Open Source tools for local history

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Researching and recording local history is a rewarding undertaking that presents many challenges. In many rural areas cultural traditions place scant emphasis on the importance of preserving historical information. Primary sources often consist of legacy documents which suffer from loss and deterioration, and older people whose memories often are uncertain and conflicting. The overwhelming advantages of storing histories in a digital format must overcome the difficulties of domain transformation, e.g. scanning old images and documents which are faded and crumbling.

The Pastfinder project represents ongoing work by the Computer Science Department at Saint Joseph’s College. Using geolocation as a primary focus, we have developed a prototype system to maintain information about a variety of historical assets, including images, biographies and obituaries, sound and video clips, abstracts of land title, and genealogical information. Using a variety of Open Source tools, we have produced a proof of concept application focused upon Independence Cemetery, a pioneer graveyard in rural Jasper County, Indiana.

We began by scanning and digitizing a “reading book” or atlas of the cemetery which was completed in 1979, itself an updated version of a document done in the 1940s. Our work product is a completely updated, online version of the document. A comprehensive survey of the cemetery was conducted by members of the class, each of whom was outfitted with an Android phone. We tested a variety of camera applications capable of geotagging images, and found the combination of high resolution and accurate tagging to be elusive. After much testing, we settled on the use of GeoCam, which in addition to simple GPS coordinates also stores altitude, azimuth, pitch and roll for each image. The data is stored using EXIF tags which are embedded in the image file, using a freely available API.

Software we developed adds additional tags to the image file using the EXIF and IPTC formats. Those tags store partial inscription information and “Cartesian” location information including the section, row, and grave location within the cemetery’s map matrix. We chose the tags so they would provide automatic captioning of the images when uploaded to the Picasa cloud storage repository. The images were cataloged using PostGIS, a geo-aware variant of the Open Source Postgres DBMS. This information was used to generate “virtual tours” of the cemetery via scripts which generate KML files which serve as input to Google Earth, and are also used by an Android app we developed which uses virtual reality (VR) technology borrowed from the gaming world.

The final phase of the pilot project involved “pop-up” sessions conducted at several sites where senior citizens congregate, such as a senior center and a local restaurant. With a digital recorder running discreetly in the background, we would read the cemetery listings to the assembled group, and those present shared their recollections, many of them quite lively, about the people buried in the cemetery who they had known. The resulting audio files were edited to extract clips relevant to the various graves we had cataloged, and then linked into the database so that people perusing the virtualized graveyard can click to listen to the recollections.

Work on the project is ongoing, as we work to verify the technical accuracy of our collected data, and extend the project to two other historic graveyards. We are also developing prototype applications to generate a walking tour of historical homes, and a sound-augmented genealogical record using the Open Source webtrees application.

Photo of Brian Capouch

Brian Capouch

Saint Joseph's College

Brian Capouch is a longtime Open Source user, programmer, and hacker.

He teaches computer science at small Indiana college. He is also a local historian, and owns nine historic structures which he is working to restore.


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