most part - on the same page, and we kept working toward a final draft.  Weever was eager to start adding content as they were planning on a launch date in May, but we were still waiting for feedback from the partners on our second draft.  I had been serving as a large group facilitator, and I lost track of the number of email sent with images and audio.
Final Draft PowerPoint

Finally, I sent the last of the content to Weever, and gave Professor Mike Dove a hard copy of our final draft, along with a final budget and permissions for all of our images, audio, and video.  It is hard to express the relief that followed.  

There have been a few changes since turning in our final draft.  We were sent a temporary link to the app in progress, which I opened to discover our sites had been combined with dozens more in the south west Ontario region.  It had been decided rather than to do several small regional apps, to just do one large app.  This meant that while our narrative was still there, it was a bit lost among all the other sites.  There were also some edits that needed to be made to the content, and missing captions (which provided information about where we got our content - which was sometimes a condition of permission to use it.)  These issues are being addressed, and I look forward to having a final product I can proudly show to prospective employers when I start interviewing for a job this fall.

Like I said at the beginning, this whole process has been a learning experience.  Those of you who know me, know that I take great pride in my work, and like to have control over the process (that may be what lead me to the role of large group facilitator...) as well as the final product.  I had to keep reminding myself, especially toward the end of the project, that we were just providing the content.  It isn't solely our app, we were contracted to work on it.  

This also became part of one of the biggest lessons I learned about graduate school - it isn't always about the product, sometimes it's about the process.  Is this project what I envisioned it would be when we started? No, not even really close.  Did I learn a lot in the process?  Absolutely.  I researched in archives, made contacts with local historians, sought permission to use images, work on maintaining a project budget, wrote historical text for public consumption, leaned how to be flexible in a contract position, lead group meetings, and with my small group presented our project at a national conference.  So regardless if the end product is what I thought it would be, it was certainly a successful one!

Stay tuned for the Route 1812 app!  As soon as the final app is available I will be sure to let my faithful readers know!

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