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Maps

Help New York Build a Digital Time Machine

The New York Public Library needs a hand with its ambitious "Google Maps of yesteryears" project.

New York Public Library Labs / Building Inspector

Imagine an interactive platform where you can travel back in time and explore New York City. That's essentially what the New York Public Library wants their Space/Time Directory to be.

The directory is for "anybody interested in learning about the historical city—from students hoping to explore places that have been forgotten, to urban planners looking to create models of the city as it transforms," says Matthew A. Knutzen, Geospatial Librarian at the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division.

The project has been the library's dream for a while, and according to its launch site, NYPL envisions the following features:

  • A "Google Maps of yesteryears," with a time slider function built by stitching together and overlaying historical maps.
  • A "Foursquare or Yelp of the past" feature, where any historical location can be found at any given point in time.
  • A historical catalogue of the city's cultural materials, such as photographs, newspaper articles, business directories, literary references, and census data.
  • A trove of "vintage big data" that journalists and developers can use to understand the past.
  • A "time machine in a box"—a code base that other cities can emulate to create a similar interfaces.

The project was announced as a winner of Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge in January, and awarded a $380,000 grant. But it's a pretty heady task to build something of this depth and complexity. The digitization of maps alone will take a while: the library's collection contains close to 435,000 sheet maps and 20,000 atlases and other books containing maps. So far only 26,000 of these documents have been digitized, says Knutzen, and the most important task ahead will be to finish the rest.

But here's where you come in: the public can help NYPL "quality-control" the digitized versions of some of the maps. Using the library's Map Warper tool, you can help orient the maps correctly—or "georectify them." You can also use the Building Inspector tool to help correct things the computer got wrong in the digitization process, such as the colors:

... addresses:

... and other details of New York's Sanborn fire insurance maps:

So what are you waiting for?

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.