Monday 23 February 2009

Shine a light on me

It has been a mind-bending 10 days here at Best of 3 headquarters, what with the full immersion experience of Kiwi Foo Camp and the glories of Webstock.

Someone who blew me away at both events was Fiona Romeo, Head of Digital Media at the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory. The NMM is currently running what I think is one of the most exciting initiatives in the cultural/science/web matrix.

What is it? It's a photo comp. Yup, a photo comp. What's innovative about that, I hear you ask?

First off, the comp (Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2009 edition) itself is being run using a group on the photo-sharing site Flickr.

This in itself is not super-innovative. The photos entered into the group on Flickr get displayed on the NMM website, and the ones selected by the competition judges will be displayed in a physical exhibition at the NMM.

In addition to this, the NMM plans to use the images collected in the group to build a "giant, zoomable photo-collage of the Universe". To do this, they're getting people who enter photos into the group to add astro-tags; information that helps identify where and when the photo was taken, and exactly what part of the sky is depicted.

But here's where things get very special and very interesting. The NMM is working with a group called Astrometry to add even more celestial metadata to these images. The Astrometry robot 'crawls' over every photo entered into the group, looking for patterns of star placement - 'skymarks' - that it recognises, based on a huge index of coordinates that knows. When it identifies a match between the stars in the photo and a skymark in its index, it adds all the relevant info to the image on Flickr. With each photo it crawls, the bot gets a little bit wiser and more experienced, improving its accuracy along the way and finding the gaps in its current knowledge (the index).

The thing I admire about the project is that everyone gets something out of it.

The NMM achieves its mission: "illustrate for everyone the importance of ... the stars and their relationship with people" and key objectives (I love this one) "maximizing access and inspiration for all users".

Keen astro-photographers can share their work and talk to others about it. The exhibition is not a one-off (it will be held yearly) so the community doesn't die once the institution no longer needs it to provide content. Plus, they're making an important contribution to scientific research.

And Astrometry gets a smarter bot and a positive public profile.

The topic and the language (skymarks, astro-tagging; did you know that space has its own north? It's called celestial north) are kind of magical to me. Fiona Romeo's enthusiasm was infectious. And the photos are extraordinary ....

Image: Our Milky Way Galaxy, by Sir Merv, on Flickr.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See, this is why I don't bother taking notes at Webstock! Someone else always says it so beautifully.

Thank you for capturing what was probably one of the most fascinating sessions during the conference.