Friday, 21 May 2010

Metadata and the Future of News

IPTC Business Meets Technology day Paris, April 2010

The IPTC evolved to represent the needs of the news business, and much of the Spring Conference this year revolved around the adoption of the IPTC's G2 standards for the news industry. The IPTC's Photometadata Working Group focusing on visual content, has responded to the needs of the photographic industry to make image search more focussed. The Controlled Vocabulary project was presented at the conference for the first time.

G2, which provides an XML-based standard for the exchange of news items, is well supported by large agencies, despite the fact that some of their customers are working with old systems and are not ready to change.

The news industry is looking to a future where news gathering is networked and syndicated, where news items are linked across media, and where outlets for news include mobile phones, social networking sites, and more personalised news delivery.

New business models involve aggregating content across publishers in the same way agencies aggregate content from their suppliers. Planning is needed to fund inter-organisational processes. The supplies within a network can then focus on their core business.

The networking and syndicating of news require interoperable metadata. There is a growing realisation that some sources of data, for example on events or on personalities and entities, are best shared. In the new world it is argued, it is pointless for everyone to gather the same data. This is where linked data comes in.

Fran Alexander
from the BBC highlighted the need for different sets of metadata in different stages of the workflow and in different departments of a large organisation like the BBC. Rather than insisting on standardisation across the organisation, she believes that mapping techniques produce better results, with standards risiing as departments increasingly work together.
The Linked Data community, which has emerged from the ideas around the Semantic Web, promotes the idea of sources of data scattered throughout the web, with unique string addresses on the web called uri's. These web addresses can link to other uri'’s to expand the available information on a subject or entity.

The principle is that by linking data sets on the web, the requirement to reproduce the same work of data gathering is reduced, and more data becomes available by a process of organic growth.

The uri's are simply web addresses for lists of information about an entity (a person, an organisation, a building, anything that has a name and is unique.) That information could include details of date of birth, height, weight, schooling, job history, any facts which can (or could theoretically) be checked.

Someone searching for information about Barack Obama for example, might find information on his first job after college which may reveal other facts about him which are of interest
UK company Talis demonstrated their own platform which is designed to build linked data. The Talis architecture is used by Government departments and other clients to pull together and link sources of information scattered around the country.

Talis suggested that the IPTC could be an ideal linking hub holding trusted data which can be linked to other uri's and other hubs on the web.

The Okkam Project is a European funded project which has already assigned 7.5 million unique identities for entities and has created 16 applications for their use. Okkam is running a pilot project with news agency ANSA, which allows the agency to create an enriched newsfeed using News ML standards, which can hold links to other sources of information. Okkam works on the principle of a 14 th century philosopher who said we should not' multipy entities beyond necessity.'

The Okkam system is designed to be an open neutral system, which will be run b y the Okkam Trust once the EU project is over. The Trust would be funded by money from commercial applications developed by the project, and is keen for stakeholders like the IPTC to join the board of the Trust.

Okkam aims to fix reference names for entities, but recognises it is not the only company to do so. The aim is to create permanent identifiers, which is where it differs from projects like Open Calais, which is about entity extraction.

Underlying all this are considerations about the trustworthiness of data sets. The web site finds entities which are supposedly the same, but not all the results are seen as sound. How rigorous the test for sameness will depend on its use.

The IPTC Photometadata Group Controlled vocabulary project was presented by Sarah Saunders from Electric Lane, who discussed the ambiguities inherent in keyword searches for images, and demonstrated the use of keyword predicates, a new feature of the proposed controlled vocabulary, which helps to reduce ambiguities. An example is the word orange, which can be used as a descriptive word, or as an object word. The word Paris can be used to describe the location of an image, a person (Paris Hilton) or a view of Paris.

The new IPTC keyword predicates will separate the differing uses of a word, and avoid unwanted search results. The draft vocabulary and the ideas behind it will be presented at the Photometadata Conference in Dublin in June.

