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IFTTT and Flickr — Making a Tool for Mixing the Commons

Have you heard of IFTTT? It’s available at 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 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

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

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!

Library of Congress Posts Civil War Portrait Collection to Flickr

The Library of Congress announced last week that it has made a huge collection of Civil War portraits available on its Flickr site. The portraits — almost 700 of them — are available at

This collection is all from one place — the Liljenquist family — and includes the frames of the pictures as well as the ambrotype and tintype photographs themselves. Many of the pictures are soldiers (including some portraits of African-American soldiers) but there are some civilian pictures here as well. There are also many group pictures, both of civilians and soldiers.

Some of the pictures are fairly dark and hard to see — or maybe it’s my monitor. If you want more detailed images than are available at Flickr, you can go back to and download archival-quality TIFFs, though they are a slow download. I downloaded one of 84MB and one of 116MB.

A remarkable collection, but also depressing in a way… the soldiers all look so young

Mathew Brady Civil War Photos Get Organized on Flickr

The National Archives has had Mathew Brady photos on Flickr for quite some time, though only about half the photos have been uploaded. But I was thrilled to read yesterday that NARA has a) organized the photos into over 40 topical sets and b) geotagged most of the images. Yow! I don’t know the count of images in this collection but I would guess thousands…

The Brady photos are available here on Flickr; this page also shows the sets. Unfortunately Brady’s name is put first in the set, so it’s hard to read the sets for descriptions here. Still, on this page you can see sets for Zouaves, Union generals, railroads, prisoners of war, and camp scenes, and several place names (among other things.)

(There is also a clearly-marked set of images of causalities. This set does have images, sometimes graphic, of wounded and dead people. Please be aware.)

I took a look at the Civil War Entrenchments and Defenses set, which has at this writing 111 photographs. A set of thumbnails was on the front page, with some details available on mouseover. All the images I looked at more closely had geotags and some additional information, though most of them did not have comments.

These new sets make it a lot easier to browse these remarkable photographs. One tip: when looking at individual photos be sure to look at available sizes. All the images I looked at had maximum sizes that were very large — 3000 x 2405, for example — and at that size the level of detail is fascinating and at the same time absolutely chilling.

Flickr Bows a New Photo Page

Flickr has debuted a new photo page which is currently in rollout, but if you have a Flickr account, you can login and opt in to the new view right now. So what are you waiting for? Log in and look for the pink banner at the top of the page which reads, “We’re introducing a new photo page, and you can check it out early. Take me to the future!” Click on “Take me to the future!” and you’ll get the new page. (This isn’t permanent; you can opt-out of the new photo page version if you don’t like it.)

The biggest difference is that the photo is a lot, lot bigger. (This is one of my Fair pictures. Trust me to get arty with the fried butter shot.) To appreciate the photos better there’s also a new light box feature; hit f on your keyboard and suddenly you have a really really big picture on a dark background. (This probably looks more impressive when it’s not a giant fried butter image.)

Flickr has grouped a lot of functionality together. A small nav strip lets you move back and forth through the photostream as well as zoom into the light box view (once you’re there you have the option to view the photo in other sizes as well.) Another small menu nearby gives you a dropdown menu of many, many possible actions (from tagging the photo to ordering prints to even deleting the photo if it happens to be yours.) You can also share the photo via e-mail, or get HTML to show it, or theoretically share it across different blogs (I write “theoretically” because there’s a place for it, but the blog list Flickr gave me was empty.)

Way down toward the bottom of the screen, in light type, there’s a set of keyboard shortcuts you can use to navigate available photos:

← previous photo → next photo f view in light box scroll film strip right

I have not used Flickr as much as I have in the past — it’s easier to just put photos up on Facebook. But this new display and the way the actions are grouped means that Flickr is, once again, a really great place to showcase photos.

