This summer marks a major milestone for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden: 25 years as one of the country’s premiere public sculpture parks. The New Media Initiatives department’s contribution to the celebration comes in the form of a brand new website for the garden, a fully responsive “web app” that has been an exciting challenge to build.
The new site is a radical shift from the static, research-focused 2004 version, and instead becomes an on-demand interpretive tool for exploration in the garden, including an interactive, GPS-capable map, audio tour, video interviews, and short snippets called “fun facts.” One of the most exciting features is the new 25th Anniversary Audio Tour called Community Voices. Last summer we recorded interviews in the garden with community members, first-time visitors, and some local celebrities, and it’s all come together in this tour to present a fantastic audio snapshot of just how special the garden is to people.
The site provides light, casual information “snacking,” with prompts to dive deeper if time and interest allow. It gives visitors a familiar device (their own!) to enhance their visit at their own convenience.
Of course, we didn’t neglect our out-of-state or desktop visitors, but the site’s focus remains on getting people to the garden. For those unable to experience it physically (or for those frigid winter months), the new website provides a browsable interface to familiar favorites and up-to-date acquisitions and commissions.
Behind the scenes
Our proof of concept for the site was lean and mean, built quickly using open source tools (leaflet.js) and open data (OpenStreetMap). We didn’t have latitude/longitude positioning info for our public works of art, but as it turned out some kind soul had already added a significant number of our sculptures to OpenStreetMap! We set about adding the rest and knocked together a new “meta API” for the garden that would unify data streams from OSM, our Collections, Calendar, and existing media assets in Art on Call.
Next we began the process of verifying the data. We’d created custom map tiles for the garden so we could maintain the designed look and feel Eric was going for (look for a future post on the design process for this site), but it involved some compromises to make the paths line up visually. The New Media team spent a few hours walking the garden in the early spring, making notes on sculpture GPS anomalies, misplaced paths, and trying to avoid having anyone appear to be inside the hedges. No two devices gave the exact same GPS coordinates, so we ended up averaging the difference and calling it close enough.
It’s not a web app. It’s an app you install from the web.
As we discovered while building the mobile side of the new Collections site, a properly tuned webpage can start to feel a lot like a native application. We’re using swipe gestures to move between information “slides,” pinch and zoom for the map, and followed most of the tips in the forecast.io blog post (above) to further enhance the experience. We’ll never be quite as snappy as a properly native app, but we feel the cross-platform benefits of the web fully outweigh that downside. (Not to mention our in-house expertise is web-based, not app-based.)
Need for Speed
This was the make-or-break component of the mobile site: if it didn’t “feel” fast, no one would use it. We spent untold hours implementing just-in-time loading of assets so the initial site would by tiny, but then we’d have the images we need just before they were supposed to be on screen. We tuned the cache parameters so anyone who’s visited the site in the past will have the components they need when they return, but we can also push out timely updates in a lightweight manner. We optimized images and spread the map tiles around our Content Delivery Network to prevent a single-domain bottleneck.
Finally, and perhaps foolishly, we wrote a safety fallback that tries to estimate a user’s bandwidth as they load the welcome image: by timing the download of a known-size file, we can make a quick decision if they are on a painfully slow 3G network or something better. In the case of the slow connection we dynamically begin serving half-size images in an effort to improve the site’s performance. We’ll be monitoring usage statistics closely to see if/when this situation occurs and for what devices. Which brings me to…
I hope I’m right when I say that anyone who’s heard me speak about museums and digital knows how adamant I am about measuring results and not just guessing if something is “working.” This site is no exception, with the added bonus of location tracking! We’re anonymizing user sessions and then pinging our server with location data so we can begin to build an aggregate “heatmap” of popular spots in the garden. Above is a screenshot of my first test walk through the garden.
We’re logging as many bits of information as we can about the usage of the new site in hopes of refining it, measuring success, and informing our future mobile interpretation efforts.
Please visit the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden website and let us know what you think!