Uncovering the Stories Behind Memorial Benches with Terrence Eden

March 1, 2024 | 20 minutes read

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In this episode, Terence Eden talks about his project OpenBenches, which aims to create a database of memorial benches around the world. He discusses how the project started, the challenges they faced, and the impact it has had. Terence also shares his thoughts on gamification and the future of mapping with OpenStreetMap and the Fediverse.

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Gene Liverman:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Volunteer Technologist Podcast.

Here, we take a look at the different ways that people who are technically inclined volunteer outside of their primary job. Today, I’m joined by Terrence Eden. How are you doing today?

I’m very well. Thank you, and thank you very much for having me. Oh, I appreciate you taking the time. I think I’d like to chat about your Openbenches

project. But before we do, will you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Terence Eden:

Hello, listeners. My name is Terrence Eden. I’m a technologist. I live in London in the United Kingdom,

where it is currently

very gray, overcast, and raining, as it always is in London.

Gene Liverman:

That kinda matches my one experience with comin’ to London as gray and overcast.

I can see why that is the stereotype.

So I stumbled across the fact that you have

what sounded like a pretty interesting project you work on called Openbenches

when I was actually looking at your profile on Mastodon

and was just curious if you would maybe tell us a little more about that

and what it is and kind of what’s it what it’s all about.

Terence Eden:

Of course. So


is a project run by,

my wife, Liz, and me.

And the

the the crux of it is if you’ve ever been out for a walk in in the UK and quite a few other parts of the world, you’ll have seen a

memorial bench. So a bench that you can sit down and there’s a little plaque there, which says in loving memory of Doris so and so who was born and died.

And we my wife and I go on quite a lot of walks, and we keep seeing all these benches, and we thought there must be a database of these somewhere. Some someone’s got this database.

And we looked, and it didn’t exist.

And I did some freedom of information requests to local councils saying, hey. Can you give me a list of all your benches? And most councils went, yeah. No. We we don’t track them. Some someone applies and we put a plaque and that’s it.

And I thought, well,

why why shouldn’t I have a go at that? And so Liz and I built this website.

It started off really simply. Take a photo of a memorial bench.

Your camera,

if it’s a camera phone will

probably GPS tag it, upload it to the site, and boom, it’s there on the map.

And we started this a few years ago,

and it’s got bigger and bigger and bigger, and we’re currently sitting on just over


different benches

from around the world,

which is, you know, incredible. Just people

randomly from from all parts of the globe taking photos of memorial benches and uploading them.

And that’s it. That’s a sign.

Gene Liverman:


it’s pretty interesting.

Like you, I’ve seen those benches all over, but I didn’t realize that they were kinda set and forget that other than maybe the person who put the plaque in. Yeah. Some some councils or local authorities seem really good at keeping on track of them, and others are, 

Terence Eden:

a bit more laissez faire, shall we say.

And some of these benches get removed or destroyed or vandalized, and no one knows

what was there.

And then they just disappear. And I think it’s

it’s a little sad for me. I think if you’ve ever been to a a big city, you’ll have seen those blue plaques

on the wall, which, you know, Jimmy Hendrix was born here or

so and so invented something incredible here. And, you know, that’s great if you’re really famous, you do something worthwhile

and, you know, world changing,

and some people get Wikipedia pages. But but for most of us,

what do we

get? There there is very little tangible evidence of our impact on the world sometimes.

Yeah. But it is so beautiful, I think, to to wander somewhere

beautiful and peaceful or picturesque,

and just see a little reminder that someone else was there and that person was was loved.

And maybe they did interesting things or had a great family or enjoyed walking their dogs, whatever it was. It’s just a little piece of a sort of psychogeography

or local history

that says that these were the people who were here, and this is what they did. And now you’re sitting in the same place they did. I I think that’s nice.

Gene Liverman:

I agree. That is really cool. It’s

it’s kinda fascinating to see

what people choose to take the time to put on those benches sometimes too.

Terence Eden:

Oh, yeah. And

most of them are absolutely lovely, and it is in loving memory

of whoever it was, and that’s great. And some of them are incredibly sad. There’s lots of ones for,

for small children.

And and sometimes you see ones where there are 2 plaques and it says,

in loving memory of

so and so died


and then later it says, on the next plaque in loving memory of someone else reunited

after 30 years, and it’s just a little,

I don’t know, heartbreaking sometimes.


But, yeah, it’s and and some of them are funny. There there are plaques to there are benches there for people’s dogs and for cats,

and there there are benches for,

the unknown husband

and for people who hated this park and everyone in it. But but most of them are, quite quite nice.

