Jan 03 2013

Desire Paths on the Digital Landscape

Guest Post, Members, Teaching Resources

This is a guest post by Steve Gano, one of the project leads for the American Museum of Natural History’s UBN and UxN Hive NYC projects.

It’s challenging to keep up with the latest digital tools, and a particular challenge for educators and youth program mentors to know what are the latest and greatest tools that will engage their youth and also get the job done.

In a Hive NYC project just completed by the American Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the team came up with a fruitful metaphor for a community-sourced knowledge base that can help everyone navigate the digital tool landscape, and we produced and tested a proof-of-concept web app to demonstrate it.

The project was “UxN”, a follow-up to the Urban Biodiversity Project (UBN), a collaboration between AMNH, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Global Kids.  UBN developed a custom hybrid mobile+web platform to enable youth to collect data and images of natural habitats in their neighborhoods, and to upload them to a social networking website where they could annotate, organize, and share their observations.

The UBN program depended on that single, new, custom platform, and when it went down, all work stopped. The resources for ongoing maintenance and necessary upgrades of the platform were not in the cards. But new open source digital tools for collecting data in the field, like Ushahidi and Open Data Kit, were starting to pop up, so rolling our own made less and less sense.

So UxN would take a different approach. It would define a “meta-platform”, that is, a constellation of enough digital tools such that someone could stitch them together on the fly to define a platform for a particular program or project. If one tool doesn’t work or isn’t available, there should be alternative tools that could fill in. The “x” in UxN said that this approach could work with any subject domain, like biodiversity for AMNH (let x=B, for UBN), or design (let x=D) for our new partners, Cooper-Hewitt.

We started by creating a spreadsheet and wiki for collecting community knowledge about digital tools, and filled them in with what we had learned so far from past work. In March the Cooper-Hewitt team, Monica Harriss, Marianna Siciliano and Katie Shelly, hosted a focus group where we could test some of our assumptions and resources in a custom offering of their Design Prep curriculum.

AMNH Youth Initiatives coordinator Nathan Bellomy accompanies UxN focus group participants on their field work in Central Park.

UxN focus group participants

The youth participants were challenged to explore Central Park to discover and document opportunities to design something to improve peoples’ experience of the park. They could choose from a smorgasbord of digital tools, and had “how-to” info printed from the UxN wiki, as well as adult facilitators to help out.

The focus group showed us that we were on the right track, but maybe a few paces behind. The youth were very facile at picking up different tools and trying to make them work together. Some had their own tools they preferred over ours. Few consulted the printed how-to’s, though our post-event survey showed that they would do so if no one were around to ask and they couldn’t figure it out themselves.

Reflecting on the work so far, I was reminded of the oft-told story about a university campus where the landscape architects didn’t lay sidewalks on the green of a new complex, but waited some months to see what paths the students made on their own, and then let those “desire paths” determine where the sidewalks should go.

A desire path is “a path that isn’t designed but rather is worn casually away by people finding the shortest distance between two points.”

A desire path

This seemed an apt metaphor for what we were observing. If we could make visible the desire paths from one digital tool to another, it could help youth (and adult mentors) choose the best tools for their job.

A well-trodden desire path makes visually explicit two very important facts in finding one’s way through the digital landscape:

              • it is possible to get from here to there
              • a lot of people have done it successfully
Using the digital desire path application.

Using the digital desire path application.

We quickly sketched out some ideas for an app that could capture and display digital tool usage, and used a handy Javascript library called jsPlumb to build a prototype. In April, youth in programs at C-H and AMNH used the “desire path” app to record their digital tool usage. They reported that it was easy and fun to use, and a fair amount of usage data was recorded. The app let them rate how difficult and how useful a particular tool or tool combo was to use, and to add comments to explain their ratings.

So we have a compelling proof-of-concept prototype, which you can explore on the development site.

Digital desire path app input and visualization screens.

Digital desire path app input and visualization screens.

There is not enough data yet to be really useful in making choices about digital tools, but enough data to get a sense of where it could go.

A white paper is available that goes into more detail about the evolution of UxN, the development of the digital desire paths application, and some thoughts about next steps; see the link below. The source code is freely available on Github for anyone who might want to dig in and take some next steps with the app.

Using Digital Desire Paths to Help Youth Navigate the Digital Media Landscape

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