File Under: Software & Tools

Where’d You Go Last Summer? Flickr Allows OpenStreetMap, FourSquare Geotags


Flickr is now giving its users two new ways to add place information to their photos.

The photo sharing service can now recognize location-specific tags from both OpenStreetMap, a wiki-like mapping service that lets anyone create and edit maps, and FourSquare, the popular social game, currently burning up on Twitter, that lets you broadcast your location to friends.

While the new OpenStreetMap support in Flickr is not for everyone — something Flickr wryly acknowledges in a blog post titled “That’s maybe a bit too dorky, even for us” — the nice part is that, even if only a small subset of users ever take advantage of the new features, everyone benefits.

For example, you don’t need to know anything about OpenStreetMap or FourSquare to appreciate that a photo came from Fenway Park. That level of place data is far more useful than simply seeing a pin stuck on a map of Boston, which is all you get with Flickr’s own mapping tools.

To get the more meaningful details — like the names of buildings — Flickr has turned to both OpenStreetMap and FourSquare. The FourSquare support is nice, but since the service is newer and its coverage more limited, the real power of Flickr’s new abilities lie with the OpenStreetMap support.

OpenStreetMap is often called the Wikipedia of mapping services. It allows anyone to create, edit and annotate maps, adding their own knowledge of neighborhoods and building to generic map data like cities and streets. There has been a surge of interest in the service lately. Now that Flickr has embraced OpenStreetMap, we expect its popularity to continue growing as more curious users discover the ability to map and annotate their own little corners of the world.

For example, you could add all the buildings on your street, identifying each by what OpenStreetMap calls a node — a point in space defined by a latlong, a set of geocoordinates defined by a latitude and a longitude. A collection of nodes becomes a street, a hiking trail or even just your personal route to work. OpenStreetMap calls these collections a “way.”

What Flickr has done is make it possible to easily link your photos to an OpenStreetMap “way” using Flickr’s machine tag syntax. The actual tag looks something like this: OpenStreetMap:way=XXXXXXX, where the Xs are replaced by the OpenStreetMap way number.

The tag itself is of little value to humans — that’s why its called a machine tag. But behind the scenes, Flickr turns that tag into a much more human-friendly description like “the Wired office is a building in OpenStreetMap,” and then links to its location in OpenStreetMap.

If that sounds a bit too nerdy for you, Flickr also now supports tagging your photos with FourSquare venue IDs. For example adding foursquare:venue=11784 will let Flickr know that your photo comes from Fenway Park, as shown in the screenshot above. FourSquare is increasingly popular, but it still only covers a limited number of cities. However, depending on how Twitter handles its coming geolocation support, it’s possible Flickr will one day add similar support for Twitter locations, should Twitter follow in FourSquare’s footsteps.

Flickr’s OpenStreetMap features are great example of taking the complexity of geodata and distilling it down to something genuinely helpful, like a familiar place name or neighborhood landmark. We’re looking forward to seeing what users can do with them.

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