Monday, February 17, 2014

You’ll Love Exploring Toronto From 1818 To 2012 With This Amazing Interactive Map. Check Out 1947!

Apologies for the Buzzfeed-style headline, but this is a project I want to share widely. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.

Toronto Historic Map viewer—an interactive online map

Click to launch the Toronto Historic Maps viewer by Chris Olsen.

Easily pan around (Google-maps style), zoom in and out, and best of all—switch between years to watch how the city evolves over time. For optimal results, use a decent computer with a modern browser and a fast internet connection. Requires Flash (sorry), and may take a few seconds to initially load.

Background context
Over the last couple of years, I put together several online projects relating to historical maps of Toronto. A key motivation was to aggregate maps from different institutional sources, as previously they were difficult to discover, navigate and browse. My hope was to provide a simple, easy-to-use entry point for researchers, students, and other Toronto history enthusiasts to access these important documents from our past. 

To my delight, another aficionado with a passion for maps recently leveraged that work to create something new and marvellous. This is what happens with shared historical information and open data—everyone benefits.

In my blog post about Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto—Online!, I challenged readers to “imagine a jazzed-up, interactive version, or a gigantic ‘all in one file’ image carefully stitched together”.

That line apparently resonated with Chris Olsen, an analyst at ESRI (the premier Geographical Information System technology vendor), and he nimbly took up my challenge.

Olsen had previously created well-received historical map viewers for Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He learned of my Goad and Historical Maps of Toronto projects, and decided to implement a map viewer instance for Toronto, seeing as the source images had conveniently been assembled in one spot by yours truly.

The amount of work he invested is prodigious. To create the site, Olsen georeferenced and then melded together map plates from the Goad fire insurance plans (1880, 1889, 1913 and 1924). He also incorporated maps from 1818, 1842, and aerial photographs from 1947. At my urging he added the 1858 Boulton Atlas of the City of Toronto (a predecessor map to the Goad plans). I’ve contacted the City of Toronto Archives to find out if we can obtain the source imagery for some of their post-1947 aerial photography series so they can be added to the project (No response yet, but we’ll see what happens).

photo: Old Fort York as seen by plane in 1947
Recognize this famous Toronto landmark?

[Note to techies: Yes, Olsen’s georeferenced files are public and free to use. Depending on the application, users can access them in ArcMap by connecting here, or if within a web application, here.]

I have often envisioned doing something like this, but was stymied by the technical and resource requirements to get it together. I’m incredibly happy that someone else felt the same way—and actually did something about it.

The value in this project is the ability to scrutinize how Toronto buildings, neighbourhoods and streetscapes change between years. Even in the gap between 1947 and 2012, the differences—as well as the things that stay the same—can be astonishing.

Mr. Olsen is to be thanked for gifting us with this engrossing and novel way of exploring old Toronto. It pleases me to have contributed (even if merely peripherally) to his endeavour. This sort of initiative is exactly why organizing the maps together was so important to me in the first place—it enables people to find, use, and build on the resources in new and exciting ways. History belongs to all of us!

Readers, let me know in the comments if you discover anything neat. I know you will.

See Also
Historical Maps of Toronto
Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto—Online!
Fort York and Garrison Common Maps