Curating our Heritage through Social Data

Click to Watch: Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos Photosynth

For my project, I’d like to explore a topic we’ve been debating regularly in class. We’ve had frequent discussions about the eligibility of user contributions to history, especially in the digital realm. Our discussions have largely focused on written contributions to socially curated sites like Wikipedia, but I’d like to focus instead on what’s unwritten.

While textual data is subject to opinion and questions of validity arise, visual data isn’t subject to the same questionability. We have an abundance of it, too. Look on Flickr, Facebook, anywhere — there’s an abundance of factual visual data stored online. Projects like Microsoft Photosynth are a progression of this static data into the realm of spatial awareness.

What the point here really is is that we can do things with the social environment. This is now taking data from everybody — from the entire collective memory of, visually, of what the Earth looks like — and link all of that together. All of those photos become linked together, and they make something emergent that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

— Blaise Aguera y Arcas / Architect, Bing Maps

Photosynth takes photographs from around the web and compiles them into interactive models of images. If you’ve read this far and haven’t watched the TED Talk posted above, take a few minutes to see why this is a significant project from a historical perspective. Users already devote time independently to curating imagery online — on social networks and off — and Photosynth attaches meaning to it.

I’d like to explore use cases in several image databases and report on their implications for public historical knowledge. The Library of Congress hosts an extremely detailed, professionally curated image collection online, for example. We looked the other week at projects that crowdsource curation and transcription to the public. We have a wealth of publicly curated data associated with images, and I’d like to know more about how we use it, namely:

  • How do users interact with online image databases?
  • What can metadata tell us about history?
  • How can projects like Photosynth make our understanding of visual history more complete?

One Reply to “Curating our Heritage through Social Data”

  1. Photosynth is indeed very cool. If you decide to run with this idea, I would suggest thinking about how you could put this work on photos in conversation with existing historical literature on reading and intrepreting photographs as historical evidence. Reading American Photographs comes to mind, http://www.amazon.com/Reading-American-Photographs-Images-History/dp/0374522499 but beyond that book, interpretation of photographs is something that whole courses are offered on http://www.uncg.edu/his/docs/Spring08/326-01Tolbert.pdf

    This is not to attempt to dissuade, just to suggest that there could be some interesting ways to draw on some of this extent literature and put it into conversation with some of the ways that digital is completely changing this sort of thing. Simply put, we are generating photographs at rates that have no comparison, what is it, 5 billion photos on facebook?

    It isn’t entirely on point, but things like facial recognition are also potentially invaluable modes of visual analysis for historians. The coolest application of this tech so far in history (IMHO) has been http://invisibleaustralians.org/faces/

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