Pastmapper is a new platform for organizing data using the visual language of online maps to describe the world of the past. It’s also the manifestation of months that I’ve spent tracing old maps in Illustrator, learning to hack together code with the Google Maps API, and cramming 19th century city listings into a database.
For quick access to realtime information, (photographs, Tweets, business listings, weather, voting results, etc.), online maps are incredibly powerful tools. The more realtime the information is, the more valuable it is, and maps are in a constant state of being updated to keep up with the world. These tools are generally suited for answering a question that begins ‘What is happening?” or “What just happened?”. A few amazing examples of current data on maps are Eric Fischer’s racial distribution maps, the Oakland Crimespotting map by Stamen Design and the New York Times Hurricane Tracker.
But what if your real interest is what happened further back in the past? Online maps today simply add layers of information onto today’s map. Pastmapper is a first step towards answering ‘What was here?’ or ‘Whatever happened to..?’, by delivering a map, not just a data layer, that takes a fourth-dimensional view.
What I’m sharing today is just a prototype: a working example of the Pastmapper experience that I hope to scale to every location and every year (this is no small undertaking!) This prototype presents 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. A lot has changed in the last 158 years. Hills have been leveled, coastlines have expanded, and points of interest have been renamed. A staggering number of streets have been closed, opened, renamed, or widened. Building numbering in San Francisco changed completely in 1861, so even the street addresses don’t match their 2011 counterparts.
But Pastmapper is more than simply redrawn maps. In this prototype, city directory information from the September 1852 A.W. Morgan & Company’s San Francisco City Directory is overlaid, but this a small glimpse of the old data that can make the past more accessible and relevant. There is an opportunity to apply the full richness of the Google Maps experience to the depths of history.
What Comes Next
Today’s release represents a very small part of Pastmapper’s potential. Imagine being able to look back in time at your neighborhood, to see how businesses and landmarks developed. Your local cafe might have been a saloon, or a speakeasy, or a soda fountain – or all three, at different points in time.
Pastmapper will let you explore the complexity of the past, to dig deep into stories from different time periods all over the world. When would you like to explore? America before interstate highways? Chicago’s speakeasies during Prohibition? Europe before the urban wreckage of World War II?