In 2009 we ventured into the cloud to use Flickr to manage images for media relations. It began as an experiment, and has allowed us to explore different uses for the images. It was worth the small amount of risk.
Our Media Relations photos are located here on Flickr:
The decision to go with Flickr was made after looking into the possibility for close to two years. We was very hesitant to put college content off site, but the tipping point were two presentations at the 2008 HighEdWeb Association Conference:
- Press Release 2.0 – News Releases in the Social Media Era
Matthew Herzberger, Texas A&M (now at Florida International University
- High in the Clouds: Purposing WebApps for Education
Jonathan Steffens, University of Missouri
Both touched on using Flickr for images — benefits including:
- It’s low-cost (Pro account $25/year.)
- It allows non-technical users to manage images.
- Ease of use for media relations folks to distribute high-res images.
- The bandwidth for the images is kept off campus (and most of the traffic to press releases come from off campus.)
- The Flickr API let’s you work with the images in multiple sizes, slideshows, and more.
After their talks I was able to spend time with both of them in a long discussion about “was it really that simple?” and “what’s really involved,” and learned what to watch out for (see below.)
Based on their experience I felt it was worth bringing the idea to fruition and brought the idea to the media relations and digital imaging folks. We started using Flickr in early 2009. The images we distribute to the media are processed by our digital imaging specialist. She uploads them to Flickr, and the associate director of media relations sends a Guest Pass when emailing releases.
The first use was to distribute high-res images to the media. A link to a Guest Pass was sent along with the release, then the media could choose how large an image they needed and download it (Flickr automatically creates the smaller sizes.) Then we moved on to using the images in our releases on the web.
For the first six months we simply copy/pasted the URL for the image in the size we wanted from Flickr into the web page for a press release. Later we set up our CMS (Cascade Server) to have a field, “Flickr lead image ID” and the person posting the release simply selects the image from Flickr and puts its number in with the release. When we display the releases a script determines which size appears on which page. For instance, we show thumbnails on this page: http://info.vassar.edu and a larger size in with the release.
In the future we’ll work on a script to offer a slideshow (by including a set ID from Flickr) or to click the image and get a larger version.
Of course, no system is perfect, and there are some caveats:
- If Flickr goes down, your site doesn’t load — in the 18 months we’ve had images in our releases online we’ve experienced three outages that lasted less than five minutes and one that lasted over an hour. It just meant the pages were slower to load (the link to Flickr timed out at 30 seconds.) Not ideal, but managable. We won’t be using Flickr directly on high-traffic pages — instead we cache part of it with a PHP script. The only pages that were slow were pages using the Flickr images and it cleared up quickly.
- Maintain a separate backup — if Flickr goes away we don’t want to lose images. We save all our images first on a department server that is backed up regularly. Fortunately, most larger services like this give you an opportunity to download your data if they shut down.
- Images have to set to publicly viewable in Flickr — we had some resistance with art images and might run into issues with copyrighted headshots — we’ve taken them on a case-by-case basis. As a back-up we can just include an image the old way: save it on our site.
- Take the time to talk it out, have patience explaining it. We went very slowly, but hopefully with more schools using Flickr it’ll be easier to get buy-in.
- Shift in duties. The web group posted images previously. Uploading images and entering captions and copyright information now falls to the digital imaging specialist, so that was an increase in work for her, but we’ve taken steps to minimize that. Reminds me that we should revisit the process and see if there’s ways we can streamline it further.
I think it’s been extremely valuable. It give autonomy to the people who need to work with and distribute the images. We’re looking into setting up Pro accounts for some larger sites with large amounts of off-campus traffic, such as the Vassar Encyclopedia. It’s been working out really well.
Using Flickr images also made it easier to distribute releases to related websites along with the images (using templates and our CMS.) For example, the commencement press release also shows up on the commencement, college relations, and Vassar Info websites:
Of course, that was a whole other project.