Austin Historical Survey Wiki launches after four year development

Max Bridges

After four long years and more than $100,000 in development costs, the Austin Historical Survey Wiki was officially launched at City Hall on Sunday afternoon.

The project, developed in-house at the University by faculty and graduate students from the School of Architecture and the School of Information, aims to consolidate information about historical areas in Austin on the Internet. Currently there are 2,852 places, 3,154 images and 908 documents on the Wiki documenting buildings across Austin.

“We were inspired by all the volunteers who researched their neighborhoods in order to apply for Local Historic Districts,” said Michael Holleran, director of the graduate program in historic preservation at UT. “They were doing good work, but they had no good way to see what work had already been done and to share their work.”

Previously, access to Austin’s historical information required checking the historical archives, huge books of records sometimes sorted in no particular order. Other times, this information is not immediately available and can even cost money to access. Many small community details and primary sources are sometimes not included in the old records, Holleran said.

“I just returned from an international conference where everyone was talking about the need to involve people in deciding what is important in our heritage,” Holleran said. “Here at UT Austin, we’re doing it.”

The Wiki provides access to all of this information quickly on the web in an organized fashion with custom filters and map markers. Users can submit information to the Wiki where a moderator will inspect it and potentially work further with the submitter on the entry.

“Many things qualify as historic,” Holleran said. “Important events, good architecture or craftsmanship, even long familiarity to the people in a neighborhood. There are thousands of places on the Wiki, and they’re not necessarily ‘historic’ in any official sense. Many of them have stories, and the Wiki is a way to share them.”

Missing from the Wiki is data on UT’s historical landmarks, which have not been surveyed yet, Holleran said.

“The University has not had a formal survey of its historic buildings and places — until now,” Holleran said. “A survey is currently under way as part of the current campus master plan. When that information is available, we hope to upload it. In the meantime, people are free to add their own knowledge of UT history in that big blank spot on the map.”

The Wiki is now being pushed out of its beta phase into a public operation.

“The immediate plan is to migrate the Wiki to the City’s servers and make sure it’s working smoothly,” Holleran said. “In the future we will be working on improving the interface for use on phones and [tablets]. The data on the Wiki will be downloadable so that app developers can use it, and I’ll be very interested to see what they do with it.”

Holleran said if the Wiki is successful, it might then be freely transferred to other cities around the world.