Photo taking and simple collaborative collections

Jim Mathews and I have often discussed taking pictures as a way to get to know a place, comment on or investigate an issue there, or more basically just have a conversation about a place. It’s a kind of note taking that I personally enjoy and gravitate to more than breaking out a pen and paper. It’s an activity that we feel mobile devices could impact in a positive way. I think in particular we think they could put together a few things that are normally separate activities that require their own time and place to establish and maintain.

  • Collaboration – Everyone taking pictures and the pictures become the basis for group discussion and commentary as well. A mobile device could facilitate taking pictures within a particular, ad-hoc context together as well as the ensuing discussions.
  • Curation – The categorization and relative relevance of the photos is important. The mobile could apply appropriate metadata that would assist in basic efforts of organization.
  • Extended participation – Though our discussions are typically centered around class participation, many topics naturally lend themselves to wider, informal participation. The mobile could mean that an investigation could be joined by others when and where appropriate without having to start over or scale additional walls.
  • Structure – Taking photos is only one step. A mobile could act as a more connected component than a mere camera and be common to the other forms of participation and activity desired.
  •  Training – Poor word choice but concise. The mobile could not only allow people to participate in a given activity but help show them the ropes too.

With these aims in mind, we’ve been working on making ARIS capable of supporting activities that support collaborative photo gathering (other media data collection as well). While that’s happening, and also as inspiration for what would work best in ARIS, I try to keep an eye out for other apps that may offer similar capabilities or show the way. Two recent apps in this category are the famously funded and ambitious Color and Piictu (and its upcoming doppelganger Photovine from Google).

At a basic level, these photo apps are different than other photo sharing apps. They are not so much a place to put your photos of your life so that family and friends can see, but are organized around the content of the photos in one way or another.


Color got a lot of press back in March because it received a boatload of VC funding, and spent a good chunk on a domain name. Also the app itself is apparently built with the idea of being more thirsty for collecting and sharing our private data than Facebook. Aside from that, and a somewhat strange UI, it almost gets this collaborative photo taking thing right.

The basic function of Color is to allow initially physically co-present people to contribute to a common photo album with very little configuration. Some other strengths:

  • Access to the photo album outside the app
  • Ability for participants to like and comment on the photos in the group album
  • Once players begin an album, they don’t need to remain near one another

However, the app has several limitations that impair this basic functionality:

  • Group albums have an automatic timing mechanism. Go back to an album a day later and you won’t be able to add to it any longer.
  • Group albums can only be begun when players are co-present. This prevents participation across places, and inhibits category, rather than event based photography.
  • Group albums are not nameable, nor do they carry any other metadata. Any context is carried by the pictures and between the players.
  • There is no mechanism for selective sharing. Any active, nearby group album is joinable by anyone.
  • There’s no way to combine, transfer, or otherwise alter album content once it’s in the app.

This seems more an artifact of the strange ambitions of the producers than a technical limitation. Their idea is that this app would be used to crowd-source concert photos or more likely, party photos. So I’m not especially optimistic that Color will be a better match as time goes on.


Piictu is more similar at a glance to more typical photo sharing apps like instagram or photo sharing that happens on twitter. In fact, the following mechanism and its centrality in the app tend to take away from the key innovation which to me seems promising. What makes Piictu interesting though is its main gimmick. In piictu, your caption becomes a set of instructions to other piictu users. Your photo becomes the first in a collaborative album. Google’s upcoming photovine looks to be a pretty straight copy of piictu, but their teaser video does a good job of quickly communicating this basic mechanism.

Piictu also contains a like function, but does not have image comments. There is also no way to remove a picture from an album, or to search albums by title. The only way to contribute is to happen to see an interesting one in the main interface. This gives the piictu app an air of playfulness, but rules out going back at a later date or finding topics to which you may wish to contribute. Beyond a suggestive title, no other information can be added to an album, and there is no way to access that album specifically, or outside the app. Piictu can push out to tumblr or facebook, but this points more towards personal image collection not collaborative work. Like other image services, this app does not allow for membership within an album to be defined. Anyone may add.

The Future

I hope some of our aspirations can be contained in a version of ARIS soon, and that we think of good ways to integrate collaborative picture taking into our work producing local games. I’m also on the lookout for other apps like these above that help us to understand what we want and how that differs from the more typical photo apps out there.

Billion Graves

This morning I found out about Billion Graves (app store link), an app for iOS and Android. It crowd sources record keeping of graves. My aunt (sort of), who is very much into genealogy saw this and decided she wants to contribute. It’s interesting to me for two reasons.

  1. It’s this app, and the possibility to contribute to something bigger, not Pandora, not even Angry Birds, that has her interested in a smartphone.
  2. This app is very much along the lines of the data collection features we’re trying to get into ARIS and presents a good example of how curation and crowd-sourced data collection can go together.

The first point is noteworthy because it points to existing audiences and uses for data collection type projects for ARIS. I think it’s also interesting where much of this interest may end up coming from, i.e. far from the tech enthusiast crowd. It is a positive indication that there are community projects either in existence, or which could be enabled through focused, easy to use tools, that we could become involved in.

The second point is interesting because it’s an example of how we might continue to develop our use of data collection features, particularly in a situation where fidelity of the data collected to the real world is of paramount importance.

Basic Data Collection UI

The tab and map driven interface is similar to ARIS. The camera app is how users add new graves, while all and cemeteries are different ways to see what has already been recorded. The dashboard is interesting, it’s similar to our Player tab.

I like that it gives players a chance to add an avatar, and keeps track of (and links to) their accomplished tasks. I like the simplicity and functionality of this interface. I think the biggest thing this points to is the need for something like item type in ARIS and corresponding customizable tab views.

Hybrid Web/Mobile Data Collection

While the mobile device is how users gather data from the real world, the Billion Graves website plays a significant role as well. Rather than having players transcribe details in the field, this task is carried out through the website. This fills several roles:

  • Players can participate in the field or from home. This opens up participation among populations and across time.
  • Transcription slows one down in the field. It is much easier to collect many graves if one can transcribe later. It makes the most of one’s time outside.
  • Transcription is, in some ways a secondary task. Separating it allows the exploring (fun but requiring someone to be onsite) to be separate from the other aspects of record keeping.
  • Transcription is much more of a pain to do on the phone. It can be streamlined in a web interface.

The website also gives players a lot of information about how to collect good data, giving tips about how to take useful pictures of gravestones, what time of day to go, etc. The content also sets certain expectations for accuracy in determined location. Although one can search for graves and names on the device, the fact that one can do so on the website as well is a nod to the fact that the idea of collecting all this data is not just to benefit those collecting it but a much broader group of people who need it.

Data Fidelity

So what do they do to be sure they are getting good data? Even though the accuracy of data is very important, the act of data collection should be fairly simple. They don’t accept uploads from ipod touches (they claim for reasons of location detection – I wonder if image quality is also an issue), or if the iphone does not have a good enough location fix. Players create a login and contribute through that identity. And they retain control of the data and maintain open lines of communication with their users (both the website and the apps) should the need for moderation arise. And that’s it. I suspect they have a way to delete everything created by a particular user should the need arise.

One last item of note. The app is $2 for iOS but free in the Android market.