Monday, January 21, 2013

Flickr as your new tour guide

Henry Grabar at The Atlantic Cities, writes this about using Flickr geotags:
What do people photograph when they visit Fort Mason, an army base-turned-cultural center on the San Francisco waterfront?
Instead of heading down with a clipboard to do interviews, UC-Berkeley researcher Alexander Dunkel analyzed data from Flickr. Using geotags, which relay the exact location of the photographer, he was able to place over 125,000 photos on a map of the area, with expanding colored disks indicating the popularity of a certain viewpoints.
Using tags, with which users describe the content of the photos, he presented popular subjects as word clouds, located at the weighted center of frequency. We can see, for example, that visitors are photographing the Golden Gate Bridge mostly from two places: the three Fort Mason piers, and halfway out on the Van Ness pier. For photographs of Alcatraz, the legendary island-prison, one viewpoint, at the end of the jetty, is predominant. 
The maps created by Alexander Dunkel are a thing of beauty, but to view the connections between Flickr's geolocations and photograph subjects (via metatags) you have to view the 'Sightlines' layers, currently only available for the San Francisco Bay Area and Yosemite Valley.
That said, this use of Flickr data is a great example of how straightforward data aggregation and mining reveals how people behave.  Though the article mentions the use of these data for city planning, other sources of data can be used to find out where people have been, like cell phone data (though not without controversy).  The unique value provided by combining geotags with metatags is in visualizing views that should not be blocked, by say, condo developments, especially in cities like Toronto that seem to have an addiction to new glass buildings.  I'm not sure how much information geotagged photos could provide on a smaller scale, for example to ask whether people tend to take pictures on the east or west side of a baseball game.  Regardless of the limitations, it seems that we'll see more of Dunkel's style of tag analysis on Flickr or Google sites within the next year.