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Olympic Plaza brick app leads you to your Calgary '88 legacy

Ron McMahon spent four years and more than 1,000 hours geocoding more than 35,000 of the custom donor bricks in Olympic Plaza so you can use your smartphone to find your Calgary ‘88 legacy.

Calgary man spent 4 years geocoding 35,046 donor bricks

Use your smartphone to find your Calgary ‘88 legacy 1:38

It's like a jigsaw puzzle with 35,000 pieces.

Each one is the same shape and size with only an itty-bitty difference.

And you (that's right, you!) have to find one piece in particular.

Yikes.

Except, now there's an app for that.

Bricking up history

Thirty years ago, Calgarians could fork over around $20 and get their names etched into a brick on Olympic Plaza.

Tens of thousands took up the offer to buy a rectangular piece of immortality.

Back in 1987 when the plaza was under construction, Calgarians could pay just under $20 to have their name engraved in one of the thousands of bricks that line the ground. (City of Calgary archives)

Walk around Olympic plaza today and you can spend an afternoon randomly sauntering over the names of your fellow citizens.

But let's say you want to check out where ma and pa's brick is, or where grandma Ida put your name on a brick when you were five.

'It's really just a crapshoot'

Ron McMahon likely knows more about the bricks of Olympic Plaza than anyone else. He was there in the beginning.

"When the plaza first opened I remember coming down and looking around and ... it was something else to see," he says.

Ron McMahon is the designer behind the Calgary Olympic Plaza Brick Finder app. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

McMahon is a self-taught expert, with a passion. He's also the fella that noticed a problem — finding 'your' specific brick.

Needle meet haystack.

He says unless you know the trick, "then it's really just a crapshoot to find where a brick is."

Brick of a book

If you want to find "your" brick, you have to go down to city hall, sidle up to the information counter, and search the oh-so convenient 556-page index book that lists all the bricks alphabetically. Super old school, it's not even online.

For the past 30 years, this massive index has been the only way people could look up their personalized engraved bricks at Calgary's Olympic Plaza. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

But wait. It get's worse. The location of each brick is only indicated in a way that could be politely called, "oblique."

Designers of Olympic Plaza laid down 55 "key bricks" every three metres or so around the perimeter of the plaza — each with the name of a winter sporting event on it, many names obviously repeated several times.

Designers laid down 55 'key bricks' — named after different Winter Olympic sports — every three metres along the perimeter of the plaza. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

So, for example, your Aunt Bessy's brick could be somewhere between "Short Track Speed Skating 1" and "Curling 5." Yeeesh.

From here, you have to consult the teeny tiny font on an archaic map, also at the information kiosk at city hall. It lists the site of each key brick in the plaza.

Then having secured an "over there somewhere" location, you can bend down and scan for your brick.

Something people have been doing since the plaza opened.

And that got Ron McMahon to thinkin.'

"Because you saw rows and rows and columns of people just kind standing with their heads bent," he said.

"Almost like they had smartphones back then because they were just staring at their feet looking through every single brick trying to find their specific brick."

All of the 'key bricks' are listed in teeny tiny font on an archaic map at the Information Kiosk of the City of Calgary Municipal Building. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

There must, McMahon thought to himself, be a better way. And so, with his experience working in IT, he found one.

"To me, it was kind of an opportunity to really bring this into the 21st century and make it available to a new generation," he says.

He thought it would be a fairly easy task. It wasn't.

A digital bricklayer

Starting way back in 2012, McMahon began converting the city hall paper index into a digital, searchable database that would allow people to use their smartphones to find their Olympic Plaza bricks.

The first step involved scanning all 556-pages of the index, converting them to PDF, and then running them through an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program, which converted it all into electronic data that could be edited.

But there was a catch.

(Calgary Olympic Plaza Brick Finder)

"The problem was, OCR software is always kind of looking for English words and a lot of these bricks have abbreviated names, like JJC + BK. And so I quickly realized no, it's not going to be a simple matter."

McMahon had to go through each page, each line, row by row, and make sure the computer had transcribed the text right.

Then, because that wasn't time consuming enough, he had to geocode every single one of the 35,046 bricks. That means, transcribing the location of its physical coordinates, into something that would show on a map.

The whole deal took him four years to complete, and he figures, well over a thousand hours.

Ironically, McMahon didn't have any skin in this race.

"It's part of Calgary's heritage. I don't have a brick, so it was kind of a way to be involved with it."

His project resulted in the Olympic Plaza Brick Finder website and app.

All you have to do is type in a name or keyword into the search bar and you'll be presented with a long list of bricks. 

Scroll down until you find yours, click on it, and voila – you get a map that pinpoints the location of your brick, and a GPS dot showing where you are currently standing. All in real time.

Then, you just walk towards your brick.

But here's the kicker — all of McMahon's work, could be for naught.

The Calgary Olympic Plaza Brick Finder app is available for download on IOS and Android. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

Breaking up the puzzle

Olympic Plaza is booked for a makeover and proposals on redevelopment have been on the books since 2007.

While there's no plan to dig them up, the urban strategy lead for the City of Calgary, Carlie Ferguson, has told the CBC they won't be able to be reused as a walking surface.

"That's really depressing," McMahon says.

"We lament about how little historic buildings we have in this city and yet have we learned the lesson about not tearing down history?"

Ron McMahon has geocoded all 35,046 bricks listed in the city's original paper database, allowing him to build an app that allows users to search and find engraved Olympic Plaza bricks. (City of Calgary Archives)

On their 'hands and knees'

Former Calgary mayor Al Duerr, who was actually the politician who came up with the idea for the Olympic Plaza Brick Program in 1986 when he was still an alderman, said the bricks are a "legacy."

"The commitment was that those bricks were going to be there and not removed. So, removal should be the absolute last option," he said.

Thanks to a new app, you no longer have to shuffle along Olympic Plaza with your head craned down in search of your engraved brick. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

Duerr said the city should figure out a way to redesign Olympic Plaza in a way that leaves the bricks intact.

"For years after the Olympics, I remember looking out my window from across the street at City Hall and seeing people going around, sometimes on hands and knees, wanting to find their brick."

Well, no more hands and knees necessary thanks to McMahon.

City hall has noticed and at least one city councillor has already downloaded the app.

"I hope people go out and use the heck out of it and ... go spend some time in our city's living room, Olympic Plaza," said Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra.

"I also think that it's not wasted effort," he said.

"I think the fact that we have that record, that digital record, will absolutely help us if we decide that we have to do relocations of those bricks when, and if, we make the decision to significantly change the plaza."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Danielle Nerman

CBC Calgary

Danielle is an award-winning journalist who has worked across Canada, China, Japan and Mongolia. She has spent more than a decade as a CBC reporter, producer and writer.