Texas Digital Library Conference System, 2014 Texas Conference on Digital Libraries

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Place-Based Online Management Systems for Documenting the Built Environment
Josh Conrad

Last modified: 2014-03-13


In the fields of Cultural Resource Management and Historic Preservation, practitioners have a unique task: document, analyze, and determine the relative historical significance of places and other immovable objects in the built environment. In the age of digital documentation, these fields desperately desire – yet have had little progress in developing – sophisticated spatial database systems that offer a flexible tablet-based interface for surveying in the field everything from Victorian mansions to steel trestle bridges to 20-acre cemeteries to freestanding roadside neon signage. Such a system also requires integrated data analysis tools for conducting complex spatial queries, compiling project-specific displays of data on the fly, and exporting deliverable data to clients in formats ranging from printed inventories to database-agnostic tabulated flat files to proprietary formats specific to popular geographic information system software.

For the past several years, I have been working with the University of Texas' Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, in collaboration with the UT School of Information and the City of Austin, to design and develop the Austin Historical Survey Wiki, a place-based online data management application for collecting and organizing information about the history of Austin's built environment. This application aims to resurrect the extensive amount of dead archived data from past survey efforts and combine it with new efforts from the community of neighborhood historians eager to document and share the histories of the places that matter to them.

In addition, I am concurrently developing, with Austin-based architectural historians Hardy Heck Moore, Inc., a tablet-based web app that can allow everyone from professional historians to motivated neighbors to easily collect and view information, photos and scanned documents about the historic places in their own towns.

Utilizing open source database software including Drupal CMS, MySQL and PostGreSQL + PostGIS, hosted on Ubuntu/Linux cloud-based servers, this application offers an interesting case study of when to design highly-flexible database schemas that can integrate with spatial data and satisfy a demanding range of data input and output requirements.

Together, these two projects are tackling the core need in my field for a trade-specific, low-cost, fully integrated database system flexible enough to manage practically any type of immovable place-based heritage.


spatial database; flexible schema; historic preservation

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