So what do you think the funniest bench you’ve seen is? There there there are lots of really great ones and funny ones. My my favorite is to

Higgins Greenhowl,

1986 to 2000, and the inscription reads, we haven’t the heart to tell him he was a dog.

I just love I just love that.


there’s also a bench that my wife spotted, which is,

for Tracy Emmett, the the famous artist. And they said it was on this bench that, Tracy Emmett gave up all of her artistic credibility,

and joined the Royal Academy. It was okay. Fair enough, Tracy.

Gene Liverman:

Gee, I wonder

what the submitter of that one thought about the Royal Academy. Oh, I wonder. Yeah.

Terence Eden:

But, yeah, I lot lots of them have little funny poems or,


And the nice thing is so when we started

the Open Ventures website, people just uploaded and put the inscription on, and

that that was that. And over time, people have given me feedback on what things they would like there. So we’ve added a a tagging system.

So when when you go on to it, you can search by tag, among the tags is funny.

And you can see things like in loving memory of a bench.

Not this bench, another one.

Yeah. And then the, you know, there you can look at tags for, you

know, where they are, what sort of things they are.

And, yeah, it’s one of the things that I found really interesting doing this

is this this was just a project for me and my wife, and we opened it up and said, look, anyone can upload a photo. And as more and more people did, we got more and more feedback, and that led on to more technology choices as well. So the first bit of feedback we got

was it’s a pain to have to type in an inscription. I mean, most of them are are short, but if you’ve taken photos of 20 benches, all of a sudden you’re typing in 20 things and,

that’s fine. So we looked into OCR, optical character recognition. And now when you upload a picture of a bench,

it gets immediately,

scanned by,

Google Cloud Vision,

and the text just comes out. And it’s pretty damn accurate in lots of languages. So we we’ve got benches,

where the the script is Chinese or it’s French or it’s English, and Google Cloud Vision has been really good.

I’m on a very cheap, I think, possibly even the free tier,

and it works. We we looked at, I think Amazon Rekognition and a few other ones, but at the time,

that was just the the cheapest and easiest one to integrate.

Gene Liverman:

That’s pretty amazing.

Terence Eden:


And it’s the same with mapping as well. So we started off

using I I’m trying to think if we use Google Maps to start with. I don’t think so. We we’ve used OpenStreetMap,

which is

free open source, which is brilliant.

I I should say all of the data that we create is free and open source. All the photos are creative commons. So if if your listeners want to do something

amazing with the that dataset, please, you know, be our guest, respect the terms of the license, but but go ahead.

So, yeah, we use OpenStreetMap, and there are a bunch of OpenStreetMap

providers for different tiles. So we pay a small amount for that,

but there are some free tiers which we can use.

And, yeah, that that’s nice. And all of our technology choices have been driven by the feedback people have given us as they’re uploading things or or using the data. That’s really

Gene Liverman:

cool. Do you know if either anyone else has or if y’all have looked at


making the, like, memorial benches something that would show up as either suggestions or easy to pull into any of the ancestry tracking sites.

It’s like I’m thinking, like, you know, I use ancestry.com

for a lot of stuff,

and there’s this other site called find a grave

that is

I mean, at the heart of it,

it’s the same thing as open benches, but for gravestones. Oh, yeah. And probably not creative commons, but I mean, it’s really, really open

and all user generated data and all of that. I was just thinking that it might be another cool data point.

You know, I was if I had a ancestor or something and I was,

you know, pulling all the different interesting bits because, like, I’m using Ancestry as an example, but I think the other ones do this too. Like, one of the things they do is generate

a timeline of interesting things that happened.

And sometimes it could be like, you know, had a kid or

dad or, you know, brother was born or sister was born, but other things is like life events show up in there.

And, you know, things like, oh, well, somebody

dedicated a bench to this person. That seems like it’d be a cool thing to see in there and just a neat piece of info.

Terence Eden:

Absolutely. So we have


an API

which people can use to search or pull in data. There there’s a search form on the,

on the Openbenchers website, so people can just go in

and type in the name of a relative.

