“Memory of Colors” by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

A version of this article has also been published on the photography site The Luminous Landscape.

Memory of Colors is the name of large-scale ongoing photography project by the Colombian/French photographer Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. His wife Lia Ocampo-Rangel, a videographer, also contributes to the project.

The project involves recording portraits of individuals from distinctive cultures in remote parts of the world. The photographs show individuals or small groups of people against a monochromatic background. The color of the studio-like backdrop plays a major role in the project because Ocampo-Rangel associates different cultures with different dominant “natural” colors. This can be based on the color of their skin, their clothing, their ornaments or something more abstract.

Girl from Ethiopia's Mursi tribe against a dark brown background (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The resulting photographs have been displayed as larger-than-life prints at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at a Paris art gallery, Polka. A collection of 1300 pictures has just been released in collaboration with Fotopedia in the form of an iPhone/iPad app. There are plans for a traveling exhibition on a Memory of Colors sailing boat that will tour six continents starting in late 2010.

A man with a mission

The indigenous people covered by the project are gradually disappearing: they are losing their cultural identity by merging with other cultures and due to their constant exposure to global cultural influences.

An extreme example is the impact of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. In the span of less than 50 years, this changed relatively isolated sheikdoms struggling to get by, into an affluent nation with bustling financial centers (Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

A more sweeping historical example is the colonization of much of the world by a series of seafaring European superpowers (Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands) between the 16th and 19th centuries. This  lead to the introduction of new cultures, new languages, new religions, new industries and above all new rulers for many continents and subcontinents.

The goal of the Memory of Colors project is to record the disappearing world heritage from the perspective of a former fashion photographer, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. Jaime also hopes the project will increase the world’s awareness of the value of these cultures among the general public, the indigenous peoples themselves and their respective governments.

This quest is quite similar to that of the Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis (a National Geographic staff member) who stresses that the disappearance of cultural diversity in what he calls the ethnosphere is much more dramatic than the ongoing disappearance of biological diversity in the biosphere. Wade Davis held an impressive 20 minute lecture on endangered cultures at the 2003 TED conference that can be viewed online.

The Photographer

Jaime Ocampo-Rangel was born in Colombia (yes, in South America), and subsequently lived in Miami, Spain, New York and now Paris. In his earlier period he became an accomplished fashion and advertising photographer. As his work from this period is becoming increasingly tricky to find (because he has switched to a very different type of work), I have included one example here.

Example of commercial photography by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

His transition from Vogue-style fashion photography to almost National Geographic-style photography started in 1999 when he met and photographed the Kogui people of Colombia. The Koguis stayed relatively uninfluenced by the Spanish rulers and by modern society because they withdrew to the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region and avoided contact with “modern” society. Ocampo-Rangel now describes his encounter as “a spiritual and artistic revelation” that lead him to seek out and document such cultures around the world. The project has been ongoing over the past 12 years, initially in parallel to his glamor photography.

It is worth noting that Ocampo-Rangel is not a typical documentary photographer: he has a specific message he wants to convey and he uses his photographic stills to convey an emotional message to the viewer. The still images are thus not intended to tell a story together with a writer’s text and thus differ from the journalistic approach used by say National Geographic or an award-winning Dutch documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien (who also photographed African tribes like the Mursi depicted above).

Ocampo-Rangel is also not a trained anthropologist or ethnographer like Wade Davis (who also does photography). Although the two think along surprisingly similar lines, Ocampo-Rangel doesn’t worry about scientific niceties like whether the holy Sadhu’s of India or folkloristic French villagers belong to the same category as indigenous tribes such as the Kogui or the Tuaregs of the Sahara. Jaime Ocampo-Rangel is more a portrait photographer with an eye for striking images who wants to convey the message of the disappearing human diversity to a global audience.

To better understand what drives him, you may want to watch one of the video clips made by Jaime and his wife. Jaime’s narrative, with a voice reminiscent of both Sir David Attenborough (the confiding whispering tone) and Jacques Cousteau (the enthusiasm and the accent), give you some impression about his goals and hopes.

Fotopedia’s iOS App

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app, released on Feb 23, runs on the iPhone and the larger iPad. It costs only 3$ (initially even less). The interactive app covers over 1300 images of 40 cultures throughout the world – obviously significantly more than what can be shown at expositions or even in a book.

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app on the iPhone

As all Fotopedia products, Memory of Colors allows you to browse the photographs while accessing corresponding Wikipedia articles and Google maps markers. The Google Maps markers are not intended for zooming in and finding exactly where the images were taken: the “pins” just show a general area rather than a specific village or valley. This may be intentional. Many of the tribes are small, and tourism would further impact their way of life.

Fotopedia’s software is easy to use and allows you to browse the images in different ways, the most important here being per culture or per country (see screenshot). To my taste the images could have been more rigorously selected. Sometimes you find very similar images, or even alternative crops of the same photo. This is obviously not a big deal because the browsing is fast and you are free to browse any way you like. But it would have been nicer to distinguish between photos that are worth exhibiting or including in a photo book and those which are useful if you want to actually study the people.

The overall app can be seen as an iPad-based equivalent of  a coffee table book or National Geographic (which is to some degree a coffee table magazine). The information about some tribes is very limited (because of limited Wikipedia content). There is no information from the photographer about individual photographs or photo shoots – unlike what you would expect in a real documentary. To my surprisingly you can save/post/e-mail medium-resolution copies of the images. Photography buffs may be pleased that the EXIF information about lenses and ISO and shutters speeds is still intact.

Photographic Equipment

Although the impact of fancy photographic equipment is overrated by most amateur photographers, it is worth describing the setup that Jaime uses – if only because he lugged this equipment to various remote deserts, the Andes mountains and Siberia. And to highlight the similarity with the equipment used in fashion photography.

The camera is a medium-format Hasselblad camera with, for example, a 100 mm lens (70 mm in full-frame terms). The digital back on the Hasselblad is one of various generations of Phase One digital backs. The backdrop and reflector panels are standard studio stuff. The lighting is normally a single strip-shaped Elinchrome softbox (obviously battery-powered). As in the blue image below, you can see traces of a reflector on the left side of the face. Jaime mentioned that he used to lug 100 kilograms of equipment around, but that he now travels lighter.

The Colors

Colombian (Guambianos) girl (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The colors are an important part of the project. Although it sounds like something that  emerged at some point during the project, it is surprising that Ocampo-Rangel’s term

Rainbow of human existence

is echoed in (the much less artsy) Wade Davis’ phrase

Polychromatic world of diversity [of people]

I am unqualified to judge whether a color indeed matches the “spirituality” of a particular people, but the strong reliance on background colors does make a difference.

Note that in many cases the background color is consistent – even if the color doesn’t occur in one of the individuals clothing. But sometimes multiple colors are used for a single people. I suppose that a true artist should be allowed break rules, including his own.

It some of the less important images the background cloth is a distractingly wrinkled. As the cloth presumably can’t be ironed during a trip to the desert, it might help to either wrinkle it more (so that it becomes uniform) or to stretch the cloth to minimize the problem.

