A geospatial project: Maps for Lost Towns

I joined GeoGeeks earlier this year to meet other people interested in cartography and location based data. I think that mapping content to specific locations will be a critical feature of mixed reality. It opens the door to creating customised experiences based on the visitor and their needs. One set of geocoordinates could trigger a range of visual or auditory outputs depending on the visitor (demographics, psychographics, past behaviour), the context of their visit and other environmental cues (weather, time of day, local events, other people within range).

I’m basing this theory on my experience with digital marketing today. Online targeting is based on knowing who visits a website, their past behaviour and what they are looking for. This information lets an advertiser decide what type of content to serve that visitor whether it’s through a banner ad, header image or even the adjusted call to action wording on a button. Today, people navigate the internet by visiting websites or interacting with emails and apps which in turn direct them to specific websites. Tomorrow, people will walk around in real life and when they visit a landmark or enter a building it will have been fused with digital content. But we can’t overwhelm them with every single piece of information that’s available. That would be like a super cluttered website with heaps of ads and spam. (Keiichi Matsuda’s video Domestic Robocop demonstrates this point perfectly.) Instead we should only serve content that is relevant and helpful to that person.

But those awesome experiences of the future start with an understanding of how our current environment is mapped, what kind of meaningful information can be overlaid and what people do with this information.

Maps for Lost Towns

Based in Perth, Western Australia, GeoGeeks holds fortnightly meet ups to explore geospatial technology using open source data and tools. The group has members with experience in all kinds of industries including mining, resources, government, and energy. Some are GIS (geographic information systems) technical specialists while others (like me) are hobbyists or programmers who want to expand their skill set. I hope to learn more about the technical side of GIS and help work on some cool mapping projects.

One of the projects the group has already begun to explore is Maps for Lost Towns.  A few GeoGeeks discovered that the State Records Office of WA has a massive database of historical maps. These beautiful maps (some over 100 years old!) have been digitised and made available to the public to view online. The maps are protected by Crown copyright which expires 50 years from the date of publication. My understanding is that as long as the maps were published in 1966 or earlier then they can be uploaded for the purposes of this project. The maps could be a lot more useful and interesting, if we could understand visually where they fit into the maps of today. This is technically possible but the difficulty lies in the fact that there are thousands of maps to review.  So the goal of the project is to georeference these maps through crowdsourcing.

Open source mapping tools

Matching or “rectifying” a map against today’s streets or satellite imagery can be done through open source software such as MapWarper a “map warper/ map georectifier and image georeferencer tool”.  Sounds fancy, but it’s actually quite an easy to use platform.

  • Upload a map.
  • Identify several control points on the map. These are points which you can confidently correlate to current day landmarks or streets.
  • The software rectifies the map by using the control points as anchors and then laying your map on top of current day coordinates.

Here’s an example from the website. The image below is a map from 1873 of the City of Roxbury in Boston, Massachusetts.

Map from Map Warper "1873 City of Roxbury, Part of Ward 15".
Map from Map Warper “1873 City of Roxbury, Part of Ward 15”.

The map was uploaded by a Map Warper member, Nebojsa Pesic, who identified 18 control points  and then rectified the map. You can see from the next image how the old map aligns with the current map. Cool, right?

Rectified map of “1873 City of Roxbury, Part of Ward 15” via Map Warper.

So being able to rectify Western Australia’s historic maps is possible (and fun!) but how do we encourage people to give it a go themselves?

User experience

Before creating a platform that allows visitors to play around with maps, I think it’s important to identify the kind of experience we want them to have. Why would they want to participate in this project? What are there expectations? What do they want to get out of it? Exploring these questions will give us information that we can use to create an ideal experience for them.

Firstly, I took a look at the kinds of people that we might like to engage with and encourage to use the site. I developed three user personas: Social Butterfly, Community Gamer and Community Minded. Each persona interacts with technology and digital content in a different way but I felt that each could gain something positive through a “good map experience”.


I reviewed the current Map Warper Information Architecture (IA) to see what kind of functionality was available to users of that platform. I mapped this out in the IA diagram below. This helped me to understand the following:

  • What kinds of things people could do with maps (search, upload their own maps, rectify, share maps, comment on them).
  • The meta data available on each map (location, publisher, titles, tags, dates).
  • How and why one might search a database of maps. For example, maps from a person’s home town or state, looking for maps from a specific timeframe, or types of maps like aerials.


Reverse engineering the website’s IA also gave me insight into how they had laid out their functionality and hierarchies. Next, I took each user persona and created potential user flows. I kept it pretty simple so that it could be used as a starting point for discussions with other GeoGeeks.gguserflows

I shared these initial concepts with the group along with some additional discussion points:

  • Do these three user personas reflect the main types of people who will use the website?
  • Do these user journeys reflect their needs? And the corresponding website functionality required?
  • To what extent will we use or adapt the original Map Warper IA?
  • Will the website be mobile responsive? Would be good for user personas Social Butterfly (to view content) and Community Minded (to view, upload and share content). In the future users could access cool content while they are mobile and have location services turned on.
  • Do we have maps for just WA or other states too?
  • Will all users have to log in? Or just those that want to match maps and add content? A logged in state will be necessary for saving personal information, activity and gamification elements.
  • Will users be able to upload their own maps?
  • Will we meet minimum Australian accessibility standards? http://www.australia.gov.au/accessibility
  • Should we include a social sharing plugin? I think yes! Map Warper uses http://www.addthis.com/

Although this is a very simple start to a complex project, I hope that this input will help progress the project and I look forward to helping it develop further!