Mighty oaks from little acorns grow – A year in the life of an iBeacon project for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Wakehurst Place
First of three parts
Can iBeacon help to communicate innovation, science and the wonders of the natural world? At Kew Gardens we think it can—and we’re deploying BLE devices at one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens, to give users the chance to discover nature in a whole new way.
As the IT Product Manager at Kew Gardens, I’m tasked with helping to preserve our history, to help share research projects which sometimes last hundreds of years, and to spotlight everything from architecture to the changing seasons to over 1.3 million annual visitors.
The public doesn’t always realise that an institution like Kew has an incredible history of innovation. But even for an institution which has been a global leader in innovation and botanical sciences, there are still challenges in trying out a new technology like beacons.
When I joined Kew in early December 2013 as an IT Product Manager, it was a new area of work for me and the organisation. I’d previously been a web manager for one of the biggest NHS Trusts in the country, Imperial College Healthcare. It was also relatively new territory for Kew because our Chief Information Officer David Ivell saw the merit in putting together a small team that could test ideas and work in an agile way both internally and externally to deliver information products for Kew.
We will very soon launch a new mobile app for Kew and Wakehurst that will see us use one of the largest iBeacon networks for an outdoor visitor attraction in the country. I am sure that claim to fame will be short lived if it hasn’t already been surpassed whilst I type this.
Now – I’d like to share some of the lessons learned
In my first week I was lucky enough to attend a science away day at the Natural History Museum along with over 250 Kew scientists and other support staff hosted by our relatively new Director of science Professor Kathy Willis. I listened to a full day of presentations that shone a light on the work being carried out by scientists at both Kew and Wakehurst. It was a great introduction to Kew; it was also an introduction to one of Kew’s key challenges going forward—sharing these science stories in the gardens in an accessible way with our visitors. The challenge had been set: I embarked on the first month of my Kew career.
Bluetooth BLE seeds planted – December 2013
December 2013 saw me committing time to researching the potential of iBeacons. Earlier in the summer at WWDC. Apple made little public mention of its new iBeacons feature in iOS 7. The iBeacon name was trailed prominently on a Keynote slide depicting a variety of other new features included in the release but nothing was announced on the day.
This Macworld article from September 2013 a few months after the Apple release showed that interest in beacons was growing and real world examples were being applied. What is iBeacon? And how will iBeacon work? (Macworld)
At this point, I was looking at a field capture app proof of concept and the peer to peer element of the beacons was an interesting solution when wifi and 3G were an issue in remote areas.
Cold months and cold facts to investigate – January/February 2014
I was keen to show that product management principles could be applied to beacons at Kew. I wanted to test an idea quickly in order to tackle some of the perceived issues with the technology. I sent this Devfright article to my manager, Nick Teall, in February 2013. Looking at it now it was very technical but he got it and even in his reply he was able to see potential uses:
… I assume we could move the beacons around and so have a mix of “static” beacons and special event beacons (for example) so we can help focus people on areas that are of interest for a specific period.
(Nick Teall – February 2014)
Stay tuned for Part Two: validating the technology