Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: Next Exit History

Next Exit History is an app (available for iPhone and Android) that makes information about specific sites or places available via a Google maps interface. It was produced by a collaboration of the Departments of History and Engineering and Computer Technology at the University of West Florida, with contributions by Wirehead Labs, a mobile software and platform design firm based in Pensacola, Florida. 

At present the portions of the Next Exit History interactive map that I was able to explore are principally stocked with information provided by the Historical Marker Database ( and the National Park Service. Correspondence with company representative Tim Roberts revealed that Next Exit History's app is in the very early stages of development, and its designers hope to create "a very simple and intuitive system whereby content contributors can easily transfer existing or new interpretive material related to historic sites into a user friendly mobile environment." Although they are exploring monetization strategies, they hope to continue to allow those downloading and consulting the app, as well as submitting organizations, to use it at no charge.

The company's website largely relies on a video to describe their application to potential users. It is candidly commercial in tone, describing heritage tourism as a major component of the tourism industry marketplace, and notes that the company's services bring this aspect of tourism into contact with the rapidly growing smart phone market. The video's main purpose seems to be to recruit local groups and organizations to contribute materials to Next Exit History's nationwide interactive map, available through their app.

At the same time that Next Exit History's video promises contributors help in reaching "an increasingly mobile and technology-dependent population," it argues that the app promises to provide "high-quality historical interpretation."

This is an uncertain prospect at best. Roberts admits that "We exercise very little editorial control over the content. The sheer volume of material we hope to bring in precludes any serious editing, so rather than vetting the information, we focus on vetting the source. All materials that are placed into the database are labeled with the entity or professional that uploaded them and they are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the information. With that said, we are creating a `social' aspect to the app and website whereby users can comment on sits and content, rate them, and  `flag' them as inappropriate if necessary."

This sounds like a viable and judicious way forward from a business point of view, but it does raise a potential problem in regard to the quality of historical interpretation provided.

I would imagine that many historic sites and other organizations interested in adding materials to Next Exit History's app would be staffed by professional public historians eager to add legitimate interpretive resources to it. A number of other groups and organizations will in all likelihood not have the benefit of this professional capacity however. The materials that they submit would be less likely to meet the interpretive standards that Next Exit History claims for itself. I would also imagine that a least a few organizations contributing to the database/app would weigh the chance to provide the public with engaging interpretive materials against the opportunity to create resources primarily aimed at increasing visitor totals, especially in light of the overtly commercial rhetoric employed in the project's online video.

I know from experience that resources of the latter type would be extremely unlikely to contain discussions in anything but the most general terms. It is not difficult to imagine that they would also lean heavily toward emphasizing a site's positive qualities, in terms of overall visitor experience, at the expense of any real discussion of historical themes or debates.

The project's forthcoming upgrades, allowing comments on submissions, will provide users with an opportunity to benefit from others' impressions of materials' value. Presumably a number of users would eventually compare largely promotional submitted materials to more interesting and challenging resources available through the Next Exit History app, and subject them to criticism. Thus the more honest and challenging materials would gradually come to command more respect than those serving as de facto advertisements.

Nevertheless, as I see it, Next Exit History will depend upon professional historians and laymen devoted to the study of history to contribute high-quality materials to its database. This group would include historians employed by contributing groups and organizations, as well as individuals not directly connected to a particular site's administration, but still knowledgeable about it. In a nutshell, if historians and like-minded laymen adopt Next Exit History in the spirit of Wikipedia, the project has great potential.

The prospect of nasty interpretive battles over controversial sites, such as those pertaining to the Civil War or Native Americans, does exist, and the posting of partisan (in the broadest sense) materials can threaten to undermine the app's credibility. This is a problem beyond the Next Exit History team's ability to rectify, and was discussed by the late Roy Rosenzweig in "Can History be Open-Source:Wikipedia and the Future of the Past" (

Rosenzweig did not foresee a bright future for the type of open-source history that Next Exit has to offer. The above-mentioned temptations may be too much for interested parties to resist. I believe that such a project will struggle to maintain credibility without some form of central editorial control, and may become known as a haven for wildly divergent interpretations posted by individuals who see history in simple terms, but we will have to see what transpires.

If contributors are able to provide a stream of judiciously prepared materials, users will likely believe that the app provides them with a fair overview of historic sites and other like attractions, and it will attract a significant audience. If the materials submitted skew toward the overtly promotional or tendentious however, I see a less promising future for Next Exit History.

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