World Tour and Sponsorship

As you may have concluded by now, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel thinks big. His next major step in the Memory of Colors project is to travel around the world in a sailing boat. The trip is a combination of visiting more indigenous cultures and docking at major cities to display his work. Stills and video will be projected after dark onto the white sails of his boat. The purpose is to spread the word that these valuable cultures are vanishing.

The trip is supported by the UNESCO and other sponsors. The trip is currently planned to start at the Eiffel Tower (situated along the Seine River) due to its proximity to UNESCO’s Paris-based headquarters and to sail to South America (Brazil, Venezuela and his native Colombia), via Panama and the Panama Canal, to visit Australia, Asia, Africa, and to finally cross the Atlantic a second time to hold an exhibition at the United Nations building (situated along the East River in New York City).

In early March 2011 Jaime told me he had already received substantial sponsorship commitments from the UNESCO and other sources. This reassures me that Jaime has the skills to actually get such a dream off the ground. But the project is still searching for additional sponsorship from both individuals (“minimum contribution 5€”) and especially from organizations. This is not just money needed to finance the costs of the voyage, but also to pay for the facilities and time to convert the resulting raw photographic and video material into a book and especially a film for broadcast on various television networks.

The most obvious types of sponsors that come to my mind include (note that I don’t know the list of current sponsors):

  • magazines and museums related to travel and the peoples of the earth,
  • government agencies committed to the welfare of cultural minorities,
  • companies that are strongly associated to color and its emotional impact (paint, fashion, lighting…),
  • the photography industry,
  • the broadcasting, publishing and movie industries (the movie and book side), and
  • travel agencies that specialize in responsible forms of tourism (a tricky one?).

Last but not least, donations can also be done by providing what Jaime called “professional skills”. That is how I got into fixing some of the more glaring bugs in his English (these kind of details don’t have priority for the master). So, for example, support from a professional copywriter or advertising agency would really help get things rolling. The web page on sponsoring indicates how you can contact Jaime. It is OK to contact me about this topic if you have questions, but keep in mind that I do not represent him. I am merely occasionally in touch with Jaime to help out a bit.

Fotopedia – some missing guidelines

The following are suggested extra guidelines for people who contribute or evaluate photos for Fotopedia. They are meant to support Fotopedia’s goal of being simultaneously an encyclopedia (well-documented, trustworthy) and aesthetics (coffee table book). The following are thus suggestions for future versions of Fotopedia’s own Guidelines document.

Fotopedia contributors are like journalists

The missing guidelines below are mainly to support the encyclopedia side of Fotopedia.The existing guidelines are mainly to support the aesthetics side.

The general philosophy is simple: if you contribute to an encyclopedia you are essentially in the same situation as a journalist or writer of a non-fiction book. You have to be precise enough: Somebody may actually want to travel to see what you photographed. A student may use your photo to learn about a topic. Your photo may end up in the student’s report. Someone may view your photos to remember what they visited 10 years ago. Etc.

So we all have to at least try to achieve some degree of documentation about…

  • what. Sometimes the title of the article is enough. But often the answer is a bit more complex: “pyramid”, “Egyptian pyramid”, “a pyramid at Cheops”.
  • where. This is almost always relevant. Traffic lights are different all over the world. Fotopedia is filled and viewed from all over the world.
  • when. This is almost always relevant. All cities looked different 20 years ago, and will look different in 20 years. Even mountains change.
  • who. If the thing you show may have been made by a famous artist. Or depict or commemorate a famous person.
  • why and how. May be less relevant here than for news. But sometimes a few words of explanation are needed.

Guidelines are not rules

Although we might call them “rules” for short, these are truly guidelines: once you understand them and why they exist, you will find that there are cases where it is ok to ignore them once in a while.

The guidelines try to adhere to the same style as the community rules used in Wikipedia: short and simple rules with a clear rationale.

Be specific

File under the most specific article possible.

Example: file under Monarch Butterfly if you know the butterfly is a monarch butterfly. If you don’t know, file under Butterfly – maybe an expert will fix this later. But don’t file under Insect or Animal.

Example: file under the name of a monument rather than the city or region or country.

Rationale: we don’t want to lose important information. General categories in the encyclopedia (Pacific Rim, Electronics, Mountain, Statue) may be filled automatically in the future (e.g. best photos from subcategories). But it takes an expert to add the missing information.

File based on what’s shown

Don’t file based on where you were standing. File based on what’s in the photo.

Example: you are on bridge and take a picture of a boat. If the photo shows only the boat, it won’t help people looking for pictures of the bridge.

Example: you are island K (as in Kitcheners) and photograph island E (as in Elephantine). It would be very misleading to link the photo to island K because it shows a different island.

Check that you aren’t showing a neighboring monument.

They all have different names and probably different articles. Don’t just use the name of the bus driver shouted when you get off the bus. Tour guides actually point to different things and they all have different names.

Example: In some areas of Rome, the density of monuments is so high that you can see 5 or 10 different things from one location. Each has its own Wikipedia entry. But they don’t have big colorful labels like shops in a shopping area. So you may need to check. Wikipedia accuracy should be enough.

Capture date information

For pictures of famous people, add the year the picture was taken. And possibly the occasion.

Example: was the photo of Jimmy Carter taken before he became famous? Or during his presidency? During a lecture he gave after his presidency?

In most cases I suppose a year is good enough unless it was clearly an event (concert, protest march, election, flood).

Rationale: You looked different 10 years ago and your environment was probably different. It is tempting not to add a date to a recent photo, but somebody may use the photo in 10 years. For photos that are 30 or more years old, the date of the photo is one of the first things one typically asks about.

Capture the exposure date for any photograph not taken with a digital camera.

Capturing the data of any image for an encyclopedia is generally a good idea. Fortunately, the capture date is automatically recorded within a Raw or JPG photo itself, so may be used and made available by Fotopedia in the future. But when an analog photo is scanned, the date the photograph was taken is not known. An exception is for APS-C film which does have digital information for each image – and some professional scanning equipment (e.g. Fujicolor Fontier) maintains this.

Capture location information

Capture the location of artworks, especially depicting people.

Example: if you file a photo of a statue (of a king, president, pharaoh) under the portrayed person, you should document (via linkage or caption) where the statue is. If that particular statue has an article of its own (Statue of Liberty) there is no problem. But Egypt is full of statues of Ramesses II, and famous people often have multiple statues. Provide enough information to distinguish one statue of that person from another.

Document the area where animals are photographed.

Example: Elephants in India are a different species from Elephants in Africa and even have their own articles. But making sure the location is documented makes it simple to distinguish major or subtle differences that you may not be aware of. Even sparrows in Spain are slightly different from the rest of Europe. The same applies to domestic animals like cows and cats. If you are not an expert, just record where the photo was taken.

Works of art

Record the name of the artist who made the artwork.

This can apply to painters, sculptors, and architects.

Example: So where possible, capture the artist who made the portrait that you photographed.

Rationale: Such information can help trace where the artwork is exhibited and when it was made. And some people may be interested primarily in the artist rather than the subject of the artwork.


