Flickr’s New Geotagging, Pretty Damn Impressive
Disclaimer: I’m currently the Chief Evangelist for the photo sharing site Zooomr. We would be seen as a competitor to Flickr and have been developing in the geotagging space for the past six months or so. I’ll try to keep this review as objective as I can.
Ok, so Michael Arrington leaked it a few weeks back and now it’s official. Today Flickr launched geotagging. My first impression? It’s pretty damn impressive.
What makes Flickr’s new geotagging tool so strong in my opinion is that it is tied to their organizer which I’ve always felt is the single best and most impressive part of the Flickr interface. The way it works is pretty simple. You simply find a location using Yahoo! Maps (you can enter an address, airport code, city, etc. or just navigate around the map until you find where you want to go) and then from the organizer’s thumbnail bar below you simply drag and drop your photos on to the map in the appropriate location and you are finished. Like a lot of things at Flickr, simple and elegant.
So what else do I like about Flickr’s new geotagging service? Another great feature that they have added is the ability to screen geotagged locations by text tags on photos. The photo below is an example that I pulled up for all geotagged shots of San Francisco’s favorite eccentric, 12 Galaxy Ambassador Frank Chu.
I think it is pretty cool that as more people start geotagging on Flickr that you will be able to have a map of a bunch of places that Frank hangs out around the city. You can use any tag of course and I’d think tags like restaurant, bar, park, etc. over time would all become useful filtering tags to look for photos in a specific area.
Using either tags or all photos you can basically go to any area on a map and browse the location (see below). Flickr clusters photos inside of little pink dots. You just click on the pink dots and then you can cycle through any photos via little thumbnail shots right there on the map.
The tagging functionality is also helpful when trying to mass geotag your photos. You can for instance pull up a location (say the Golden Gate Bridge) that you might have multiple shots up and then filter by tag “Golden Gate Bridge” and add your tags quickly onto the map.
Another thing that is good that Flickr does is they have a little privacy warning screen when you decide to geotag for the first time. This little screen warns you about the dangers of geotagging and is a good check and balance to make sure that people are aware that geotagging your house, for instance, may or may not be something that you wish to do. Certainly lots of public areas are probably pretty harmless to geotag, but people should in fact be aware that by making their geotags public they let people know where they were at a specific time as well as places they might frequently be at. My own advice to anyone geotagging is to feel free to geotag most of your shots but be careful about geotagging things like your home.
Flickr has all three of the different Yahoo! map views available, regular maps, satellite maps (see below) and hybrid maps which overlay satellite images with street names.
So what don’t I like about Flickr’s new geotagging? A few things — and I’d assume that they get these fixed as they continue to develop it.
First off I think that Yahoo! Maps itself has some limitations. Yahoo Maps is especially weak in terms of street detail in Europe and so if you live in Europe you might be less than thrilled at the level of detail that you can get. Sergey Chernyshev has a great little tool that allows you to compare locations on maps using both Google and Yahoo maps side by side. If you put in Paris, France, for instance, you will see that the Yahoo! maps comes up without data at the street level. You can of course zoom out but this will make it harder to precisely geotag for many people living in Europe. I suspect that it’s only a matter of time though until Yahoo Maps gets better coverage and this is improved.
The other thing that I don’t like is that when you add a photo to the map in organizer that it still leaves the thumbnail in your photos. As you add photos to the maps on Flickr you should only want to add photos that have not already been geotagged. The organizer doesn’t have a good way to filter out only non geotagged photos (that I could tell) and so I found myself re-geotagging photos that I’d already geotagged.
The other thing that I didn’t like was that in order to browse and view photos that had been geotagged on a map you have to do it with tiny little thumbnails inside of the map. You can expand an individual photo but then you go to that photo and are off the map. I found it hard to see the detail on such small thumbnails and wished that there were a page with slightly bigger photos where I could click to see nearby photos a tad larger and in more detail but still grouped together.
Of course all of this business with geotagging (and not just at Flickr) raises a serious point that must be considered as well. In the past I’ve been critical of the fact that I’ve felt that my text tags have been locked into Flickr. This is not by Flickr design of course, they just have different priorities right now over building tag export tools etc. But the fact remains that I cannot get my tags out of Flickr and have them exported to another application. My frustration in the past has been due to the fact that I’ve spent hours and hours of time tagging photos and have not had an easy path to get this metadata out of Flickr. Geotagging of course is an even larger investment in time. With over 6,000 photos on Flickr now I’d probably want some pretty serious guarantee that my text and geotags would in fact be portable at some point before investing the amount of time necessary to commit to geotagging at Flickr.
In fairness, even at Zooomr we don’t have these types of export tools yet (we too have been working
on other things ahead of these tools as well). But both Zooomr and Flickr and any other photo sharing site that is entrusted as a steward with user’s content ought to be committed to figuring out the portability issue and at least committing to their users that export options will be available at some point in the future.
I’m sure Flickr will be working out a bug here and there in the next few days and weeks, but this first effort into geotagging is damn impressive. Most of all I find the simplicity and the usability to be it’s strongest features, combined with the advanced filtering tools available through both geo tagging and searching for geo tags based on text tags.
Congratulations to Stewart and the whole Flickr team on this great new feature for Flickr and their users. You can click here for the official take from the Flickr Blog. There is also a thread over at Flickr Central on the matter as well. (I am of course a tad bitter that I was the first person to post on this at Central only to have my post deleted with zero correspondance from a Flickr Central admin as usual) Paul Stamatiou has more here. Robert Scoble chimes in here.
Update: Scott Regan from the Yahoo! Maps team responds about the coverage of street detail on Europe maps: “We hear you loud and clear on street level detail for Europe and beyond. We’ve been working hard to rollout more international data and imagery over the last few months and will keep it coming.
In the meantime, we’re focusing on keeping a good balance of global coverage. If you’re geotagging photos from a recent trip from outside the US, Europe, or Japan, you should find major cities, towns and road networks for every country.”
Update #2: Stewart Butterfield responds to a couple of my items in Flickr Central. There does appear to be a way to filter your photos by non geotagged photos but it does not yet work with the tag filtering. This is a good feature to have but it’s a bit of a pain to try to geotag your photos by chronological upload vs. by tag refinement for all specific photos by event, location, etc. (eg. “Tag Cathedral” “Alameda County Fair” “Mountain View Cemetery” etc. There is also a way to view larger versions of the photos still within the flickr map vs. only being able to see the tiny thumbnails.
From Stewart: “For the first issue, you can actually choose the awkwardly-named “All your photos not on a map” (we’ll change this) in the Organizr and then photos will disappear after you geotag them.
For the second, when you’re looking around flickr.com/map, you can click the “Show detail” thing in the top left of a photo window or click on the center photo to browse through those photos at a larger size.
So, that leaves Yahoo! maps overall coverage – I’ll write a little more about that soon “
Update #3: Rev Dan Catt (from Flickr) responds to a question about existing exif geotags integrating into Flickr Maps (this can be done, users just need to activate it at the address below first).
Dan also responds to the concern about portability of geotag data by suggesting that users geotag their original photos prior to uploading them to Flickr if they are concerened about having access to this metadata later and a mention of Flickr’s API as another vehicle to get access to this data.
“Flickr can use location information from the EXIF data, you just need to turn it on…
…once switched on, any data in *new* photos uploaded will be used.
So if you’re worried about taking your geo info with you, embed the location first and then upload the photo. We won’t embed it for you as we have a policy against making any modifications to your original files.
As always you’ll be able to get your geo information back out using various APIs.