Painting history upon a digital canvas

by Dave Barter on

Life as an academic is a constant challenge in an age where the public purse demands results and value. The return on investment for research is often difficult to quantify and consequently even harder to justify. As a result purse strings become tighter and certain areas of research begin to dwindle. The academic community recognises this fact and is constantly taking steps to ensure that the integrity of research is maintained beyond use in commercial applications.

Imagine life as a historian in a world that demands the public purse focuses intimately upon economic growth. How do you justify your research when all you’re doing is looking backwards? How can this work be used to feed back into the public purse? I’m going to tell you how Brad Beavon, Professor of Social and Cultural History, took on such a challenge and collaborated with us to create a new channel for bringing the public into the world of academic research. Between us we used the map as a digital canvas and painted the history of Portsmouth’s sailing communities upon it. This map will act as much more than a digital reference. It’s working as a guide to show tourists around the local area. I’ll let Brad tell the story for you:-

Maps as a historic canvas

“Port Towns & Urban History Research Group at the University of Portsmouth focuses on the social and cultural contexts of ports across the globe from the early modern period.

Using Portsmouth as a case study, the project endeavoured to explore the our local liminal urban spaces by mapping out some key features of Portsmouth such as sailor residential areas, public houses, crime and sailor rests. In doing this we discovered new and interesting insights that we knew would be of interest to both academics and the general public alike. Our challenge was how to share such information with two communities that have such differing needs.

The academics would want to see the detail, every single piece of the history we had uncovered and every artifact linked to it. Whereas the public often have a shorter attention span and are looking for the highlights and snippets of interest. Often the darkest stories are the more engaging for them. The brothels, murders, ghost stories and tales of sailors brawling in the street.

We quickly came to the conclusion that the map would provide an excellent canvas for telling such stories. And if it was backed up by a searchable database then we could provide services to the academics as well. Further brainstorming led us to the concept of developing the map into a series of “walks”. Each walk would guide the public around the historic naval highlights of Portsmouth, or “Sailortown” as christened by our project. We decided to target two specific areas for these walks, Old Portsmouth and Portsea. Both were littered with incident and places of note. Now we needed to get something developed quickly to match our enthusiasm for bring the public into our world.

Our first attempt delivered limited success as we tried to do this in house. The app we delivered was functional but something was missing:, it simply wasn’t intuitive enough to use and had a number of limitations that stopped us developing it further. We held off launching this whilst deciding what to do, fortunately the planets aligned as I was working with the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) concerning the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. NMRN had commissioned Nautoguide to develop an interactive map that brought the scale of the battle into context. Every sailor involved was mapped and linked to their ships and memorials that bore their names. The map was designed for simplicity and engagement and we were impressed by how easy it was for an individual to track down a relative and add any missing information if required.

Discussions with Nautoguide quickly bore fruit and within days we’d scoped out a framework for a portal that would meet all of our needs. A search engine for our academic colleagues and a lightweight map-based app for the public that would guide them around sailortown.

Nautoguide quickly ingested all of our data from the previous system including stories, notes, photographs and map locations. Additionally they developed a Sailortown brand for us that framed the public facing map in an engaging and relevant manner. They created new maps layers for us based upon historical paper maps that we held, bringing them into the digital age. Finally they delivered a walk-designer for us. A web based system for constructing and curating historic walks that we can use to maintain existing and create new walks as the need arises.

This was done in a matter of weeks to help us meet a planned launch deadline and resulted in the website https://sailortown.co.uk .

This site went beyond our brief as not only does it work on a mobile phone “app” and help guide tourists or interested parties, it also works in the office on a desktop, allowing a casual browser to follow the walk virtually. In the same period the guys delivered our academic search engine and came to Portsmouth to help us test the service on the ground.

This project has moved our research on significantly as we’re learning on the ground how to engage with the public concerning local history. Sailortown has created a unique site of socio-cultural exchange that reinforces and challenges identities, perceptions and boundaries. We’ve had all sorts of new discussions as a result, including using the technology to gently introduce the less computer literate into the world of IT. We’re already working on a ambitious expansion plan with Nautoguide to enhance the detail upon our new digital canvas and widen its scope and appeal.”

Brad Beaven Professor of Social and Cultural History


Brad’s experience mirrors that of many of our customers. A clear will to do something new and innovative married with the restrictions of budget or internal workforce. We’re equally proud of Sailortown and have invested in it as individuals. We relish the blurred boundaries of the relationship we have with Brad and his team with all of us working together towards a shared aim. As technologists we like nothing better than seeing our “stuff” used and this is the appeal to us of the Sailortown project. It has wider appeal as well, as the work carried out by the Research Group will directly benefit Portsmouth’s local economy through the delivery of new reasons to visit the town and potential growth in tourism.

Sailortown has given us all a new canvas to draw upon. It’s map based nature encourages real engagement as individuals can use it to visit the locations and relive their history in the context of our modern world. We’ve developed new interactivity by allowing these individuals to contribute their own experiences through photos, words, videos and feedback. This gives us a the cultural canvas that I mentioned in the title.

Maybe we could build one for your town?

Painting history upon a digital canvas

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