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FiveThirtyEight

Life

Want to know what a website looked like in the past — say, this one at its March relaunch? The Internet Archive has you covered. But there’s no Wayback Machine for the world, and how it looked.

There is, however, one for the British Isles. It is called Geograph, and it contains photos of 97 percent of the 244,034 one-kilometer squares of Great Britain and 41 percent of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s 87,933 grid squares. Some are close-ups of fields, roads, buildings or signs. Others zoom out to capture whole villages, beaches or valleys.1

Geograph was started by geography enthusiasts, sponsored by the government, rescued from a chaotic collapse by its devoted contributors and populated with millions of photos from thousands of people around the island nations it covers. Many contributors are over 60 years old, retired, and passionate about photography, geography and more esoteric subjects such as manhole covers and railway tracks. Together they’re turning their corner of the earth into a photo album that’s part travel log, part living history.

Smartphone and digital-camera owners are collectively carrying out a worldwide data-collection task: photographing every nook and cranny of the world. Before cameras got so cheap, digital and ubiquitous, such an effort would have been unthinkable. As a result, much of geographic visual history — how a place looked at a point in time — is gone and can never be recovered. But today it is conceivable that all of the world really could be photographed, if it hasn’t been already. Geograph’s story shows one way to plan such a project, and the many challenges it would face.

Snapping pictures is the easy and fun part. Making sure every spot is covered, and that people searching for images of those spots can find them — that’s where it gets tough. Many photos languish on memory cards and hard drives and never get shared and indexed. And few people opt to photograph dull places they barely notice while passing through.

Geograph solved that problem by turning photography into a game: She who collects the most photos of unphotographed places wins. And there are games within the game. Some aim to turn their own personal map of Geograph territory from green to red, meaning they’ve photographed in that area. Some try to capture the image that is named the photo of the day or month or year on the site. Contributors can claim plenty of cashless rewards, and many adorn their profile pages with their achievements.

Not all the photos are beautiful, nor are all the subjects. But they add up to an unmatchable database of how the U.K. and Ireland look — and looked. The site is 9 years old, meaning it has already tracked change as people have revisited places, or new contributors have visited them for the first time. It changes even more as people scan and upload photos that predate the site. BBC News and other news organizations often use images from Geograph to illustrate stories. The British Library has saved a digital archive of the enormous database.2

Lambs grazing in Swaledale in Northern England in 2012. Photo licensed under CC-BY-SA.

Lambs grazing in Swaledale in Northern England in 2012. Photo licensed under CC-BY-SA.

© Karl and Ali

Niche appeal

The site has never had an enormous following. Its Twitter account has fewer than 700 followers. Fewer than 25,000 unique visitors came to the site each day in early January of this year. The site’s design lacks the gloss and frills of mass photo sites, and uploading an image requires a lot of clicking, including pinpointing on a map the locations of the photo’s subject and of its taker.

“I don’t think it will ever have a popular appeal, but I do think it will have an appeal to scholars,” Neil Clifton, who has contributed over 14,000 photos, said in a telephone interview.3

Photographers have gotten reuse requests from publishers of photo books of defunct breweries and gallows. People also use the site to virtually visit places they haven’t seen for a long time, or ever. They often write in to the photographer to share the memories the picture has sparked.4

The photographers enjoy these messages, and the points they earn toward the site’s games. They have other motivations, too. Some use the site to rekindle their love of photography, or to inspire a nice walk. Some have connected with like-minded users to go on joint outings, united by their drive to document. Others take their photos in solitude.

Photo selections and captions provide contributors an opportunity to teach the history and politics that are tied to geography — and to advance an agenda. “Geograph provides a platform for one’s views: hobby-horses, axes to grind, bees in the bonnet etc.,” Kim Traynor, a 64-year-old retired teacher in Edinburgh, wrote in an email. “In my case, castigating builders and town planners past and present, poking fun gently at the English, reminding Scots that they have a pedigree worth holding onto etc.”

His photos often strike a chord thousands of miles away, he said. This Edinburgh photo, for instance, drew an email from a woman in Nebraska who said her ancestor was hanged at the site.

Special requests aside, Geograph-ers’ idiosyncratic interests usually dictate the distribution of photos. Kenneth Allen’s extensive documentation of his Northern Ireland town of Omagh has — almost singlehandedly — made it the most-photographed grid square, ahead of the historical sites of Edinburgh old town and Westminster in London, each of which has been photographed by more than 200 users, a fact Allen proudly notes.5

A walk in London

On a recent Sunday morning, I met Robin Stott, chairman of the company that oversees the site, to chat and then take some snaps. We met at the London train station called Marylebone, where he’d arrived from his home in Warwick. After a coffee, we drifted — as he put it — north and west, to neighborhoods he hadn’t seen before. Stott took care to photograph only when the sunlight was right, an unpredictable variable in gray London. And he sandwiched photos intended for upload with identifying shots, of street signs and plaques.

