April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Hand-Held Heritage: The Development Of Mobile Applications By The Royal Commission On The Ancient And Historical Monuments Of Wales

Tom Pert, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, United Kingdom.


The aim of this paper is to explain the work carried out by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in developing a system for the mobile delivery of heritage information.   It is hoped this development will, in the long-term, provide a basis for the remote delivery of Coflein and Historic Wales information to mobile devices.

What sets the mobile applications developed by the RCAHMW apart from those offered by other institutions in the UK is the fact that development has been conducted completely in house, using free or inexpensive software. Free software now makes it possible for organisations within the heritage sector to produce multimedia guides without the expense of consultants and specialist companies.

Case Studies of The Ruthin E-Trail and The Blaenavon E-Trail demonstrate innovative ways of delivering heritage information to a wide audience, while at the same time producing a pilot education project and encouraging tourism.

From the outset this project adopted a multi-platform approach, using a variety of digital formats for deployment to a range of devices; MP3 audio tours for MP3 players, audio-visual tours for devices with video players, and GPS-enabled applications that deliver multi-media content based upon your location.

Keywords: mobile, GPS, GIS, PDA, Coflein, Wales


The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales is a Welsh Assembly-Sponsored Public Body based in Aberystwyth, Wales. It maintains and curates the National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW) - the national collection of information about the archaeological, architectural and historical heritage of Wales, and provides a public information service, drawing on both archival and published sources and benefiting from the specialist knowledge of its staff.

Information held within the NMRW is made available to the public through the Coflein Web service ( Coflein contains details of many thousands of archaeological sites, monuments, buildings and maritime sites in Wales, together with an index to the drawings, manuscripts and photographs held in the NMRW archive collections (an increasing number of which are being digitized and made available on Coflein).

Figure 1

Fig1: Coflein Homepage

Through the Web-based portal Historic Wales (, the Royal Commission enables the public to search hundreds of thousands of records relating to archaeological monuments, historic buildings and artefacts held by a number of heritage organisations across Wales, including Cadw (the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly Government) and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Mobile technology offers the potential to communicate, in a fresh way, the wealth of information held by museums, archives and libraries to users of all kinds, ranging from regular museum-goers to people who may be hard to reach or feel disconnected from formal institutions.

Over recent years the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, with support from CyMAL, the Welsh Assembly Government Division for museums, archives and libraries, has pioneered the development of location-sensitive applications for the delivery of heritage information.

Until recently, mobile applications have been the preserve of specialist companies, but with software that is free or available on most home or office computers it is possible to create media-rich tours at a very small cost. The Royal Commission’s applications have been developed without the expense of consultants or specialist companies.

The use of hand-held guides is not new – within the museums sector audio guides have been common for two decades – and multimedia guides are becoming more widespread. Mobile applications present the opportunity to deliver information and audio-visual resources in situations other than the confines of a museum or heritage site. By freeing the technology from the indoor environment, such applications can enhance users’ understanding of the ‘real’ world beyond the doors of the museum, bringing new meaning to buildings and landscapes that they may have overlooked before.

Case Studies

The Ruthin E-Trail

The Ruthin E-Trail project was developed in order to research the potential for visitors to Ruthin’s historic town centre to access Coflein, the Royal Commission’s on-line database of historic sites and buildings, and selected archive material. The application was developed using ESRI ArcPad mobile GIS (Geographical Information System) software. It was deployed on Hewlett Packard (HP) iPAQ Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), enabled via plug-in Compact Flash (CF) receivers to locate their position using the Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS enables users’ positions, indicated by a cross-hairs symbol, to be displayed in real-time as they move around the town.

Figure 2

Fig 2: The Ruthin E-Trail interface

The Interface

An application based on ESRI ArcPad software looks similar to an in-car satnav system. The screen shows a geographical background to the area for which the application has been developed – in this case, the background is Ordnance Survey large-scale mapping, but it is also possible to use aerial photographs or hand-drawn images.

Above the map window, two toolbars are visible. In the standard ArcPad interface there are around 60 controls on these two toolbars. Clearly, it is important that the application be simplified so that those who have no previous experience of PDAs or GIS can feel comfortable quickly. ArcPad customisation software makes it possible to reduce the number of tools and functions accessed through the toolbars. In the development of the Ruthin E-Trail, the number of buttons and options was reduced from 60 in standard ArcPad to 14, only three or four of which a typical user would need to use.

Information is delivered to users through their interaction with the mapping on display. Sites for which information is available are highlighted on the map using polygons that overlie the background (effectively colouring-in the building); they could also be indicated with a point symbol or icon. When users find themselves close to a site for which information is available, they simply tap the polygon on the screen using the stylus. This launches a Web page on which they choose Welsh or English, followed by a Web page containing Coflein information on the site selected, with a text description and images relating to it.

