Flickr: Tech Tuesday

Various pho­tos from my Flickr account.

Flickr is a decept­ively simple web­site which I still don’t fully under­stand. The basic premise is simple; it’s a place where you can upload and dis­play pho­tos. It’s the few extras which massively increase its poten­tial for ser­i­ous projects.

After upload­ing a photo you have the options of giv­ing it a title, a descrip­tion and some tags. The tags can be used to look for sim­ilar pho­tos. For example here’s the pho­tos that I’ve tagged Segesta. However, because I’m upload­ing to the same data­base as thou­sands of other people I can also search for other pho­tos people have tagged Segesta. Additionally I can also group my pho­tos into sets. Here’s a set of pho­tos from a trip to Hadrian’s Wall. For people who can’t get enough of cata­loguing, you can also gather sets into col­lec­tions. This is all done through a reas­on­ably intu­it­ive inter­face. It’s also easy to edit, so I could upload pho­tos today and go back to improve descrip­tions and tags in a month’s time or more. For col­lat­ing, cata­loguing and stor­ing your own pho­tos it’s a handy tool but, like a lot of Web 2.0 sites, it’s the social tools that make it worth tak­ing a second look.

It’s not simply a mat­ter of shar­ing pho­tos with other people. Take fish for example. I want archae­olo­gical pho­tos of fish. However my own pho­to­stream is lousy. There’s only two pho­tos and only one is of a fish. The next step is to search Flickr for fish. That doesn’t make life any bet­ter. There’s lots of pho­tos but most of them are people fish­ing or of cats.* Fortunately there are also groups. These are groups of people who have pooled pho­tos on one spe­cific sub­ject. So if I search the Archaeology group for fish, I should get more rel­ev­ant res­ults. Of course simply find­ing a photo doesn’t mean I can use it — except on Flickr some­times it does.

Flickr has help pop­ular­ise a move­ment called Creative Commons, which is a means of licen­cing your pho­tos for pub­lic use with cer­tain lim­it­a­tions. You can also search Flickr for Creative Commons licenced pho­tos and spe­cify if you want to have per­mis­sion to alter them or use them com­mer­cially. There is a lim­it­a­tion to this in that you can­not nor­mally com­bine Creative Commons and Group searches.

The Chiron group has adop­ted the most obvi­ous answer to this prob­lem. Chironweb is a site run to con­nect Spanish-speaking Classics blog­gers, and their pool Chiron is a group which only accepts pho­tos con­nec­ted to the clas­sical world with a Creative Commons licence. If you search Chiron for fish, then you can be pretty cer­tain you can use the pho­tos you find in lec­tures or in blog­ging. If there’s not twenty thou­sand usable clas­sics pho­tos in the pool right now, there soon will be.

This is where I start to think I’m miss­ing some­thing obvious.

Imagine you run the Society for the Promotion of Obscure Studies. Presumably you have mem­bers with pho­tos of Obscure Things which would be use­ful to other mem­bers. Making the pho­tos pub­lic on Flickr would cost noth­ing and also help pro­mote both Obscure Studies and the Society. Are any schol­arly soci­et­ies doing this? Certainly I haven’t seen any­thing like this from the major schol­arly soci­et­ies in his­tory, clas­sics or archae­ology. There cer­tainly are many ser­i­ous his­tor­i­ans and archae­olo­gists using Flickr. The lack of interest seems to show no under­stand­ing of the resource they’re miss­ing out on. Equally, it could make mem­ber­ship of the Society more desir­able if you have to be a mem­ber of the Society to post to the Society’s group.

Another fea­ture of schol­arly groups would poten­tially be shared tag formats. For example if ancient his­tor­i­ans had a uni­form chro­no­lo­gical tag scheme then adding tags like period:archaicgreece, or origin:Corinth could make the pho­tos even more use­ful. Again it would be a lot easier to dis­cuss and organ­ise a tag scheme through a cent­ral soci­ety than a cabal of bloggers.

Things get more inter­est­ing when you start mess­ing around with Flickr’s API. An API is a method for being able to tailor quer­ies when search­ing the Flickr data­base and inter­rog­ate vari­ous fields asso­ci­ated with a photo, like its loc­a­tion or author. An example of this is the Archaeopix Search Engine which is able to search vari­ous groups for Creative Commons licenced pho­tos. The basic code was writ­ten in simple PHP in a couple of hours with most of the time spent on format­ting the results.

In terms of cost, the basic site is free, though there’s a limit to the num­ber of pho­tos you can upload each month. The total file size can­not exceed 100MB. For $25 you get unlim­ited uploads and an ad-free site. You can see what I’ve been upload­ing recently here.

* It’s a rule dis­covered by the inter­net that there is no human activ­ity in exist­ence which doesn’t have a photo of a cat doing it in an amus­ing way.