Tags in Space

A lot of you enjoyed our post (“Found in Space”) on the amazing astrometry.net project, and there have been some interesting followups.

A mysterious figure known only as “jim” paired up astronomy photos from Flickr with Google Sky. (You’re going to need the Google Earth plug-in for your browser — just follow the instructions on that page if you don’t have it.) In his technical writeup, “jim” explains how he used the Yahoo Query Language (YQL) to fetch the data. YQL is similar to the existing Flickr APIs, but it’s a query language like SQL rather than a set of REST-ish APIs. And both of those are really just ways to get data out of Flickr’s machine tag system, specifically the astro:* namespace. It’s turtles all the way down.

Who else is using astrotags? The British Royal Observatory in Greenwich is sponsoring a contest to determine the Astronomy Photographer of the Year and the whole thing is based on a Flickr group and extensive use of Flickr’s APIs. The integration is so seamless — galleries of photos and discussions are surfaced on their site as well as ours — you might as well consider Flickr to be their “backend” server. But they’ve also added much, such as great documentation about how to astrotag your photos as well as a concise explanation about how Astrometry.net identifies your photo, even among millions of known stars. (The sci-fi website io9 interviewed Fiona Romeo of the Royal Observatory about the contest; check it out.)

It’s dizzying how many services have been combined here — Astrometry.net grew out of research at the University of Toronto, web mashups use Google Sky for visualization in context, Yahoo infrastructure delivers and transforms data, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich provides leadership and expertise, and then little old Flickr acts as a data repository and social hub. And let’s not forget you, the Flickr community, and your inexhaustible creativity — which is the reason why all this can even come together.

All this was done with pretty light coordination and few people at Flickr were even aware what was going on until recently. I have no idea what the future is for APIs and a web of services loosely joined, but I hope we get to see more and more of this sort of thing.