Mobile Archive: EWU Creates Spokane Historical App

Looking for a little history on the Spokane area? There’s an app for that.

Thanks to the Spokane Historical application, a collaborative project with interpretive stories developed by students and faculty in the Public History Program and Department of History at Eastern Washington University, smartphone users operating on the Android platform can access GPS-enabled points of interest on tours of the city and surrounding areas.

Released this week and still in Beta phase after a year of development, the app currently has approximately 10 themed tours with a grand total of 50 stops, each detailing the rich history of the site via text, photos, audio and even video.

The app was the brainchild of Larry Cebula, a man who serves a dual-employment role between the EWU history department as an associate professor and director of the public history program and the Washington State Archives as an assistant digital archivist for the state.

In a subject that brings to mind images of dusty tomes stacked high in a dark library, Cebula has merged his two employment roles and teaches a digital history class, which gave birth to the idea. “I’ve been interested in infusing digital technologies into the history education for quite awhile, and creating a mobile app seemed exactly the right thing to do,” he said.

Content within the app was created by students in Cebula’s digital history class last spring. “Students followed their own interests, with some supervision, as to which tours to create. We have everything from sites related to Bing Crosby to tours of Peaceful Valley and the EWU campus,” he said. “This is something that will continue to grow and do so quite quickly. I’m teaching the class again this quarter and students are adding to it. There are even two graduate students working on it for their MA projects. One is doing a tour of the parks of Spokane and the other the cemeteries of Spokane.”

Using Google Maps, each tour has multiple, GPS-marked stops with historical interpretations tied to them. But users don’t have to follow a specific path to unlock the interesting stories within our community, the app allows freewheeling exploration – you don’t even have to leave the house if you’re not inclined.

“When you pull up the map, you’ll red balloons that mark historical places. You can do it as a tour and visit those sites or just visit what’s immediately around you,” said Cebula. “You can also explore all of this content from the spokanehistorical.org website.”

Still in Beta release, Cebula acknowledges that some formatting issues exist but also mentions that the stumbling blocks are all part of the learning process. He hopes the majority of issues will be addressed within a week or so. “We’re aware of a few problems and bugs and we’re working to resolve them, but you have to remember that this is foremost a learning platform for my students. It’s not created by professionals,” he said.

As the digital face of the public history program, Cebula hopes to turn it into a community project going forward. “In the future, I would like to work with other groups and individuals and companies that would like to help with this. We’d like to find some partners to work with to help tell all these stories,” he said.

As the project grows and tours are added, Cebula also hopes to bring sponsor on board to help offset development costs. “To date all the professors in the history department are supported by a $7,500 pool to use for professional development. I really have to thank my colleagues as unanimously voted to put $6,000 of that toward this project. It was a big vote of confidence,” he said.

With the app’s launch, the investment in technology and the community by the department will begin to pay dividends that could reach far into the future and change the image of history majors from library fiends to that of digital storytellers available at your fingertips. “This is the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” said Cebula. “I’m really proud at how this is turning out.”