Holiday Snaps

What now? Family vacation photos . . . for science?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Time-lapse videos that span years or decades can tell us a lot about the world. They show cities growing, ecosystems drying, and even geologic changes. But who’s going to maintain a camera for years?

Maybe we don’t need a dedicated camera at all. Researchers from the University of Washington and Google have found a resource that has been hiding in plain sight – tourist photos! There are millions of pictures on the internet, many of the same landmarks. They just needed to be organized.

To do that, the team mined eighty-six-million photos from Flickr and other sites. They grouped them by location, time stamp, and other markers. Then they used crazy-sophisticated algorithms to do several things: remove people, equalize lighting, and create a single point of view.

Their work provides stunning, multiyear time videos. Things like: a glacier receding, new buildings under construction, and a waterfall shifting course.

I’m just glad, for purposes of weight gain, that they took the people out. That’s one glacier-like process I don’t need to look at!