My Life with ZoneTag

Church in Oia, looking out of the Caldera, SantoriniOn my recent trip to Greece with my wife to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, I made myself one promise: I would not use the Web for the whole week. By and large, I kept this promise, however I was not completely off the grid. While we were island hopping, I was snapping pictures with my N73 and using Zonetag to send them up to FlickR. The results are available here.

ZoneTag is a nifty downloadable application and service, developed by Yahoo! Research, which allows you to (among other things) upload images directly to FlickR from your camera phone. Of course, there are plenty of applications that allow you to do this, but the ZoneTag difference is that by using the CellID, and cross-referencing this against a database of CellIDs that they maintain, ZoneTag can accurately geotag your photos even if your device doesn’t have a a GPS built in. ZoneTag also learns CellID locations through users using the system and telling it their location. It’s “leveraging collective intelligence.”

Anyway, apart from being a bit of geeky fun, there was a method to this madness. Publishing these photos allowed our kids (being looked after by my saintly mother and sister) to keep track of our travels. It was like being able to send postcards instantaneously. And unlike MMS, sending an image with Zonetag does not compress / reduce the images to the Nth degree – the original images with their original detail are sent up. Now, granted this is the Greek islands and you can pretty much just wave a camera around snapping randomly and get great pictures, but I actually think these turned out pretty well. My only complaint (a Nokia complaint, not a Zonetag one) is the high level of compression (which I’ve complained about before) and some softness in the corners (which to a certain extent can’t be avoided with small lenses, but I would have expected more from a “Carl Zeiss” lens. (Carl must be spinning in his grave.)

I was also trying out a new product from Yahoo’s Berkeley labs – Zurfer. Zurfer is a Java application that allows you to browse FlickR images. The Yahoo! labs guys call it Zonetag’s “little brother.” It’s got a slick and responsive user interface that’s simple but also powerful in its task: enabling you to browse photos. You can browse your own photos, your contacts’ photos or (more interestingly) photos around you.

What would I like to see more of from these guys? For starters, I’d like to be able to upload pictures after the fact, and in batch, instead of having to go through the process for each and every photo I take when that photo is taken. I’d also like the ZoneTag UI to be built more into the camera/viewer functions (send to ZoneTag should be another option under “send” when I’m viewing images). As for Zurfer, I really like the concept, and it was fun to use, but I wonder if this couldn’t be built inside Nokia’s Series-60 browser as a Web App and thereby spare people the hassle of downloading yet another app to their phone. Then again, if it were inside the browser I wouldn’t have been able to keep my promise.

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4 Comments on “My Life with ZoneTag

  1. Perhaps if zontag could extract a few geotags based on Cell-ID back into the client, it could embed these into the JPEG meta-data (JPEG has a “comment” section) in a reusable format. This would allow you your batch upload to Flickr without losing the original locations. It would also make the tagged media generally more portable.

    Opening out Zonetag’s proposition a bit more, you could use a client app to extract Cell-ID and act as a window into a shared, editable, multi-operator online Gazetteer. This could then be used as a platform for other “open” location services by relating the geotags to other points of interest or other community content.

    See my LBS blog for a discussion of this:


  2. Dan – this is a great use study and underlines a compelling mobile service which many road warriors, frequent travellers and holiday makers can relate too. I fear it is not ready for prime time yet though with the roaming surcharge on data usage. I’d be interested to know what your mobile bill was for this use from your holiday.

  3. Scott – you’re right. This isn’t ready for prime time yet. If I didn’t work for a mobile operator, there is no way I would have been able to do this economically. It’s not far off, though. We’re seeing flat rate data rolled out across Europe, and cheaper (or at least more predictable) data roaming as well. Data roaming inevitably has to go to flat as well.

  4. Hi Dan, if you look into the EXIF format ( you will find that come the day where GPS is enabled in more phones this data is already attached to the image you upload, therefore using things like ShoZu should still be able to make use of location information on files, videos and so on. All it comes down to is the phone companies making sure this data is attached to the images. Another interesting thing is if I can capture a GPS track on my phone, upload that seperately to the images, using the time we know the location (as it is specific to the mobile) therefore we dont need any more information and it is more accurate than CellID (unless you are in doors!).

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