The AIDS Quilt Touch Mobile Web App

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Mark NeuCollins

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

  2. 2. Kelly J. Thompson

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

  3. 3. Nikki J. Dudley

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

  4. 4. Lauren Haldeman

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

  5. 5. Jon Winet

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

  6. 6. Kayla Haar

    Digital Studio for Public Humanities - University of Iowa

Work text
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Q: "What weighs 54 tons and can be held in the palm of your hand?"
A: "The AIDS Memorial Quilt."

AIDS Quilt Mobile Web App Development Team:

Mark NeuCollins (Lead Developer, Database, PHP, Drupal, CSS)
Lauren Haldeman (Drupal, CSS, jQuery Mobile)
Nikki Dudley (PHP, Drupal, Database, Import Scripting)
Kelly Thompson (Drupal, Mapping, Experimental Module Research, User Experience)
Kayla Haar (Graphic Design)
Jon Winet (Project Director, NAMES Foundation Liaison, Editor, Publicity Information)
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest living monument in the world. Composed of over 48,000 three foot by six foot individual panels, it pays tribute to the lives of more than 98,000 individuals who have died during the AIDS pandemic. Maintained by the NAMES Foundation in Atlanta, each panel is painstakingly hand-crafted by those who knew and loved these individuals. Each panel carries the emotional weight of a life lived, of loving relationships, and of heartfelt loss.

Our interdisciplinary team —drawn from backgrounds in information technology, the humanities, and public art, and including undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty — would like to share our experiences building a public digital humanities project that provides access to a virtual experience of the Quilt. Provided with data stored in a structure created in the 1980s, we were tasked with transforming this arcane information repository into something robust, agile, and modern. We aimed to design a system that would be usable by the community surrounding the quilt, comprised of people from all walks of life. The process of creating this public digital humanities project, with its goal of preserving the culture and purpose of the original Quilt, presented many learning opportunities we believe could be of value to others seeking to undertake similar projects. If accepted, we propose a discussion around the cultural, technological, artistic, and community-driven aspects of developing this project. We would also like to discuss the outpouring of community-sourced stories, memorials, and heart-felt comments contributed in the space of this digital memorial by those who visited the Quilt this summer, both physically and virtually.

Working in concert with project director Anne Balsamo at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities (DSPH) developed "AIDS Quilt Touch." A mobile web application for mobile devices and laptop|desktop computers, AIDS Quilt Touch is a digital extension of the Quilt, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

DSPH was approached last spring to create this digital version of the Quilt in conjunction with a display of all 48,000 panels on the National Mall in Washington DC in July 2012. The immediate purposes of the app were to allow visitors to the Mall to find the panel of their loved one, and to leave digital remembrances. The timeline for the project was formidable, with just two months to produce a functional beta version of the app.

With records dating from the 1987, the NAMES database is a cobbled-together collection. Our first task was to parse the flat spreadsheet document from the NAMES foundation into a relational database format that we could use. Simultaneously we needed to learn enough about the Drupal Content Management System to deliver a complete and stable mobile web app based on these data. This web app was to be used by thousands of people trying to find the panel of their loved ones during the quilt’s display in Washington DC. The stakes were high, the challenges were great, but in an incredibly satisfying and successful collaborative effort, we pulled it off. You can see the results of our efforts here:

To the question of “When will the quilt be on display?” we can now answer, “It is always on display.” To the question of “Where is it being displayed?” we can now answer, “Everywhere.” There is much that we can add to the quilt application, and plan to continue development with future displays of this living monument.

The AIDS Quilt Touch mobile web app allows people to leave comments, to extend the narrative that the quilt has begun to tell, and to create virtual celebrations of the lives lived. We plan to expand the types of media users are able to add in the near future: photographs, audio, video, and information and metadata about the quilt panels, those who constructed the panels, and those whose lives are memorialized by the panels.

The celebrations of life that users have left on the mobile app convey a deep resonance with the heart of the human experience. It is these comments that begin to show the promise of the technology. This is the good stuff—the material of human culture. It is not the mobile web app that is important, but the possibility that this technology can facilitate a deep conversation, can create a well of experience from which we can all draw. The mobile web app points to the possibility that these devices we carry in our pockets hold the potential to be portals to a larger and more inclusive cultural realm.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO