One Volunteer Invests 10,000 Hours into Heritage & Tourism Mobile App

There is a movement afoot in northern Alberta – a mobile app that places sites of interest on a map and are found through “Community Menus”, “Near Me” functions and by Keyword Search”.  These Points of Interest or Site Listings cover everything from historical places, buildings and stories, other attractions and the services to travel in what is often considered a remote region.

“Working in the Visitor Information Centre in Slave Lake, I had people driving motor homes who wanted to take the newly paved Highway 88.  The only thing that stopped them was not knowing if they could get fuel along the way,” says Sheila Willis, Executive Director or Friends of Historical Northern Alberta Society (FHNAS) the makers of the History Check mobile app.

Not everyone is cut out to put so many volunteer hours into a job, but Willis says that being intimately involved with the project from the first concept day, she sees the benefits that it can bring.  She cites various aspects of the project not visible at first glance.

“I was doing a presentation at LTIS, an elementary school in Athabasca, and had a picture of teams of loaded wagons outside the Revilion Brothers trading post. A student kept looking at the picture and finally threw up her hand and exclaimed – That picture is Athabasca!” 

It is the connection those kids make with the history of their hometowns that is a real bonus for me.  They don’t realize that some of their Social Studies curriculum happened in their back yard, says Sheila.

Preserving the stories of the past is important, not only for the youth of today but future Albertans. The offshoot of telling those stories, and sharing the attraction and services of the north is that the attention it brings is also good for tourism,.  Northern Alberta receives only 7% of Alberta’s tourism revenue.

One of the major attractions in the north, had an article written about its attendance.  It was described as being in a “cold, battered corner of northern Alberta, 5 hours from Edmonton.  It makes sense to me that if people are aware that of the multiple attractions – including summer – that they will be more inclined to visit.  I don’t think people truly realize what they are missing, especially those who want the experience of small towns, nature and outdoors activities.

One of the reasons FHNAS was formed as a non-profit vs a business is so that all organizations and businesses in the north could be included.  Each gets a free site listing and only businesses are charged to be included in the interest search function.

Sheila is the first to say she is not the only one involved, or doing the work.  She is just doing a lot of it.  Other volunteers, groups, organizations and municipalities are involved.  This about everyone working together and everyone benefitting – the way they used to do things when this was a land still traveled by foot, dogsled or wagon – and before.

While there are a large variety of cultures that came with settlement History Check will also include Indigenous culture.  One of their grant applications is to find stories of the Indigenous population helping the first settlers from midwives to the sharing of food when times were tough.  It is a part of early European history that Sheila feels is not told enough.

History Check now has 1,400+ published sites with another 600+ in their database for review.  They are going for 5,000 sites by the end of summer in 2018.  “If business and organizations can send 3 photos and a description of their business it would help tremendously” says Sheila.

“We are out there doing internet searches to bring a lot of information together, and some of it is pretty basic as we need permissions for images etc. but the user will be able to addresses, phone numbers and links to websites and Facebook.  Its a start.” says Sheila.

When asked why she keeps it up, Sheila response “This is a big project that has a lot of components.  I can’t quit now.  I know what its success can bring on so many levels from kids, to culture to economic development – and my personal passion – history.  There is a lot of enthusiasm from the few people that know about it.  The challenge right now is sharing it so people can see that value and how it can grow.”

You can download the History Check HERE.

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