Imagine you’re the Founder and CEO of a digital agency and two small coteries of employees independently approach you with the same idea for a highly interactive, community-driven online historical photographic archive? This is what happened in 2010 to Steve Glauberman of Enlighten and the result of this brief flight of synchronicity is available now for anyone interested in exploring—and contributing to—a dynamic, ever-changing vision of the past.
WhatWasThere.com is a web-and mobile-based application that allows anyone to upload historical photos, place them precisely on a Google map, and then within Google Street View create a near seamless melding of past and present. No small feat. The Enlighten team was more than up to the task, working extended hours for months to conceive and then execute a completely unique, highly complex, yet elegant, online application. Unwilling to compromise core features and functionality, the team took on the challenge of making the complicated, multi-step archival process approachable and even fun to do. To that end, a remarkable array of state-of-the-art programming tools and strategies, as well as groundbreaking experience design practices, were employed. One particular challenge involved how to efficiently—yet meaningfully—organize and present tens of thousands of aggregated, location-based data points on the Google map. When standard functionality proved inadequate, the team developed an adaptive approach to clustering the data—a flexible strategy that visually represents data density by size across the full range of possible zoom states while maintaining accuracy in data plotting.
WhatWasThere was built as a global application that adapts to other languages and delivers a rich user experience across the complete Google international map set. As more global Google Street Views are added, full functionality of the WhatWasThere application immediately follows suit giving enthusiasts around the world the ability to precisely place their historical images in dimensional space. For rapidly developing cities, in particular, the application’s ability to preserve “what was there” and contrast it with new construction and development represents a unique and visionary archival experience.
Laurel Erickson, Senior Interactive Strategist and one of the team’s guiding lights sums up what drove the passion of the team, “What inspired this project was the realization that we could leverage technology and the connections it facilitates to provide a new human experience of time and space—a virtual time machine of sorts that would allow users to navigate familiar streets as they appeared in the past. What excites us about the project is that it provides the context to capture a photographic history of everyday places before that history disappears into landfill and is no longer available.”