Sunday, February 15, 2009

Making historic information more available

I write on another blog documenting the history of my house in San Antonio, Texas. As part of the research we found that there was streetcar service close the house. A quick search turned up a map of the streetcar lines at the Texas Transportation Museum. I thought it would be neat to overlay that map over other map services. I first tried to georectify the Texas Transportation Museum map using Metacarta Labs Map Rectifier, but the quality of the scan was too poor to successfully add enough ground control points for a good warp. Another search turned up a much better scan of a 1929 map at the University of Texas Perry-Castaneda Library Historic Map collection. This map was scanned at a very high resolution and it was easy to create a sufficient number of ground control points to use a cubic fit georegistration using Metacarta's Map Rectifier. The result was a 215mb tif file which I was able to download. Thanks Metacarta! The next step was to trace the streetcar lines using uDig. I used version 1.1.1 which is verrrry slooowww when it comes to handling largish tif files. I heard that raster handling is improved in 1.2 beta as well as more digitizing tools, so you might want to use that. Once I figured out the editing tools it was fairly easy to digitize the streetcar lines. Always the critic, I have to say the the editing tools could use some context sensitive menus available through a right click. I saved the streetcar lines as a shape file and I saw that uDig has a number of tools for cleaning up the data and validating the output. Nice. I converted the shape file kml using ogr2ogr. The first time I tried it ate my shape file, no idea why. I noticed that my gdal install was way out of date (version 1.4), so I installed version 1.6 for OS X from the Kyng Chaos Wiki. Using ogr2ogr was straight forward:
ogr2ogr -f KML streetcar_lines.shp
I tweaked the KML in a text editor so that each streetcar line was a consistent color. Then I uploaded it to myGoogle maps. The 1929 map overlays fairly well but not exactly. I think it was important to use a historic map for digitizing the lines instead of using a modern map such as Open Street Map, Google Maps, or the Census Bureau's TIGER street files because there have been many changes to the street network since the streetcars were in service. The lines may not overlay perfectly, but I think its a better representation. Here's the data and final map:
View Larger Map


  1. Very nice work!

    I live quite close to the former Beacon Hill line, and am very interested in the social history of development in this town (among other places). You have created a wonderful tool for understanding the neighborhood-by-neighborhood evolution of San Anton, and I really appreciate seeing your open source how-to.

    Thank you.