apping up the yukon

Twice in my life, before the advent of smart phones and mobile applications, I managed to arrive as a newcomer to a foreign city with almost complete knowledge of what I wanted to see there, and what streets to walk to see those things.

Twice in my life, before the advent of smart phones and mobile applications, I managed to arrive as a newcomer to a foreign city with almost complete knowledge of what I wanted to see there, and what streets to walk to see those things.

The first time was in Dublin in June of 1999; and, though I was an internet guy at the time, my ability to navigate around that town had precisely nothing to do with technology of any sort, just plain old literary enthusiasm.

I had arrived there to celebrate Bloomsday – the day James Joyce chose as the time setting (June 16, 1904) for his famously difficult but beautiful novel, Ulysses, published in 1922.

Having read Ulysses perhaps as many as half a dozen times, and frequently studied the street maps of the novel’s highly detailed and literal-minded locations, I could, on the morning of June 16, 1999, with a copy of Ulysses in my backpack, run my circuit of visits to the novel’s various locations, pretty much in the order and at the times they occur in the novel.

Needless to say, since the story is set in 1904, many things in my mental map of Dublin often turned out to be very much out of date; but it was still current enough in broad detail that I had a comfortable day navigating the town, with only an occasional cross-check with the map provided in my edition of the book.

The second occasion when I accomplished more or less the same thing was just under a year later, in May of 2000, when I touched down in Prague; and this time computer technology did play a big role.

In my preparations to fly to the Czech Republic, I had stumbled on an early precursor to Google Earth’s technology, which would only become common half a decade later – an online map of the city, which allowed you zoom down to the level of seeing photographs of the city’s buildings, photographed from the air.

Before I even got on the plane to fly there, I could see the roof of the hotel I had reserved, and scroll around, planning my first day’s tour of the Charles Bridge, the Lennon Wall, Prague Castle, Wenceslas Square, and other such places of interest.

And, on first day on the ground, allowing for a few occasions when the Medieval complexity of the old town’s winding streets threw me off, I managed my initial walking tour without any serious hassle or incident.

Ten years on, of course, there is nothing at all remarkable about any of this, because most major tourist destinations now have apps you can download to your iPod or smart phone that will guide you around the place.

Out of curiosity, a week or so ago, I downloaded one such app (of Prague, for sentimental reasons you by now understand) from the Ulmon Apps company, which offers a City Maps 2Go series of quite sweetly implemented guides, all for a paltry ninety-nine cents each.

For more and more people – and not just for technology junkies, anymore – the days when getting lost in a strange city was part of the challenge and adventure of foreign travel are rapidly becoming things of the past.

Except in the Yukon, apparently.

Make a search for the word “Yukon” in any app store – for iPhones, Android phones or Blackberries, whatever – and the only thing you come up with are solitaire card game apps.

Pardon my nerdy snootiness, but I find that situation a little embarrassing;

I am, in fact, working on an opportunity (in the course of my duties at my day job with the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre) to see if I can’t find a project that could kick-start some local development, particularly in the tourism sector.

For professional reasons, I am not at liberty to say just what I am up to, and who I am working with; but I am convinced that mobile app development is an area of real economic potential in the Yukon, and that both the local tourism industry and the local information technology sector are seriously and literally missing the tour boat, here.

Given the small size of the Yukon, and its correspondingly relatively small tourism market, it is unlikely that tourism app development alone is going to make anybody rich in a big hurry.

But the need to get with the millennium and start providing foreign visitors with the information they need in the medium they are increasingly coming to prefer – the smart-phone medium – is already real, and only likely to get even bigger.

This applies not only to the government Tourism department, but to individual tourism businesses as well.

Furthermore, we face both interesting market challenges and opportunities in the fact that, outside of Whitehorse, smart phones don’t work, right now.

This situation, if dealt with appropriately by a smart developer, can actually increase, instead of reduce, the value of a guide application to cell- or iPod-using tourists.

Without cell access to the internet and services like Google Earth, they will be reliant on tourism applications that store the information they need in the resident memory of their device.

For my money, then, I think it is time for the Yukon to start getting serious about apping up.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.