More information from the Spring Conference in the IPTC Mirror.
Sarah Saunders
April 2010

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Rocky Road to Automation

Most of us, one way or another, are in the grip of the recession. How soon things will improve is anyone's guess, but at my end the freezing up of client budgets has given me time to assess how my own business is run.

Productivity has always been the name of our game, the goal we set for the consultancy and training we do for clients. Many businesses have been happy in the past to continue with their own tried and tested workflows. Change is not always easy to sell into a business. But the recession and changes in the picture industry have raised the stakes. Which of us is going to be around when money starts to flow again? My bet is on those who have taken the time to review their workflow and improve their productivity. Now, more than ever, companies need to assess the way they use technology to speed up business processes.

Years ago, people in image libraries joked about digital, and dreamt of lying on a beach somewhere while the agency ran itself. Instead, they found a whole new set of issues to address, new skills to learn.Taking care of a digital image collection is, if anything, a more time consuming business than filing transparencies in a filing drawer and relying on the human brain to remember what was where. But business moves on. Older brains get tired and over full, younger ones move on to other companies. And the needs of a global market are of a different order, and only satisfied by a digital response.

It's happened. Image collections are now shown digitally, and collections are either digitised or on the - sometimes long - slog to get there. But are the digital collections making best use of the technology they have at their disposal?

With budget, a large company can put together an all-singing-all-dancing DAM system with a number of workflow aids to increase automation and reduce production costs. At enterprise level there are plenty of companies willing to push their product to do what you want, if you pay for it. The problem may be that people aren't aware of the specialist needs of the picture industry, so sometimes large systems are less than perfect in that respect. At the other end of the scale, companies with more specialist needs and smaller budgets also need productivity. The search for automated workflow functions is worth looking at for businesses of any size.

Take my business as a small example. Like most people, I have too much to do. It's our way of life. And like most, I like to stick to the technology I know. Picking up new systems is time consuming, and it does your head in. It sometimes feels like a waste of time fiddling with obscure software functions dreamt up by techies whose whose brains appear to be differently wired. But in my case I found it was worth the pain.

I had found my marketing efforts dogged by chaos on both my physical and computer desktop. There were bits of information all over the place, which my current contact database couldn't cope with. I had tried paper lists, excel sheets, tabbed files and folders, and all kinds of plastic pockets, and all I had was a headache. Everything was taking too long.

Now I had someone to help me do my marketing (the very excellent outsourced company Tailored Time) it was doubly imperative to get smart. They suggested I look at an online system ZOHO, which is free for up to 3 users. I spent a few mornings struggling to get to grips with the system. A strategic call to Tailored Time when I felt like to ditching the project and going back to pen and notebook helped me stay on track. I imported some contacts and got on with some real work using the online database. It was like having someone else in the office!

I feel vaguely smug about this. Practice what you preach they say, and I like many others often find myself lacking in that department. (Have you ever tried to get a decent headshot of a photographer?) How can someone who helps other people organise their images systematically have their own affairs in such disarray? Easy. We're all as human as each other, and if you're in the business of helping people do things, you'd better know how hard it is to change habits, especially when it involves technology. What people need is a helping hand, someone to say it's going to be fine, it works, stick with it. That's what working together means in the mean high tech world we live in, and that's what consultancy is all about.

Back to automation. Some systems are simply too big and too wide ranging for people to grasp (or to pay for). So many people find themselves tacking together a workflow from a number of different components, and it can be the most productive route in some cases. The show has to go on, after all. When people ask me if they should get an image DAM system that does everything from raw files through to production and archiving (and there's another blog brewing there) I ask them to be cautious. Look at your workflow, I say, and your budget, and the different people who will be involved. Look at what you can reasonably learn and install and support. It may be easier to keep some elements of your workflow and target resources on just a part of it. Some parts of your workflow will benefit from specialist attention. The image archiving and sales database is one of those discreet elements that can save you a lot of time and money and do a very targeted job for you, perhaps in combination with a larger CMS (Content Management System) for the entire organisation. But even here, you may find that your image database and workflow software lacks some essential components that could save you time and money.

Write once, use many times is one of the mottos for a good workflow. It makes sense in the computer age, where anything entered anywhere can be seamlessly copied to somewhere else. Why do it again?