Fotopedia – statistics (2/2)

Part 1 of this article provided some graphs showing the rate of growth of Fotopedia. The main conclusion was that the growth was steady (“linear” for geeks), but not enough to propel Fotopedia into the realm of the really well-known sites. Part 2 contains additional data as well as presenting the data in better ways.

The data

Figure 1. Fotopedia statistics (click to zoom in)

The left column shows the amount of photos in Fotopedia. From top to bottom:

  1. The number of photos in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The number of photos in 3 Fotopedia Projects: Heritage, Japan, Amsterdam.
  3. The fraction (in %) of all Fotopedia photo’s within these projects (#1/#2 or for those who speak MatLab… #1./#2).

The middle column shows the number of articles. From top to bottom:

  1. The number of articles in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The number of articles in the same 3 projects
  3. the relative fraction (in %) of all Fotopedia articles within these projects (#1/#2)

The right column shows the average number of photos per article:

  1. The average photos/article in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The average photos/article in the 3 projects


Apart from some anomalies (spikes due to unusual contributor activity or to database cleanups), the conclusions from the previous article are still valid: there is constant growth, but at a relatively slow rate.

Both “constant” and “relatively slow” worry me: the site should exhibit exponential growth in this phase of its lifetime. Thus, for example, the release of version 2.0 of the Fotopedia Heritage app for the iPad (which happened a few weeks ago) hasn’t led to increased community activity – although it undoubtedly temporarily attracted some traffic to the servers.

PS: software tooling and more detailed view

I switched to using fancier software tooling to generate the graphs. The previous posting simply used Excel. Although this is party meant as an exercise to brush up on these scripting skills, the use of MatLab scripts allows me to automate a bit more and get more control over the output.

Thus, for example, the next diagram shows the daily increases in the number of photos and the number of articles. The vertical scale is logarithmic because of the large ratios between the various plots.

Daily changes (click to zoom in)

These plots confirm the constant growth: although a bit deformed by the logarithmic scale, the black and the blue plots shows no real increase or decrease over more than 2 months of monitoring.

Note that sample points with <= zero units/day are represented as 0.1 (10^-1, the baseline in the plots). Note I have no access to data for the Japan and Amsterdam Projects before November 15th.

Fotopedia – statistics (1/2)

This posting focuses on the quantity of Fotopedia photos, while a previous posting focuses on the quality of Fotopedia photos. It is based on daily “measurements” starting on September 17th 2010 and currently covers almost 6 weeks.


The main question I am trying to answer is whether Fotopedia is on-track to becoming a major site on the Internet. For that I want to know if the user community and the rate of photo submissions is growing, stable or even decreasing.


I simply recorded the statistics displayed on the Fotopedia website. I did this on a daily basis at roughly the same time of day: evening in the Western European time zone when site activity seems to quiet down a bit.

Number of photos

Fig 1. Number of photos in Fotopedia

The amount of photos in the database is currently about 590k (thousands) and grows at about 2% per month. Continued linear growth at this rate would give about 25% growth in the coming year (840k photos by 1-Oct-11). This may seem a lot, but is IMO not necessarily enough to become a lasting phenomena: such phenomena require exponential growth until they get to the “household word” level.

This is consistent with Fotopedia’s ranking in Alexa.com of in the order of 35,000 – meaning that the site belongs to the top fifty thousand sites in the world (based on estimated traffic during a 3 month period). Wikipedia and Google for example are in the top ten. For comparison, a brand that only indirectly depends on the Internet like Skoda-Auto.com ranks 46,267 and a largely Internet-based service like GettyImages.com rates 1,933.

The dotted line in Fig. 1 represents the 4.4% of the photos that are part of the World Heritage Sites project. These Heritage photos are growing at only 1% per month – likely because the collection is closer to saturation: most Heritage articles are already covered and there has been a campaign to get enough photos for the Heritage application in time for the first release of the App on iOS (a 2nd version has just been released).

Number of articles

Fig 2. Number of articles in Fotopedia

The database currently covers 41k articles from the English-language version of Wikipedia.

On average each article has about 14.3 photos. This photo/article ratio seems stable, but is an average across some articles with hundreds of photos, articles with dozens of photos and articles with only a few photos. Articles with no photos are typically not counted as they don’t occur in the database (although there are temporary exceptions).

The amount of articles in Heritage has varied between 3771 and 3774 during the monitoring period – and is thus extremely stable. The variations only reflect refinements because the UNESCO list used as a basis is seldom extended. The UNESCO list contains 911 sites or groups of sites (e.g. the Historic Center of Cordoba corresponds to multiple Wikipedia articles).

For Heritage, the photo/article ratio is about 6.9 and is slowly growing: the number of photos grows while the amount of articles stays constant. This 6.9 ratio is about half of the average of 14.3, possibly because many heritage sites are in exotic locations and because the Heritage project is carefully curated.

Another way to look at these numbers: 10% of the Fotopedia articles form the Heritage project, but only 4.4% of the Fotopedia photos form the Heritage project.

Is a total of say 40k articles a lot? Well, the English version of Wikipedia is expected to reach 3.5 million articles by the end of 2011 (and all Wikipedia languages together may give 7M unique topics). So Fotopedia covers roughly 1% of the scope of en.Wikipedia.org. The coverage is probably much higher for Wikipedia articles on well-known places (Palace of Versailles), cuddly animal species (koalas, porcupines), celebrities and fandom (Elvis, Arsenal FC, BMW), some arts (architecture) and common objects (pen, mailbox). And is lower for advanced topics like science (Cobalt, string theory), mathematics (differential equations), technology (strain gauge – my photos!), history (Treaty of Versailles), society topics (bar is still missing), and pretty much anything that is abstract (octave).

Photos added per day

Fig. 3. Daily change in number of photos in Fotopedia

Figure 3 shows the change in the total number of photos on a daily basis. On average about 500 photos are added per day. It is thus the same data as Figure 1, but with the small daily changes magnified. On some occasions there was a decrease – but I was told this was because of semi-automatic removal of low-rated images by Fotopedia staff.

The peak of +3000 photos in one day is notable, but I couldn’t find out what caused it.

Based on this limited amount of data, there is no clear evidence to show that the rate of growth is either picking up or slowing down. So for now, I assume a more or less linear growth at roughly 500 photos/day.

Articles added per day

Fig 4. Daily change in number of articles in Fotopedia

The database grows at roughly 40 articles/day. Note that, 500 photos and 40 articles per day is close to the 14.3 photos/article ratio. So the current photos/article ratio is not shifting to higher or lower ratios.


The current size of Fotopedia (1% of Wikipedia topics, average of 14.3 photos/topic) is in itself OK – given that Wikipedia is full of specialized topics. The rate of increase (500 photos/day) is also not a problem in itself.

But the available data suggests that at present a more or less stable community of active people is providing data at a constant rate. This constant growth rate is probably not enough to boost Fotopedia to become a major Web 2.0 service.

Hopefully the future Fotopedia iPad apps and other planned site improvements can help attract more attention for Fotopedia.

