What’s behind a name?

Could a complete worldwide list of all the names of streets, squares, parks, bridges, etc. be considered as big data? Would the analysis of frequencies and the spatial distribution of these names tell us anything about ourselves?

Such a comparative analysis would miss important information, especially the historical changes of names and the cultural significance embedded therein.

The Ebertstraße in Berlin had changed its name several times: in the 19th century it became the Königgrätzer Straße after the Prussian victory over Austria at the Battle of Königgrätz, during the First World War it was renamed in Budapester Straße, in 1925 it got the name Friedrich-Ebert-Straße in memorial of the first President of the Weimar Republic. Shortly after the Nazi took over in Germany the street was renamed in Hermann-Göring-Straße after the newly elected President of the Reichstag. Only in 1947 the street was finally renamed back to Ebertstraße.

The close-by Mohrenstraße on the other hand bears its name since the beginning of the 18th century. One of the myths on the origin of the street name stems from African musicians who played in the Prussian army. Debates on changing the street name remain and University departments which are located in that street chose to use Møhrenstraße in the meantime.

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So, if even if street names are not as rich cultural data as the painting of Mona Lisa, they convey meaning that has been formed, changed and negotiated over a long period of time.

The advantage in dealing with street names and not with maps is that street name data are more reliable than maps which often have been manipulated and distorted for military or other reasons.

But in order to reveal the history of street names one should not restrict oneself to the evidence on, about and of street names but dig into the events, processes, narratives and politics related to the context of origin. The HyperCities project has set up a digital map that allows “thick mapping”.

Certainly such a research will lead to the creation of narratives itself – that might be biased overall – but in the face of historical events is there any objective account possible at all?

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