Checking Into Bars That Don't Exist (Anymore)

An app that acts like Foursquare, circa 1966. And that's only one way retro-cartographers are looking to re-map the past.

Last year, Brad Thompson, creator of the San Francisco's historical mapping project PastMapper, attended a weekend conference at Google. At one point, someone raised their hand with an odd request: he wondered if he could check in to a saloon that doesn't exist anymore.

"Everyone giggled, then I went away and thought about it," said Thompson, "I thought that might be a really interesting way of interacting. Why not a Foursquare for the past?"

Pastmapper and developers Double Dutch launched an app this past week that is just that. Using data culled from the San Francisco Public Library and, Thompson and Double Dutch designed an interactive map that lets you see (often hilariously named) bars and restaurants that existed in 1967 — like Colonel Starbottle, the Hangover Club and the Alimony Club — and then lets you "check in" to them. (Pastmapper doesn't use the Foursquare API since most of the places on their maps don't have any connection to existing businesses, though the History Channel partnered with Foursquare for their historical check-in program.) Users can leave notes and add images: So far, the mayor of 1966 San Francisco is local blogger Burrito Justice, with 155 check-ins.

And Thompson intends to expand the app beyond San Francisco: Earlier this week, he added some Oakland listings and is currently talking to people in Seattle about past-mapping their city.

The takeaway, so far? "It was more whimscial times, back then," said Thompson.

Thompson, who works in marketing and business development for an architecture firm, began his project last year. Pastmapper is one of many current efforts to map and visualize history using databases. Given the Bay Area's concentration of nerds and cultural institutions, it's not surprising that San Francisco is a particularly rich area for such projects. In addition to the app, Thompson made a map of San Francisco circa 1853 using the old borders of the city. And like OldSF, developed by a Googler who now lives in New York, Thompson is a newbie at both mapping and historical research.

While institutions like the New York Public Library and Hewitt-Cooper National Design Museum are winning plaudits for their digital collaborations by doing things like putting metadata on GitHub, in terms of historical maps, History Pin, a project from the London-based non-profit We Are What We Do, is a leader in the field. It allows people and organizations to "pin" annotated photos to maps around the world. Currently, it has 60,000 registered users online, with 500,000 smartphone app downloads. Citizen historians have so far contributed over 150,000 pieces of content, an amount that's doubled in the last three months.

Jon Voss, the S.F.-based Strategic Partnerships Director of History Pin, said that these efforts were part of a global shift in how institutions and regular people were revolutionizing the field of cultural heritage. "There's a paradigm shift. People expect the ability to build off of things," he said, "You'll see more and more of this happening, as libaries become more like maker spaces."

One of their coolest tools is a slider that morphs old and new pictures taken at the same location, like this San Francisco train turnaround:

But what is the ultimate point of these projects? The PastMapper app, for instance, is delightfully resistant to utility: What could be a more fruitless exercise than going to the location of a bar or restaurant that is no longer around? And then there are issues with organizing so much historical data, given the size and scope of it. History Pin recently added "channels" for institutions to help sort relevant info, but figuring out search functionality will remain an ongoing challenge.

There are also big changes in terms of who holds mapping information. Increasingly, Voss said, digital stewardship has fallen out of the hands of cultural institutions. He described visiting Christchurch, Australia, the site of two hugely destructive earthquakes, where Google StreetView provided the most complete images of the place before the disaster. But what happens when new StreetView cars come rolling through, obliterating the now-historical images of the town from before the quakes? Christchurch citizens were trying to obtain that information from Google, but Voss said that policies around Google map storage were not known. "A private company has a better archive of our architectural landscape than any institution in the world," he said.

The good news is we don't have to wait for governments, non-profits or private companies to figure out how to best use and display the data — passionate people like Thompson are taking matters into their own hands. Thompson hopes eventually to expand his work to become a "a comprehensive historical maping database, something that other people could use." For now, though, he's happy that people are taking the raw data in the app and having a good time with it. "The app was initially a silly idea. I thought, though, it'd be a good way to make a game out of learning about the past."

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