Double checking

This conclusion appears to be consistent with Alexa’s statistics (see Fig. 5) that show that the rapid growth characteristic of a new Internet service pretty much stopped in early 2010.

Note that although Alexa numbers can easily be challenged on various grounds, the Alexa ranking is accepted as a quick and dirty way to assess the importance of a web site. In this particular case, there is an extra complication: access to Fotopedia photos via the Heritage app is simply not counted by Alexa because Alexa basically monitors browser activity (using an optional toolbar).

Fig 5. Alexa visit statistics for Fotopedia (retrieved 26-Oct-2010)

Note that the time axis of the Alexa data is much larger than the other graphs.

Fotopedia – the rating system (2/2)

Last modification: 28-Nov-10

After all this background discussion in part 1, it’s time to get more concrete about actual problems and possible solutions…

Issue #1: Great photo – wrong article


Photo of Plaza_de_España (Seville) that was accidentally linked to Alcázar of Seville instead. powered by Fotopedia

A photo can accidentally be attached to an inappropriate article. Although the ranking system might ultimately fix this, it is more practical to inform the Fotopedia staff.

Nevertheless, “being” an encyclopedia requires a lot of focus on reliability. An extreme example is the Fotopedia article on Luxor Temple in Egypt: when I checked, at least 7 of the 14 Top pictures for Luxor Temple showed various other temples in the Luxor area. Luxor Temple, however, is quite large so the most convincing way to prove an image is not of Luxor Temple is to prove that it depicts another well-known temple (e.g. Karnak, etc.). Although an error rate of at 50% is unusally high, my estimate that a few percent of travel photos are incorrectly classifed, and that more are correct, but imprecise.

What might have caused the errors in this case:

  • There are several ancient temples in/near Luxor (collectively known as “Ancient Thebes with its necropolis” in the Heritage project). People usually visit multiple temples on the same day, they look similar and the photographer needs to check closely (e.g. capture times) to determine which photo was taken where.
  • Only one temple at Luxor is known as Luxor Temple, while the others may have been correctly keyworded as “Luxor” and “temple”.
  • Many photos show just a fragment of the subject (here is an example which I suspect is actually from Medinet Habu).

The incorrect photos may actually all be fine photos and thus receive high rating like the above example from Seville (that was “right city, wrong building”). Many ratings will be from people who are not very familiar with the subject and so will simply assume that the images are classified correctly. For some topics the risk of errors may be lower (baseball, Venice, Rolls Royce) and for others it is higher (animal species, buildings, mountains, saints). So some suggestions how this might be avoided..

  1. Encourage providing captions and links. A photo with a filled in caption or linked to more than one article should generally be rewarded. The photo is better documented, and thus has more value to encyclopedia users (e.g. students, enthusiasts, maybe occasional scholars). I expect that more attention to documenting pictures will raise awareness about information accuracy – and make it easier to detect errors.
    The goal of documenting images better is to be able to distinguish between “Mount Baker is the mountain on the left” and “View from Mount Baker”. And to give both voters and users of the photo more reliable information than having to guess based on the article where they found the photo.
  2. Show captions and links during voting How can you judge the suitability of a photo for an encyclopedia if you don’t know how well the image was documented? You may also miss information which is relevant to know what you are seeing. For example, take a typical National Geographic travel photo or World Press nature photo and judge it without access to the caption: chances are you will not appreciate what you are seeing.
  3. Vote per link If a photo is linked to 3 articles, vote for all contexts at one. You should be aware of them anyway, to interpret what you are seeing (e.g. photo of a neoclassic Excalibur car prominently parked in front of the Louis Vuitton shop on Union Square, San Francisco). This helps get more emphasis on the info value.
  4. Separately rate Aesthetic & Information. It is helpful to separate ratings for aesthetics and for information value. Although this means providing 2 numbers rather than one, it helps get people to vote more reliably: current voting IMO is mainly on aesthetics and the encyclopedia side is undervalued during voting. This means that the images are less useful for someone looking for more information, or for someone interested in visiting that location.
    Actually if an image is linked to 3 articles, only the Information rating needs to be repeated. The aesthetics rating can be reused across the articles.
  5. “Own photos” are safer. Photos that you made yourself could be given a small bonus compared to photos made by someone else. Essentially because captions or keywords from Flickr were not intended to have encyclopedia quality, because 3rd party photos are unlikely to be linked to all relevant articles and because the “uploader” cannot fill in the gaps in the available information.

As an example, let’s take the image above of the Plaza de España (Seville). Assume it is linked to Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 and Plaza de España (Seville). A voter would get the following 3 questions:

Visual quality: choose between 0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7
Context Plaza de España (Seville): 0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7/?
Context Ibero-American Exposition of 1929: 0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7/?

If you think it is an OK picture but it looks useful for the Plaza de España and you have no clue what “Ibero-American Exposition of 1929” is all about (which is OK), you might rate it “4” and “5” and “?” respectively. That is more work than answering a single question. But you actually rated the image for two different articles (which is currently very awkward to do). And you provided more precise information, allowing smart software to learn more about the photo than if a single scale had been used.

Fotopedia’s Adrian Measures pointed out that captions may be in a language that the reader can’t read fluently. Links might be handled more elegantly when Photopedia becomes multi-lingual. I agree that manually translating captions into all possible languages is not worth the effort. But I still strongly prefer a caption in any language to no caption at all: for some languages I can guess what the caption means (e.g. by recognizing names and dates) – and if I really care, I can have software or a friend translate the caption. In particular, the presence of a good caption allows me the ability to check the information or find additional information (e.g. to discover that this Roman statue was found in a site called Italica in Spain). Just a link to Italica is ambiguous.

Issue #2: Duplicate images

The Eiffel Tower article has roughly 60 images. Each of them is indeed of the Eiffel Tower and I would have been proud if any one of these were mine. But many images are similar. Maybe 25 photographers submitted their best 1 or 2 images of the Eiffel Tower at night. There are multiple images of the Eiffel Tower with fireworks. The are multiple images looking straight up into the tower, etc. Almost none of the images is “unique” with the collection because the Eiffel Tower can only be photographed in so many ways. Another example: two photos show the Colosseum in Rome reflected in a puddle, multiple show the Colosseum as background to an unrelated statue, many show the Colosseum at night, many show the interior. If these photos had been taken by a single photographer, the photographer would have made a selection, and would not have presented the same image or “trick” multiple times. However, because the photos come from different photographers, the rating process should help eliminate the overlap. Image overload is not ideal for the viewer – but you can argue that the viewer can stop browsing whenever they want – especially if the images are ranked from high to low rating. But this means that the first few great pictures will get viewed a lot, that the first few pictures may earn a +1 and lower rated pictures will largely get ignored because

  • we don’t usually have patience for 50-100 Eiffel Tower pictures
  • you may award a +1 to the first Eiffel Tower picture you see with fireworks (cool!), but not give a +1 to the second or third image of Eiffel Tower with fireworks – even if the subsequent images are better than the first one.