Figure 3

Fig 3: The Coflein information page

Figure 4

Fig 4: The image display page

In the Ruthin E-Trail a second toolbar is related to the proximity alert function. Proximity alerts enable the automatic display of messages on the screen of the device, triggered by the user’s proximity to a point in the mapping, as detected by GPS. The messages can convey information or directions or ask questions of the visitor. In Ruthin, proximity alerts developed in a small trial proved a very effective means of drawing attention to relevant information at the point where the visitor needed it.


From the earliest stages of the Ruthin E-Trail project, the Royal Commission worked in partnership with Denbighshire Record Office, Dysg (a division within the Welsh Assembly Government’s Department of Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills), Ysgol Brynhyfryd (Ruthin secondary school) and the local Civic Society.

The aims of the project were to:

  • deliver heritage information in new ways to a wider audience
  • introduce Welsh Baccalaureate students to the fundamentals of GIS, GPS and mobile technology
  • enable students to develop measurable key skills towards their attainment of the Welsh Baccalaureate
  • develop understanding of how to deliver Coflein information to mobile devices.

The partners applied to CyMAL under the Inspiring Learning Scheme and were awarded a grant of £10,000. This enabled the purchase of six PDAs with copies of ESRI ArcPad mobile GIS software, GPS receivers and waterproof cases. It also provided a copy of ESRI ArcPad Application Builder (ArcPad customisation software), a day of Training in customisation with ESRI (UK), and a scanner for the Denbighshire Archives Service to digitize material for inclusion in the application.

As well as having PDAs with GIS software loaded onto them, Ysgol Brynhyfryd and Denbighshire Record Office were able to install GIS software on to six desktop computers. This provided further opportunities for the Record Office to begin experimenting with the spatial recording of archives, and for the school to use GIS in a wide range of subjects.

Imagery digitized and included within the application ranged from eighteenth-century engravings to early twentieth-century postcards, World War II photographs taken in case of bomb damage, and recent architectural recording by Royal Commission surveyors. As historic views or records of interiors or hidden elevations, many of the images offer a new perspective even for those familiar with the buildings.

Figure 5

Fig5: Student using ArcPad software

Delivery of the education element of the e-trail project to the Welsh Baccalaureate students was a core aim of the project, and Ysgol Brynhyfryd were given financial support by Dysg to enable them to participate. Students at Ysgol Brynhyfryd received training in the use of the e-trail developed by the Royal Commission, as well as instruction on how to create their own mobile GIS application and Web pages, digital image editing and archival research skills. Over the course of the academic year the students were assessed on the development of their Key Skills while they developed their own e-trails.

Within the school, the use of both the PDAs and GIS was met with remarkable enthusiasm. The school purchased additional PDAs and ArcPad software (at reduced cost through the CHEST agreement), and the availability of free Ordnance Survey mapping to the school meant that History, Geography and IT teachers were able to consider using mobile GIS software for other curricular activities.

Public Availability

The PDAs, pre-loaded with the Ruthin E-Trail, are held by the ticket office of the former Ruthin Gaol, which is an important heritage attraction in the centre of Ruthin and the home of the Denbighshire Record Office. Members of the public are able to borrow the devices free of charge, provided they fill in the consent forms and allow their credit or  debit card details to be held until the PDAs are returned.

The Blaenavon E-Trail

Following the success of the Ruthin E-Trail, the Royal Commission was able to experiment further with the delivery of heritage information to mobile devices when CyMAL funded secondment of a member of staff to build upon the experience gained in the earlier project.

The aims of the project were to:

  • develop an e-trail application based on an Ordnance Survey MasterMap base, incorporating audio and video
  • develop expertise and take into account diverse audiences
  • train a Royal Commission member of staff in the production of PDA-based e-trails
  • provide training to the museum, archive and library sector in the use of mobile devices and appropriate use of GIS in a public user context
  • advise CyMAL and the sector on appropriate applications of this technology.

The Blaenavon World Heritage Site was a natural choice as the next area for which we should develop an application. The Royal Commission has accumulated a great deal of information on the town and its surrounding industrial landscape, and was a major partner in the development of the bid to gain World Heritage status.

This time two methods of delivering information to GPS-enabled PDAs were developed, one based upon the ESRI ArcPad software used previously in Ruthin, the other using free software developed by HP Labs in Bristol. Initially this free software was the Mobile Bristol toolkit, but from May 2007, this was superseded and relaunched as Mscape Maker software.  This software enables the authoring of location-based, multi-media applications called mediascapes, designed to be run on GPS-enabled mobile devices.

