SXSW 2011 Q&A: Jon Voss

Melissa Sepe   March 4, 2011

The Breakdown: Our latest SXSW 2011 Q&A comes from Jon Voss (@LookBackMaps) founder of LookBackMaps, a project that uses photographs, maps, and augmented reality to engage users with history and historical photography. Jon spoke with Scatter/Gather about his upcoming panel, “Innovating & Developing with Libraries, Archives & Museums.” The panel will focus on emerging opportunities for developers to leverage historical collections and data in creating public-facing experiences.


S/G: What can we expect from your panel?

Jon: You’ll get a quick update on the innovative collaborations in the world of libraries, archives, and museums, and see how these institutions are reaching out to 21st-century audiences in exciting new ways.

S/G: Why is it important to make historical data and archives accessible to the public?

Jon: Historical data and imagery are a critical part of our shared culture—[they’re] part of the fabric that ties us to a place and to other people around us. For most libraries, archives, and museums, sharing these assets is a key part of their mission. They do a lot of other things too of course, but as one archivist summarized to me, “[W]e preserve history to share it.”  What’s exciting is how these institutions are finding new ways to meet expectations of tech-savvy populations and a younger demographic that has a very different way of interacting with media than previous generations.

S/G: How can organizations present their data so as not to overwhelm users with an avalanche of information?

Jon: One way is to make this information machine-readable on the web, and I think libraries, archives, and museums will take a leadership role in the development and adoption of Linked Data technologies in the next few years. By sharing data in both human and machine-readable formats, a person or a program can query for information based on a subject, a keyword, or a location across multiple data sources. So instead of “checking in” to your neighborhood bar with your favorite place-based social network, you might just as easily check in to the saloon that was there in the early 1900’s, and see a picture of the long-gone patrons that shared drinks at that very location.

S/G: Can you think of a particularly innovative example of historical information being presented in an especially accessible, entertaining, and/or educational way? Why, in your opinion, is it successful?

Jon: Not to toot my own horn, but the LookBackMaps website and iPhone app [have] really captivated people’s imaginations in the last year or so with the simple way we’ve mashed up historical photos with current day views. With our site and app you can find a historical photo on a map and see what was there in the past. In the case of the app, you can overlay the old photo on your camera view and literally see the past come to life before you. It’s a new way to explore history, but its success is rooted in the fact that it brings history to people where they are, and that is in location-based apps. People want to know more about a place than where their friends are, or where the best coffee is. People want to know what was here before us.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?

Jon: The greatest thing about SXSW is the convergence of so many disparate ideas in one place. I’m hoping to catch some sessions on applications of the Semantic Web, the future of location-based apps, and different ways technology, media, and culture can advance the common good.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2011 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by tantek
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
iPad – by smemon87


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