HUNTINGTON - From Hailey Horn's perspective, almost everyone is part of history in some way, and most of us don't even realize it.
It's a scenario that Horn, a 24-year-old Marshall University graduate, found herself in when she returned to her hometown of Oak Hill, West Virginia, after her first experience creating content for the Clio platform, a mobile app and website named after the ancient muse of history.
The app picks up a user's location anywhere in the United States and tells him or her about the history and culture that surrounds him or her, with a growing database including museums, art galleries, monuments, sculptures and historical sites.
Horn was a student in one of Marshall University professor David Trowbridge's class, and as part of that class, students had to research and create entries about specific historical sites for use in the app.
"When I got home, I used the app and I learned things about Fayette County I never knew existed," Horn said. "It's a tool to teach local history. It provides knowledge about unknown communities or people, places and things that might not be known to people in a community."
Trowbridge conceived the app in 2012 as part of a class assignment, which he only meant to be a one-time event. However, the app's concept was such a useful tool in educating people inside and outside the classroom, Trowbridge sought the assistance of Strictly Business Computer Systems in Huntington to develop the app.
Since then, the app has swelled to include more than 15,500 entries worldwide as of February 2017 and more than 1,200 users each day, according to www.theclio.com.
"This is being used throughout the country," Trowbridge said. "It's something to see the way this reaches students and how this matters to them. I want to figure out more ways to do that. I want to see that happen throughout communities."
By Trowbridge's own admission, the first edition of the Clio app was "crude, but it worked."
He'd told students to do some research to create an easy-to-consume informational description of a historical place for a fictional app.
The work required students to do more than an internet search. They had to sort through information at local libraries, museums and historical societies.
Trowbridge said it was evident the students loved the lesson, and he was content with himself for a job well done.
It was a short-lived feeling.
"Students came back from spring break, and they were talking about all the historical sites they saw," Trowbridge said. "I thought, 'You don't have to tell me about this. It's on to the serious projects, the year-long paper.' They just kept talking about the historical sites, and these are college students. They don't typically do these things on spring break, you know? They should be getting into some fun, good trouble. It was a quick one-off project, and they were mad. I could've lost every one of their capstone papers that they spent their entire semester on, and no one would have cared."
So that's how a college professor, who was used to pushing his students to reach their potential, was pushed by his students to take his idea to a new level.
As he applied for and received grant money, Trowbridge was able to pay a local firm for development of his locally sourced app.
Mark Miller, vice president of technical services at Strictly Business Computer Systems, said Trowbridge's enthusiasm for the app has been a consistent driver for its development, but they've left the history stuff to Trowbridge while they handle the technical development of it.
"He had a vision for what he wanted it to do, and we would design it and put it into reality," Miller said. "He's the history buff. We do a lot of mobile apps for bigger companies, the government, and we were interested in this, in creating something that started off very targeted toward this group of history people. It's been fun."
Each Clio entry contains a brief explanation of a site's historical significance as well as photos, and as of late, more of those entries are being synced to Google Maps and Google Street View as well as 360-degree views of the sites themselves, Trowbridge said.
That's where Horn comes in.
Through AmeriCorps, Horn has been conducting research, creating or refining current entries, creating virtual tours of historical sites, and recording oral histories that can be embedded in the entries.
For Horn, the app not only was a factor in her education, but it's become a big part of her landing a job after obtaining a bachelor's degree in history.
"In West Virginia, there's not really many options for you job-wise," Horn said. "Clio allows students to get other experiences they wouldn't get with any other assignment. In my class assignments for Clio, I got to work with a museum. Now, in my job, I work with convention and visitors bureaus, museums, historical societies and a lot of other organizations. Students can get out there and gain research skills, and you can gain skills in how to connect with people and connect with communities, community organizations and all those other places that are good resources."
With the addition of Google Maps and Google Street View capabilities, Clio also includes customizable city tours. Those who are looking for an adventure can add, subtract and change the order of historical sites they'd like to visit in a given area, an experience that has been amplified with the incorporation of the Google services, Trowbridge said.
"By combining these things, you can be a lot more accurate," Trowbridge said in an interview with The Herald-Dispatch in December. "That matters when you're trying to find something small, and it's also cool because you can really get a sense of the place you want to go visit."
Along with Horn and Trowbridge's students are thousands of local historical experts and academic community members who cultivate and vet the entries.
