Lessons Learned from the Realisation of the GATE IT Applications

Guntram Geser, Salzburg Research

This article summarises important lessons learned by the GATE pilot sites in the realisation of their new IT applications. The pilot sites developed applications of information technologies for different kinds of tourism offers, including the Bletterbach area and gorge (part of the World Heritage Dolomites), the nature park Parco Rossi, the Trail of Perceptions of CAI Alpago, and the offer of hiking trails for families with small children in the Pongau region in the Country of Salzburg.

lessons-learned_visualThe main lessons learned relate to the topics of collaboration in multidisciplinary teams, narration and content, flexibility of IT applications, participation of users in the development, and of course the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Projects aimed to make nature experiences accessible to all require the collaboration of a team with multi-disciplinary expertise.
independent L., who coordinated the development of the Bletterbach Gorge Virtual Reality Experience, observed, “that the exchange of experience and the integration of subject-specific skills in a wide range of areas is of crucial importance for the success of the product and the subsequent user experience”.
The Parco Rossi project team emphasised, “To develop a complex project of innovation, the winning strategy is the ability to work in a multidisciplinary team, where processes of knowledge sharing, collaboration and problem solving are activated. To realize an accessibility project you need to know how to be inclusive”.
In the development of the Trail of Perceptions of CAI Alpago also had to collaborate closely with public and private entities. The 24 km long route crosses through the areas of three municipalities and seven ‘regole’, which are collective properties belonging to local families. This required agreements and cooperation with and among these entities based on a common understanding and willingness to support in making the trail barrier-free as well as the installation of iBeacons.
In GATE, the opportunity the pilot sites had to discuss pilot ideas, the development and specific issues with other partners of the cross-border project also often helped to implement solutions according to best practice.

Required expertise
The expertise necessary for a successful IT application includes project management, user-centered design, content creation and integration, technical development, and ensuring access to and usability of the application for everyone.
Excellent project management enables all team members to play to their strengths, and together drive the project forward, against all odds (even the Coronavirus crisis). User-centered design requires involving end-users, particularly people with disabilities, early on in the project and up until the final testing and launch of the application.
The required specific expertise regarding content, technology, access and usability depends on the type of IT application to be developed. While some IT solutions are relatively easy to implement (e.g., a standard Web app or WordPress-based website), for others highly specialised skills regarding both content and technology are required.

Narration and content
Not every IT application has a narrative dimension, e.g. the main purpose of the Kinderleicht Wandern website is to provide information about the existence of easy hikes for families with small children. If the application is narrative, dedicated work is necessary for the storyboard, interaction design, and creation of the multimedia content, which may include texts, speech and sound recordings, images, videos, graphic animations, and even historical re-enactments as in Parco Rossi’s INgame.
In the case of CAI Alpago’s Web app ‘Trail of Perceptions’, rich content for 14 points of interest (with iBeacons) has been created, and the musical path with parts of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony plays a great role in emotionally binding together the stories about the cultural landscape.
The more specialised the technology is, the more effort is necessary to create and particularly integrate the content for telling the story. This is the case with the Virtual Reality (VR) experience of the Bletterbach Gorge and the Augmented Reality (AR) in the INgame chatbot of Parco Rossi. It also applies to the fine-tuned integration of physical elements (e.g. panel, relief, Braille), Capacitive touch sensors and recorded stories of the Villa Rossi 3D model.
Work by specialised providers was necessary for the VR, AR, 3D printing and touch sensor solutions, of course. The high standards of such providers regarding professionalism, technology and content greatly add to the successful realisation of a project.

Flexible applications
In the end, what counts most regarding the IT application, be it VR or AR, a chatbot, a multimedia guide or a WordPress-based website, is that it be as easy as possible to access and use by everyone. However, the application must also work for the operator as regards costs of maintenance and updates, for instance. In this regard, it is worth noting that the flexibility of a Web app makes it easy to keep information up-to-date and add new content, such as adding points of interest (with iBeacons) on the Trail of Perceptions or, thanks to the Web-CMS WordPress, new easy hikes to the Kinderleicht Wandern, for example.
More important for the inclusiveness of an IT application is choice regarding modes of use. The Trail of Perceptions app and Parco Rossi’s INgame have text and image or audio for visually impaired people as basic modes. Videos in INgame have a dramaturgy and a voice-over that supports this group of users. Historical re-enactment videos with speech come with Italian sign language or subtitles in the English version for users with a hearing impairment.

Participation of users
As mentioned above, people with disabilities should be involved in the development early on in the project and up until the final testing and launch of the IT application. However, the client and operator of the solution must be involved too, as they also have to support the goals of the heritage or tourism organisation.
The pilot sites used various methods to ensure that the final products would meet the requirements of the end-users as well as of the organisations. These include, among others: Workshops of the developers with staff of visitor centres, museum curators, and experts for digital accessibility. Meetings with people with disabilities to present the project and collect user needs and suggestions. Following the principles of Design for All and user-centered design, e.g. involving people with disabilities as consultants in the design phase. Testing of the functionality, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines compliance and usability of the IT application. Presentation of the beta version and collection of feedback at public events. Online feedback by tourist offices and hotels. Final testing in the field, e.g. in the park or on the hiking trail, including technical aspects (e.g. Internet connection, GPS location, interactivity of iBeacons), and interviews on user satisfaction. The pilot sites received many helpful suggestions for the design and improvement of the developed IT applications. Regarding the involvement of the end-users in development, the CAI Alpago group notes, “The opinion of end-users is more important in the development phase than in the test phase. In fact, if the involvement of end-users takes place only in the testing of the application, it will not be possible to change the general functioning of the tool, but only to modify the existing one.”

Impact of the COVID-19 crisis
The health protection measures against the Coronavirus obviously had a strong impact on the pilot sites. Some of the work was completed already in 2019, but starting from March 2020 the development of the IT applications at times was disrupted, particularly where face-to-face and on-site work was necessary. The Kinderleicht Wandern, which did not require on-site work, went online in July 2020, but the other pilots could not roll out their applications in the summer season. Meanwhile all are tested, completed and available for the next season, and there are plans on how to proceed.
However, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis goes much deeper. On the one hand, there is an increased demand for being in natural environments, hiking and visiting nature parks, and it must be ensured that people with disabilities are not left behind. Organisations with a mandate and expertise for this should now boost their efforts, and may actually benefit from the heightened interest in nature tourism. On the other hand, all operators of tourist facilities must come to terms with the requirements of health protection and the sensitivity of visitors regarding contact with other people and things. The need to keep a certain distance from others will require limiting the number of visitors at peak times as well as managing their flow through reception and exhibition spaces.
Moreover, the IT installations for visitors with controls to be touched, e.g. keyboards, touchscreens, headsets and others, will be affected. With the COVID-19 crisis, such installations have been closed down, and in the future many visitors will remain sensitive and not use them. Therefore, in the coming years touchless controls based on voice and gesture recognition will be an important topic concerning IT installations for the communication of cultural and natural heritage.