So the current ranking system accidentally biases reviewers quite heavily towards images that were submitted early: older submissions have had more time to accumulate votes, and new images viewed later in the list will be viewed less. And if they are viewed, they will likely be rated lower because a new image is no longer new when you see it the 2nd of 5th time. Some ideas how this can be improved..

  1. 1..7 scale
    Let users rank photos on a scale of 1 to 7 (whereby 4 represents the “average”  quality level of Fotopedia photos). Photo.net uses this convention. This gives more information because you can assign an above-average photo a 5, 6 or 7. It also encourages people to use values below 4 without having to interpret this as “a really bad photo”: in fact, a rater should be encouraged to assign rates below 4 as often as ratings about 4 (again a photo.net trick). This helps calibrate the rating scale across users, encourages users to use a wider range of values and encourages people to not only rate the best photos they look at.
  2. Use averages.
    If a photo gets ratings of 3, 4, 4, 4, 6 these ratings should be averaged to 4.2. A newer photo may only have ratings 4, 5 (thus with a higher average despite having fewer ratings). This solves the problem in the current system that old photos accumulate more points than new ones, and that newer photos may not even get seen because they are at the end of the list. This is unfair to new photos, and doesn’t really encourage photographers to submit photos for “older” articles.
  3. Avoid high-to-low presentation.
    If a viewer decides to rate images within an article, they should be presented in random order. This means that any image (old or new; good or bad; top or candidate) has equal chance to get rated. The viewer can view all the available images, but can also stop midway. Rating of a single (e.g. featured) image is also OK, but rating of multiple photos with an article is better from an accuracy and efficiency standpoint.
  4. Hide ratings
    When a viewer rates an image, don’t show its current rating before the user has given an opinion. Showing current rating influences the viewer and is considered bad practice in polling: either the voter follows the opinion of others, or votes extreme to “correct” the average opinion of others.
  5. Curator can cluster photos
    Have an “expert”  (curator/editor/volunteer…) with knowledge or interest in the topic, indicate with photo’s within an article are similar. This can be used for generating smaller selections (e.g. above 4 or even 5) which don’t contain similar photos. The person doing the clustering doesn’t directly define which photo goes into a selection, but essentially says “only the best photo in this cluster will get in the selection”. T.b.d. what to do with a cluster that doesn’t contain strong enough pictures: does the best one still make it to the selection because it shows a specific aspect? Or do none of the photos in the cluster make it because they are not good enough?

As an example of the clustering, I took the 19 photos for Philae (an Egyptian temple near Aswan) and created some example clusters. Each horizontal row in the illustration is a cluster. The leftmost image in each row had the highest score (at the time). This means that an image from the left column would be used to represent the other columns.

Example of clustering (photos from Philae article)

Note that the cluster only impacts the generation of selections: all photos are still available for those who want to see all them all. In my proposal, a combination of a threshold value and cluster based filtering would generate a Selection (formerly Top) from the Collection (formerly All = Top + Candidates).

As an example of an extreme need for captions, see the following photo:


This photo is attached to French Campaign in Egypt and Syria and as a candidate to Graffiti powered by Fotopedia

Here is a photo I pasted under Graffiti – so it is among lots of colorful wall paintings. The photo shows graffiti made in 1799 by a team of scientists sent by Napoleon to explore Egypt (they were incidentally protected by French soldiers, leading to the famous order “Scientists and donkeys in the center!”).

The photo currently rates +3 in this context – which is not bad given that it deviates significantly from its neighbors. The photo might be very valuable to a small set of viewers (e.g. if you want to write a book on graffiti), but can be irrelevant or easily misinterpreted by others. For such images, I provide a caption explaining what the photo shows – but currently a reviewer normally doesn’t see the caption.

Issue #3: Ranking in context & article hierarchies

As explained above, image are ranked in the context of an article. The Information Quality ratings can be different per article. But in real examples they can be coupled through hierarchies such as geography (Note Dame -> Île_de_la_Cité -> Paris) or taxonomies (White-bellied_Sea_Eagle -> Sea_Eagle -> Eagle). When an image occurs in 2 or more articles, it can be smart to use rating information from one context within the other one. Some suggestions:

  1. Aesthetics independent of context It sounds safe to assume that the aesthetics of an image is identical in all contexts. This can give free and accurate rating information: store the aesthetic rating with the photo itself rather than with the linkage between the photo and an article.
  2. Inheritance It would be safe to inherit “relevance” rating across contexts if there is a hierarchy relationship defined between them (as in Fotopedia Projects). Very relevant photos of the Eiffel Tower are also relevant at the level of Paris, and may even be somewhat relevant at the level of France. Software can find the best Paris pictures by finding the best pictures of things-in-Paris.
  3. Link to the lowest levels A general guideline would be to link a photo to the most precise level that is known. Don’t link to Paris or France when you can be more specific. When you link to the Eiffel Tower, don’t also link to Paris > France > Europe. Something similar applies to Cattle Egret > Egret > Bird > Animal. Leave the propagation of good photos to higher levels to the software. Some pictures may have to be added to higher levels manually, but that is something for the Fotopedia staff.

Putting it all together

Let me try to summarize what the above ingredients would look like if you combine them. Note that numerous variations are possible, so just interpret this as an example and a general direction:

  • Ratings are selected by the reviewers on a scale of 1 to 7 (as in www.photo.net).
    • Negative values are avoided for psychological reasons
    • The value 4 should correspond to “average level of quality in Fotopedia” and a user should assign ratings that roughly average out to 4.
      • Show the user the average of his/her ratings on the profile page as feedback. This is done in photo.net as well.
  • Assign separate ratings for (A)esthetics and for (I)nformation
    • The A-rating is attached to the photo (rather than to the photo in the context of a one specific article).
    • The I-rating is attached to the photo in the context of one specific article
    • The User interface could make it easy to provide multiple I-rating when a photo that is linked to multiple articles.It is encourated to link a photo to multiple articles because this reuses the photo, links the articles and provides documentation about the photo.
      • You don’t have to provide an I-rating (use “?” as default value).
        So you can provide I-ratings for only those subjects that you feel comfortable about
      • This increases the amount of information collected per minute that the user spends on rating.
    • Photos can be ranked based on their received A and I ratings.
      • The exact function can start out with Rating=(A+I)/2 when I is available (else Rating=A). Improved functions can be introduced later.
    • Ratings from multiple people are averaged rather than summed.
      • A photo from a less popular topic can thus be directly compared to scores for a less popular topic.
    • Whenever a user votes on a photo, the photo’s overall rating should not be shown before the user votes. The photo’s rating should be shown directly after voting – including how much the rating changed due to the vote (e.g. A: 4.14 -> 4.25, I: 3.52 -> 3.41). Showing the change confirms that voting has impact. The impact of a vote will obviously decrease as more people have voted on that photo.
  • Every article has 2 sets of photos (based on a formula that uses A and I values)
    • Collection: all photos linked to an article, regardless of A and I rating.
      • Photos are only detached from an article if the photo has been incorrectly classified. This means the information photo-belongs-to-article is saved regardless of the photo’s rating history. The current system has a design bug: info is lost when the rating drops to -1 and the photographer or curator subsequently removes the photo from that article.
    • Selection: a subset containing the best photos within the Collection
      • The Selection can be determined dynamically based on Ratings (already the case) and manual filtering (new) to avoid comparable images within Selection. Article curator can manually cluster similar images within collection into clusters: only the highest rated image from the cluster is shown in Selection. Curators can adjust Selection threshold (old) or Selection size per article (new): top-25 for the Eiffel Tower; top-100 for France; top-50 for Portrait; top-5 for Harley-Davidson
      • The Selection is similar to Top, but photos in the Selection get the same treatment as photos outside the Selection. It is like asking “show me the top-5 per article” or “show me the top-20 per article”.
      • Clustering is optional: clustering data can be added at any time. The system would work without clustering. Clustering makes sense mainly for large Collections.
  • Every article has a curator (or whatever the name of the role is). Responsibilities:
    • Cluster similar images (to control the Selection somewhat)
    • Keep an eye on incorrect or inappropriate images & handle complaints
    • Manage projects in which the article occurs
  • Dealing with hierarchies
    • discourage attaching a photo at unnecessarily high hierarchy levels: don’t attach a Dove to Bird or Animal.
    • instead the rating system is used to compute what photos are pushed up
    • example: Pisa, Rome, Florence, Naples are part of Italy project. The highest ranked Selection photos from Pisa, Rome, Florence, Naples are pushed up to the Italy level.
    • The number of photo’s pushed up could use a similar criterium as Selection

