Exploring Portland’s History?

by Matt Blair on September 23, 2010

There have been at least two different ideas posted to the Civic Apps website suggesting an app based on historical sites in Portland.

I’ve done a little bit of thinking about how to proceed, and that’s enough to know that it’s beyond the scope of what I can undertake on my own in the next few months.

I’d love to see this app happen. Anyone else?

The Data

The link posted in the comments of that second proposal points to an Excel spreadsheet with nearly 700 points of interest in it. This could be a starting point.

Most records have a street address, but none are geo-coded. Some fields would need to be cleaned up or split before they could be used to selectively query the data. For example, several rows in the year column have multiple values — date built and date remodeled, perhaps? — which would need to be in different columns to enable sorting/filtering based on year. There seem to be some other irregularities which might need to be parsed and researched individually.

An App, As-Is

Once it is cleaned up, the dataset could be hosted on PDXAPI so that it’s re-usable by other projects, too.

The code I’ve written for the PDX Trees app could be adapted to display these historical sites, with some modifications to the data models and detail screens. I have a version that reads directly from PDXAPI and another that reads from Core Data on the iPhone.

The data set has an architectural style listed for most locations, and this could tie in with online reference materials like Wikipedia, where available.


The ideas posted to Civic Apps mentioned integrating stories and imagery for each site. An app rich with historical details, images, and personalities would certainly have a wider appeal than a simple map and text version.

Doing that well would require wrangling and reformatting text and media assets for at least a few hundred sites, and that’s a book-sized project. Unless, of course, someone has already written such a book, and is open to licensing stories and images for re-use in an app.

Are there any stories or story collections available in the public domain, under a Creative Commons license, or some other easily re-usable format?

The same questions for photos: Are there any public domain or CC-licensed photos available?

If not, maybe it would be possible to use government data as an outline or scaffold for crowd-sourced details? That would require broad and sustained community engagement, given the scope of the data.


Over the next few months, I’d be happy to take on some of the data work, re-purpose my existing iPhone code, and start planning for a richer version.

Anyone else want to join in?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin C. Houk September 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

I like this type of project because I think it has the potential to really engage a community of people that are passionate about the content. Like the foodcart app and the poetry box apps these types of project help people tells stories and that’s important. I’d be happy to contribute what I can. Lets talk.

Max Silverman September 30, 2010 at 2:08 pm

I would love to help you in anyway that I can. Just let me know what I can do to help.

Daniel December 17, 2010 at 11:22 am

great post, thanks for sharing

Steven Romalewski December 20, 2010 at 8:40 am

I’ve been looking into this too. I’ve created Landmark Finder mobile apps for New York City and San Francisco, and am working on several other cities. See http://spatialityapps.com/apps/ for more info. Since Portland has some interesting landmarks info and it’s easily accessible, I’ve been creating a “Landmarks: Portland” version that I’ll post shortly. I’ve geocoded the data using the CivicApps address_point database (http://www.civicapps.org/datasets/address-points) and will post that when I’ve launched the app. I’m open to ideas about how to modify the app so it’s more integrated into social networks. Hopefully I can get some good feedack from the list.

John Laurence October 30, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Have you checked out History Pin?

I like your ideas. I’m an urban hiker and have covered more than 1800 miles of Portland streets in the last year.

PDX Trees would also benefit from a way to log notable trees, whether a common species of unusual size or form or an uncommon species.

Matt Blair November 22, 2011 at 10:29 am

I have several potential collaborators in mind for the Know Your City project, and History Pin is one of them. At a minimum, we’ll do our best to be interoperable with them. Details pending.

Thanks for you idea regarding PDX Trees. Since I started that project, I’ve learned that there are a number of reasons why significant and notable trees are not designated as heritage trees, and it would be nice to expand the project to include them. I have lots of ideas for future enhancements, but I’m not sure when I’ll have time to devote to the project.

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