Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quick review of iPhoto 09 Places and Faces

I received my copy of Apple's new iLife 09 a couple of days ago, and being a keen photographer have spent quite a bit of time trying out the new features of iPhoto, especially Places and Faces. This is just a quick initial review - I may do a more detailed one in the next few days. Briefly, I very much like Places, with the exception of a few minor niggles, but Faces, despite an undeniable coolness when it correctly identifies someone, was overall a disappointment.

Places does a nice job of mapping geotagged photos. What I especially liked was the way that it clusters groups of photos that are close into a single pin on the map as you zoom out, and it breaks them out as you zoom it. Some other systems out there do this too, but most that I have tried have some issues (for example only displaying a limited number of pictures on a single map). I haven't done serious scalability testing so far, but have about 1700 geotagged photos on my world map so far and performance is good (these are a mixture of precisely geotagged photos with a latitude-longitude from a GPS stored in the photos' EXIF metadata, and others where I have just specified the city for a group of photos). It is easy to specify a location for a single photo or a group of photos, using Google search for geocoding so you can find the usual assortment of landmarks, businesses, etc as well as addresses. The system also generates a nice hierarchy of place names, so for example I can ask for all the photos in Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia or Canada. There are some situations where the reverse geocoding doesn't find a name at some level of the hierarchy, and it uses a label of "Other", but overall this works well. Overall I think it's the nicest implementation of a system for viewing and managing geotagged photos that I have seen so far.

I really wanted to like Faces - the demo certainly looked really cool. I take a lot of photos and manage them in Aperture rather than iPhoto (I currently have 108,000 images in Aperture), and whenever I have time I tag the photos, including names of people in them. So good face recognition has the potential to be huge time saver. It's really cool when it works, and it does work well a good amount of the time, but overall it didn't work correctly sufficiently often that I'm not sure it is as fast as manually tagging names in Aperture. I will probably try to do a more systematic test of this impression over the weekend. There are two ways it can not work - it can find a face in the photo but not know who it is, or it can fail to find a face in the picture at all. The second case happened more often than I expected - it did very poorly with people wearing hats, large sunglasses, or with faces at an angle. Adding a face manually is a lot slower than doing a manual tag in Aperture (which can be a single key press for "favorite" tags, or a single drag and drop otherwise) - you have to click a button, drag to move a box, and drag again to resize a box, click a button, and type two or three characters of a name. There's also a confirmation process where you click to confirm that faces are who the system thinks they are, and (as far as I can tell) this has no ability to confirm multiple pictures at once (for example clicking on the first of a sequence and then shift-clicking on the last, as you normally do to select multiple items) - you have to click on each individual picture. The system could also be a lot cleverer about handling pictures that are taken in a sequence. It is very common with digital photography to take several photos of a group of people in a burst - and the date and time are stored so this situation is easy to identify. If you manually identify people in the first shot of a sequence, this should really carry through to other photos in the sequence, but it doesn't.

Also, as with iPhoto in general, Faces does not seem geared to handling large number of photos. I have 50+ people in my "Faces" already, a lot of whom just appear in a few photos, and there's no easy way to filter these down or organize them into groups etc, so it will be pretty unwieldy as I load more in there.

So overall, I think face recognition is a really exciting technology and it will be hugely useful in the future, but I don't think it's quite there yet based on my experience so far. In addition to improvements in the core recognition technology, there's a lot that Apple could do to make the workflow more efficient - it definitely has the feel of a "1.0" release (which is a little disappointing coming from Apple, with their strong focus on usability). I hope to see the face recognition capability come to Aperture soon though, hopefully with some improvements in the workflow for large volumes of pictures.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Great turnout for "open source geospatial for managers" event in Denver

Last Friday I went to a FRUGOS (Front Range Users of Geospatial Open Source) event organized by Brian Timoney in Denver, entitled "FRUGOS for Managers". It ran for a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon, and around 50 people showed up, which I thought was a great turnout. Brian includes a list of organizations who attended in his summary of the event - they included a good assortment of local government organizations in the area. Previous FRUGOS events had been more targeted at techies (like many open source events) - this was the first to consciously target a less technical audience. The turnout, and feedback, certainly suggested that there is a strong demand for this type of event.

