This Crowdsourced Project Is Mapping Mysterious Photos Of Lost New York

The New York Public Library is on a mission to pinpoint the location of thousands of images of the old city–and it needs New Yorkers’ help.

For centuries, New York City has torn itself down and rebuilt anew with staggering speed–and as a result, much of the city’s urban history has been lost. Whole avenues have vanished, not to mention train lines, buildings, and neighborhoods that now are only preserved in old photos and maps.


New York Public Library’s archive contains thousands of photos of these lost parts of New York City. Yet in many cases, no one knows precisely where they were taken or, sometimes, what they show. Many of photos only have a vague description of their location in their name, like “Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY” or “New York Elevated;” others don’t have any location data to draw from. Now, the library wants to pinpoint where they were taken–and it’s asking New Yorkers for help.

[Photo: Max Henry Hubacher/NYPL]
This month, the library launched a new tool called Surveyor, spotted this week by Hyperallergic. It’s an interface designed to harness our collective knowledge of the city to solve the mysteries of these old photos. Visit the site, and you’ll see one of these unidentified photos, drawings, or etchings of a place in the city. You’re asked to mark your best guess for the photo’s location using a pin that says “Here! I think” on a modern-day map of New York.

Surveyor’s interface currently draws from 2,500 digitized images, and between 600 to 700 have been geotagged since the project launched this month. Once the location of the image has been geotagged by three or four people, the creator of the tool, Bert Spaan, will look and see if there’s any consensus. If there is, he adds the location to the image’s metadata, making it searchable in the future; if not, there’s more crowdsourcing to be done.

“Computers can’t solve the problem,” Spaan says. “We really need the knowledge of New Yorkers to help us.”

[Photo: Max Henry Hubacher/NYPL]
Some photos are more recognizable than others. The location and angle of a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1955 is simple to pinpoint. But another of the now-demolished 3rd Avenue elevated train in Manhattan from 1954 isn’t quite so easily tagged. Nor is a drawing of two men sitting in front of a southeastern view of the city from 1768. But even if you’re not an old-time New Yorker, scrolling through the photos and drawings provides a reward in itself.

Surveyor is part of a larger project to make the library’s collections of photos, drawings, maps, and other memorabilia from New York’s history more accessible to its current population. Called NYC Space/Time Directory, the project started in November 2015 and will run until November of this year. Spaan, who runs the project, previously created a kind of Google Maps for old New York maps and an online game for transcribing the names and address of old buildings.


Spaan eventually wants to add digitized photos from 25 of the library’s collections and open up the tool to other organizations with digital photos that don’t have location metadata. He points to the New York Historical Society’s collection of subway construction photos as one example of a group of images that would benefit from such a crowdsourced catalog.

[Image: courtesy NYPL]
The next step is for Spaan to map all the crowdsourced locations onto an interactive map so they can be easily accessed, which he’s already begun work on and will release in a few weeks. But his ultimate goal is to create an interactive map that includes not just the newly geotagged photos, but maps, letters, yellow pages, and other historical documents that are available through the New York Public Library.

It’s an easy way for people to find the information they probably know we have somewhere but it’s difficult to find,” Spaan says. “Maps are a natural interface for a city.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.