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The technology of the 9/11 Memorial

More than 2 million people have visited the memorial at the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City. Many are using tech to help get the most out of their visits.

Visitors to the 9/11 Memorial can use an app called Explore 9/11 that can do a number of things including generate an augmented-reality overlay of photos from 9/11 on real-time views of streets in New York today.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK -- The new 9/11 Memorial is stunningly beautiful and extremely visitor-friendly, but the names of the 2,983 people who died in the September 11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing aren't listed alphabetically, meaning that visitors may need help finding specific names.

Yes, there's an app for that. Two, actually.

The memorial, which opened on September 11, 2011 -- the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania -- has already had more than 2 million visitors, and thousands more visit every day. For them, taking in the memorial, which spans eight acres, means walking past the two Memorial Pools built on the footprints of the Twin Towers that fell on 9/11, as well as through and around a glade of trees. It is a sobering and emotional experience that people from more than 100 countries have already had.

As visitors quickly learn, one of the main things for them to do at the memorial -- besides peering into the stunning pools, each of which features a 30-foot waterfall and a center void that descends 15 feet further below -- is to look at the names of the nearly 3,000 victims.

But while the names on some other American memorials are listed alphabetically, those at the 9/11 Memorial are not. Instead, they're listed in what at first appears to be random order, but is really based on an algorithm that takes into consideration a number of factors including whether they were an employee at a company that lost a lot of people, or whether they were a first responder. As well, victims' families and friends were able to request grouping certain names adjacent to each other. All of which, of course, makes finding a specific name next to impossible.

That's where a tool built for several different platforms comes into play. Known as the 9/11 Memorial Guide, it allows visitors -- or even those at a computer at home -- to search for someone's name, or for someone who worked for a specific company, was from a specific city, or who was a first responder.

On the Web, users can search for a specific name, or can explore the memorial's list of names, panel by panel. They can also see names that have been requested to be adjacent to others, and can print out a victim's profile, which will list that their personal information, a short bio, and the exact location of their name at the memorial.

But to bring this functionality to as many visitors as possible, the organization behind the memorial commissioned a mobile app that, among other things, lets visitors search for someone's name. And because the organization knows that not everyone comes prepared, they've installed a Wi-Fi network at the site that should allow iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone users to download the app.

The 9/11 Memorial Guide app has a couple of other functions, as well, explained Sean Anderson, the CTO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. For one, it allows visitors to locate names for whom a series of oral histories have been recorded -- and to listen to them. Today, there are nine oral histories available, but the app was designed to be able to handle additional stories as they're recorded. Finally, the app also helps those who have sponsored one of the thousands of cobblestones that line the memorial site -- but which have no markings on them -- find their stone.

For those who show up at the memorial without their own smartphone, the organization has you covered. First, it has provided a number of kiosks -- 10 right now, but there will eventually be 16 -- that lets people look for victims' names, and then print out anyone's short profile with the exact location of where the name is on the memorial. At the same time, there are a small number of guides located at the site who are carrying iPads loaded with the app. Family members of victims are encouraged to ask these guides for help locating the name of their loved one.

The organization has also released a second app, called Explore 9/11, that is available for iPhone only. With this tool, iPhone users can take a tour around the World Trade Center site and have the app play audio stories and show photos related to where they're walking, and can also see a timeline of the events of 9/11 that has associated photographs.

But perhaps the best part of the Explore 9/11 app is its augmented reality feature. Anderson explained that in recent years, people from all over the world have taken part in an effort called Make History and contributed photographs and videos taken on 9/11 and in the days that followed, and the submission process provides the ability to geotag photos and video. The result is that users of the app can see when they're at a location where such geotagged photos were taken, and can view an augmented-reality overlay that shows both the current real-life view and the photo from the aftermath of 9/11.

Being the official 9/11 Memorial (and future home of the official 9/11 Museum), the site is seen as an attractive target for terrorism, including cyberterrorism, Anderson said. One of the reasons why all visitors must currently register for a free ticket, Anderson explained, is that the organization wants to be able to control who goes in.

In short, he explained, that means that everyone entering the site has to have their ticket scanned, and an integrated system of cameras and business analysis software keeps constant track of how many people are inside the memorial site. Currently, because the site is adjacent to active construction, there is a limit of 1,500 people per hour. If that limit is reached, the system automatically sends out an alert to those at the entry, letting them know that they need to hold the line until more people have left.

It also means that the organization does frequent and thorough analysis of its Web site, looking for weaknesses that might open it up to external attack. And for that purpose, the organization's content management is only accessible in its offices or via a virtual private network connection.

At the same time, Anderson said, the registration system is meant to be a guard against scalpers registering large numbers of tickets and then selling them to tourists either unaware that they can get their own for free, or who think that they won't be able to get in.

The future
In an attempt to get the mobile apps ready for the memorial's opening last September, the organization chose to skip building in some potentially "ultra cool" functionality, Anderson said. One example -- which could find its way into the app in the future -- is a pattern-recognition tool that could let visitors scan the list of names, and automatically return victims' profiles. Anderson said adding a GPS feature was considered but rejected because the GPS functionality on smartphones isn't good enough to pinpoint a location with enough accuracy.

But the biggest changes coming in the site's future is the opening of the museum. Built under the memorial site, the museum will be a huge repository of archival information and artifacts related to the 9/11 attacks. For now, the organization is being coy about what will be included in the museum, but Anderson said that one way to think about it is to remember that September 11 was one of the most recorded events in history.

That means, he suggested, that visitors should expect to see a wide variety of digital content related to the attacks. And because it will be a new museum, it will be able to take advantage of all the latest technology that can be integrated into a facility, rather than having to retrofit an existing location. "They should fully expect a really baked-in technology experience," Anderson said.

But even today, it's clear that the organization behind the memorial and the museum want visitors to think of technology as a big part of their experience. That is what Anderson called a "360-degree engagement," meaning that visitors will go online before their visit, use their smartphone while there, and then follow up either online or on their mobile devices after they leave.