Nick’s speech at the launch of Historypin at the Museum of the City of New York on Monday 11th July, 2011.
A year ago, my non-profit organisation, We Are What We Do, launched a beta website that experimented with the ways that technology could help people come together around historical content, more often and more meaningfully.
A year on, we have the full project to offer up to you– Historypin.com, the Historypin Smartphone app and an international roll out of our local Historypin projects, our collaboration with libraries, archives and museums and our education programme.
But, before we show you these, I’d like to tell you a bit about where this idea came from and why a organisation like ours, a social behaviour change organisation, would set out to put something like this into the world.
Starting with a picture
I’m going to start with a picture. This is my gran on the right and my great auntie on the left.
Before my gran passed away, a few years ago, we spent time with some old pictures. It makes we wish I’d done it a bit more often and a bit sooner, because it was the best time we had together. This is my gran working as a land-girl in the summer of 1943, the year of Germany’s surrender at Stalingrad and the defeat of Italian forces by the Allies, but mostly pretty calm in the Leicestershire countryside. My gran loved this photo. Just after it was taken, a young man drove past the road behind and, so taken was he by these pretty land girls, he crashed into the ditch. Gran was pretty pleased to tell that she had some devastating looks in her day.
So, what about this area and that road? Well, the road is now pretty big and full of trucks, but I found out that at one point people were able to sit beside it. Or learn to ride a horse on it. And, later, drive leisurely down it with an early camcorder peering through the windscreen, in August 1960.
All of these pieces of content represented conversations – with my gran and family, with neighbours, with local people who had lived there a long time. All of our team had similar things to share, not just about their family, but about their local area and the places people in their lives had been. As we reached further out, into the communities we worked, we found the same potential in this content everywhere – often untapped or undervalued.
Bringing people together
This is what Historypin is all about – conversations, relationships, understanding. Little ones, across different generations, over garden fences… and bigger ones, across cultures and societies. They all help us get a better understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We Are What We Do sets out to collaborate with millions of people to overcome some of the challenges society is facing: closing gaps, growing networks and increasing social capital. We believe that conversations, relationships and a better understanding between people is a pretty good place to start.
Here is a tour of the new site and a summary of the new Smartphone app.
Getting other people involved: local projects
And beyond the tech, Historypin is ready to roll out its local projects, institutional partnerships and educational programme all over the world.
Local Historypin projects see our team join forces with some key local partners to create a network of organisations, associations, archives, schools and colleges and launch a big call to action for everyone in the area to dig out their history and reach out to friends and neighbours to do the same.
Together, we set up a number of local spots to participate, where people can scan, pin and record stories, and curate an exhibition, using some great digital tools to bring the evolving communal archive to life.
These are being tested very successfully in the UK and will be arriving in the States imminently (for example, in NYC, we will launching a project in Harlem shortly, working with this very Museum [ed: the Museum of the City of New York] and have another project planned in East Palo Alto, California) before spreading around the world.
Working with libraries, archives and museums
From the beta phase of Historypin we already have over 100 partnerships with libraries, archives and museums. We plan to get a lot more involved and have exciting plans for them.
In January 2012, we will launch a full set of tools and services for institutional partners. With these, partners will be able to make massive contributions of content to Historypin, embed Historypin so it can feature on their own sites, create unique experiences on the site and the app for their institutions in the form of Historypin Channels, and get support from a global network of Historypin Interns.
Across all of this, we are making big commitments to integration with other sites and linked and open data – institutions should be able to share their content as and how they choose, without having to duplicate the work. Also very exciting, are our plans for crowd-sourcing meta-data and we’ve been working with Brooklyn Museum on a pilot that has seen 100s of images pinned in their rightful place and date, after having little information on them before. We will scale this up later this year, allowing any content owner to put a challenge to the crowd’s wisdom.
Our Education Programme
Finally, our educational programme. We’re currently collaborating with Stanford’s Spatial History Lab to develop research and study tools that we will launch in early 2012. We are also creating more schools’ resources to help teachers use Historypin to bring history to life in new ways.
Who knows where it will take us
Most importantly, for every avenue we explore, others will open up – this project is open, collaborative and will be based on 100s, hopefully 1000s of partnerships that can help shape the future of Historypin.
So, where are we going with all this?
The simple answer is content – images, video and audio clips pinned on every street, in every building, across and between every village, town and city – layers and layers of it – and getting more and more accurately placed in space and time.
Around these pins, a rich web of stories and recollections, inter-woven with other types of memory – diaries, letters, records.
We are creating a global, digital archive of the people’s history, used and added to everyday by millions of people.
Within all this, we’ll also ensure that Historypin stays true to its roots, as a child of the not-for-profit organisation, We Are What We Do. It will remain non-commercial, collaborative, grounded in communities and able to communicate with massive, mainstream audiences.
As a non-commercial project, we take absolutely no ownership of copyright when content is shared and protect it to the degree that users choose. Also, access to content will always be free via the site and app.
Collaborative and Populist
People will use Historypin, if it grows as we hope, in different ways, to different ends. They will create narratives, impose judgements, introduce political opinions – it will be another platform to get your version of history in the ongoing fight for our memory.
So, we will always aim for a larger and larger mass of participants, adding more angles, rounding edges, greying black and white – getting millions, or even billions of contributions.
A big part of this is a creative and technical challenge that there must be something extraordinary about the Historypin experience – even when presenting, as it mostly does, the ordinary activities of day-to-day life – because we’re competing for time and effort in a world where a user only has to be disappointed for a second before they’re watching skateboarders crash into walls on YouTube.
This creative and technical challenge also extends to make sure that as layers are added to layers are added to layers, that the content is still searchable and meaningful. Millions of pictures are taken every day, thousands hours of video are recorded – can we help make all of this usable, browsable, mashable source of history?
Also, we must keep a distinction between subjective and objective contributions, close to the historian’s distinction between an historian primary and secondary sources.
Of course, nothing is truly objective, but recordings- photographic, video, audio… and further back, transcriptions and illustrated recordings are at least measurable in their date and location (even if they are not currently known and need to be debated, tested and improved by the crowd) and show an undeniable snapshot of history, which is why this content is “pinned” to the map.
Meanwhile, narrative – stories, recollections, memories, diaries, letters, are more subjective and are not necessarily “pinnable” to a specific point in time and space.
These can surround pins almost infinitely. Essentially, we will defend a distinction between what the world looked and sounded like and how those sights and sounds were perceived.
There will be challenges in all this and there already are in fact – we are already 50,000 contributions in. So these principles will be stretched, unpicked, refined, added to.
We have to work hard to remain a canvas for the recording of history, as it has happened and as it unfolds – full of narrative but never becoming a narrative in its own right – never imposing its own lens or drawing its own conclusions.
We need you
So, this canvas needs you. We need participants and partners, 100s of them, 1000s of them. And, ultimately, this evening is an invitation to become part of this. Talk to us this evening and please keep the conversation going. We look forward to you becoming part of our work and us becoming part of yours.
Thank you very much.