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An Interview with Historypin Founder Nick Stanhope

Posted by Amanda Gustin on July 15, 2011 in forum not temple |

Nick Stanhope, CEO of We Are What We Do and the founder/creator of Historypin, was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule of press promotion this week to talk to me about Historypin, and how he see it working with museums and archives. He has some really interesting ideas about how to continue forward to bring people together around content. Enjoy!

We’re writing from a museum perspective, so can you talk about your collaboration with museums? How are you planning to address any potential copyright questions, and any other collections issues that might come up?

Institutions can choose what kind of copyright options they have when they add material to the site – all the way from protected on to nonprotected. It’s really up to the institutions themselves to provide what they provide. We’re obviously providing a big incentive for them to share stuff, but they have to make sure that htey have the right permissions to share that stuff. When it’s uploaded to the site it remains under their control, so they can take it down if there’s a problem.

With the internet, copyright issues aren’t just limited to who might walk through your door and see images – it’s instantly available worldwide.

Obviously institutions are worried about that as well – and it’s something to consider when adding something. We haven’t had a lot of problems so far, but it will be something that contributors will have to consider.

Do you have plans to integrate other museum collection items into Historypin – objects or paintings, for example?

We’re actually in the middle of a very lively debate about that. With property such as photos and audio and video recordings, people can pin them to the map and our moderation team can review their accuracy. There is an objective element to exactly what its time and place was.

Now with our current approach we will most likely allow people to add other forms of narrative – letters and diaries – but the issue is that it becomes much more subjective about when and where it was. That’s harder to review for accuracy.

It made me wonder – Historypin is terrific for those exterior street views, but what about material that is not specifically tied to a place? Indoor shots? Portraits?

We’re getting all sorts of internal pictures, and they work really well. You’re walking down a street 100 years ago and you can go inside a building and see what it used to look like, see the storefront and inside. New smartphone apps allow people to take the modern equivalent of any picture, indoors or outdoors, and compare them.

In terms of portraits and paintings that’s still a live discussion. In some ways portraits are the same as photography – they’re recording a particular moment, or a particular scene. But we’re discussuing how to treat a more subjective scene, or a more impressionistic one.

Can you talk a little bit about the upcoming ways in which you’re going to pursue local groups and others to contribute more material to the project? Your website talks about the models that you developed in the UK; what do some of those look like?

Our roots are as a community organization, not a digital or historical group. We just use the power of the content to bring people together in interesting ways and to start interesting conversations. So it’s very natural for us to bring this down to the community level. We’ve been piloting these for the last twelve months in the UK and we’ve been very successful.

First part is identifying some key partners. We’ve been working closely with the city of Reading in England, and we’re replicating those methods with Brooklyn in New York and Palo Alto in California.

Next we create a map of local community groups, organizations, archives, schools and colleges that want to take part. It’s not a difficult ask, who wants to get involved in creating a local community archive of digital history. Then we run a whole series of discussions to facilitate as much participation as possible.

Schools play a big part. We’ll also normally run local exhibitions with content. We’re also working on lots of local media partnerships to bring the whole thing to life. We’re launching two projects in the US over the next year – New York and Palo Alto. We’re also very aware that there are lots of audiences that aren’t online or might not have smartphone apps, or are not able to share the internet participation aspect so we’re providing access for them.

By local exhibitions do you mean traditional, brick-and-mortar exhibitions or something more digital inside museum space?

It’s a kind of combination of digital exhibition and print, however people feel comfortable. That model is going to be really exciting. One of my pet projects is about how to take participation right onto the street – use digital projectsions right in local spaces.

Ultimately, bricks and mortar conversation is really what it’s all about, so taking it back down to that level and relationships is really important.

Are you pursuing a more in-depth partnership with Google – maybe to get Historypin to appear on the main Google Maps site? Do you have any further plans for exposure for Historypin through Google?

I think that’s probably unlikely. It’s always been something we’ve always kept open. We took the idea with Google early on and got some support, philanthropic support, marketing and education. Ultimately though it’s owned completely by us. By the end of the yar we’ll probably have two or three other really big partners that will complement Google. We’ve currently got over 100 institutional partners, and we will keep having a huge family of partnerships.

I saw that your company, We Are What We Do, has a lot of really innovative digital projects. How do you come up with your ideas? Do you use focus groups, experts, in-house brainstorming?

We tend to start looking at particular issues that we feel we can have an impact on. So in the past they’ve been environmental and some community health based.

Historypin came out of a few sets of complications. One about the nature of inter-generational relationships, and the divide between older and younger genreations that’s gotten the worst since the 60s, how we could create natural compelling incentives for them to get together. The younger generation has the skills and interest in technology, and the older generation also has skills and narrative content – then of course everyone in between.

We also worked a lot of communities, particularly with young people in London. And we were looking at relationships within neighborhoods – small communties and networks of relationships and trust. We’ve been thinking a lot about the sociologist Robert Putmam and his research about social capital, and how it’s decreasing in neighborhoods. [Ed. - Putnam's most famous work is Bowling Alone, which has had a fair bit of influence in the museum world as well.] So we’re intersted in how local history can play a role in bringing people back together. Not to over state it of course, but it can really play a part. People come together over a shared heritage.

We’ve been talking a lot about the same things in the museum world – about increasing the community around you, not just staying in a box. One of the key phrases about the movement of museums is that they should be forums, not temples.

That’s a really interesting way to look at it, an interesting agenda. We’ve had a lot of conversations in those same lines. It’s not just the people that are  coming through the doors, it’s the network outside. Museums should never stand still – what we know about things can always increase, these things shouldn’t be dead and stuck in boxes. They should be living in the community and adding and enriching all the time.

Is there anything else you wanted to talk about, or to say to an audience of museum studies students?

I think January 2012 is the next big date for us in regards to our offerings for institutions. We’re going to offer a big toolset for institutions that will allow them to do all sorts of things. First, we’re offering tools to share vast amounts of data quickly and easily, and then we’ll add a series of embed tools. So institutions will be able to put Historypin – the map, and the shared information – directly onto their own websites. They’ll also be able to use Historypin to create their own app experience – something unique to their museum.

Our third step is something we’ve been trying successfully with the Brooklyn Museum, which is a kind of crowdsourcing. They started with a collection of a thousand or so images that they didn’t know much about and invited local community members to pin them, to come up with metadata. Two hundred or so images have been pinned so far and now the museum knows more about them than they did before. So museums that have content they don’t know much about can create a pinning game out of them and increase their knowledge and their community engagement.

We’re really excited about what we can do to provide incentive to archives and museums to share content.

Thanks very much to Nick Stanhope for taking the time to talk to us, and we’re looking forward to see Historypin grow over the coming years, and provide more and more options for community engagement around heritage!

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