Tracing the Past Street by Street with AddressingHistory

Phil Leggetter
Dec. 17 2010, 12:00AM EST

When we search for information on a map we tend to be searching to find where something is now. But, what if you wanted to find out where something used to be? What businesses used to be located at a particular address? Where did somebody used to live? Where did all the blacksmiths used to hang out? If you are interested in find out that information there's now a solution: AddressingHistory. AddressingHistory is a recently launched web app and API that provides access to historical data consisting of digitised Scottish post office directories combined with maps from the same time period.

The first version of AddressingHistory, built as a project led by EDINA working in partnership with the National Library of Scotland, contains information from three Edinburgh Post Office Directories (POD). However, the technologies are scalable and could provide access to the full collection of digitised materials which include 750 directories and associated maps covering the whole of Scotland. The app includes a crowd sourcing element that allows any registered user of the site to add or provide corrections to automatically assigned georeferences, correct small errors in the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) or otherwise indicate inconsistencies in the data.

Post Office Directories (PODs) are widely used by genealogists, academic researchers, local historians and for all sorts of personal projects and they have some unexpected uses. They are, for instance, excellent resources for tracing women since they did not appear on the electoral roll until after the First World War.

The following video explains why post office directories, the the data they contain are useful and why AddressingHistory makes finding and using using that data easier.

The web app functionality includes the ability to search for people by surname, places by street/address and professions by title with the results appearing on both a map and in standard tabular results format. You can filter these results by specifying which POD you which to search, display a historical map overlay on the mapped results (built using OpenLayers) and also download the results in JSON, KML or TXT format.

AddressingHistory Blacksmith Profession Search

The majority of the AddressingHistory web app has been built on the AddressingHistory API using AJAX requests. Simple HTTP GET queries can be made to the web service using a number of query parameters, including a parameter which allows the developer to specify the format they want the result returned in (JSON, KML, TXT).

Nicola Osborne, who works on the project, is interested to see how people will use the API:

There is potential to connect data from the directories in really interesting ways. For instance using JSON files to mash up the locations of current business in Edinburgh with the professional listsings in the directories to connect modern businesses to their historic predecessors which could be great fun for small businesses wanting to know the history of their shop front or neighbourhood. You could also turn your own genealogy research into a browsable Google Earth layer by using KMLs from AddressingHistory with existing data you might have in other formats at the moment.

The Visualising Urban Geographies project has been trialling the API for their research into the economic and social history of Edinburgh and map related researcher tools. There was a demonstration of the way they have used the POD data at the AddressingHistory launch where they shared visualizations of the changing distributions of professions in Edinburgh. A video of Professor Richard Rodger and Stuart Nichol demonstrating this work will be available, with all of the other other launch presentations, on the AddressingHistory blog soon.

Nicola explains further how she sees AddressingHistory being used:

I would like – and expect – to see many users, particularly researchers, using the API to grab bulk POD information on particular professions or names and then filtering through this to create custom maps, family history websites, research etc. I think that the KML may also allow for some imaginative e-learning possibilities – with embedded images, video, text, etc. complimenting the core AddressingHistory POD data.

AddressingHistory KML in Google Earth

Future development would likely include the addition of new Post Office Directory content from other areas of Scotland (should funding be available). The AddressingHistory team anticipate that this would both expand the user community and encourage further crowdsourcing effort which would certainly benefit the usefulness of the  tool and API.

The AddressingHistory team feel that the application would benefit from further work on the data pre-processing and loading – perhaps making more use of the different sections of the directories together with ways to better view, georeference and link to advertisements, shipping timetables and other information that also forms part of the PODs.

Another avenue of development could be to include facilities to customize maps and attach images, videos and sound files linking these with POD entries from the AddressingHistory database. The project team are keen to hear from anyone interested in the API so that future developments to the web app and API can benefit from community suggestions and feedback via the recently set up AddressingHistory API Google Group.

Looking even further forward it is possible that the application could be applied to other directories, Nicola explains:

The PODs are fairly heterogeneous as they were compiled in slightly different ways, with varied formatting and the types of listings changed over time.We know that in addition to the Scottish directories there are comparable directories for England and Wales, for Australia, and there will be similar trade directories for many other parts of the world. Our general approach could be applied to suitable data from such directories though some customization or further data processing would likely be needed for differently formatted volune. The AddressingHistory team would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who is working with digitized directories and would like to talk further about this.

AddressingHistory has only just launched but the web app and API show how easy it is to query the information that they have sourced and the fact that the API returns the data in both JSON and KML format increases the ease that developers will be able to integrate it with other components or existing applications.

Phil Leggetter Developer Evangelist at Pusher, Real-Time Web Software & Technology Evangelist, team leader, product developer, micropreneur, managing director of a real-time web and social media software company, blogger and twitter user (@leggetter).



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