Sidewalk Labs is best known in Toronto for their ambitious plan to build a new digital community from the ground up in partnership with Waterfront Toronto. In the meantime, the digital urban innovation company is getting to know our city a bit better with the creation of a new online tool that maps archival photos of Toronto and surrounding suburbs, dating back over 160 years.

OldTO photo mapping tool, image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Over 1.7 million photographs dating back to 1856 have been archived by the City, of which over 100,000 have been digitized and made available online. The new OldTO tool—built by members of the engineering team at Sidewalk Labs—has mapped out 30,000 of these images so far, with more being uploaded.

Users can zoom and pan to different areas of the city for a closer look at addresses and intersections, clicking on the blue dots to pull up archival images. In some cases, the photos span several decades, showing the significant changes that have shaped Toronto into the city we know and love today—even as we mourn the loss of may of the older buildings.

Yonge Street, 2018 (L) and 1903 (R), images courtesy of Sidewalk Labs/City of Toronto Archives

The geocoding of the images—where geographic coordinates were assigned to photographs based on their titles—is allowing large numbers of images to be processed in bulk, but there are anomalies in street numbering caused by road extensions and block-busting development, as well as mislabeled images. This means that you will find many photos have been assigned to incorrect locations, so user-submitted corrections are being encouraged to help make the map as accurate as possible.

Sidewalk expects to release the OldTO data as an open-source tool that software developers can build on top of. One example is the similar OldNYC mapping tool—created by the same software engineer who led the OldTO project—which was converted into a mobile app by third-party engineers. A similar app could easily be created with the OldTO data, allowing people to explore the history of the city while walking its streets.

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