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Flickr: Tech Tuesday

May 26, 2009
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.
  1. June 1, 2009 3:06 pm

    I haven’t blogged about it yet, but I’ve just found out that the UK National Archives has given users permission to upload photos of documents from the archive’s collection. The NA has its own Flickr account, and a group for visitors. Combined with the Your Archives wiki this could lead to some really exciting stuff.


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