So there there’s nothing stopping sites like ancestry,

find a grave, anyone from putting this data in. I think the

the thing that we found, we we were talking


some people from OpenStreetMap

about whether this data could go in because OpenStreetMap absolutely brilliant. And I’m I’m sure most of your listeners will have used it, but there’s all sorts of tools which allow you to add interesting things in your local area

to to a globally available freely available map. The the problem with some of our stuff is that

it uses your phone’s GPS, so it’s not always

brilliantly accurate. And if you’re taking a photo of a bench, you’re probably standing a few meters away from it. Mhmm. We have signed an agreement with OpenStreetMap so they can use our data and pull it in. And I I believe there’s now,

a tag

on benches on OpenStreetMap,

which has space for the inscription. So That’s right. Cool. Can pull them in. So, yeah, I I I think it’d be brilliant if people were to to use this. I I guess the only small thing is is if if your relative is Jim Smith, then there’s quite a few benches to Jim Smith. And Yeah. I mean, the nice thing is that lots of these do have dates of birth and dates of death. Some of them

have where people lived.

They they usually associated with the geography. It would be I mean, I I don’t know of any

I I don’t know if someone who was born in the South Pole would put bench in the North Pole, but it’s it’s usually somewhere where they have been Right. At least for for a bit of time.

Gene Liverman:

That’s really cool.

On the topic of open street maps, I’m actually not sure that a lot of my listeners would know about it because it’s it’s not quite as common in the US, I think, as it might be in the UK. So would you kind of elaborate on what OpenStreetMap

is a little? So OpenStreetMap,

Terence Eden:

you can think of as Wikipedia

for Google Maps.

So rather than a mapping solution, which is proprietary, which is what Google Maps is and only Google can control it,

this is the map that anyone can edit.

And it has been

absolutely fascinating watching it grow. So if you live in a fairly

well developed city or country, the the map will be

pretty good because there are lots of mapping sources which people can use. But you can go around and you can say, oh, you know what? The map says that this street is one way only, but actually it’s not. They just rezone that. Click, click, click. You’ve edited the map. It’s now available for for anyone.

Where OpenStreetMap really shines, though, is in places which don’t get as much attention.

So if you are you know, live somewhere not very industrial or in country, which isn’t well mapped or isn’t very profitable for people like

Google or Bing or whoever else.

Those maps often get overlooked. So

local people on the ground, local volunteers can create their own maps of their country, and all of a sudden, those maps are available for

routing vehicles or people

or tourist reasons. It’s absolutely fantastic. The,

the app I’d recommend

everyone gets is called street complete.


the only way I can describe it is like it’s like Pokemon go for mapping.

So as you wander around your phone, you open up your phone and say, I am here, and it says, I’ve got a quest for you. Can you tell me, is this street lit? Yes or no? Click click. And it’s so simple. It will say, well, there’s a post box on this corner. Is it still there? If it is, can you tell me what time post is collected? And it just pings you little quests as you’re going about your day, and you can build up this map of knowledge,

for for everyone to use. Oh, that’s fantastic. I love it. That sounds really cool.

Gene Liverman:

That app sounds like it would be one that could actually be a lot of fun too because those little

I mean,


is a thing that so many people love and and works really well I to keep us engaged.

Terence Eden:

I didn’t believe that. I used to hate gamification completely, but,

one of my friends,


was uploading lots of photos

to open benches and said, have I uploaded the most? And I went into SQL and I did a query and I went, you’re only 7th.

And she said, why isn’t there a leaderboard? And I went, no one wants a leaderboard for Ventures.

And she went, honestly, I want to know. This is motivating me.

How far away am I from the top slot? And I went, fine, Jenny, I will create this for you.

And so

wrote a bit of code. There’s now a leaderboard,

and oh my god, people just went nuts for it. And I I as soon as she could see that she wasn’t the number one mapper,

she upped a game and she she did very well. I don’t I I she did become number 1 for a bit and then someone else overtook her and then other peep

I I had no idea that gamification was that powerful to people, but it it’s just fascinating watching people

up their,

up their stats to to the point where I made a small change to to open benches,

a couple of years ago, and it it changed the way stats counted. And I got lots of not not angry emails, but you must think, I think you’ll find that actually I have uploaded more benches than this, but I was like, alright. Fine. I’ll change it back.

So, yeah, gamification is great. And with

street completes,

the the map, the app I was talking about,

we visited New Zealand

last year, and very briefly, I became the number one street completer in New Zealand. So I was spending a lot of time wandering around going, oh,

add a a point of interest here. Oh, yes. I will say that there’s a, you know, toilet at this rest stop or whatever it was. It’s great fun.

Gene Liverman:

That absolutely sounds like it.

Just out of curiosity, did it help you find things you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise while you’re in New Zealand?

Terence Eden:



So I I had open street map as as

as a mapping tool, so I could say, how do I get to this restaurant? How do I get to the train station?

But for me, it was just a case of as I was I was gonna be walking down the street anyway

or I’m on the bus anyway, opened it up, and it would say, oh, there’s speed bumps here. So it just you know, makes a journey Yeah. A bit more interesting and interesting. That totally makes sense. Yeah.