Stott absorbed and marveled at the visual data around him. The 70-year-old retired landscape architect said the site’s users who love scenic snaps might find him “heretical” for enjoying the populated urban scenes. A classic London café (the kind that serves fish and chips, not croissants and gourmet coffee), an eyesore of an apartment building, a ginkgo tree, an old mailbox — these all drew his attention.

“Oh, there’s so much going on right here!” Stott said at one quiet residential intersection.6 “I could spend an hour here!”

“The site is a reality check that counters the clichéd and stereotyped images of places put out by the media, postcards, advertising and pictorial calendars,” Stott wrote in an email before our meeting. His photos from our outing are on his Geograph page.

Users tend to be, like him, professionals or retired professionals, Stott said. “They like to be precise — pedantic, quite often,” he said. “But it’s all right. They’re quite good company.”

Documenting the past

I interviewed about a dozen of them, by phone and email, after making contact through the site’s messaging system. I chose mostly names on the all-time images leaderboard, plus some who’d taken snaps in my London neighborhood. Most who got back to me were men over 60. Many had started taking photos as children and enjoyed a chance to resume their hobby, this time with digital cameras. Some were motivated by an urge to document a place before it changed in a way not to their liking. This change could be the result of fire — such as the one that consumed part of Eastbourne Pier last month, and which the site documents — or of deliberate planning.

“So-called improvements which are usually disastrous are being made,” Clifton, a retired university lecturer, said. “You only have got to consider the London skyline.”

Clifton, 79, has uploaded photos that date back to 1949; he took them with his first camera, a hand-me-down from his father. But he knows the early hobby photographers didn’t fully document the past. “We have to remember, what is the present now will be the past in the future,” he said. “There aren’t sufficient records of what places were in the past. I’m trying to make sure [to change that] for future generations.”

Can it go global?

Geograph grew out of geocaching, the game of finding and signing log books based only on their coordinates. Founder Gary Rogers’s post on a geocaching site advertised the new project, launched in February 2005 and with just 27 grid squares photographed. Rogers’s pitch went, essentially: While you’re out geocaching, why not come back with photos tied to the place? And they did — now more than 236,000 grid squares are covered.

Geograph, for all its success blanketing Great Britain, demonstrates how difficult it would be to adapt the concept globally. “We only just have enough resources to run the current site,” Barry Hunter, a 35-year-old web developer who is the only one of three co-founders still involved, said in an email interview. The site has made tools available for others to launch sister sites, and among its big ideas is easing adaptation to other countries. But, Hunter said, “Germany is the only one to really get going.”7

The world may also be too big a target. “In practice I think it would be impossible and perhaps not even worthwhile to ‘geograph’ Antarctica or Siberia or swaths of the Sahara desert,” Geograph contributor Andrew Hill, a 49-year-old who lives in Bolsover, wrote in an email. “Britain has a unique blend of highly varied but accessible landscapes over small areas and a high population density. Even so, in our relatively compact and accessible country, parts of Scotland are proving difficult to complete.”8

Geograph’s maps of Great Britain are essential for its success, Stott said. The national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, had been planning to build a photo-sharing website for use by geography teachers when it discovered Geograph and decided to sponsor the site instead, Stott said. It gave £45,000 (about $75,000), and allowed the free use of highly detailed maps. These OS maps on the site make it possible for users to pinpoint photos in places far from city street grids, those that are depicted simply as solid green on map services such as Google Maps. Grid squares on the site correspond to those on OS printed maps that walkers use around the country.9

Stott thinks Geographing more countries would require similar arrangements with national mapping agencies. Making contact with them is on his to-do list, he said.

Other sites could also pick up the thread. Google is a leading contender. Google Street View has photographed streets in more than 57 countries, a Google spokeswoman said — though it has had to account for local privacy concerns. It has faced bans, opt-outs or lawsuits in some cases, and has shifted camera angles in others.

The company also lends its camera equipment to tourism boards, universities and other groups that agree to take off-street images in hard-to-reach places. Google-owned Panoramio places user-submitted photos on a world map, while Google Views encourages similar submissions.10

Two months after Geograph’s launch, co-founder Paul Dixon wrote a manifesto aimed at protecting the site’s freedom in perpetuity. It protected the site’s images with the Creative Commons license. Dixon concluded his manifesto — which still governs the site — with, “Your images will live forever, and will be useful for generations of site visitors!”11

Yet Geograph faced its own near-collapse in 2010. “The good ship Geograph was heading for the rocks,” Stott said. Hunter “was struggling to keep all the plates in the air and appealed for help.” Volunteers formed a limited company to help run things.