"It's an open project," Trowbridge said. "We vet all the information, but anyone can contribute. As long as it's accurate and well-written, we're going to use it."
That accessibility on the consumer and production ends of the app has been an interesting challenge for Miller's software developers.
"All of it has to be easy to use," Miller said. "You can't write something that someone has to go to a user's manual to figure out. No one will use that. A good user's manual won't make a poorly designed interface any better. One of our developers came up with the user-friendly interface for the app. There's a website that allows people to add historical sites, and the historians need that to be easy to interact with as well."
Trowbridge has compared the process of contributing to Clio to the process of contributing to Wikipedia, which is a free online encyclopedia that is written by the people who use it. On the surface, they're similar, but in practice, they're different.
"We vet the content from the front end," Trowbridge said in December. "There's not been much of a vandalism issue (in Clio), like with Wikipedia, where everything's anonymous. That doesn't work. Expertise matters."
Each Clio contributor must create an account, and there are separate kinds of accounts for groups like historical societies, museums and public libraries that allow multiple people within those entities to view and edit entries.
No matter what, when someone creates an entry, it stays in a "draft mode" until it's been scrutinized by other experts in the Clio community before it is made public.
The reliability of the accuracy of the app has made it an attractive prospect not only to historians in archiving and academia, but the app has taken on a life of its own as a tool for tourism.
"The goal has always been education, but when people learn things, they tend to want to explore," Trowbridge said. "It's natural for people to look at Clio as a tourism and travel app. Mark Twain said, 'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,' and the more you travel the world, the more you understand the perspective of others. Tourism, tech and education are compatible and complementary to one another."
In 2015, Trowbridge was awarded the Heritage Tourism Award from the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, the statewide historic preservation nonprofit and statewide partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Clio also was honored as an Education Futurist by Campus Technology magazine as part of the publication's 2016 Innovation Awards.
"Through Clio, Dr. Trowbridge and his team of digital media specialists and scholars are fostering collaboration, education and economic development," said Marshall University President Jerome "Jerry" Gilbert. "The creation of interactive heritage trails throughout West Virginia is innovative and will provide a boost to Huntington and the entire state's heritage tourism industry. In addition, by helping to teach students, involve communities and serve the public, this project demonstrates the value of a public institution such as ours."
Seth Denbo, Ph.D., is the director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives for the American Historical Association, based in Washington, D.C., where he works to develop digital projects to advance the organization's mission.
Denbo said while there are other apps similar to Clio, Clio has started providing a broader historical perspective to every nook and cranny of the United States.
"Another one of my favorite tools is called Histories of the National Mall," Denbo said. "It's a similar thing to Clio, but it's only for the National Mall here in D.C. When you go to the mall, you can get your phone out and see the various historical sites in various parts of the mall, but the site is particularly saturated. David's work and the people he's working with is really vital for kind of broadening that out to basically anywhere you want to go."
Denbo also noted the significance of having vetted, accurate historical information in the digital age when information is abundant, but not always accurate.
"Clio is very valuable inside and outside the classroom," Denbo said. "Knowing there's a lot of misinformation in the world about the past, especially now that we have an administration and parts of society that seem to have very little interest in the accuracy of information being put out to the public, I think having information you know is good quality and has been read by people who know the history and reviewed by people who understand the past is valuable not just for scholars, but for individuals who are just interested in history."
As a former student and current associate of Trowbridge, Horn said her interest in history has only increased as time has gone on, and she knows Clio is doing the same for other people.
"When I present Clio to a new group, I always use the same example," she said. "I tell them to think of an old building they see all the time, now or when they were growing up. Most of them can think of one, but they don't know what it is or that it might be historical. What I tell them is Clio allows the history of that building to come to life and people can collect their own local history and artifacts and they can add pictures of it and find out what that building means to their community. Once you know it, it hits you and you realize how important that building is to your community's history, and you realize how important that history is to your community."
Be a part of history
Want to help keep history alive in the Clio app?
If you have a historical niche, through a local historical society or other group, contact Hailey Horn to contribute your own entry to the Clio app by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Clio can be found wherever you purchase apps for your mobile device or by visiting www.theclio.com.
Financial contributions also can be made to Clio.
Clio is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means all contributions to Clio are tax deductible. Donations to the app contribute to supporting its maintenance as well as to providing internships throughout the country.