Comments would be great

Feel free to comment below. Note that the comments are hierarchical (“threaded”), so please press the Reply of the comment you want to respond to. It then ends up directly below that comment and with an extra level of indentation.3

Fotopedia – the rating system (1/2)

Last modification: 2-Oct-10

Fotopedia‘s system for ranking the quality and suitability of photos is is based on counting votes. This results in cumulative ratings like +2 (few people have seen the image, or maybe people don’t like it) , +22 (a more popular image), or -2 (some people care enough to vote it down). Fotopedia’s rating system has multiple purposes:

  1. It helps remove less interesting or less relevant photos.
  2. It results in a ranking among the stronger photos (e.g. to view the “best” ones).
  3. It helps motivate the photographers.

If the system for rating and ranking works well, users looking for information find great photos. If it works well, photographers and rankers also stay motivated and keep contributing their photos and energy. A good ranking system should thus help Fotopedia outperform alternative and more straightforward ways (e.g. Flickr, Google) when you are interesting in high quality photos that illustrate a particular subject.

Ratings (e.g. +1) are valid in the context of an article ("Black cat").

Purpose of this posting

Fotopedia plans to update their rating/ranking/voting system. This posting analyzes the “old” ranking system, presents some general ideas for improvements, and hopes to trigger some good discussion on the topic. The second part of this posting becomes a bit more concrete about what an improved rating and ranking system could look like.

Learning from the search engines

Search engines such as Google face a similar challenge: they need to present the most relevant Internet pages for a search query at the top of the list of results. This helps the user find results quickly.

Initially such page ranking algorithms selected pages based on keyword matching: if you search for apple boot camp you would find pages which contain all 3 words. But particularly Google excels in guessing a page’s relevance by looking at the other pages that link to that page. Google’s proprietary PageRank algorithm uses the estimated ratings of linking pages to rank the linked page. The assumption is that if a page is interesting, other page will link to it. And if a page is really interesting, other interesting pages will link to it.

So Google essentially uses information that is automatically harvested from the Internet to guess which pages fit your search best. Note that this means that there is no need for people to answer questions about the pages in order to find out which ones are good. The entire system is thus automated (albeit with the use of vast compute resources).

Fotopedia’s challenge is different: if you are looking for photos of Grapes, the software requires humans to link photos to the Grape article. And the software needs additional human help to judge the quality and relevance of the submission.

Despite differences between searching for text and searching for photos, we can still learn something from the search engines:

  1. Ranking algorithm accuracy is critical: Google kept competition (remember AltaVista?) at bay largely by using smarter ranking algorithms.
  2. You might be able to get hints about photo quality/relevance by using available data in a smarter way. It is OK for the ranking system to be a bit fancy, and the exact method of scoring doesn’t need to be visible to the users – it is only important that users see enough of the ranking system to know that their votes make a difference and to believe that the system is fair.

And obviously, the quality of the questions which are asked to users about photos are critical in determining how much you can learn about the suitability of the photos and how long it takes the system to learn what it can learn. Both points (learning the right things, and learning them with as little user input as possible) are areas that could be improved.

The “old” Fotopedia rating system

A user can vote once on any photo (per article in which it is used). Giving it a “thumbs up”. adds +1 to the score or rating of the photo. Alternatively “thumbs down” decreases the rating by 1. Actually the rating only applies to that photo in the context of one specific article – even though the photo may be linked to multiple articles.

My photo of the violin of a famous 19th century Norwegian violinist scored +5 for the article on the violinist, it also rated +5 for the article about the violin’s builder, but it received a -1 rating as a general picture of a violin.

Scores of +5 or more (counting the original poster) currently promote an image from Candidate to Top, meaning that it becomes an official photo for that article. Enough subsequent thumbs-downs can kick the photo out of the list of Top photos. The threshold between Candidate and Top is sometimes manually set by Fotopedia staff to higher values like +10 when there are numerous  submissions (e.g. Flower has 300 submissions).

This photo was linked to the violinist, the violin maker and to Violin.
powered by Fotopedia

Moderators are empowered to give larger rating boosts – mainly to shorten the learning process (which can now take months or years). I am not aware that moderators (can) reduce the score of a photo by more than one. But they can undo the link between a photo and an article if the photo is unsuitable or has had a negative score for a long time.

A smarter ranking algorithm needed

Unlike Google, Fotopedia currently does its ranking using very simple algorithms on manually provided information. Currently a user only has two ways to influence a photo’s rating and ranking:

  1. increase the rating by one
  2. decrease the rating by one

That means everybody (except for moderators?) has the same impact – regardless of their track record or qualifications. Examples of information that is not used:

  • is the +1/-1 choice because of visual- or content reasons?
  • how knowledgeable is the photographer/submitter? (e.g. New Yorker supplying a New York photo)
  • how knowledgeable is the voter? (e.g. New Yorker voting on a New York photo)
  • say a photo is linked to both the “Gondala” and the “Venice” articles. If the photo is rated in one context, the rating in the second context is unchanged.
  • is the photo better/worse/similar to existing photos in the set?
  • is the photo exceptional, excellent, good, average, etc. according to the voter?

What kind of photos should rank high?

It helps to be explicit (and agree) on what we are trying to measure and what we are trying to achieve with the measurement.

The question current asked to a voter is:

“Is this a great photo to illustrate this article?”

This helps, but doesn’t tell us whether we are looking for great-looking photo that is somehow relevant for the article, or a photo that adds significant information to the article but may not be visually great. So I believe it is important to answer whether Fotopedia is mainly aims to be

  • a reliable source of information and show interesting aspects of the topic (goal is to be an “encyclopedia”),
  • a source of visually pleasing pictures showing the subject and showing it in an interesting way (goal is to be a series of “coffee table books”), or
  • both of these at the same time?