The main focus of the event was on a couple of case studies using PostGIS, MapServer and GeoServer. The most interesting presentation for me was from Matt Krusemark of DRCOG, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, which exists to foster regional cooperation between county and municipal governments in the Denver metropolitan area. They have a geospatial group focused on collecting data from member organizations and sharing it, and they will be launching a new web site very soon using PostGIS, GeoServer and OpenLayers with a Google basemap. This is especially notable as they use ESRI software on the desktop, as most US government organizations do. I think this "hybrid" approach of using closed source solutions on the desktop and open source solutions (and/or solutions from Microsoft or Google) for web mapping will become increasingly common. DRCOG also intends to make all this data available to the public for free (gratis). You'll be able to find this via DRCOG's GIS page when it goes live.

Congratulations to Brian on a great event - I look forward to more of these.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The mysterious disappearance of the Microsoft Live Search Maps add-in for Outlook

For several years now, Microsoft has provided a plug-in for Outlook which provided some nice mapping functionality for calendar entries, contacts, etc, using Virtual Earth aka Live Search Maps. I briefly tried this, and liked it, several years ago but haven't looked at it for a while, not least as I've been using Mac for the past couple of years now.

Anyway, we have started work on an Outlook add-in for whereyougonnabe, so I thought a logical thing to investigate would be this existing Live Search Maps add-in for Outlook - it would be an easy way of associating a location with a calendar entry, including validation of the location with a nice interactive map, all within Outlook. But when I started looking for it, I found lots of references to it online, but the add-in seems to have mysteriously vanished.

For example, this post on 12 Cool Outlook Add-Ins To Make Your Inbox More Social And Productive, dated April 17th, 2008, says:

The Live Search Map add-in for Outlook lets you add maps and directions to the meeting requests while sending it to the attendees, calculate travel distance and estimate travel time between locations, add meeting reminders with estimated travel time blocked in the calendar.

You can see the maps in various types of views like 3D, aerial, road, bird’s eye etc., print map and directions and even save the details for viewing offline.

However, when you follow the link it includes, which should take you to an Outlook site, this just redirects you to the site, with no sign of an Outlook add-in. Several other links I found did the same thing (for example from a glowing review by Ars Technica). Mysterious!

After a bit more hunting around, I found several recent Microsoft support posts talking about problems with the Live Search Maps add-in. This one on MSDN, dated 22 October 2008, says:

Several million of you have downloaded the Live Search Maps Add-in for Outlook which allows integration in Outlook with maps and has some cool functionality around extending your appointment blocks to account for automatically calculated travel time among other things. We have received a large number of support cases that are caused either directly or indirectly because of this add-in. These include hangs, crashes, and leaks.

It then talks in quite a lot of technical detail about the problems caused, and says that it may cause data corruption problems, before saying (the emphasis is mine):

The long-term plan for what to do about all the problems in this add-in has not been determined at the time of writing of this blog, but it may result in the download being removed from This won’t help you fix up any items that already exist in your calendar though – nor will it prevent users from using the add-in if they already have it downloaded and installed.

Another support bulletin from Microsoft, dated December 16, 2008, describes how to uninstall the plug-in, saying:

The Live Search Maps add-in for Microsoft Office Outlook can cause significant problems for users of Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007. These problems can cause Outlook to crash or to perform other undefined behavior. Additionally, the Live Search Maps Add-in creates items that have incorrect values. These incorrect values create problems with messaging applications.
The process to remove the add-in and clean up data seems fairly complex.

I haven't been able to find any information online to confirm this, but it seems to me that the add-in has indeed been removed, presumably because of these problems. For an add-in that is used by "several million" people (according to Microsoft), and clearly provides useful functionality (if it is working correctly), this seems a pretty unprofessional approach. I would expect that the original download page should still be there and should make some statement about the problem and what is being done to fix it, or whether this functionality is just being abruptly discontinued.

Does anyone out there know anything about this? Anyone from Microsoft care to fill us in?