Gene Liverman:


Terence Eden:

that is pretty neat. Yeah. Go go download Street Complete right now. Yeah.

Gene Liverman:

So other than your open benches project, do you do any other volunteering of your technical knowledge? I’ve looked at, you know, your blog and stuff, and it looks like you’ve got a pretty wide array of interests.

Terence Eden:

I I blog far too much. So, I’m I’m sure you’ll put it in the show notes, but my blog is

the thing is I now have to say my blog’s domain, and it’s impossible to say. I bought this domain,

like, 20 years ago or something like that, and I thought it’d be really cool, and it’s just a pain to pronounce. So anyway,





or you can just search for Terence Eden’s blog. And I blog about all the interesting tech that that I find. One one of the new things

that I’ve been doing is

integrating my blog with the Fediverse.


Mastodon, Activity Pub,

new social networks like that. So, normally, if you want to visit someone’s

blog or website, you visit their site, or maybe you’ve got their RSS or Atom feed and you get it in your feed reader. That’s great. But what if

you could get someone’s blog posts as


in your social network, which you could then

hit favorite

or repost or even reply to.

So WordPress now has this brilliant new plugin called the activity pub plugin.

It’s pretty simple to configure. I’ve I’ve helped out a little bit with it,

and the idea is it turns your blog into

its own social network. So now if you’re on

Mastodon or and soon if you’re on threads and other things like that, you can follow my blog as though it were a user in social network. And when you hit reply from your social media app, it shows up as a comment on my blog.

That’s really cool. Yeah. It it just means that we we get away from this idea of, oh, I need a Facebook page, and I have to push content over to Facebook. And, oh, well, I also need something on Twitter,

but Twitter only has this many characters, and, you know, this is all just it’s nonsense.

Publish once and then syndicate outwards.

I think that’s the, that’s the future, and that that’s why I’ve been helping out, as I say, a a tiny bit with the activity pub plugin.

Gene Liverman:

That sounds really

neat. How have you found actually using it from the petabar side?

And I asked because one of the things I heard on another podcast, but I haven’t

seen haven’t looked into myself is that

it only published, like, the full

blog post

as the

message on Mastodon as opposed to, like, a teaser, and that just made for

more than you necessarily wanna read directly in your social feed. You know, it’s a it’s a wall of text sometimes as opposed to, like, here’s something interesting about it and click through to read the rest of it.

Terence Eden:

Yeah. I absolutely. I I think it’s it depends

what you’re writing about and who you think your audience are. So with the activity pub plugin, you can set it just to

here here’s the headline and the teaser or here’s just a link.

Gene Liverman:

So it’s your choice as to how much gets pushed out to the fediverse?

Terence Eden:

I think that’s the most important thing, yeah, is

that we we’re locked in this assumption that, oh, well, I’m limited to 280 characters because that’s what Twitter gives me. Oh, I can only attach one image because that’s what Facebook gives me. It’s like, no, no. Just just

do what is right for you.

And, you know, if you’re posting huge wrong walls of text, and people don’t want to read that, they can either collapse your posts or they can unsubscribe from you. Mhmm. But it’s about what what you want rather than what you’re being told,

is the right way to do things.

Gene Liverman:

Very cool.

Well, I appreciate you taking the time today.

Before we go, how would be a good way for people to find you on

the Internet or reach out if they had questions or just in general to look you up and maybe contact you? I don’t want people finding me. People. What? No.

Terence Eden:


I’m usually edent on most social networks. That’s edent.

You can find all my contact details at edent.tel.

That’s got links to my Mastodon and my blog and my LinkedIn

and some other cool social network that you’ve not heard of yet.

So, yeah,

please feel free drop me an email,

send me a message on Mastodon.

And if you are having a nice walk and you happen to spot a memorial bench,

snap a geotagged photo,

of it with your phone and upload it to openbenches.org.

Gene Liverman:

And I’ll be sure to put links to all the things we talked about today in the show notes. So

right there in the podcast app, there should be a link to Openbenches

and anything else that’s of interest from this.

Terence Eden:

Brilliant. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

Gene Liverman:

Before we go, I’d like to thank those of you who have boosted in support for the show. It is very much appreciated.

This is a value for value podcast, which means I rely on listeners like yourself contributing back to fund it.

As such, I’ll never charge you to listen, but producing and hosting it does cost money.

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I ask that you contribute by sending a boost through a modern podcast app like Fountain or Castamatic or via the support the show link in the show notes that are visible in your podcast app.

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Thanks for listening.

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