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'Time-Lapsing' – Incredible, Evocative Photography through Involuntary Crowdsourcing

Imagine a library so impossibly comprehensive and detailed that even if you spent a hundred lifetimes sifting through it, you would still have barely even scratched the surface. Now, imagine that this library is an ungodly mess, utterly disorganized, inconsistent and with virtually no guiding pattern of any kind. Congratulations, you just imagined the internet.

It’s interesting to wonder about just how much amazing information could be gleaned by going through the impossibly massive archives of data present online if one was in the right mind-set. Well thanks to researchers from Google and the University of Washington, we have a new, amazing example of what can be achieved. Employing a brand new set of muscular algorithms, the researchers have been able to mine millions of photographs from across the web, from Flickr to Facebook, and compiled them into stunning, fascinating time-lapses which show how the world has physically changed in the past decade. Here’s how they describe it in the official research paper:

“We introduce an approach for synthesizing time-lapse videos of popular landmarks from large community photo collections. The approach is completely automated and leverages the vast quantity of photos available online. First, we cluster 86 million photos into landmarks and popular viewpoints. Then, we sort the photos by date and warp each photo onto a common viewpoint. Finally, we stabilize the appearance of the sequence to compensate for lighting effects and minimize flicker. Our resulting time-lapses show diverse changes in the world's most popular sites, like glaciers shrinking, skyscrapers being constructed, and waterfalls changing course.”

All the clusters are created with a tangled hodge-podge of differently sourced images from research material to holiday snaps to discarded cameras, the challenge comes with conditioning all the thousands of stills into one consistent lapse. The effect achieved by this process varies, some of the lapses are indicative of how far we’ve come industrially, showing how skyscrapers can suddenly completely change a skyline, whilst others are more stern environmental messages, showing clear evidence of polar ice reduction and rising water levels. Mainly though, this project aptly demonstrates the power of the internet as a kind of accidental or involuntary archive, vital historical documentation just happens there without even trying, particularly with the advent of social media and with the right tools it can be repurposed in various useful ways.


This is still in the very early stages and the team are putting more clusters together even as we speak, but the potential for awareness campaigning, geographical study and many other things is absolutely massive and it extends far beyond that. Facebook is basically a huge genealogy capsule waiting to happen and even Twitter, sifted through in the right way, could provide a really interesting reflection of public response to particular historical milestones.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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'Time-Lapsing' – Incredible, Evocative Photography through Involuntary Crowdsourcing Reviewed by Unknown on Saturday, May 23, 2015 Rating: 5

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