In practice, technology lags behind some of the standards that make this interoperability possible. Look at XML and the XMP format created by Adobe to deal with image metadata. The formats are there, the IPTC has worked to create standard fields to hold the information, and full automation is possible. But those of us helping create standards ( I work on the IPTC Photometadata Working Group) know that to a certain extent we are working with today's aspirations and tomorrow's workflow, today's clunky software and tomorrow's automation. The passage of data from one end to the other of the workflow is littered with obstacles, placed there by (let's be kind) not quite updated software.

That aside, the next principle of a good image workflow is that it should be clear what is expected at each stage in terms of the delivered product. The photographer, you might think, should deliver a colour correct image in a standard format, that can be passed on through the workflow and through to print or web output to produce a good result without without tripping up production systems. There should be a some metadata in the image as well (at least the 3 C's, caption, credit, copyright and picture number). We have spent years trying to get this message over to the receiving clients, image libraries and publishers. You are the client, we said, you should define what you want the photographer to supply. The reality is that both clients and photographers have been operating within a digital skills chasm. Things have improved, but we far too often hear that image libraries are using their resources to check and put right what photographers have failed to deliver. Whichever way you look at it, this is not a function that libraries (and publishers) can afford to carry in current circumstances.

This is why we set about creating a Photoshop plug-in, called ImageVisa, to fit the principles of a productive workflow. One, it gets the client to set the technical and metadata standards for the images arriving at their picture desk; two, it checks that the images supplied comply; three it can correct some things automatically before the image reaches the client; and four, it helps the supplying photographer to get things right by making his or her workflow more productive. Box ticking or what?

In an ideal world, these functions would be provided by the client's receiving software. But in practice most image software at the moment doesn't have that facility (Capture's Greenlight does a very fast check at the receiving end, but doesn't do corrections.)

ImageVisa is a bridge over the skills chasm, between different sets of software, and between the past and the future. It may help plug a gap in the workflow of hard pressed image libraries and publishers, especially those keen to reduce costs and limber up for the future. It could be the other person in the office I was talking about. Simple, focussed, does the job.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Half century of Rex - the history

As Rex is becoming part of Getty, perhaps it's a good time to revisit what I wrote in 2004 and reflect on what's happening in the photo industry today. Then, we were remarking about the film lab going quiet. And the fact that even then it was one of the last independent press agencies......

'Other people just had piles of boxes'– Rex in 2004

Rex Features is the largest independent photographic press agency in the UK and one of the few of its kind left in the world. Founded by Frank and Elizabeth Selby in 1954, Rex has weathered an economic climate which has been especially tough for news agencies, doing so without any obvious damage and with all its old values intact. How do they do it?

Ask Frank and Elizabeth Selby about who does what at Rex and their replies are too complicated to write down. In the end, it seems, everyone does a bit of everything. It’s a family business still, despite the fact that Rex has grown from a two-person business in Frank and Elizabeth’s front room, to a company with 70 staff in the UK and outposts in New York and LA.

Rex’s output is prodigious – an average of 1200 new images are added to the online database every day and last year 450,000 news and celebrity pictures and 85,000 stock pictures were sold. For Rex is not just a news and celebrity agency, though that is how many people have seen it in the past- and the company is making efforts to let its customers know about the vast range of material contained in the 15 million images they have on file, one million of which are now on-line. Currently around 80% of sales are news and celebrity, while 20% are stock. The number of stock sales is growing all the time.

Elizabeth and Frank Selby are both from journalistic backgrounds, and both of Hungarian origin. They came to England in the thirties: Elizabeth was at school until 1942, when she left “ because I became disillusioned with it” and worked with her father, who had been a prominent journalist for the German- speaking press before the war; Frank, son of the editor- in-chief of Hungary’s leading newspaper group, worked in photography for six months before the war and volunteered for the British Army when war broke out. They married in 1948.

