iPhone, Flickr, Mobile Fotos, Flickramio, and Google Maps Solve Science Mystery

October 01, 2008 By: erik Category: Colindres, Flickr, Geeky, Reviews, Science, Weird 694 views

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Light blue pathThe other day, my wife and I went for a walk around town that put us out by the docks as the tide was coming in. I noticed a really strange streak of light blue water, and we stood there to ponder explanations. The first guess was some sort of warmer current, but it doesn’t make immediate sense to me that the reflective tone of the water would change that much with temperature. My second thought was that a fishing boat had gone by and left a contaminate on the surface. The third conclusion that we were happiest with at the time was that it was a matter of depth, that the water was deeper where the color appeared lighter. I took a photo of the phenomenon with my iPhone, geotagged it, and uploaded it to Flickr all before leaving the pier.
Light blue path

The shot I took of the phenomenon.

When I got home and pulled up the image on Flickr, a Greasemonkey script I have installed in Firefox, called Flickramio, modified Flickr to show a Google Maps satellite representation of where the photo was taken. Because the satellite image was from low tide and the photo was taken looking almost due north, the explanation for the blue streak became obvious.

Flickramio Solves Science Mystery

You can clearly see that the blue streak follows the deeper man-made channel that never completely dries up.

Note that this is correlation and not necessarily causation. This channel will also probably have an effect on temperature and boat paths as well as depth, but I’m inclined to attribute most of the color difference to depth.

Geotagging is really cool, but it’s lacking some dimensions that I expect to see added in the next few years. Knowing the latitude and longitude where a photograph was taken is great, but here’s what’s missing: altitude and direction. Cameras of the future should also be able to encode the altitude above sea level and a three-dimensional unit vector specifying the direction and angle the photo was taken in. With this additional information, it would be possible for computers to perform searches not only of photos taken from a certain place, but of photos taken of a certain place from various distances. Given enough data and clever algorithms, you could eventually end up with 3D models of data-rich locations or the equivalent of Google Street View, all with user-generated uncopyrighted content!

If you are a Flickr user and care at all about geotagging, I highly recommend installing Greasemonkey and Flickramio. The other player on the team that you might not know is an iPhone app called Mobile Fotos that lets you geotag and wirelessly upload 1600×1200 photos from your iPhone to Flickr. I love it.

  • I am highly satisfied with Mobile Fotos as well. And a few days ago you mentioned the uncanny accuracy of the geotagging involved in using MoFo and Flickramio, and I agree about that, too — it’s caused me to change some privacy settings on Flickr, that feature is so potentially stalkery.

  • Nice! I had been wondering if there was a “only show geotagging coordinates to friends” option on Flickr, and I just found it.

    Darn! Unfortunately, it just hides the “show on map” link, but Flickramio can still see the geo info.

  • Oh, maybe that’s only for new uploads. I’ll check next time I upload one.

  • And I am highly impressed with such a research. My own one would have stopped at pondering or at most guessing and asking around. 🙂

    However, it wouldn’t be the first time you pass by and see that place, would it? Does it appear lighter just sometimes?

  • That was the first time I had noticed the phenomenon, Costarossa. But I’m not often there at that particular moment in the tidal cycle. I was once, but I didn’t see it.

  • Having watched similar phenomena, my theory is that wind direction, specifically the direction of the wind directly at the surface of the water, along with current direction, current depth, and current speed, are what lead to these “surface currents.” (My name for them.)
    I suspect that the wind, along with creating the most of the waves we can see, also changes the characteristics of the water’s surface reflectivity. Kind of like a sandblaster starting with polished, shiny metal, and making it matte and hazy. But if someone was passing a polishing cloth back and forth across a portion of the metal, a ‘channel’ or current would appear on the surface, that would have a different reflectivity than the rest of the metal.
    If there is a current that is causing the surface of the water to ‘recuperate’ more quickly from the wind disturbances, than the surface of the water along those currents would display a different (More smooth?) reflectivity than the rest of the water.
    They seem to become more visible in low to moderate wind, that is blowing more or less perpendicular, or cross-ways across the apparent flow of the currents.
    In my theory, since it involves currents, then deeper and steeper channels in the sea bed will likely be the location of the strongest flowing currents, and the steepest temperature gradients as well.
    Is this what you were saying, too? Am I stating the obvious?

  • Ray, my conclusion was that “somehow” those factors affect the reflectivity. You’ve gone a little deeper into what the “somehow” is. I like your theory about orthogonal wind, light, and current angles. I have no doubt that some PhD-touting scientist out there, an expert in fluid dynamics and optics, understands this phenomenon perfectly. I might do some more research into it sometime.

  • Elli

    I have a gps receiver attached to my Nikon D300 that records altitude as well as the a few other useless bits, but direction would be excellent.