Arcpad Application

The ArcPad interface used for the Blaenavon was essentially the same as had been developed for the Ruthin E-Trail. The most significant difference lay in the content of the Web pages accessed by tapping on the building polygons. As at Ruthin, the various Web pages contain text and images relating to the selected site, but in the Blaenavon application, a greater range of media was made available. Hyperlinks embedded within the pages opened audio and video clips and additional imagery.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Blaenavon Town E-Trail welcome screen

Mscape Application

Users interact with the Mscape application in a very different way from the ArcPad system. The most significant difference is that the user no longer relies on the use of the stylus to operate the application. In fact, user interaction through the PDA is kept to an absolute minimum. The delivery of information is triggered wholly through GPS position.

Information is delivered in audio, video and image formats, and images can be grouped together and displayed as slideshows, removing the need for the user to choose to move to the next page by tapping on a link.

The Interface

When the device is turned on, the user is presented with a library page displaying the mediascapes available on that unit. In the system developed so far, these comprise the Welsh or English explorer e-trail and the Welsh or English guided e-trail. When the user selects a trail, a short description is displayed giving further information; the user can then choose to launch that application or return to the library to choose a different option.

As the application launches, the “Welcome to the Blaenavon Town E-Trail” image is displayed. The user is instructed to tap the screen to continue – done with the finger rather than the stylus.

At this point a video is played to explain how the devices work; it also provides a general introduction to the history of the town. This video is particularly useful as it allows time for the PDA unit to get a GPS position fix.

Figure 7

Fig 7: The map display screen showing user position and infozones

When the GPS has got a position fix and the introductory video has finished, the screen changes to map display, showing the location of the user and the sixteen “infozones” dotted around the town. Depending upon the type of trail chosen, the user either goes off independently around the town or is guided by audio instructions around a circular route.

Figure 8

Fig 8: The information screen

As the user enters an infozone, the information is automatically launched. An audio track starts playing, and this is accompanied by images, video or text that helps to explain the history of the current location. These audio-visual tracks usually run for around 30 seconds - no longer than 1 minute.

Figure 9

Fig 9: The question screen

Figure 10

Fig 10: The correct answer screen

If the user re-enters an infozone already visited, a question page is displayed. This use of simple programming to alter the user experience offers the potential for this software to be used to deliver media in a much more intelligent way than could be achieved using the mobile GIS-based application.

With further development there could be a range of applications available from a ‘library’ screen on the devices. These could offer a choice of tours based on a variety of themes, as well as applications designed for specific audiences such as school groups, families or adults.

Public Availability

From the outset, it was decided this project should adopt a multi-platform approach. The various digital components of the ArcPad and Mscape-based applications are suitable for deployment to a variety of devices: audio tracks have been compiled to produce an audio tour for MP3 players, video, images and audio combined to produce a video tour for devices with video players, all made available for download from the Royal Commission Web site. The enhanced interpretive information and archival material resulting from the development of content for the mobile devices will be fed back into the Royal Commission’s Coflein system, improving the site and archive records for the two project areas and searchable by members of the public via the Coflein Web service. This enhanced content will also be shared with partner organisations. 

Having seen the application, the new World Heritage Centre in Blaenavon (which opens in March 2008) has purchased 14 PDAs to run the application. These will be loaned to their customers free of charge, made fully waterproof and shockproof inside their protective Otterboxes.

The Centre’s decision to invest in the application is thanks largely to the enthusiasm shown for the scheme from the local traders’ association. The town of Blaenavon, despite sitting at the heart of an industrial landscape with World Heritage Site status, does not currently attract many tourists. Well over one hundred thousand people per year visit the National Coal Museum at Big Pit on the outskirts of the town, but very few ever make the journey to the town centre. It is hoped that the opening of a new World Heritage Visitor Centre will attract 20,000-30,000 per annum into the town itself, and that the PDA tour will encourage many of them to explore the town centre and its various shops, pubs and cafes.

The applications will also be made available for free from the Web site, along with the software necessary to run them. Anyone can download the Mscape freeware from the Mscapers Web site (, create their own mediascape and upload it back on to the site for others to experience.

What Happens Next?

There needs to be a period of information gathering: a customer survey will be conducted in Blaenavon, and should provide useful figures on the robustness of the system and user satisfaction with the content.

Further development is dependent upon obtaining additional funding;  we are in the process of applying for various grants. If successful, we will broaden the existing applications to include the wider landscape around the town, bring in new interpretive themes such as biodiversity or geology, and develop new applications such as treasure hunt games.

