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The “Spherical Mercator” of Time: Incorporating History in Digital Maps

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Interstate I-66 in Arlington County VA Looking East. Photo credit: Butch Lazorchak
Interstate I-66 in Arlington County VA Looking East. Photo credit: Butch Lazorchak

In 1982 Interstate I-66 opened, providing a direct high-speed connection (except at rush hour) between downtown Washington D.C. and its western suburbs in Virginia. I was barely out of high school at the time so its opening didn’t really register with me, but now I live mere blocks away from the highway so it’s an everyday part of my life.

What did the area near my house look like prior to the highway’s opening? Many of us are fascinated by old photographs of the places where we live, but advances in technology are now making it possible to incorporate geography into these memories; to leverage maps to help us visualize the history of our favorite places in new and innovative ways.

Incorporating geographic analysis into historical efforts gives us new insights into the value of place. For example, what if we could map geographic changes over time and document the changing paths of rivers over hundreds of years? What about documenting the different economic uses of a particular point in space over time?

One current effort on this front is exploring ways to incorporate historic information into OpenStreetmap. One of the interesting features of OSM is that it can be rolled back to different points in time to review changes that have been added to the database that underpins the map.

This is not quite the same as being able to roll back to any arbitrary point in time, but researchers are exploring ways to incorporate the “time element” to OSM so that  the database could also be rolled back so that a user could see what a particular place actually looked like on the map at a particular moment in the past.

Roads and buildings would change or disappear, river traces would subtly shift, fields and forests would reappear in areas that had long since been developed.

There are numerous technical challenges to making this work and they are being explored on the project’s OSM-Historic listserv and wiki: resolving historical time format conventions, identifying and reviewing sources of historical information, identifying how to tag and annotate sources of historical information, how to trace historical data provenance and a range of other issues.

Researchers point to Frankie Roberto’s presentation “Mapping History on Open Street Map” at the 2009 State of the Map conference in Amsterdam as an excellent starting point to understanding the challenges of incorporating time into geospatial applications. And while the OSM-Historic effort leverages existing infrastructures to potential broad benefit, it’s not the only mapping effort addressing historic challenges.

We’ll be highlighting some of these efforts at the South By Southwest Conference in March in our session “Why Digital Maps Can Reboot Cultural History.” Other interesting examples include Sabre Maps, an effort to integrate scanned images of older maps of the UK with the current OSM interface; OmnesViae: Roman Routeplanner, a reconstruction of an antique Roman map; and Pastmapper, a representation of San Francisco as it was in 1853, using geometries from a scan of the US Coast Survey Map from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

What are some other examples of digital maps incorporating historical elements and how can we work through the challenges of historical time in maps?

Comments (8)

  1. The question “What about documenting the different economic uses of a particular point in space over time?” reminded me of the first time I saw Sanborn Fire Insurance maps at the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. It was fascinating to view the types of businesses that existed in very old maps of Denver. Some buildings on the map were even amended over time — rectangular scraps of paper with new business names were pasted on top of old businesses on the map itself. It would be fun to “superimpose” or combine some of those old maps with current day maps — especially in old parts of lower downtown Denver where some historic buildings still stand.

  2. Butch,
    While I won’t outright say this is a passion of mine (that would be pizza and/or hockey), you did nail a subject in which I am extremely interested–and it correlates with my interests in history and digitization. More specifically, it’s capturing change over time as demonstrated through the landscape. I was toying with a potential dissertation/project between 2008 and 2010 where I wanted to digitize maps, lay them out over each other, and synch them with google earth (via morphing).

    Obviously, earlier maps (read: Waldseemüller map) have two problems: 1) a lack of detailed information on uncharted geographic locations 2) human error in general. Still that very lack of information and flawed information is, in itself, telling about the science/art of cartography. I compare it to explaining to kids with iPads that before the internet and e-mail, we actually talked to people on the phone, and before that, people sent hand-written letters which could take weeks or months to receive. Consequently, the exchange of information was slower, and the information exchange required that the writer/reader be, at the very least, semi-literate.

    Applying this to map-making, the drafters needed to grasp surveying and they had to be aware of the map’s potential uses and users.

    So, maps tell us about how people understood the landscape, and also how the landscape changed over time. (Read: the loss of Port Royal in the 1692 earthquake or islands around Indonesia post-2004.) I was drawn to this by a professor who pointed out cultural landscape studies and JB Jackson.

    On another note, UNC-Chapel Hill has been somewhat active in this endeavor (Documenting the South), and I think UC Santa Barbara has developed a similar project. UNC uses the Sanborn maps, and last I heard, there was some thought about developing similar projects in Europe using their maps–but acquisitions for the maps has become a bit of an issue because they’re considered collector’s items.

  3. For those who aren’t familiar with OpenStreetMap, it’s a sort of Wikipedia for maps, in that anyone can contribute to and edit the same dataset. This enables people to extend others’ efforts and immediately share what they’ve done, which is a fairly unique and powerful capability. In addition, a current map of the world already contains much information about its history. One of the goals of the Historical OSM project is to leverage OSM’s great authoring, database, and rendering tools to make it easier to combine projects and to collaborate. Hopefully, academics and educators will be able to spend more time authoring and creating and less time worrying about setting up infrastructure. We hope to have some sample test cases up and running in the near future. Please stay tuned – all are welcome!

  4. People might also have family photos of certain places over time and might want to put them into this kind of program.

  5. Dr. Richard Marciano has been working with superimposing different historical layers on maps for many years. See for example:

    In the 1999 Dr. Ilya Zaslavsky developed AxioMap – Application of XML for Interactive Online Mapping. AxioMap is a Web mapping application that can display multiple layers of geographic data residing, as XML files, on several servers. See for example:

  6. Mark,

    Thanks so much for these links! We need to get Dr. Marciano and Dr. Zaslavsky together with the OpenStreetMap researchers.

  7. LSE PhoneBooth plots the historic Booth poverty map of London onto an OSM base:

    We’ve also made a modern UK government open dataset available as a layer* (the Index of Multiple Deprivation) so you can compare historic/modern data sources**
    Click: map layers > IMD

    If you’re using a mobile device (and you’re in central London…) you can plot your current location on the map and retrieve nearby notebook entries which contain street-by-street eyewitness accounts of walked police beats. This gives you another way to do historical analysis by delivering the archive content directly to the contemporary location to which it refers.

    More info on the project here:

    * thanks to Oliver O’Brien at UCL who rendered the data set as a map layer and made it available

    ** in a rudimentary fashion – Booth and IMD shouldn’t strictly speaking be referenced against each other as they are doing slightly different things, but it’s an interesting comparison

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