On Historypin

My wife sent me a link to Historypin the other day. Historypin hopes to collect and geo-locate photos from all of us, to create a massive database linked to Google’s Streetview to record how places looked developed over time.

It’s a lovely idea, but is (on random inspection of a number of places I know) short on scanned photos. Which is to say, there are relatively recent, digital, photos, which of course are easy to upload, but few historical photos, which would require people to dig them out of albums and boxes, scan them into digital form and then upload them.

There are some older photos. I wondered if, given the number otoof recent photos, there might be some of the Olympic Cycle race on Box Hill last year. There weren’t, but I did discover my first historical image, this one uploaded by the (endangered, at the time of writing). Still searching for Olympic photos, I widened the area, and found another, this time uploaded by Dorking Museum. It turned out the area around Dorking and Box Hill is rich with historical rather than more recent photo, but interestingly mostly uploaded by institutions rather than individuals.

Now this isn’t quite in the spirit of Historypin’s founders, who are We Are What We Do, a London based not-for-profit that, according to the website,  ”creates ways for millions of people to do more small, good things.” Of course, I don’t know who at these two museums was responsible for uploading the photos. It could be work entirely done by volunteers. And one could argue that the publicly funded (for the time being at least) National Media Museum should make every effort to broaden the audience, but I’m intrigued to know what was the business case for devoting time to adding pictures to this data base.

I’m not saying its wrong, its great that they did so. But I know that a local National Trust place in the area, Polesden Lacey, has a good collection of historic photos, and some of them would benefit from geo-location, but I’m not sure I could make a case for people to spend time uploading and accurately locating the photos on Historypin.

Imagine though, not just photos, but other media, audio, video and text interpretation, pinned to geo-locations, that could be pulled down by a user direct to their phones. Polesden Lacey already has an audio tour that features especially recorded audio, as well as contemporary and historic photos and video. That content is currently accessed via iPods that people can borrow. As iPods don’t have GPS chips, its not properly geo-located, but each bit of content is “pinned” by a map to a specific area of the grounds. Imagine if that same content was available to every smartphone user, via something like Historypin. (Of course, the Polesden area would need a decent data carrying mobile signal, which it doesn’t have, so this is all somewhat academic.)

It’s not hard to imagine all that data being accessed from the web, in all sorts of exciting ways, or by all sorts of mobile apps so that a man interested in the history of brewing, can stand next to another interested in Edwardian gossip and a woman interested in nature walks, and all three can access the bits of data most relevant to their interests, woven into an emotionally compelling narrative (that last part is the difficult bit – but more on that another time). That is after all the whole point of the world wide web.

But the challenge is the huge variety of databases competing with one another. Historypin in competing for attention in two ways. It is competing for content, versus any number of photo servers, including Flickr and Instagram, and its competing for attention at the location with companies like Foursquare and Yelp. Of course you can argue a well made story app, will be server agnostic and seek out the best content from all the servers, but then, is that a sustainable model for anybody?

This 2011 paper from my Southampton colleague Michael Jewell and Clare Hooper of Eindhoven, spins an enticing tale of fiction, drawn from your location. But the first two services it mentions, Wanderlust Stories and Broadcastr, no longer exist. How can cultural institutions be confident of placing the right bet when it comes to making their content available geo-spatially?

Historypin has the backing of Google, so it may be around for some time. But Google isn’t a charity, it’s there to make a profit, and has been seen to be pretty ruthless with its own services when the needed. How can the likes of the National Media Museum and Dorking Museum be confident that the time they spent uploading and locating their photos will still bare fruit in five or ten years time?