We would also like to develop an education package, building upon our experience in Ruthin, and including different school-age groups and community groups.

According to HP labs, the next release of Mscape Maker will include the ability for triggering from a range of sensors, in addition to GPS. The use of these other sensors introduces the ability to use one device to deliver multi-media, location-specific interpretation in both indoor and outdoor space, and this device will handle the transition between these spaces without the need for user input.

Sensor Range Interaction mode
RFID 1cm Touch
2D barcodes 10cm Focus
Infrared 5m Point
RF pingers 50m Approach

Table1: Trigger sensors included in next Mscape Maker release (after Hull, 2007)

The Royal Commission hopes to work in partnership with the Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales and Cadw to develop an indoor/outdoor application that offers enhanced interpretation and activities within a museum context, and can also be used to deliver multi-media interpretation for sites and monuments within a land/townscape.


It is now possible for anyone to produce local-scale, location-triggered multi-media interpretation at very low cost. The flexibility and robustness of the Mscape software has meant that more time can be devoted to the development of content and user experience. Developers no longer need to worry about getting the software to work in the way they want it to. This confidence in the software also means that developers have more time to produce content and experiment with the user experience.

The Royal Commission’s use of the software only scratches the surface of what it is possible to do. The ability to use flash or html interfaces instead of, or in addition to, a map display means that very attractive and creative applications have been developed. The software is being used by artists and film-makers in very innovative ways, creating mediascapes with genuine atmosphere. The possibility in the near future of developing indoor/outdoor applications will inevitably lead to even more creative uses of the software.

Mscape software is a fantastic tool for the development of local applications, but it is not suitable for the delivery of large datasets over large geographical areas. We are at a very early stage of our investigations, but there does seem to be potential to deliver our Coflein spatial dataset to mobile phones by making it available in KML format.

KML (Keyhole Markup Language) is the native file format for Google Earth and Google Maps. KML files can be hosted publicly on a Web server and made available for ‘Earth’ browsers such as Google Earth or ESRI ArcExplorer. The GIS server used by the Royal Commission to run its Coflein Web mapping service is able to output directly in this format. 

Once properly configured, the server can share the URL of the KML files, meaning that anyone can search for files using Google, and then view them through Google Earth or Google Maps.

Google Maps for Mobile requires that the KML file first be hosted on a Web site. You can then access the file by entering the full URL into your phone just as you would enter a regular business search. Google Maps for Mobile only supports a simplified subset of KML elements: Placemarks with snippets and simple HTML descriptions, but this is enough to provide a link through to individual Coflein records.

In the future it should be possible for any users, anywhere in Wales using Google Maps for Mobile, to identify their 10 closest archaeological or historic sites. The users can specify their locations manually, by positioning the cross-hairs at their current position, or this could be achieved automatically using built-in GPS or by identifying the locations of the cells where the phones are being operated.

As well as highlighting the technical difficulties that need to be overcome to deliver location-specific heritage information, the projects in Ruthin and Blaenavon have also highlighted the inadequacies of our site information.

It does not make sense to put a great deal of effort into providing mobile access to our information if that information is not very good! In both Ruthin and Blaenavon, most of the descriptions needed re-writing. The use of jargon, abbreviations and codes can make a site description almost incoherent to a member of the public, and whilst the use of technical, architectural or archeological language isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there does need to be an explanation somewhere of what these terms mean. Most of the issues over the quality of our site descriptions arise from the fact that what is now displayed to the public over the Internet began life as an internal working database.

Recently, new guidance has been issued to staff on how to create better site descriptions. Key to this is the use of clear language and a hierarchical method of providing information, so that if you want basic information it is immediately available, and if you want more, it is possible to dig a little deeper. Over time this new approach should have the desired effect and greatly improve our Coflein site descriptions.

Figure 11

Fig 11: The History in your Hands booklet cover

With the publication of the booklet, History in your Hands: using mobile devices in heritage interpretation which is being distributed free to all museums and archives within Wales, it is hoped that many more institutions will be inspired to follow the Royal Commission’s example and take some of the enormous riches out of their archives and into the wider world.


Hull, R. (2007) and T. Melamed. Report on the Beyond GPS workshop at mscapeFest07, 2007. Consulted January 28th, 2008.

Pert, T. (2008). History in your Hands: using mobile devices in heritage interpretation. Aberytstwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

Reid, J.(2007). mscape Experience Design Guidelines version 1.0, 2007. Consulted January 28, 2008.

Cite as:

Pert., T., Hand-Held Heritage: The Development Of Mobile Applications By The Royal Commission On The Ancient And Historical Monuments Of Wales, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted