WhatWasThere Launches Historical Photo Overlay to Show Google Maps Its Future

WHAT: See today’s streets as they were decades or a century ago. WhatWasThere overlays historical photos on Google Streetview so you can slide between past and present. The iPhone app shows historical photos based on your location. Images come from from museums, libraries and archives that have granted free permission, as well from public collections and those users upload.

Larger picture: tie content to location and put it in context.

LAUNCHERS: Steve Glauberman, founder and CEO of digital agency Enlighten, along with Laurel Erickson, Adam Kempa, Karen Ford, Voratima Orawannukul and Mike Gatto.

WHY: “Born out of a desire to preserve history knowing that everyone has a lot of old photos,” says Steve. Not to mention the fun of comparing past/present views of places you know.

BACKSTORY: Steve thinks agencies should be more like software companies, so he challenged Enlighten employees to come up with ideas for a product they could build. A group of employees and an individual -- separately -- pitched him on what became WhatWasThere.

WHEN/WHERE: Late February for iPhone app and website / Ann Arbor, MI.

BUSINESS MODEL: “A couple are being discussed, but I don’t want to reveal them at this point,” says Steve. He did mention that a gaming aspect is in the works.

GOAL: To become the largest database of geo-tagged historical photos.

COMPETITION: SepiaTown and London-based Historypin, part of a nonprofit project and in partnership with Google.

STATS: Over 12K photos across 75 countries so far, but mostly in the United States. Chicago has the most photos with 790.

WHAT A PARTNER THINKS: Christina Rice, acting senior librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, says, “The feature that allows fading between the image and current street view is amazing and really sold me. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to showcase the library's images and turn new people onto the collection.” [ Note: see a LAPL photo in the screenshots below. ]

PHILOSOPHY: “Do good, be good, have fun," Steve says.

WHO BACKED IT:  Enlighten Ventures, sister company of the agency.

TOTAL RAISED: Not applicable, though Steve says it cost about $750K to launch the site.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Five people from the agency developed/designed the site.

LAUNCH Analysis: Google might be partnering with Historypin but should buy WhatWasThere because the design and functionality are better. Google can also build out the photo database faster than Steve and his team can on their own.


Click on “explore photos” to see a U.S. map with orange bubbles indicating the number of photos in each state (you can move to other parts of the world if you prefer).

Zoom into the area you’re interested in. A gray bar on the top left shows the number of photos nearby, and the orange bubbles now appear by city. Hover over the orange bubble for a window that provides details, for example, “61 photos in Los Angeles. Click to Zoom.”


Click on an orange bubble to zoom in further. The “nearby” bar on the top left will open and show thumbnails of photos with the year and location name.

Click on a photo from the list to see a larger version. You can now view either photo details or see the photo in Google Streetview.

Once in Google Streetview, you can slide the green “fade” button at the top of the photo to see how it meshes with the location today.


1. “See History in Your Reality: A New Flickr Photo Project!" [National Archives, Oct. 2010]

2. Google Maps Mania blog


Steve Glauberman
Twitter: @sglauberman
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/sglauberman

Email: info at whatwas there dot com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WhatWasThere