Journalism's unmet applications: Mapping Philly
November 12th, 2007 by Tom Johnson

Last week, O'Reilly's Radar posted an interesting account of a project to scan historic photos of Philadelphia and link them to Google Maps.  Hence, the reader can see the pic and then relate it to the photo's original location.  Most newspapers have photo archives.  Many of these shots are not just of people, but events which have a geographic location.  It might be difficult to tie a picture with a specific location, but  some might be possible.  So why don't newspapers start scanning those photos and put them on the paper's web site, a la “Mapping Philly”?  Doing so builds a reporter's sense of place in the community's timeline, the photos will attract a certain audience to the web site (and that could then reflect specific advertisers) and the photos would be preserved by the scanning. 

Yes, it would require an investment in time and money, but hey, instead of just cutting expenses by laying off staff, how 'bout a little investment in the future of the enterprise?


Mapping Philly

Posted: 08 Nov 2007 06:12 PM CST

By Peter Brantley

One of the most engaging sessions at the Digital Library Federation Fall Forum meeting in Philadelphia this week was a panel discussing a georeference-supportive project from the City of Philadelphia itself. We were thrilled to have representatives from Philadelphia's Department of Records, who have been gradually developing a project called with several technology partners including Avencia, a firm in Philadelphia; it is Avencia's presentation [pdf] that I highlight in this entry.

The Department of Records in Philadelphia has one of the best historical image archives in the country, with over two million photographs. To date, some 47,000 pictures have been digitized, with descriptive metadata; the Department is digitizing photos at a rate of approximately 2000 each month. The most critical information associated with the images are locational data that facilitate mapping and georeference services.

An image search can be delimited by time period and location, and relevant results are returned as thumbnails with brief descriptions. Advanced search operations on many other metadata fields are also available. Location based searches are mapped, and presented as a tile on a nearest-to-furtherest scale. Clicking on an image's descriptive information will provide a screen of detailed metadata, and clicking the image itself produces a higher resolution version of the picture.

The most attractive features of the site are social; images can be shared with others (via email, right now, although theoretically it would be possible to export out to other social environments or provide internal community social site features, such as neighborhood blogs). Images can also be collected in a Favorites list.

PhillyHistory also has a mobile interface, so one of the things that I've most wanted to see in a metropolitan image archive application — standing on a street corner, and being able to retrieve both historical and contemporary information about the location — is within reach of this project. PhillyHistory is not integrated into the mobile stack, and so a location must be manually entered, but it is still pretty cool.

PhillyHistory also has a blog, where interesting archival images are discussed, as well as general application updates and news. The site also provides advanced sections where it provides detailed information on how to construct url query strings against specific metadata fields, such as location or time period. Searches can be named (“bookmarked” in the site's nomenclature) and then made available as an RSS. Using GeoRSS, a set of images can be easily displayed within Google Maps.

In a terrifically cool new feature just added this November, the first 100 image search results from any query can be mapped into Google Earth. Clicking on any of the result markers pops open a window with the original archival image. This is fantastic.

PhillyHistory's sustainability model is straightforward, financed in part by taxes, and through the sale of quality image prints (e.g., $20.00 for an 8 x 10 color print).

The app has generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in Philly. The locally based Editor of the City Paper, Duane Swierczynski, said in a post, “I've become a junkie … This is the best use of taxpayer money I've heard of in a long time. I'd even be willing pay more taxes … “

We don't normally think of city governments as maintaining currency in software application design, but it happens more often than we realize. At the meeting, someone from NYC was nearly jumping up and down with excitement, at the hope that it would be possible to migrate the application north.

Perhaps west, as well.


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