August 31, 2006

Geotagging the world with Flickr, part II

Filed under: flickr, geotagging, google, maps — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:47 pm

With the release of Flickr’s geotagging, I wanted to revisit the topic of personal maps.

Now that people can geotag pictures, I want the ability to use that data on my maps. If I’m on Google Maps and pull up a map for San Francisco, I want to be able to automatically pull in images from my Flickr account as well as the images of friends and family that I subscribe to.

When I’m planning on a trip, I could easily see who among my buddies has been there.

With Flickr’s Geo APIs, it’s only a matter of time.

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August 29, 2006

Geotagging the world with Flickr

Filed under: flickr, geotagging, google, gps, local search, maps, mashups, web 2, web 2.0, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:51 pm

At long last, Flickr has released a geotagging interface. Geo tagging is the process of applying longitude and latitude data to assets – in Flickr’s case, to images.

Why would you want to do this? It’s easiest to explain with examples:

I got interested in geotagging last year when a site called Geobloggers launched, integrating Flickr with Google Maps. That site was taken down in March, when the developer, Rev. Dan Catt was hired by Yahoo!

It’s great to see geotagging finally integrated into Flickr. The interface isn’t as polished as the rest of Flickr and not even as polished as the one Dan put together on his own.

But it works reasonably well. There are some nice Flickr touches, too. If you zoom out to the point where pictures overlap, they are automatically collapsed into one bullet. You can quickly tag a lot of pictures with the Organizr’s bulk tagging interface.

There are a lot of things I’d love to see:

  • Let me time travel. One of the great applications of geotagging will be the ability to see a place at a certain time. On this map of the Mall, you can see a picture from the first Gulf War. You could also see the same place in summer or winter. Looking at the URL string that Flickr generates, it looks like this might be in the plans.
  • Let me tag surf. When I’m viewing an area, I want to see the top tags people have applied to images in the area. For example, near Walt Disney World, I might see “kids, family, rides, etc.”. In Times Square I might see “theater, street performers, shopping, etc.”
  • In zoomed out views, offer an option to show the maximum geographic dispersion of images. The current implementation uses a paging mechanism that is highly confusing and tends to ignore large regions. At a world zoom level, I care more about the dispersion than specific concentrations based on recency. There are ways to fake it. but they’re less than desirable.
  • Let me use any map provider to geotag my images. Google Maps is still vastly superior to Yahoo! Maps. There are the obvious UI considerations. In addition, in some areas, like the UK and Ireland, Yahoo! doesn’t have detailed street data, making it difficult to pinpoint locations.
  • Let me search for points of interest. In trying to geotag an image of a Sonic Drive In, I had to do a lot of work. I want to be able to type “Sonic Drive In, Walnut Island, NC” and have the database do the work. The way I ended up doing a lot of my geotagging was to search this way in Google Maps and then manually pan flickr’s Yahoo! Map.
  • Give me a way to see other people’s pictures when I place mine. If I’m placing a picture of the Taj Mahal, I probably want to put it where every one else put their Taj Mahals.
  • If I’m at a zoom level where I see city names, let me “snap to” the city name.
  • Give me a module for my personal blog, similar to the one from Yelp. Now that I’ve done all the hard work of geotagging my images, I want to show it off!

August 27, 2006

Using the Web to tell a better story

Filed under: airlines, email, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:02 pm

Today’s crash of ComAir Flight 5191 reminds me how poor a job online news sites (especially those from the mainstream media) do in using the Web.

Instead of the plain graphic on the USA Today article referenced above, how about linking to the satellite view of the airport on Google Maps? You can clearly see the runway in question.

Wikipedia, which is ridiculed by many in the mainstream media, had a better graphic than most traditional news sources.

You could also link to the NTSB Aviation Accident Database. Or details about the CRJ-100. The Wikipedia page on the crash is loaded with links to such primary sources. (And I didn’t put them in.)

An op-ed piece in the Washington Post a few weeks ago talked about how federal government employees are overpaid compared to employees of private firms. The piece would have been enhanced with a link to the report so that curious readers could do their own analysis. (I haven’t been able to find the report.)

In many cases, linking to primary and supplementary sources would help build credibility and give interested users more depth. In other cases, readers would quickly discover that many stories are patched together from two press releases or that the writer selectively used facts to support his conclusion.

Note: Since this post was written, USA Today updated their graphic to use a version of the Google Maps satellite view. However, it is a static image; there is no link for people who want to explore the Google Map of the area.

August 25, 2006

Covering your search tracks on the Web

Filed under: aol, google, search, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:50 pm

A friend sent me a link to a Firefox extension called TrackMeNot. It randomly sends searches to the major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN.)

The goal is to pollute the data stream so that it becomes hard to tell what a specific user searched on. It’s a high tech version of what Stephen Colbert proposed. (Use IE to view Comedy Central’s awful site.)

Because it sends the requests from your computer, using your browser, it is harder to block.