How to Build Keyword-Based Flickr RSS Feeds

After I wrote the article yesterday with more resources and thoughts about information trapping, I got a couple notes from people who wanted to know how to make keyword-based Flickr RSS feeds. You have to build an URL, but it’s pretty easy. Flickr actually offers RSS for several types of searches — a full list is available at — but I’ll give you an overview for keyword-based feeds and a couple other options.

Keyword-based Feeds

To build a keyword-based feed, start with this URL:

Then, add ?tags=keyword to the end to find words in the tags for each picture. You can also use the comma to stack tags. For example, this URL would build an RSS feed of new Flickr photos tagged giraffe and zoo:,zoo

(That’s an actual RSS feed URL. Pop it in Google Reader, NewsGator, or whatever your preferred RSS reader is.)

Be careful about adding too many tags, though, as Flickr’s data pool is a lot smaller than, say, Google’s vast repository of Web pages.

Feeds for Flickr Groups

Maybe you don’t want to get as specific as a tag. Maybe you’d rather follow a group. You can search for Flickr Groups at; once you find one you like (may I recommend CreativeCommons or Flickr Central?) you can get RSS feeds for them by starting with this URL:

and adding ?id=groupname to it, where groupname is, um, the name of the group. That’s where you might run into some trouble, as I couldn’t easily spot the actual group ID. I ended up using a site called Just enter the URL for the group and it’ll spit back an ID number. So the RSS feed for Creative Commons would be:

You’ll have to experiment some with your search terms when building RSS feeds for Flickr, but I recommend you try some of those general search terms that get you way too many results with a Web search. Flickr is huge but it’s still smaller than Google’s Web page index (I would guess) and my keyword-based Flickr feeds very, very rarely get irrelevant results. Try it!

Ghostsigns in the UK

Ready for a big wall of advertising nostalgia? How about over 600 big walls? An article in last week’s Guardian looks at the Ghostsigns Archive, a new offering from the History of Advertising Trust. This archive tracks painted advertising on buildings across the UK.

It looks like the official site is but you can browse the signs at Signs are divided into several categories including Medical & Health, Food & Drink, and Shoes & Clothing.

Choose a category and you’ll get a gallery of signs with thumbnails. Detail pages include location, photographer, date taken, and a transcription of the sign if it’s necessary. I like how there’s a little thumbnail of the gallery so you can continue browsing from detail pages.

Since the idea is to document signage painted on buildings, and a lot of that signage is very old, the images vary a lot in quality. Some of them look like they were painted yesterday and some of them are barely readable.

If you want a larger pool of images than what’s here, you can get over 3700 (though perhaps not categorized as well) at the Ghostsigns Flickr group. And if you’re really interested in ghost signs, you can download a download a Google Spreadsheet of Ghostsigns Archive ad locations.

Flickr Poet: Find Images to Illustrate Your Poetry

Here’s a fun find from the Flickr Blog: a new application called Flickr Poet, which takes the words for which you search and illustrates them with images from Flickr. It’s available at

The way it works is simple. Just enter some text, or a poem, or a paragraph. I tried the beginning of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell. You can read the whole poem at but here’s the beginning:

I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.

Put the words in the search box and click Show Story, and the screen will slowly populate with images that match your words. Here’s how the Gwendolyn Brooks poem turned out:

If you don’t like how it turned out, you can click it again and you’ll get another set of photos to go with your poem. Clicking on individual images will take you to the Flickr page for that image.

The different sets of images sparked different reactions to the sets of words, and the various “Show Story” clicks brought a variety of image types, though individual images did occasionally repeat. There were only two things I didn’t like about the Flickr Poet. The first is the color of the letters. They’re kind of beige, which made them hard to read sometimes. You can’t match the letters to every possible color scheme, of course, but how about light colored letters with a dark outline? That might make them more universally readable.

The second thing is the fact that you can’t replace individual images in a story. You might get a set of images that looks great and really moves you — expect for one stupid picture. You can’t replace the one stupid picture, you have to replace them all. This might be intentional by design but it can also get frustrating!

Pull out your favorite poem and give it a try.


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