The roots of the agency are more in features than in news, and hence the name. The agency was set up when a Hungarian friend in France needed representation in the UK. The pictures – then all black and white prints – were distributed from the Selbys’ front room for the next nine years. They were kept in 10x8 photographic paper boxes. Most of the original pictures at the outset were Paris fashions, other suppliers joined later to contribute news material, and Rex started to represent stock agency Devaney (now Superstock) in 1954. In-house production included a creative relationship with British photographer Ron Spillman and Canadian journalist Jack Ramsay who were famous for their set-up funny animal sequences, involving chicks, ducklings, kittens and mice.

In the early days, Rex made sales and gained customers through their speedy distribution of original prints of hot news events, which were of much better quality than the blurred wire pictures of the time. The prints were taken round to Fleet Street newspapers in a leather bag: Frank Selby was ‘the original bag man’. Elizabeth meanwhile ran the office and the growing library.

As the company grew, the library came into its own, as a result of an efficient filing system. The newspapers, which had their own libraries but were often unable to find their own pictures when needed, came to rely on Rex.

“ We taught staff to find images” says Elizabeth. “I was insistent on cross referencing. Other people just had piles of boxes, but we had filing cabinets. Customers knew we could find the pictures, where other people couldn’t”

When John Selby joined the business in 1976, he brought new ideas to the business and started colour duplication. In 1979, after a serious fire at their premises in East Harding St, Rex moved to its current location in Vine Hill.

Now the business started to take off. Organisation has always been a key element of Rex’s success – distribution of material after a major news event is
planned in meticulous detail, and executed with ruthless efficiency, with all hands on board. Diana’s wedding in 1981 put Rex on the map with large numbers of dupes captioned and mounted against the clock, in time for the newspaper deadlines. Frank recalls that just one minute was allowed per film to select images for duping.

Nowadays nearly all new material coming into the company is digital. The film lab has gone quiet and so have the telephones, which use to buzz with the 3-4000 requests for pictures every month. Now, it’s the web site which is busy, with an average of 2750 downloads every day. Rex still lays great emphasis on personal service though, and is always there to help researchers find what they want.

It’s the way Rex does business which as part of the attraction to customers and suppliers alike. In the old days major deals were done on a handshake. The first big contract was with Woman’s Own for pictures of Frank Sinatra’s 50th birthday. As Frank recalls, “ There was no signature, we shook hands and that was that.” With Weekend Magazine, he says, “ We always did business in the pub. That was where you could usually find the editor, Alex Merritt; but he always remembered what we agreed.” The Selbys cannot recall any conflicts over deals, and the company has an impeccable reputation for honesty. Picture editors knew Rex would stick by their word, and contributors knew they would get their money even before the agency was paid. Sadly, the huge number of late-paying clients mean that nowadays the photographers have to wait until Rex has collected…..

In an era where big business has moved into the picture business, Rex Features has a remarkable resilience. From time to time, says Director Martin Hillier, people ring up and ask “ What is it Rex is doing that we’re not doing?” But, as Elizabeth points out “ It wasn’t a business we set up; it was our metier, our way of life, and everyone got involved in the same spirit.”

The company is run “ with a conscience” and has paid dearly for some decisions of principle, but nevertheless there is a steely backbone to the way Rex is run which is perhaps something do with fact that it is a family business – in the broadest sense. At least 10 staff have been with the company for twenty years or more – the longest has been with Rex for thirty five years. Allan Day, the UK Sales Director, recently retired after 36 years. The company is run on teamwork, with Elizabeth and Frank still very much at the helm despite their age; they are a very sprightly seventy-nine and eighty-six . With John, Mike, and Sue Selby all very much involved, the family nature of the business looks set to continue.

The change to digital technology has been a big challenge. Rex did not make people redundant as other companies did, they simply retrained their staff to do other tasks such as keywording . Despite the “eery quiet “ in the office, digitisation has brought staff closer to the business, they say, and given them more responsibility. The stock side of the business is being developed so that Rex is becoming a one-stop portal for all kinds of images. What is their biggest challenge now? “ The competition. To stay as we are, respected the way we are, and to live up to it. “ says Elizabeth. “ And for us to stay alive.”