Many of the fake queries — “sleeping cans” and “Amiga salmon noddy scratched” — are easy for a human to pick out, but harder for automated systems.

It’s an interesting approach to the privacy issue.

August 24, 2006

A posh pooper

Filed under: random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:20 pm

I’m always looking for ways to improve things. Some things, however, are fine as they are.

Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal writes about an $800 toilet seat that uses a combination of water jets and an air drier to tidy things up.

Having used one of these things at a hotel, I can tell you they’re not what they’re cracked up to be. As Walt found, the dryer works about as well as those hand dryers you see in public bathrooms.

Get me to a human – fast

Filed under: customer service — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:15 pm

When it comes to banking, I do pretty much everything online. I review my statements, pay my bills, download transactions into Quicken, check my account balances, change my address. If I need to do it and there’s a way for me to do it online, I will.

The only time I call my credit card companies is when I can’t find the option on their Web site. So what happens when I call?

  • First, I have to enter my credit card number.
  • Then I get a message playing back my current balance, minimum payment, due date. (None of which I need.)
  • Then I have to listen to a bunch of options, which don’t apply.
  • Eventually, I find my way through the maze to an option that lets me speak to someone.
  • While I’m waiting for someone, I keep getting messages about how great their Website is and how much simpler my life would be if I just used their Web site.
  • When I’m finally connected, I’m asked for my credit card number.

Banks (and other companies, like airlines and hotels) should identify their self-service, Web heavy customers and expedite their call flows. If you know that when I call you it’s because I can’t use your Web site, flag my account to let me bypass the options and menus and get me to a human faster.

This also serves as a retention tool – once I’ve gotten to the point where I know you’ll take care of me, I’m less likely to jump ship.

August 15, 2006

Using Caller ID to improve customer service

Filed under: airlines, customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:34 pm

Whenever my cell phone rings, I know who’s calling. And I usually know what they’re calling about as soon as their picture (or name) appears on the display.

I’d like to see companies do this for customer service. I ranted earlier about United’s voice recognition system. Improving that system is one step, but I’d like to see them go further.

99% of the time, I call from my cell phone. Let me register that number and use it to provide better service.

Today, when I call for flight information, I have to enter my flight information. Use my phone number to look up my itinerary for today and when I ask for flight status, tell me about my flight. (No, I won’t be wanting the flight status for the flight 3 weeks from now.)

If I need to speak to a representative, use the caller ID (technically, ANI) to bring my itineraries up on their screen. Instead of having to fumble for record locators, flight numbers or my Mileage Plus number, have it happen automatically. You’ll save me time and save steps for your call center reps.

Of course, you’ll need to ask a basic question or two to verify it’s me and not someone who found my phone, but you do that anyway.

Can you understand me now?

Filed under: airlines, customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:10 pm

I was traveling a lot last week and ended up calling United frequently for flight information. They use a voice recognition system to provide that data. Horrible idea.

In a previous job, I worked on speech recognition systems and know that in general they work OK in quiet environments. But in noisy places, they have a really hard time because they can’t filter out background noise from the person speaking.

With the sound of jet engines, other passengers and frequent announcements, I would often get bad information or be asked to repeat myself. If I did get through a step, it would often ask for confirmation (“I think you said San Francisco, is that correct?”), giving the system another chance to get lost by interpreting background noise as a “no”.

In another exchange, for a flight that made multiple stops, the system prompted me for the city I wanted. Again, it gets lost in background noise. It would have been faster to play the information for both cities.

The designers of speech rec systems, including the United one, try to inject personality into the prompts, making them longer and again increasing the opportunity for misrecognition. They need to keep the prompts as short as possible and provide the information as fast as possible.

August 8, 2006

Google adds saved locations to maps – a first step

Filed under: google, local search, maps, mashups, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:14 pm

In letting users redraw the map, I talked about letting users save personal points of interest.

Google recently added saved locations to its mapping product to let people enter requests such as “pizza near home”. The interface is a little clunky – after you type home, you have to select the matching entry for home and it then populates the search field.

Personal POIs aren’t displayed on the map.

August 7, 2006

Getting to AT&T/SBC/Pac Bell Park with local search

Filed under: gps, local search, maps, yahoo, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:56 pm

I was in San Francisco over the weekend and needed to get to the Giants game from Golden Gate Park. I tried entering “Pac Bell Park” into the GPS. No go. “SBC Park”. Nope. I ended up looking at my trusty Avis map, finding the intersection and entering that in the GPS.

The situation on local search is much the same. Depending on which search engine or yellow pages product use, you may or may not find the place. If you’re looking for the airport in Burbank, you may have to search for “Burbank Airport” or “Bob Hope Airport”.

Try searching Yahoo! Finance for FWHT, and you’ll get a half-dead page for a company that is now MIVA. Search for AOL, and you’ll get an error page.

User are often looking for data using old names. Search tools should let them, by either re-directing to the new name or telling them that the name has changed.

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