Endgame?

Today, nearly every Great Britain grid square is covered, so the thrill of being first is rare. Photo submissions are down from their peak last year. Fewer than 200 users signed up, on average, each month from April through July this year, the lowest level since the site’s earliest days. The site relies on donations, which don’t cover marketing to attract new users.12

bialik-feature-geograph-1

bialik-feature-geograph-2

“Most of England is well-covered, so it’s easy for a potential contributor to come, see their local area blanketed with literally hundreds of thousands of photos, and wonder, what would be the worth of them bothering?” Hunter said.

Hunter sees plenty of worth: Lots of places within the kilometer squares are publicly accessible yet unphotographed. And places can look different each season, or have changed permanently, benefiting from revisits. Hunter said the site’s goals have shifted from the games and the tangible goal of capturing every grid square to more vague ones, such as revisiting every grid square’s major feature each decade. “It’s difficult to pin down an actual endgame,” he said. “It’s making it up as [we] go along.”

Footnotes

  1. The photo on the FiveThirtyEight homepage accompanying this article is © Albert Bridge licensed under CC-BY-SA. ^
  2. It was first archived in November 2011 and has been “ingested” twice more since, a library spokeswoman said. It takes up roughly 2,000 gigabytes of storage space. ^
  3. He warns on his Geograph profile page: “I know that many of my images are very boring, but they are purely record images, as I photograph the mundane rather than the spectacular.” ^
  4. Some photographers share those messages in a thread on the site called “Emails that make it all worthwhile.” ^
  5. “Last year I took pictures every single day and was starting to do the same this year, but I caught the flu and the link was broken,” Allen, a 68-year-old retired government officer, said in an email. “I was a sort of glad, because I was wondering how I could stop. If geographing is supposed to be a hobby, and you set too many goals, it starts to be a bit like work.” ^
  6. Rossmore Road and Harewood Avenue. ^
  7. Geograph Germany has covered less than 5 percent of the country’s grid squares. ^
  8. Another Geograph contributor, Hugh Venables, noted two other big advantages Britain has for attaining near-blanket photographic coverage: the long tradition of public rights of way, including between farms, and “a culture that celebrates, or at least accepts, the obscure.” Geograph contributor Richard Webb added, “Our education system is almost unique in spending ages in Geography and Maths on the National Grid. There is a familiarity with the squares on maps that is not common elsewhere.” ^
  9. “We’ve been very happy with our relationship with Geograph,” Darren Bailey, who works on education at OS, said in a statement relayed by an OS spokeswoman. “We were impressed with the idea behind Geograph and the way it captured people’s imaginations.” ^
  10. Groups with less cash and fame than Google also have married photography to geography. The Degree Confluence Project is confining its task to just meetings of integer latitude and longitude lines, and skipping oceans and parts of the poles, yet is still missing more than half the targeted photos, 18 years into its life. The Dutch website Woophy, or world of photography, showcased photos its members submitted, until it shut down after an acquisition last year.

    “For a while, ours was the only website in the world where you could very quickly find pictures from Easter Island and then seconds later go to South Africa,” co-founder Joris van Hoytema said in an interview. “That was our gimmick or maybe goal, to be the best resource for geographically interesting pictures.” Now the site is offline, though the photos all are backed up “on a hard disk somewhere,” he said. ^

  11. “I felt we needed to have a really clear statement that illustrated we weren’t evil, but also that neither us nor *anyone else* could be evil in future,” Dixon, the 43-year-old chief technology officer for the electronic publisher Alexander Street Press, recalled in an email. He also spent much of his time and patience assuring some non-users that the site itself wasn’t evil, such as when some horse owners worried photos of their stables created a guide for horse thieves. (The site says it quickly removes photos when it learns of valid privacy concerns. The site’s contact page has “I’m a concerned landowner” as one option.) The strain of handling such complaints contributed to Dixon’s eventual decision to leave the site. ^
  12. “Threads like [this] show that people are concerned, and have ‘marketing’ ideas. But few people get round to doing anything :),” Hunter emailed. “Geograph is a volunteer project, so it needs members to take it upon themselves, and be self-motivated to actually do the work…”

    The site’s bleak growth rate is reflected in its detailed future-estimates page, which said on Thursday, “We currently have 12,123 contributing users, therefore at the current rate of 0 users signing up a day (who later contribute), we will reach 12,200 in about 108 days time!” ^

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