Time Travel

The internet makes all sorts of things possible, even time travel thanks to a great new site called WhatWasThere.  WhatWasThere associates historic photos with their geographic location, enabling you to enter a building’s address and see what it looked like in the past.  You can then see the photo overlaid on a Google Street View, thus enabling instant travel back through time.

Being information technology junkie as well as fan of the past, I thought it just so cool that I wanted to learn more. A few Tweets back and forth and I’d set up an interview of sorts with Laurel Erickson, one of the project’s developers, which I share with you here.

WhatWasThere is such a great idea. What was your inspiration for the project?
What inspired this project was the realization that we could leverage technology and the connections it facilitates to provide a new human experience of time and space – a virtual time machine of sorts that would allow users to navigate familiar streets as they appeared in the past.

What excites us about this project is that it potentially provides the context to capture the history of everyday places before that history disappears into landfill and is no longer available. In addition to photographs of public buildings from libraries and archives, we’re hoping that WhatWasThere will become the “go to” place for people to post snapshots of houses and buildings significant to their family, before the context for those photos is lost.

For me personally, it’s painful to see photos in antique stores obviously ripped from personal albums and any context that would give them meaning to be sold for $1 a piece. Here’s an example:

Huron River Drive in 1936

Courtesy Laurel Erickson

This photo is part of an album that I bought from eBay four years ago. Out of context, it’s just an old photo of a sailboat that has little to no meaning to me. But when you tell me that this is Huron River Drive in 1936 – I immediately recognize it as part of my morning run and the same photo that was “meaningless” is all of a sudden full of meaning and significance for me!

The premise for WhatWasThere is simple: provide a platform where anyone can easily upload a photograph with two simple tags (location and year) to provide context and meaning. If enough people upload enough photographs in enough places, together we can piece together a photographic history of the world – or at least any place covered by Google Maps!

How long has it been in the making?
We started working on WhatWasThere a little over a year ago.

How many countries are represented at this point?
Right now we have photos placed in twelve different countries. The majority of photos currently are placed in the United States, but we built the platform to work anywhere in the world where Google Maps and/or Street View are available. We’re hoping that as WhatWasThere catches on, people around the globe will upload photos of their own communities and that slowly but surely we will weave together a photographic history of the world.

How many locations have images?
Right now we have photos mapped in over 200 different cities and towns. The larger cities tend to have more photos, but we have some excited users in smaller towns who have uploaded many photos and are literally putting their towns on the map. (One example is Malvern, England. Here’s a sample photo: http://www.whatwasthere.com/b/3926 )

How many “members” do you have?
Currently we have about 200 users who have registered to upload photos – but you don’t have to register to browse photos and use the site!

What is your goal for those figures?
Our overall goal is to become the “go-to” site for placing historical photos so that we can create a comprehensive database of geolocated historical photos. One impetus for creating the site was the realization that in digital photography most phones and many digital cameras automatically geotag photos with the lat/long of where the photo was taken (your digital camera may be doing this without you even knowing it). Moving forward, it probably will become an expectation that any photo can be precisely located – but what about all the millions of analog photos that have captured the last 150 years? Our hope is that the two tags that WhatWasThere attaches to each photo (location and year) will provide analog photos with the context to make them culturally meaningful for years to come.

Who are the people behind the project, and what are their backgrounds?
WhatWasThere was conceived and implemented by a core team of five individuals – (alphabetically by first name) Adam Kempa, Karen Ford, Laurel Erickson, Mike Gatto and Voratima Orawannukul. Joanne Smith also was part of the initial core team, but moved from Ann Arbor last summer. We are all employees of Enlighten (and WhatWasThere is an Enlighten Ventures project), but our titles at Enlighten don’t necessarily reflect the role we play on this project. WhatWasThere is a thoroughly cooperative project, where everyone contributes to thinking through solutions to meet the various challenges the project presents.

That said, here is each team member (in their own words…)

  • Adam Kempa studied electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. Thanks to a fortuitously timed hiring freeze in the auto industry, he got a job at the Ann Arbor District Library, and ended up doing “web stuff” professionally. You can intermittently read his nerdly musings at kempa.com.
  • Karen Ford attended Western Michigan University earning a Bachelor’s degree in violin performance. She later switched focus to the web design industry, studying at Washtenaw Community College in their Internet Professional program. Her interests include working on websites, using Jquery, hating Internet Explorer 6, listening to and playing music, and petting her dog.
  • Laurel Erickson is an “armchair historian” whose most prized possessions are her Victrola and her stereopticon (and her bicycle – to get her out of the armchair). Laurel is a Senior Digital Strategist at Enlighten, and holds a PhD from the University of Michigan.
  • Mike Gatto: A passionate lefty with hot temper. Struggles from the three-point arc but demonstrates greater consistency within 15 feet. A burly 5’9″ 185 lb frame retains surprising balance, deftness and agility in the paint.  Mike is bolstered by a genetically enhanced intellect (see Khan, Wrath of), a healthy sense of humor, and an impenetrable immune system that make this direct descendant of the Italian renaissance a formidable opponent.
  • Voratima Orawannukul is passionate about creating an innovative and engaging interactive interface. She has completed a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering, a Certificate in Computer Graphics and Graphic Design, and a Master’s degree in Human Computer Interaction. Her multidisciplinary backgrounds combined with her belief to live life to the fullest allow her to dream big and have fun in the digital playground. You can follow her work at voratima.com.

What was the more powerful force: an interest in history or an interest in using technology to show history?
Hmm. I think that one of the reasons WhatWasThere works is that it is a healthy balance of the two. One thing that we hope that the technology behind WhatWasThere accomplishes is to broaden the narrative of our common history by allowing anyone to contribute to the “archive”. History happens everywhere, but because of limitations of space, manpower and cataloging systems, each archive can only tell a slice of the story. WhatWasThere replaces all cataloging systems with a single metaphor – a map, and like Wikipedia we split the manpower for cataloging a photographic history of the world across, well, the world. And finally, digital space is a lot more economical – and accessible – than the physical space of individual archives. What this means is that we now can afford to have “everyday places” and photographs of “everyday people” tell our common history. The evolution of a single street can reflect the larger history of a city in interesting ways, and we want to capture that experience before the photographs that can make it happen are thrown into a shoebox and forgotten – or worse yet, destroyed.

And, this is more my own curiosity, what is the software behind it, i.e how does it work?
The site is built around Google’s v3 Maps and Street View technologies – these tools allow anyone to construct sites using both their maps data and their streetview photography (The ‘v3’ distinction is important because it enables Street View without the requirement of Flash). On top of this foundation, our team built the tools to place, store, retrieve, and manage images, using jquery / javascript to improve the experience with an eye toward usability.


About Adventures in Preservation

Huge fans of the world's architectural heritage, making it a point to seek out historic buildings wherever we travel. Bloggers include co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit organizing historic preservation-based volunteer vacations, and AiP interns.
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