Small-Town Main Streets Go Mobile

A West Virginia project helps communities build their own mobile apps, creating tools for business and communication.

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When West Virginia publisher Lisa Minney first heard about the Mobile Main Street project, she was skeptical. After all, Minney already had a website for her magazine, Two-Lane Livin’, which covers 16 counties in the central part of the state. Why would she need a smartphone app for her publication, which was already mobile accessible? But a destructive series of thunderstorms that knocked out the region’s power and connectivity changed her mind.

The storms tore through West Virginia June 29, 2012, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens without power or landline telephone service and propelling the area into a state of emergency. In some areas, residents waited nearly two weeks to regain power and home access to news about emergency services.

When their landlines failed, however, Minney recalls that people were still able to head up to the top of a mountain or sit in a McDonald’s and get service on their mobile devices like smartphones. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds became their primary source for vital information like Red Cross meal delivery schedules. 

But navigating the web with cellphones was rough going. Suddenly Minney saw a real need for a smartphone app– finding and presenting the information local people needed the most easily and quickly. With that, the idea for the Two-Lane Junction app was born. “Oh, here’s what we need,” she remembers thinking. “Here’s what we can do with it.”

Home-screen of the mobile application developed by Tucker County, WV

To create the app, Two-Lane Livin’ worked with Professor Dana Coester of the West Virginia University School of Journalism, who leads the Mobile Main Street project.

Mobile Main Street is a nonprofit project working to develop a free system that communities can use to build their own mobile apps – software applications that work on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. These apps work by aggregating the social media feeds of various community participants. Rather than generate profits for their developers, the apps are designed to generate information that supports the community. Mobile Main Street is in its pilot stage, exploring the economic potential of this mobile technology for rural America.

When it is launched, the application’s core function will be to capture updates from government and emergency services’ social media sites to help West Virginians stay connected in the event of emergencies. To keep Two-Lane Junction informative year-round, the project team is also incorporating feeds from community participants like local businesses and restaurants.

Shaun Vendryes, developer for Mobile Main Street, explains that Two-Lane Junction is the product of one of five pilot partnerships that Mobile Main Street has formed with rural communities in West Virginia. Three of the five communities have already launched their mobile apps, each individually tailored to the needs of the community that it represents.

According to Professor Coester, each new pilot begins with a town-hall-style meeting and workshops with community members who will later determine what brand the community wants to build for itself.

“The folks … show up to the workshops, take ownership, and do it,” Coester says. “In every community, people have different definitions of who they are, and that gets collectively aggregated and expressed.”

The “Tucker County” mobile application, for example, focuses on promoting tourism. Angie Shockley, who owns a local stable, says that the app helps the area take advantage of its position as “Washington D.C.’s playground.” It showcases everything from local events to skiing conditions to potential visitors.

Coester is frequently asked to explain her choice to invest in technology for the state ranked 48th in digital access. But in her eyes – and in the eyes of Mobile Main Street’s community partners – that statistic doesn’t capture the full story.

Photo by Joel Beeson.
The artists studio attached to the White Room Art Gallery, which is featured in the Tucker County app. Promoting local business is one function common to the apps created through Mobile Main Street.

“Maybe you’re a grandma, but your nephew has a cell phone, so you borrow it and drive out to find service,” Coester says, “and nobody’s counting those numbers… What the data doesn’t point to is the resourcefulness of people in the communities finding access.”

Moreover, Coester explains that in some ways, people in rural communities are uniquely poised to become innovators in mobile media. Early adopters of technologies are more likely to take risks and are better able to adapt to change than established users.

For Minney, unfamiliarity with mobile technology was an advantage, rather than a handicap. “I think that some of the participants went in with a preconceived concept of what [a mobile app] could do, and maybe they were a bit limited in seeing the possibilities that could come through,” she said. ““But I was able to be confused enough until the storm came through and I saw a real need.”

Minney adds that digital access is on its way to rural West Virginia. Where she once had to travel 11 miles from her home to find mobile reception, she now only has to travel two. Minney says that Mobile Main Street gives communities the chance to “leapfrog” the investment-heavy Internet-marketing stage and be ahead of the curve when greater mobile capacity finally arrives.

“You can wait until it gets here,” she says, “but then you’re behind.”

The pilot communities are already beginning to reap the economic benefits of their work with Mobile Main street. “It’s been I guess almost two years that I’ve had my stable involved, and our business has a little more than doubled in the last three years. I think a lot of it has to do with Mobile Main Street,” says Shockley. “We don’t have a lot of dollars for marketing, and this is a very, very economical way to get the word out to a lot of people.”

Photo by Joel Beeson.
Coester’s son, Joel Beeson, takes a ride at Angie Shockley’s Timberline Stables, a local business included in the Tucker County mobile app.

According to Editor Sallie See, the Hampshire County newspaper, the Hampshire Review, has even begun to monetize their iteration of the app by allowing advertisers to become sponsors.

Looking forward, the Mobile Main Street team aims to release template versions of each pilot mobile application in the spring of 2014. From these templates, more communities will be able to develop and benefit from their own apps, even without direct involvement from Coester and her project teams.

“I think it’ll probably take a year once we launch [the Two-Lane Junction app] to really get people to grasp using it and find it as a useful tool because we’ll have to educate the community and our readership,” says Lisa Minney. “But we have time for that – we’re ahead of the game, so there’s time.”

 

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