ANZAC memories are launchpad for city digitising project

The Spatial Industries Business Association is developing digital spatial descriptions of Australian and New Zealand cities

The Spatial Industries Business Association (Siba) is developing digital spatial descriptions of Australian and New Zealand cities, starting as an ANZAC memorial exercise.

The initial focus will be on the cities as they existed over the period from 1900 to 1915, the year of the Gallipoli and Chunuk Bair campaigns. However, the database will provide a framework and testing base for a larger exercise aimed at preserving historical images and attached information in three-dimensional form from then up to the present day and possibly back into the nineteenth century.

The aim is to build as detailed a model as possible of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and the five largest Australian cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide – as they have changed over time. There is a large resource of photographs and even film from the early twentieth century, says Richard Simpson, new CEO of Siba’s Queensland branch, which is leading the exercise.

Information through time on eight cities with a total population of 16 million will provide a record of nation-building and the progressive “metropolitanisation” of the two nations’ economies, Simpson says.

The project has been named Mimosa, after the second brightest star in the Southern Cross.

Simpson was a key figure in organising the Digital Earth symposium in Wellington last year and curated the Big Data exhibition at the NZ national Library.

As long as there are a few photographs of a building or landmark from different angles, a three-dimensional model can be constructed, he says; some of the models on show at the Big Data exhibition were even derived from paintings. Cadastral records will establish a precise location for the properties.

Simpson compares the establishment of such a reference grid to Mercator’s first use of the system of latitude and longitude, which hugely advanced the accuracy of map-making.

“Now we’re moving beyond the cartographic era,” he says, having an accurate digital 3D grid reference to which we can pin both buildings and landmarks and the information about them. Information can be directly accessed by its location, making it more accessible to everyone than it would be in a file drawer or even a non-spatially referenced digital database.

“Through this project, not only will we be able to use today’s data, but we can also extract information from the data of the past to forensically reconstruct forgotten places and people in rich 3D,” says Simpson.

Libraries in New Zealand and Australia are progressively digitising their historical and current collections. Crowdsourcing can be expected to unearth a wealth of information about places and people from the 1900-1915 period from personal collections.

While there is less spatial information available for the period up to 1915 than for later years, there are also fewer copyright and licensing problems with the material, Simpson says.

The Anzac exercise is a neatly confined “deliverable”, scheduled to be in place in time for the centenary, in 2015 and it will also be a “sandpit” for testing ideas and techniques to build into the larger exercise, he says. Private-sector sponsorship is seen as providing an important element of the finance for the latter. Simpson declines to put a figure on the cost of the Anzac project.

Local authorities will be crucial partners in building the database as it is brought forward in time; each bringing their own perspective on the important events for their own city. Fires are important in the history of Melbourne for example, he says, while for Brisbane flooding is more significant. Siba itself represents 200 companies with a huge fund of expertise and assets in spatial information.

Like NZ, Australian local and central government is moving to increased digital awareness and an open-data policy; in July last year Brisbane appointed a chief digital officer, Kieran O’Hea, whose experience includes developing and delivering digital strategies for various government departments in Ireland, and advising the European Commission on major online projects.

Brisbane claims to be only the second city in the world, after New York, to create a CDO post. Part of the vision is to have APIs for each city, allowing interested people and organisations to mine data of significance to them and incorporate it into their own applications, as well as allowing the data from the different cities to be more easily “federated”.

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