I finally had a chance to try out Historypin, the website that lets you link old photos to Google Street View. Historypin was developed, in partnership with Google, by We Are What We Do, an organization in the UK that takes big goals like a cleaner environment or better schools and breaks them into small, manageable steps they call “actions.” Historypin represents action #132, Share a Piece of Your History, as part of a goal of strengthening intergenerational relationships.
I was home in North Carolina this week for my 20th high school reunion, so I rooted through my childhood photo album and found an image that seemed perfect for Historypin:
It’s the house I grew up in, just after an ice storm in 1979. The house was torn down in 1984 to make way for a baseball stadium, so the site looks radically different today. I was able to successfully pin the photo to Street View and upload a brief story about the house. You can view the results here.
Historypin debuted in June 2010 and it’s still in beta form. In theory, linking historical images to Google Street View creates compelling before-and-after comparisons, and I like the idea that anyone, anywhere can upload to the same global map. But in practice, Historypin is still a clunky experience.
First, the user interface is complicated and not intuitive for a general audience. The layout of the page is confusing and it’s not always clear which button to click to navigate between Google map, Google Street View, and the specific information about each image–you can easily end up somewhere you didn’t intend to be. Plus, the Street View function, by far the most interesting part of the site, doesn’t always work properly. When people pin their old photos to Street View, the scale or angle is often skewed. It’s hard to get a crisp comparison, to toggle back and forth between old and new, or to zoom out far enough from the image to get the overall effect.
Second, the map still needs to be saturated with a lot more images. So far, mine is the only one pinned to Greensboro, North Carolina, a sizable city. I can imagine that many of the photos that would be most interesting for Street View–the ones that are at least 20 years old and therefore show significant change–have not yet been scanned into digital format; they are in closets and attics and basements all over the place. Historypin will be much more meaningful if everyone uses it. Seeding the content is a challenge for many online projects, not just Historypin.
And third, copyright restrictions present a barrier. You’re only allowed to upload photos for which you own the rights, which is how I ended up rooting through the photo album at my mom’s house. Again, the most interesting photographs are the older ones, most of which are owned by historical societies and libraries. Historypin is encouraging these organizations to add their fabulous photograph collections to the map, and a few are doing so. Meanwhile, I imagine there are some local history enthusiasts out there who would spend countless hours researching, uploading, and pinning images if access and permission could be brokered.
I hope after some retooling that Historypin succeeds, and eventually launches a mobile app version. In the meantime, did my test case strengthen any intergenerational relationships? I spent an hour talking to my mom about the old house–she remembered details that I had forgotten, and we debated the height of the magnolia trees and what kind of story I should write. Later my sister came over and added her two cents. We are all walking around today with vivid memories of a place we shared that no longer exists. Action #132: check.