American TimeHop: How the National Archives Could Make Uncovering Old Information Easier and Personalized

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —

Want to understand how a government decision that seemed insignificant 15 years ago has a big effect on your life today? There’s an app for that.

Well, actually, I lied — There isn’t. But there could be.

USA Today recently announced an intriguing new collaboration with TimeHop, an app whose initial purpose was to resurface dated social information — what topic you were really excited to tweet about a year ago, or where you checked in on FourSquare that day, for instance. The new USA Today-TimeHop collaboration will surface archival news stories from the newspaper that have a particular relevance in the present. Perhaps USA Today broke a story about Company X illegally dumping waste, but it was under-reported at the time…and now evil Company X is at it again in a different state. The app can help make connections between the past and the present.

“What Timehop is doing is trying to work with the long tail of content and resurface it,” USA Today social marketing director Mark Smith told Mike Isaac of the tech blog AllThingsD. “Here, USA Today is trying to do the same thing with news content, and the ability to bring back old, iconic headlines to people on a daily basis.”

With all the discussion about open government, large public data sets, and the like, it occurred to me to ask: What if we applied TimeHop technology to the national archives of the United States?

The National Archives is an American treasure. But the mechanism by which an average citizen currently accesses the contents of the National Archives is somewhat difficult to navigate. The research part of the National Archives website is sort of like a library card catalog that fights back.

As a small experiment, I went to the Online Public Access part of their site and did a simple search for “abraham lincoln inauguration.” The results are wide-ranging and difficult to interpret (see below and here). There are joint resolutions of Congress, telegrams, the text of JFK’s inaugural address, and a lot of other things. You then have to click on each entry to find out what it actually is, which still doesn’t really tell you whether it’s useful.

Let’s just say I want a great archival photograph for my blog. I clicked on “Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, ca. 1889 – ca. 1957” above and got the following.

No photograph, just a description of a photograph. Apparently, I can obtain this photo by contacting the Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park. Also, this photo is “in the same box with item DM-REECE-M5-1″ — how hard could it be to find?

(Interestingly, a search for “abraham lincoln inauguration photo” somehow yields worse results. Try it.)

While I sympathize with the National Archives and other parts of the Federal government in their monumental task of cataloging all of the country’s information, when a simple Bing image search for “abraham lincoln inauguration” yields this,

a citizen may be forgiven for asking where all the open government is. If a student doing a class project on Abraham Lincoln went to the National Archives looking for a great photo, he or she would almost certainly leave disappointed, open a search engine window, and find what they’re looking for in no time.

To be fair to the National Archives, they have been experimenting with social mechanisms for uncovering the scores of information they have. They have an almost overwhelming number of ways to “connect” with them using social media ranging from Twitter and Facebook to nerdier things like GitHub. One noteworthy experiment is called Today’s Document, which does exactly what you think it does (it even has its own Twitter account).

Circling back to the USA Today-TimeHop collaboration, what’s interesting and useful about TimeHop is that it connects to you as an individual because it taps into the power of your social network and content you create (at least on Twitter, for now) — what you’re saying, where you’re going, what you’re interested in. I haven’t had a change to use it yet, but I would expect that its collaboration with USA Today would help resurface older news stories that I’m interested in.

Similarly, it would be great if the National Archives, should I request it through an app or some other mechanism, would resurface information they have that I’m interested in, without me necessarily knowing what I’m looking for, using a simple and fun interface. Today’s Document (on Jan. 28, 2013) is, Warden’s notebook page, with “mug shot” of Robert Stroud, 594-AZ, aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” That may be interesting to some people, but unfortunately I just don’t care. It’s not a topic I’m interested in, it’s not a city I live in, and none of my friends are talking about it. And it’s only Today’s Document because Robert Stroud was born on Jan. 28th. Even that fact is not very relevant to his being in Alcatraz.

The problem is that there’s no context; On a given day, most people will simply not be interested in an unpersonalized “document of the day” or “fact from today in history.” But nowadays, it’s not too hard to figure out the things a given person is interested in. In my case, I create content for blogs and social networks that focuses on science, technology, entrepreneurship, pop culture, and the public good. Why couldn’t something like Today’s Document be personalized for me?

I’d love to see a Federal government collaboration with TimeHop or another company with similar technology that can

(1) tap into my publicly-shared thoughts, interests and even locations,

(2) automatically dive into the U.S. archives and personalize a “daily document” for me, and

(3) serve up a dynamic stream of context-specific information using a simple interface.

To use the above example, while I’m sitting at home in Washington, DC, I am not interested in a famous Alcatraz prisoner merely because today was his birthday in 1890. However, about a month ago when I was in San Francisco it’s possible I would have enjoyed seeing something historically interesting about Alcatraz, perhaps with a weblink to the prison or the city’s tourism site.

As it happens, the document of the day for yesterday, Jan. 27th is within my interests: Thomas Edison’s Patent Application for the Light Bulb. What would it take to get that kind of thing sent to me every day?

Another thing that would be very useful would be a tool not unlike USA Today’s that would put current decision-making by the government — a new Supreme Court ruling, new immigration legislation, or a new diplomatic priority for example — in historical context. In other words, I have a National Archives “news app” on my phone (maybe they can collaborate with USA Today or another news organization) that tells me that Congress passed a new bill, and then if I want to dive deeper, I can see older bills that influenced the current one, or perhaps a photo of a President signing something decades ago, or a declassified historical document relevant to why we’re doing something with a certain country.

Incidentally, this is information that television news almost never gives its viewers, and even long-form newspaper or magazine article writing is still limited by time and space and financial constraints.

At the start of President Obama’s second term in the White House, I think that a directed effort toward leveraging new technologies to “push” context-specific, relevant, and interesting information to citizens (versus having them “pull” it by searching for it), perhaps by collaborating with new tech startup companies and traditional news organizations, fits within the mission and vision of the Open Government Initiative.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the director of innovative engagement for public sector at Microsoft. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.

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