Year of the Bay

Crowdsourcing a history of the San Francisco bay

Project Description

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Year of the Bay

San Francisco, USA

January 2013 – December 2014



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“Thanks so much! You know we could have kept you there until midnight if the library would let us”

— Bernal Heights history group member

Why was it run?

Stanford University Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis wanted to explore how public knowledge could enrich existing collections containing photographs, maps, and textual content. They also wanted to engage the community in the history of San Francisco Bay and the cultural heritage surrounding it.


  • Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA)
  • Cultural and community organisations
  • A Historypin community officer
  • Supported by the Mellon Foundation 
  • 35 historical institutions from the big (e.g. San Francisco MTA Archives) to the small (e.g. local history societies)
  • 200 attendees of events
  • 150 contributors to online archive
  • 27,332 visitors to the online collection during 2013 and 2014
What happened?

They chose to engage local people in the project by framing queries about the date, location or content of historical photos, videos and audio files from historical archives as ‘mysteries’ that needed to be solved.

Special digital tools were built on to facilitate this collaborative approach to improving historical content. Suggestions were made via the site and approved by Historypin or the content owner. The people of San Francisco were encouraged to solve these mysteries and add materials and memories relating to the history of the Bay area to the online archive.

The project was promoted widely locally, via social media, local community history networks, local blogs and newspapers, and a series of public events. These included the Bernal Heights history group holding a historical mystery solving evening and a historical ‘Hackathon’ with California Historical Society. The project was accompanied by a blog, documenting the project over the year. One of the most popular posts featured a remarkable video of Market Street, San Francisco in 1906.

What was created?
  • A digital archive on with 7,783 photos and memories
  • Contributions came from large archives (3,746 from San Francisco MTA Archives, 708 from San Francisco Public Library); small historical groups, and from 52 individuals
  • 167 Mysteries solved about historical content
  • 5 participatory events and weekly drop-in pinning sessions

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When members of the Bernal Heights History Project solved a Mystery during a lively evening at the library. They pointed out an old laundry, theater, and raised railway in a photo (that many did not even notice was there), which led to the correct identification of the date and location.


Of the 167 Mysteries, 137 have now been solved or are under investigation by the general public. The History Hackathon event was particularly popular. Over 50 people attended and helped solve mysteries about photographs from four local institutions. Attendees were a mix of local history hackers and mappers and the California Historical Society’s older membership base creating a novel mix of participants for the Californian Historical Society.

Ongoing activity

The project is ongoing with material still being added every day. A partnership with The Bold Italic online magazine and the SF Public Library continues, which is digitising new colour slides and sharing these in the magazine and on Storytelling sessions at the Grand Theater, with contributions added to are also ongoing.

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