The Quality Chart currently says:

The world isn’t perfect. You might feel the need to represent it differently using Photoshop and your artistic talent. The encyclopedia isn’t the place to express such needs. We illustrate the world as it is, in all its beauty and ugliness. Artistic and overprocessed photos (including HDR) don’t belong.

Although this may suggest that Fotopedia images should be first and foremost informative, Fotopedia’s derivative iPad applications like “Heritage” rely heavily on the visual side. The current lack of emphasis on captions and the set of article links when rating a photo also suggest that the visual side is currently getting more attention.

Salon, library or both?

My assumption in the in the rest of this discussion piece is that an ideal Fotopedia photo should be both informative and visually pleasing – although I can’t define either precisely. This means that Fotopedia would target both the salon’s coffee table and the library’s bookshelf – so to speak.

The photo is linked to the Lighthouse article and is visually pleasing. It clearly illustrates what a lighthouse is and does, but information about location is missing.
powered by Fotopedia.

The “informative” and information accuracy are needed if Fotopedia aims to serve as a visual wrapper around- or companion to Wikipedia. But I believe “attractive” is also needed because:

  1. Even newspapers select photos (“President holding speech”) on both criteria. Newspapers are commercial products and readers prefer newspapers with “nice” pictures. The same applies to Fotopedia.
  2. Fotopedia plans to use its image collection to publish more “coffee table books” (like Fotopedia Heritage for the iPad). By definition, coffee table books should attract casual browsing and depend heavily on picture and graphical design quality.
  3. The vast majority of Fotopedia photos are already visually attractive. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many voters decide to vote +1 mainly when the picture is nice (e.g. “good enough to hang on the wall”) and on-topic – but in that order!
  4. The rating is critical to motivate photographers to submit images. The rating system shouldn’t be too different from how photographers and their customers (editors, clubs, relatives) rate images – especially for documentary images. A photographer (e.g. for National Geographic) will strive to support the article’s text with attractive pictures.

A final example

An example of emphasis on aesthetics without worrying about the encyclopedia goals are a series of photos of fruit being dropped into water. This gives visually interesting photos and this photo actually earned the highest ranking within the Grape article. I would say it is clearly less suitable as an encyclopedia photo because the water and the splashing don’t convey anything relevant: it doesn’t tell me about grapes, how they are grown or how they are used. So ranking suggests that people often rate pictures on their photographic merits, while ignoring the informational merits.

A visually attractive and technically challenging photo, but unsuited to illustrate grapes.
powered by Fotopedia

[ see continuation in part 2 of this article ]


Fotopedia is a photography-centric encyclopedia founded in 2009. It aims to provide a dynamically growing collection of high-quality photos on topics of general interest. Some examples of topics covered by Fotopedia:

  • Barcelona (travel)
  • FC Barcelona (sports, fans)
  • Antoni Gaudí (Barcelona architect), but even
  • Barcelona Metro (special interest).

The company stresses in interviews that it was founded by five ex-Apple employees with a user-interface background. This bit of name dropping is forgiveable as there is actually something clean and elegant in both their concept and their design.

Fotopedia is growing rapidly and currently has over half a million photos on 40,000 topics or articles. Its ease-of-use, track record, and its recent launch of a high-profile iPad/iPhone App suggest that it may well find its way into the short list of Web 2.0 household names. In fact, their planned series of free “coffee table books” for iPad/iPhone apps may be attractive enough to serve as a killer app for the iPad (which is partly a coffee table device).

Example of articles ("Black cat") with photos (our cat) and rating (+1).


As the name suggests, Fotopedia is a hybrid between

  1. Wikipedia – the concept of a community-driven encyclopedia.
    Fotopedia incidentally extracts authoritative descriptive texts for its “articles” from Wikipedia.
  2. and photo sharing sites like Flickr or Picasa with massive amounts of user images.
    Fotopedia, however, is only for “serious” pictures – there is no point in putting your party photos in Fotopedia.
    And, again, Fotopedia can interface to Flickr to easily import hand selected “serious” photos when the photo has a suitable license.

Fotopedia stated that it aims to combine the permanence of Wikipedia (articles and photo sets remain available, but gradually improve), but with the ease-of-use of Flickr. So the challenge is to mobilize significant numbers of users, each with their own interests and expertise, while not deviating too much from the authority of Wikipedia. I will come back to content reliability later.

Importing from Flickr

Fotopedia supports easy imports of photos from Flickr into Fotopedia when the photo has appropriate sharing licence. Fotopedia software simplifies the process to a few mouse clicks if the keywords and article names match well:

  • The registerd  Fotopedia user has control over which images are imported. This acts as a quality filter. You don’t want a “Aunt Jane drunk on Times Square” photo in the encyclopedia for Times Square.
  • A (registered) Fotopedia user is not limited to his own Flickr images. Any Flickr photo with appropriate sharing licence can be imported – without permission of the original photographer (although Fotopedia abides by the original sharing conditions).
  • A user can attach an image to a specific Fotopedia article using knowledge that the Flickr keywords didn’t provide. You can attach a Flick “Eagle” photo to “White-bellied Sea Eagle” if you know your Australian birds well enough.

Fotopedia and Wikimedia Commons

As far as I know, there is no formal collaboration between Fotopedia and Wikipedia. In any case, Fotopedia is essentially a direct alternative to Wikipedia’s own Wikimedia Commons: both are collections of high quality images for articles covered by Wikipedia. I won’t call this competition, as both are trying to achieve similar goals and certainly Wikipedia is entirely non-commercial.

The overlap between the two may explain why there is no automation support yet for importing Wikimedia Commons images. That would make a lot of sense because those images are already quite well linked to Wikipedia and thus Fotopedia articles. And Wikimedia Commons images were uploaded with the intent to serve as (backup) encyclopedia illustrations.

We will have to wait and see how the relationship between Fotopedia and Wikimedia Commons develops. Given the quality standards of the latter, they probably need to see what level of quality developes in Fotopedia before they accept any kind of formal relationship.

When is it useful?

Use as .. illustrations for an encyclopedia

Fotopedia itself stresses the encyclopedia side and actually has guidelines and a ranking system that stress this:

Is this a great photo to illustrate Golden Gate Bridge?

Encyclopedic articles obviously benefit from well-selected or even custom diagrams. But Wikipedia’s articles already have illustrations as well as significant collections of browseable illustrations per topic. But the power of Fotopedia might be that it is easier to submit a few “nice” photos about an article than to write the actual article.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. “free” stock photography

The founder of Fotopedia, Jean-Marie Hullot, indicated that he got the idea while helping his children find photos for school reports. So you can see Fotopedia as a (largely) freely accessible source of images. It thus can serve as a free competitor to commercial stock photography sites like Gettyimages or Veer. These sites feature photos that can be easily licensed (at commercial rates) to anyone in search of a specific type of image for a specific purpose.

