The OldNYC App Is Here! We Spoke with Its Creators

By Shana Kimball
May 4, 2016

In May 2015, Brooklyn-based developer Dan Vanderkam launched OldNYC, providing users a new way to experience NYPL's Photographic Views of New York City collection and discover the history behind the places New Yorkers see everyday. Now Orian Breaux and Christina Leuci—fans of NYC history, maps, and technology—have brought the OldNYC experience to mobile phones. I spoke with them to find out more about the development of this app, which is now available in the iTunes App Store.

Who are you, and what do you do?

Orian: We both work in NYC’s tech world. I’m a product manager, currently focused on user growth at LiveAuctioneers. I love exploring topics like data visualization, urban science, and user behavior. On the side, I mentor aspiring technologists at a tech school called General Assembly and build projects like NYC Time Machine. Before entering tech, I studied aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Christina: As for me, I'm a software developer at Cyrus Innovation, where we help companies build and scale their software products. Previously, I studied web development at Flatiron School, after attending Rutgers University for two years. When we’re not working, you can find us dancing Swing or Argentine Tango!

How did you decide to make a mobile app for OldNYC?

Orian: It was totally spontaneous. Since OldNYC launched last May, I had spent many hours admiringly exploring its photographs. In a November mailing list update, creator Dan Vanderkam asked if anyone wanted to build a mobile app for OldNYC. As someone who loves this intersection of NYC history, maps, and technology, it was an automatic “Yes!” for me. Coincidentally, Christina had been talking about creating an iPhone app, so I immediately volunteered ourselves.

Christina: It was an exciting project to start, and we’re thankful for Dan’s openness to our building off his work. After exchanging emails, we all met for coffee one winter morning, then Orian and I got to work. Admittedly, neither of us had built an iOS app before, but with our combined coding, product, and design experience, we thought we could learn quickly enough to build a solid app.

OldNYC Map Screen

What was your process?

OldNYC Launch Screen

Orian: We started with a question: “How can we use the mobile platform to enable an experience not possible on a regular desktop website?” From the beginning, we had this vision where you could walk down a street and easily access historical photos nearest to your location. Like a self-guided historical tour, where you’re encouraged to discover “what was there” anywhere you go.

We worked backwards from that idea, breaking down the pieces of design, development, and research work we needed to do. Dan had already built some infrastructure for storing photos and related data, so we spent some time figuring out what we could use and what we had to build ourselves.

Christina: For our version 1 release, we focused on foundational features, like map navigation, photo viewing, and allowing the user to center on their location. We did several iterations of wireframes on paper, thinking about how the user would interact with each of these features. From there, mocking up the experience in Sketch, a digital design tool, helped us refine the user interface and interactions further.

Of course, we spent most of our time coding the app. We were both new to iOS development, so for everything we built, we spent time teaching ourselves.

Orian: All throughout, we tested the app often. I made it a point to test not only while walking in the streets, but on boats, in the subway, and deep inside buildings. Since our app relies on location and downloading images from the NYPL’s website, testing helped us find and fix bugs to ensure the app runs smoothly.

OldNYC Screen Example

What is most interesting about bringing 1900s photographs to 2016 phones?

Orian: The idea that technological progress is constantly redefining our relationship with the past. To retrieve a historical record 100 years ago meant pinpointing its specific location within a specific library or museum. Only in the last few decades have computers and the Internet allowed us to centralize, organize, and distribute that information throughout the world.

Beyond making information accessible and searchable, I think the next problem is discovery. With so much of the world’s information available online, it’s easy to find something when you generally know what you’re looking for. But how do you find information that you would love when you don’t know it exists?

This fundamental problem of discovery is why Amazon and Spotify build recommendation engines and why Pinterest tells you about trending pins. They are methods for surfacing content you’re unlikely to find by yourself. I see OldNYC’s map interface + location tracking as an extension of that idea, where a user can discover new photos highly relevant to where they are in the present moment.

It’s fun to envision what new ways future technology will help us discover the past. I’m personally waiting for the day I can take a virtual reality tour of 1600s New Amsterdam!

Christina: For me, the most interesting thing is the discussion that will rise from these resurfaced pieces of history. By exploring photos from New York City’s past, you really get a sense of the society that was present from the late 1800s into the early 1900s and how it has changed throughout the years.

People are now able to step through the city’s life and watch as it has grown and changed into the metropolis it is now. Can you imagine, hearing stories from your Grandmother who lived in New York City in the 1930s and being able to find the intersection she lived at and explore that photo in detail?

The stories we discover are preserved through their documented photos and text and provide a sense of identity for the city. As we expand our dataset, users will be able to trace any NYC intersection’s life from a drawing of farmland to a modern skyscraper.

OldNYC Screen Example

What’s next for your app?

Christina: We’re just getting started! We have a full backlog of features and improvements to make the app experience more special. Our app users can give feedback from within the app, which also helps us prioritize what to build next.

For incremental improvements, we’d like to increase photo resolution, improve the photo viewing interface, and enable search by location. We also need to include Dan’s feature of allowing users to submit corrections of photograph descriptions.

Not all improvements are user-facing though; there’s a lot we can do to improve our data architecture and make the app run more efficiently.

Orian: That said, we’re most excited for the bigger initiatives, including:

  • Commenting on photographs, so app users can tell their stories. The OldNYC desktop site captured thousands of comments, so we’ll make these readable from the app, as well.
  • Enabling users to easily generate and share before-and-after photos. It’s a thrill to discover “what was there” in the areas we live and visit often. We want to help people share that moment of discovery with the world.
OldNYC Screen Example
OldNYC Screen Example

What other NYPL data sets or resources would you like to explore or build on?

Christina: If we could wave a magic wand, every historical record would be discoverable by location. All datasets are fair game, but the next logical step is to incorporate more photographs. Currently, OldNYC only uses photographs from the Milstein Collection’s “Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1990s

Beyond that, we’d love to include lithographs that capture scenes from the 1600s to 1870s, as well as any oral records. Imagine walking around the city with the ability to explore every facet of your current location’s history!

Orian: We’re also exploring using rectified maps from NYPL Map Warper, like the 1920s Aerial survey map. The idea is that app users can use a “timeline slider” to sift through the layers of history, to see photographs in their historical context.

NYC Time Machine

How can libraries—or any holder of large open datasets—make it easier for developers to make new things with our collections?

Christina: I think the key ingredients are: 1) helping developers feel supported and 2) maintaining clean and open datasets.

As a developer, I feel supported when an organization is actively giving me the tools and instruction I need to start working with the data. A library can do this by offering tutorials/code samples and walkthroughs and by describing interesting use cases for the datasets. All this cuts down on “research time” and empowers developers to take action. The NYPL Digital Collections API is a great approach for libraries to model. It’s an open database that gives developers the chance to build applications that access NYPL data.

Over time, as developers build applications off a dataset, you can foster community by showcasing work. This encourages more developers to join and extend the work of others, like how Orian and I have done with Dan’s OldNYC.

Thanks for speaking with us!