IFTTT and Flickr — Making a Tool for Mixing the Commons

Have you heard of IFTTT? It’s available at http://ifttt.com. Pronounced “ift” (like “lift” without the l), IFTTT is a free Web tool that uses channels to easily automate Web tasks. You can get a basic overview at https://ifttt.com/wtf but the premise is really simple — you choose a trigger (like a new item on an RSS feed, someone tagging you on Facebook, someone following you on Twitter, etc.) and in response to that trigger you can choose an action (automatically following a new Twitter follower page, sending Facebook-tagged photos of you to Dropbox, storing your Tweets in an Evernote account, etc.)

At first glance it looks simple and somewhat limited, because there are only so many triggers and actions. But as I spent a lot of time playing with it (I’m using it to automate a bunch of stuff at work) I realized that it could help me solve one of those annoyances that’s been bugging me for a long time, and that is keeping up with The Flickr Commons.

The Flickr Commons is a group of about five dozen institutions and repositories from all over the world that have come together to make some of their collections’ visual content available online without copyright. Group members include the New York Public Library, NASA, the National Archives of Norway, and the National Library of Scotland. So you can imagine there’s tons of great material there.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to look at the latest Commons photographs in toto. I could look at individual institutions and follow them through an RSS feed; I could search Commons content; I could not find a way to look at the latest Commons stuff. I did not want to have to monitor 60-odd feeds. I wanted all the latest Commons content in one place.

IFTTT to the rescue!

IFTTT and RSS Feeds

IFTTT lets you pull content from RSS feeds as one of its triggers, which is probably what I do the most with it, as there are countless RSS feeds out there. Each institution participating in Flickr Commons has an RSS feed of the latest photographs added to its content.

I grabbed an RSS feed from one of the Flickr Commons members and started messing with it. Since an image thumbnail shows up in the feed, I tried grabbing the image and sending it any number of places, like Picasa and Dropbox. I wanted to make the photographs available publicly and I wanted to have an easy way to go to the original image if I saw something I liked and wanted to look at more closely (remember, the RSS feed has only a small image and not the full-sized photograph.) Picasa didn’t allow me to append enough information and Dropbox didn’t allow me to delineate the images enough.

So finally I ended up using Flickr itself — specifically, my own photostream.

Setting Up IFTTT

Starting the IFTTT recipe

Starting the IFTTT recipe

The IFTTT trigger/response sets are called recipes. So my recipe trigger was new content in one of the Flickr Commons institutional feeds. (I had to set up about 60 recipes, which was the most tedious part of this whole business.) If you want to play along at home and have an IFTTT account, I shared my recipe at https://ifttt.com/recipes/52593.

The action was to take the content from the institution’s feed and put it in my own Flickr photostream. But that wouldn’t be enough because there’s only so much good I’d get from a random image – I’d also want to know where it came from and where I could go to see larger versions of the image. So in addition to just moving the image over, the recipe also puts the source of the image and a link back to the original image in the description. There’s also an option to create new tags for each image as well — remember that because I’m going to come back to it later.

Setting up the Action Part of the IFTTT recipe

Setting up the Action Part of the IFTTT recipe

The Harvest on My Photostream

So I set up umpty-zillion recipes based on RSS feeds from Flickr Commons institutions let them run, and within a day I started having images automatically post to my Flickr photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/taracal/.

Photostream on Flickr

Photostream on Flickr

The URL in the description is not clickable from the galley page, but it is clickable on the individual picture’s page.

So what do I have now? Now I have a constantly-growing group of photos from the Flickr commons as my very own photostream, but in addition I have an RSS feed of all the latest content posted to Flickr Commons (via my account’s RSS feed on Flickr.) And with IFTTT, I can take that feed and do something else with it. In this case, I set up IFTTT to send me an alert via the iOS notification Pushover whenever the RSS feed updated. This came in handy when a picture of Queen Elizabeth came through on my iPhone and I was able to immediately text it to my anglophile friend Dee.

Texting Dee

Texting Dee

Other Possibilities

I had no hesitation in setting up these RSS feeds of visual content to aggregate on my own photostream because the Flickr Commons is just that — a Commons — and violating copyright was not a concern. Besides, I made sure that each description sourced the original image and linked back to it, trying to ensure that nobody thinks I’m the creator/keeper of these images.

If the aggregation of thumbnails, with clear attribution and links back to original content, could be considered fair use, I would really like to go further with this. There are so many institutions using Flickr. If you do just a simple people search for State Library you’ll find all kinds of goodies.

People search on Flickr

People search on Flickr

With IFTTT you could take the RSS feeds of the institutions in which you’re most interested and start a flow of thumbnails to your own Flickr stream, but more than that, you could give all pictures from that group of institutions the same tag and start creating your very own repository.

For example, I could go through Flickr’s people search and find North Carolina organizations — the NC State Archives, the Museum of Natural Sciences, the North Carolina State Library for the Blind, etc. I could set each of these up with an IFTTT recipe to send new content to my photostream, and tag each item as it’s added with not only the photo’s description but also with a unique tag of my own — maybe NCGROUPRB (something that probably isn’t replicated elsewhere on Flickr.) Then I just let it run. What I’m doing here is creating my very own Flickr subset from lots of different sources, in this case photographs from North Carolina organizations and institutions. (You could do this with any other topic you can imagine that can be found in the people search — state fairs, national museums, or even cooking schools!) When searching this collection, I could use incredibly general search queries (school, food, etc.) along with my unique tag and have success in finding images relevant to my context because I had narrowed down the searched pool of images in advance via the IFTTT image aggregation.

This setup isn’t perfect — IFTTT limits how much you can extract from a given RSS feed — but I’m having a lot of fun with my newly aggregated feed of Commons content and looking at a lot more pictures. If you find this useful and end up doing your own Flickr mini-content-curation project, let me know in the comments!

About Tara Calishain

Covering the world of search engines, databases, and other online information collections since 1996.

Posted on September 7, 2012, in News and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. great, thanks a lot for sharing your “experiment” – seems as if IFTTT could help solve some tasks not so easyly to be solved with yahoo pipes!
    cheers, stefan

  2. I know it’s too late now, but for working with RSS feeds, one of the best tools is Yahoo Pipes, which even has built-in options for Flickr feeds. Have you tried it? You can see my public ones here: http://pipes.yahoo.com/pipes/person.info?guid=RY26UFYLQ2UE7U4YS43GKCFCYM

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