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Hidden Histories – Exploration in Four Dimensions

With youth adeptness at creating and saving online maps, the relative flatness of descriptions offered by most city guides, and the constant loss of information as buildings are demolished and stores go out of business, a mentoring partnership that pairs aging residents with youth explorers to pinpoint and preserve points of interest would be instrumental to the conservation of our great cities. In creating these interactive atlases, younger participants would learn about the history of where they live, while creating sharable stories. For elderly participants, the project would give them greater facility in searching for products and services in their neighborhoods via online mapping tools, while rejuvenating positive memories.

Photo of Kate Machtiger
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How would you describe your idea in one sentence?

A mentoring program that matches youth with older adults to create custom digital maps about memorable locations, favorite haunts, and unforgettable stories, through which youth can engage with the history of their city while older adults learn technological skills and preserve memories for future generations.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
With Google Earth and satellite feeds exposing to us the here and now of every corner of the globe, our possibilities for exploration in today’s world are limited.
But what if we look deeper into our current cities, beyond the layers of what we see?
Everyone remembers the sites important to their lives—whether it was the house they were born in, the field where they hit their first home run, or the diner that served the best grilled cheese.
Youth mentors could be paired with older participants based on location, and within denser areas, shared interests (i.e. architecture, sports, food). The exact address of certain locations might be remembered, while others would need to be searched for on the ground—depending on the preferences of the pair for outdoor activity, this could be done in person or through Google Maps’ Street View (especially in the case of disabled participants).
Once locations were identified, pins would be dropped with an appropriate description. These maps could then be emailed to friends and family. Though the initial idea is for the older participant to create a map, collaborative maps superimposing the youth participant’s points of interest could also be considered.
To further encourage lasting youth involvement, this project could involve “gaming” elements, with online badges received for a certain number of pins placed or maps created—a Henry Hudson badge, a Magellan, a Livingstone.
Participating in this project would appeal to young people across many dimensions, including:
  • Awakening a passion for exploration
  • Accumulating knowledge beyond what can be searched for on the web
  • Activating nostalgia about places from their own childhood, while playing on the tendency towards “instantaneous nostalgia” involved with doing acts of good and capturing them to share with friends (i.e. the Instagram #tbt trend)

As a young city-dweller myself, I would be incredibly interested to learn more about the stories behind the buildings around me and how much neighborhoods have changed over the years. I often find my friends and I competing to see who knows more about why a certain street is crooked or what famous person used to live in such and such apartment building—in this way, this challenge could play into the more selfish tendencies we all have to be the most knowledgeable in our friend group, while helping preserve meaningful memories for elderly people in our own communities.

Please see my test map here:

Who are the target users of your idea and how does your idea speak directly to their needs, life stages and goals?

One set of target users is youth with strong interests in history, architecture, and human stories. They have anxiety about their future and wonder whether they will have the right skills to succeed. Though inherently self-centered, they crave a sense of scale and a deeper identity. Growing up in a digital age, they value the universality and speed of shared media, but fear the loss of non-digital information. Youth are constantly searching for more to consume—photos, narratives, anything that will surprise them or display something in a new light. By using existing skills to provide meaning to others, they both gain confidence and establish lasting connections. Their counterparts are older adults targeted based on their deep memories and sense of custodianship for the places in their past. Frustrated by the transition towards digital media, they fear the loss of knowledge and memories, as photos lie untouched in boxes or stored on obsolete devices. Though a facility with online search tools and map functions could greatly enhance their daily lives—making it easier to find the local pharmacy or get directions to their daughter’s new apartment—the time needed to learn these new skills seems to counteract their efficiency. Older adults also hope to feel as if they have left a lasting mark on their world (whether or not they became rich or famous). Through this exercise, they can regain a sense of individual accomplishment, on both a local and global scale.

How might your idea scale and spread to reach as many people as possible?

As detailed in the slides above, youth and older adults could be reached through a variety of means, including: 1) Sponsorships – or Google Maps advertisements; 2) Word of mouth (via friends or family); 3) Signs / stickers at existing Hidden Histories locations; and 4) Signs / ads at participating local businesses. For youth, additional tools will be 1) High school / college programs and 2) Links or hashtags on social media posts. For older adults we can also consider leveraging 1) Local churches, community centers, historical societies, and elderly care facilities, and 2) AARP brochures and mailings lists. Events and exhibitions held at local schools, historical societies, or community centers would be incredible tools to spread the word and get many people involved at once, on a similar timeline. Though the platform is adequate (Google Maps Engine), more partners and platforms are always helpful, including opportunities with (family stories and history), Google Maps (layers and points of interest), Wikitude (geotagging software), Trip Journal (walkable maps with media), and Jauntful (printable city guides). Having a site or hub could be helpful in joining people together and sharing stories within and among cities, drawing the exercise outside of family and friend audiences. This type of platform should be easy to create if it consists of images, summaries, and links to Google Maps creations. Eventually, the site could be used as a means of matching as well.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to test any assumptions you might have about your idea?

As a trial run, I worked with my mother to create a map of her childhood in Santa Monica, CA. This testing was a vehicle for probing many questions: whether adequate technological platforms existed, what the experience felt like for both participants, how difficult it would be to map from a remote location (we were in New York), and what learning could be gained from performing the exercise. As detailed in the slides above, it was a very positive experience that confirmed the motivations behind this idea—we both gained a sense of accomplishment from the task and the activity itself was high-energy, combining the excitement of a treasure hunt with a deeper cultural meaning. Though uploading photos proved more difficult than anticipated, with continued trials and more technical assistance, we should be able to overcome this challenge. Google Maps Engine is already an incredible resource and our experiences confirmed that this project could be launched tomorrow without any modifications to existing public software or expensive proprietary tools. The interactive map can be viewed here: The biggest surprise of the activity was seeing how meaningful the final product was to my mother, who suddenly felt as if these memories could be transferred on to me, and, one day, on to future generations, even if she didn’t travel with us to tell the stories of these places.

What aspects of your idea could benefit from the input, skills or know-how of our OpenIDEO community?

Bettina Fliegel and I met a number of times to brainstorm and critique each other’s ideas. We were both intrigued by the ways in which cities grow and change, as well as the shared histories between people of different generations. We both sought to preserve these stories through digital means and discussed how to bridge the divide between age groups. The experience in itself helped us prove the power of mentorship and partnership between individuals with similar interests from different generations. A key idea Bettina was incredibly helpful in debating was whether this platform could expand out of metropolitan areas. We both agreed that, especially in recent decades, landscapes across America and the world are constantly changing, and it would be just as valuable to map these changes as those of individual restaurants or shops. Accordingly, a major next step would be to make a map based on landscape—an activity which could have even more dramatically meaningful and beautiful results.


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Photo of Chris Heron

Kate I am involved in a well funded worldwide project in which we have a similar idea. Would you like to join us and make this work worldwide?

Photo of OpenIDEO

Wow this is great! We'd love an update on whether this has come together :)

Photo of Kate Machtiger

Chris - Apologies for not getting back to you sooner, our team in New York has been busy developing and prototyping this idea with help from participants in Google's 30 Weeks program and developers at General Assembly. Would love to discuss further - feel free to reach out to me at

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