OldTO Photo Map is Sidewalk Labs’ Love Letter to a City They Want to Futurize

Sidewalk Labs is trying to build the neighbourhood of the future. But first, they’re looking into the neighbourhoods of the past.

The Google subsidiary has released an Old Toronto version of Google Maps they’re calling OldTO. It is an open-source map tool that offers block-by-block browsing of historic Toronto photographs, providing a glimpse into what life was like in the city as far back as 1856.

So far, the map has more than 30,000 photos on it, all from the city’s archives. There’s still room to add though, as the archives have more than 1.7 million total photos.

The map works as the user moves around the city and clicks on points of interest. For example, there are shots of what trendy Queen Street West looked like 60 years ago. Or check out the below shot, showing what the area around the Techvibes offices looked like back in 1937.

King old
King West circa 1937.

“Our goal is to help Torontonians discover something new about their street or city,” the OldTO site reads. “We think Old Toronto provides a powerful way to visualize the changes that have taken place on a given city block over time.”

Clicking on an image brings up when it was created and other relevant information such as condition and copyright restrictions, if available. The process makes it possible to impose these images over Toronto’s existing street networks. Sidewalk Labs uses a photo with the caption of “Yonge Street, looking north from Temperance Street” as an example—they would then geocode that to the corner of Yonge and Temperance.

The images are all mapped through assigned latitudes and longitudes. The process is known as geocoding.

So far, the City of Toronto has digitized more than 100,000 photos from their archives, a massive undertaking that allowed Sidewalk Toronto to put them all into map form. The OldTO site itself was designed and created by the Sidewalk Labs engineering staff and led by the same person who created OldSF and OldNYC, Dan Vanderkam.

There are plans to build an aerial view in this style as well, letting users check out how the city has evolved from a bird’s-eye view.

Various drawings and illustrations of Toronto and London, England. - [between 1977 and 1998]
A photo from 1871 showing St. Lawrence Market from the water.
“We’re also exploring some additional features, such as the ability to identify the various elements of an image through computer vision,” the site reads. ”That would enable people to search by keyword and pull up all the images with similar attributes, providing yet another point of comparison and exploration.”

Anyone is welcome to contribute to the open-source project as Sidewalk Toronto has released the data on the map itself. In the future, they will release it as a tool so urban-tech enthusiasts can improve it and build on it.

OldTO does not really have anything to do with Sidewalk Toronto’s ongoing Quayside project, but it helps explore digital infrastructure needed for substantial applications, in addition to showing the creative potential for open data projects. Essentially the project is a fun-to-explore love-letter to the history of the city that Sidewalk Labs hopes to soon build the future for.