Thursday, June 14, 2012

Putting Facebook and Flickr on the Map

Online user-generated maps aren't new - they exploded years ago when Google Maps released their API in 2005. I've used web-based mapping services to build my own maps for everything from the places I've visited via TripAdvisor to a list of my favourite bakeries via foursquare. 

Of the various user-generated maps, the type I most frequently use is maps of my photgraphs. For a long time, I've been adding the location of the photos I upload to Flickr and Facebook, but only recently started exploring the functionality.

Both Facebook and Flickr have really useful and fun photo map features, but neither meets all my needs completely. 

Facebook Maps
What I like about Facebook maps is that is easy to use. You don't need to know the address of a photo's location to map it. One can add the location by either dropping the photo on a map (a common enough feature) or enter its name and Facebook automatically will find matches (with good accuracy). One can also batch identify the location of photos based, which speeds up the process.  I also like how Facebook doesn't have a cap on how many photos one can upload without having to pay, unlike Flickr.

One of the most useful elements that Facebook's maps offer is that every location automatically links to a Facebook page with info about the location and if friends have been there. The content is mostly populated with Wikipedia entries, but I can see this growing into an interesting hub of place-info.

There are downsides to using Facebook maps. I don't like how when you click on a map to see a geolocated photo, it opens a small window that does not proportionality resize or centre the image, so inevitably the picture is displayed poorly. Facebook only has a map view, instead of also having an Earth view as most online maps now have.

The biggest problem with Facebook is critical mass. If my friends represent a snapshot of Facebook users, almost no one is mapping their photos (or other life-events as Facebook enables). I checked out my friends' maps and they are virtual deserts. It could be a great way to learn more about one's friends or gain some collective insight on places, but that value is only realized if enough people use it.

Also, although it is fairly easy to add location details to Facebook, it isn't easy to access this information. There needs to be a way to explore friends maps without having to go to each friend's page and click on their maps. It's social media, so the maps should enable collective display. Finally, the nature of Facebook - sharing info amongst friends vs. the world-at-large - means that it isn't feasible to share or export one's map or even photos.

Flickr Maps
I haven't used Flickr for years as I reached their 200 free images cap and don't want to pay.  But I wanted to experiment with their mapping feature so I deleted a bunch of old pictures and gave it a try - here's my Flickr map.

As far as I have found, Flickr has the best, publicly-viewable user photos mapping service (let me know if there are better ones out there). But I have had trouble with Flickr map being buggy and not displaying some geotagged photos and with it locking up frequently.

It is also way more difficult than other online map services to geotag a specific location. It doesn't accept the names of places (e.g. organization name or point of interest) or longitude and latitude coordinates, so one needs to know the specific street address to get the map to recognize the location.

Once mapped though, it is easy to view photos on a map. But Flickr doesn't allow one to customize their map beyond sorting by most recent or "interesting"  or searching. One can't have more than one map or customize their map by a specific set or some category.

I really like Flickr's Places feature.  Unlike Facebook Maps, the "Places" feature represents a vibrant social media effort. It displays the collective photos of a place either by recent or "interesting" (Flickr's secret sauce sorting algorithm). It also displays a map of the place that if clicked on opens up to display the geotagged photos charted on a map. Places also offers relevant groups and keywords.  Flickr Places' page for Fergus, Ontario is a good example.

Flickr doesn't enable their map to be embedded in another site, for that they do enable third-party apps.

iMapFlickr & MyPics Map
What Flickr lacks in extensive functionality, it makes up for fostering a wealth of third-party apps (via their "App Garden"). I found a couple, MyPicsMap and iMapFlickr that offer the map functionality that can be embedded in another site.

I tried out these apps on a new page of this blog, My Photos.  Both apps are free, offer some cool features, and are easy to use. They both allow one to display a Flickr collection or set overlaid on a map. Both use Google Maps and therefore offer zooming, scrolling, and map, satellite and terrain views.

On the top of the page, my travel photo highlights are displayed via MyPicsMap.  I like how it uses a thumbnail version of my photo overlaid on a map, so that one can quickly scan the world to see the global highlights.

MyPicsMap doesn't allow one to customize the default view and for some reason it chooses the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It also seems to have faulty display as my images of India and most of Europe do not show up unless one zooms in.

iMapFlickr does allow one to customize the view of the map that is embedded and some other display options (such as height, colours, default map view, etc.).

Instead of offering a thumbnail of a photo overlaid on a map, iMapFlickr displays a flag and then has a scrolling photo viewer below the map (similar to Flickr's map). This isn't as much fun for worldwide photos, but works great when trying to display photos mapped in close proximity. I used iMapFlickr for my local photos (it's the map of Toronto, below my travel photos on My Photos page).

Facebook, Flickr, iMapFlickr, and MyPics Map offer some impressive functionality.  Facebook has the existing social network that has tremendous sharing potential and Facebook also integrates well with specific place pages.  Flickr's has great photos of most places and some cool third-party functionality such as the latter two mentioned. But none of these services offer the degree of customization and social integration I'd like.

Also, I'd love to see functionality that enables these to be converted into an individual location-based service. Still looking for someone to offer that service.

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