As funding dries, Historical Society's PhilaPlace unveils compelling new features - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 30, 2010 1:00 pm

As funding dries, Historical Society’s PhilaPlace unveils compelling new features

Funding is running dry for an online historical project that is a powerful example of the intersection between forward-thinking technologists and history-minded academics.

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Update: Historical Society of Pennsylvania spokesperson Lauri Cielo clarified with us that though a lack of funding may affect the possibility of new features and expansion to other neighborhoods, the website will remain available to users, and staff is budgeted to keep the project going with story uploads and maintenance. Project Director Joan Saverino makes note of these clarifications in her comment below. (4/1/10, 12:39 p.m.)

Funding is running dry for an online historical project that is a powerful example of the intersection between forward-thinking technologists and history-minded academics.

Organizers of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s three-year, $500,000 PhilaPlace project, an interactive documentation of “beyond the bell” 19th century ethnic and immigrant working-class history, are seeking new grants and innovative ways to keep the project sustainable.

The news comes as impressive new features were unveiled last week, coordinators tell Technically Philly.

Adjacent to PhilaPlace’s historic Google Map overlays that show the city’s dense development at the turn of the century, the site now features a “Streets” section that details ethnicity, land use, occupation and population, showing rapid change over time in several prominent Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Based on census and land-use data, users can see, for example, the rapidly changing ethnic diversity of 9th Street, commonly referred to now as the Italian Market, between 1880 and 1920. Or, they might have a look at Wallace Street in Northern Liberties—once known as Paschall’s Alley—where there was a concentration of free blacks before the Civil War. The new section also shares with users the intricate communities displaced by the building of I-95 along the Delaware riverfront.

Working on the project with University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City and Regional Planning graduate students, the features were unveiled on Friday. But a lack of funding could mean the end of the continued exploration and innovative online sharing of this kind of research.

“If we’re able to secure more funding we’ll be able to do some more of this work. We’re hoping to expand into other neighborhoods,” Project Coordinator Joan Saverino said in a telephone interview. Currently, the project focuses on Northern Liberties and South Philadelphia, conditions of the initial project grants.

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Saverino says that since launching in December, the site has has far exceeded expectations. The site has been visited 17,000 times, on track to beat traffic goals by more than two months. And, according to internal metrics, users are spending an average of four minutes on the site.

The Historical Society is working on forming strategic partnerships to sustain and continue research. It is already deepening partnerships with universities and other neighborhood and grassroots organizations to do just that, Saverino says.

And as PhilaPlace coordinators made clear from day one—they’re still looking for historical stories from users. “We’d love to see more people contribute stories,” Saverino says.

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