Many Fotopedia contributers (including myself) only impose mild licensing restrictions. For example, most of my own recent images to Fotopedia are (in the Creative Commons jargon) “by-nc-nd“: you have to say the image was made by me (via a link), can can use it freely for non-commercial use only, and you cannot create a derived work without the photographer’s permission. Similarly, I am actually using such licensing conditions from others so that I can provide the example images in this article.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a site for photography enthusiasts

There are also signs that Fotopedia can be seen as another site for photo enthusiast (like Photo.net or Photosig). To some degree, the photographers will always compete to see who has the best photo of  Westminster Abbey or even of a black cat. This is encouraged because Fotopedia appears to prefer “National Geographic” quality photos (when they can get them) over basic photos that are clear but not meant to be esthetic. Thus Fotopedia doesn’t encourage images of say an elephant next to a person, event though that can be effective to show the elephant’s size.

Fotopedia is, however, not ideal as a club site for photographers because

  • photos in the actual encyclopedia part need to be linked to an article in Wikipedia
  • images in Fotopedia are not allowed to have visible watermarks and can be readily downloaded (regardless of what licensing type your chose)
  • photo sites typically have large numbers of “portraits”, “architecture”, “nature”, etc photos and are organized to get attention for the more recent ones as well as the best ones
powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a giant travel book

And finally, some people see Fotopedia as a travel book. Many articles are directly linked to geographical locations (as in the collaboration with UNESCO for the iPad where photos, Wikipedia topics and Google maps are seamlessly integrated): you get attractive pictures of faraway places. This should cause companies like Lonely Planet or National Geographic to rethink their long-term strategies.

Although this offers a service similar to Google’s Panoramio (5 million images linked to Google Maps locations), Panoramio “just pins photos to the globe”: there is no machine readable information about what the photo is really about, and the geographical coordinates in Panoramio can be very inaccurate if the submitter was sloppy.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a generator for coffee table books

Although Fotopedia’s link to Google maps adds significant extra value to the proposition “Fotopedia as an ever-growing travel book”, you could also create other combinations of Wikipedia topics that are visually interesting but where location plays a secondary role:

  • an architecture encyclopedia: buildings, architects, architectural styles, cities, definitions
  • clothing, street fashion, regional costumes, haute couture
  • airplanes (or trains or ships or cars): planes, airports, airshows
  • birds (etc): male and female pictures, natural habitat, images in different locations, feeding habits
  • musicians: band members, concerts (until the band gets too famous and bans photography), fans

You could see the above as Web 2.0 counterparts for any existing photo book category: You can buy commercial photo books (say about “Andalusia“). Alternatively, you can make your own photo book (“Andalusia 2010“) based on your own material if you are sufficient motivated and skilled. But with Fotopedia you can collectively create an ever-changing online collective work (“Andalusia“). In fact, Fotopedia uses a “Project” concept (such as Mountains of the World) to bundle hundreds or even thousands of related topics.

powered by Fotopedia

Business models and copyrights

The Fotopedia service and support software is currently free. The company runs on venture capital (see their web site): unlike Google or Facebook or WordPress.com, there is only advertising in a corner of the Fotopedia site. This probably doesn’t cover the developers, computers and organizational staff yet.

Presumably the idea is to first become big and famous, and then work seriously on models that do generate serious income. The risk, however, is that the people who provide and review the images for free may see themselves as co-owners of the Fotopedia phenomenon (like Wikipedia): if you donate material to the public domain, you may not like it if someone else manages to earn money on this. This sensitivity probably requires a delicate balance between goodwill and keeping advertising unintrusive versus making the endeavor financially sustainable.

How photos are reviewed

Like Wikipedia, anyone can upload images to the site, anyone can link shareable images to existing encyclopedia topics and can help in the quality control. The option that you can link images that are by someone else to articles is interesting: you can thereby add information and structure, but can also create mis-information and chaos.

The Fotopedia model has the same mindset as the proven Wikipedia model, but works slightly differently. Registered users can vote (thumbs up/down) on the suitability of an image in the context of an encyclopedia article. Essentially the general public is asked to help by judging whether a photo of, say, the Colosseum in Rome

  • is technically acceptable (e.g. correct exposure, reasonable resolution, sharp)
  • adds value to any existing images. Today, there were 31 accepted or “Top” or approved images of the Colosseum. In addition there were 30 “Candidate” images that had been submitted, but were awaiting further endorsements.
  • indeed shows the Colosseum (which can be hard to judge if you only see a small detail)
  • is on-topic enough (what to do about a hypothetical “stray cat in the Colosseum” or “street performer in gladiator costume outside Colosseum”?)
  • is it visually pleasing?

So registered users are thus responsible for promoting “candidate” images to or “top” images. This incidentally requires 5 endorsements (including the original poster). A thumbs down vote cancels a thumbs-up vote and can ultimately lead to demoting “top” images back to “candidate” images. Users can explicitly reporting bigger issue (like “inappropriate content” or “this photo doesn’t match this article”).

The iPad and UNESCO connection

Logo of the Heritage app

On August 14th 2010, Fotopedia and UNESCO jointly released an app called “Fotopedia Heritage” for iOS that allows you view Fotopedia images on an iPad in conjunction with (“mashup of”) Wikipedia and UNESCO information about the location, along with its exact (!) location in Google Maps. You can also view travel information. There is an extensive, but excellent interview with the Hullot about this app on YouTube.

You could see this app as a coffee table quality photo book about the 900 UNESCO Heritage site. The look and feel resembles browsing through a copy of National Geographic containing 900 locations or groups of locations illustrated with on average 25 pictures per location. But obviously all this is very interactive compared to a printed magazine, and the set of pictures you find can vary from day-to-day.

Although the app allows you to upload new material from the iPad, more features are available using a web browser or Fotopedia’s “client” software (from PCs running Windows or Macs running OS X).

Note that the database of UNESCO locations, as used in the app, is not quite at the level as the official data: some well known sites (Luxor, Yosemite) have internal locations. For others, the UNESCO data shows subsites but some of these subsites are missing – typically because either no photo’s are available or because there is no corresponding article in the English version of Wikipedia. Example: the Monestary of St. Simeon at Aswan is not covered, even though it is on UNESCO’s list as component 088-009, because nobody created a Wikipedia page for it yet.

Fotopedia projects

In the near future Fotopedia plans to launch a series of app-like products similar to Fotopedia Heritage. These will be electronic coffee table books on interesting cities (like Lisbon), architecture, or special topics like mountains or orchids. These are currently being prepared as “projects” whereby Fotopedia sets up the table of content and a target for the number of required pictures.

How you can help

Obviously, you can help Fotopedia in general and the UNESCO Heritage app in particular by adding any high-quality material you might be willing to share.

You can help me by signing up at Fotopedia, and checking out my photos there: especially photos linked to more obscure topics could use some votes. Feel free to issue a thumbs-down where appropriate. Fotopedia surprisingly suggest using your social networks to campaign for votes and even provides a button to simplify generating an e-mail for this.

Antoni Gaudí

Antoni GaudíAntoni Gaudí