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Preserving and Sharing Photo Captions from Picasa (before Google shuts it down)



Growing up, a favorite past time of my father was taking photos of various trips and presenting them at some point later in a carousel slide projector. At some point in the 90s, my father became a customer of companies specializing in both developing his photos and creating digital images which were shipped to him on floppy discs and CDs. Eventually, as Internet speeds improved, the service migrated entirely to the web. As digital cameras became ubiqitous its business became obsolete, but the need for applications for managing and displaying such digital images offline and online for customers remained competitive. Years ago, Google gobbled up a photo app called Picasa. And then came social media. Now Google’s about to shelve Picasa in favor of Google Photos.  It’s hard to argue with free-without-fee, gratis, services.

So what’s the problem? Many folk, like my father, caption their photos and albums. However, none of the caption data in Picasa appears to be preserved in Google’s replacement Picasa to Google Photos. This is a rather severe oversight! I just spent an hour with my father looking for a work-a-round which I’ll share below in this post.

Let me just say first that my father needs his captions. He needs them associated with his photos and albums. He needs this data in a working format that he can move between different online services and offline applications. My father is an academic urban planner and he illustrates his lectures with real world examples. These captions need to be stored with their associated digital images in a way that they can be easily presented in any number of media formats, online or offline, including in PowerPoint (or similar) files and webpages. When my father wanted to share an album of captioned photos with a colleague, he used to be able to simply send them a link in an email.

A lot of people rely on captions, obviously, not just my father. Individuals and families need this for documenting their memory and for sharing this history. The technology for sharing this data needs to be open, standard, and future-proof.

An image is like a cipher. Just as an encoded message relies on a cipher for its decoding, so too an image relies on a caption to document its meaning: its context, significance, provenance, etc. Captions store critical information for contextualizing photos.

Caption data could be stored as metadata in the photos themselves using open, standard metadata fields for digital images. However, I’m not aware of any of the popular Internet content/search/social media companies utilizing open standards as the technical solution for preserving their users caption data. (please correct me if you know differently.) Rather, these companies have preserved caption data using their own proprietary methods, accessed by closed APIs. From the company’s perspective, this may make sense since by making caption data hard to access outside of their system, they can effectively lock-in users that have captioned images within their proprietary system.

I wish there was a solution to give to my father that preserved his important data on the same level of the images, or in some other open standard database format. I’m still very interested in an application or service built on top of image metadata fields.

The solution I worked out for my father relies on Google’s Picasa application installed. So if you need this, go ahead, download and install the latest Picasa application. The rest of the solution is as follows:

  1. Open Picasa
  2. Sync the Picasa application with the online Picasa account. Click “File,” then “Import from online account” (ASAP before the service is discontinued!!!)
  3. Select the images to share. We just did this for one album. Single click on the first image of a sequence to select it, then hold the shift key down and click the last image of a sequence.
  4. Go to the toolbar and click ‘Folders,’ then ‘Export as web page’
  5. Choose the default image size that will be presented within the web page rendered. The default is 640 pixels (width), so if you’re archiving your entire Picasa, choose “Original Size”
  6. Save the output to the Desktop or wherever works best for him
  7. Choose the default template (this template preserves the captions as the image title and is easily readable)
  8. Click Export. (After a moment or so, the web browser will open to show the output. Close the browser.)
  9. Go to the directory containing the folder with the output of this export procedure
  10. Compress (zip) the folder into a single ZIP file. In Windows, right-click on the folder and select “Send to,” then “Compressed (zip) folder”
  11. Drop the zip file into dropbox or similar service
  12. Copy the dropbox share link (right click on the file and select “Copy Dropbox link”
  13. Paste the link into an email for whomever you want to share your album with.

Once preserved in HTML, it shouldn’t be to “too difficult” to craft a script to copy the title from the individual html pages generated and copy that title into the image’s own metadata.

It should be simpler. We should have a better option. Here are some photo management alternatives I’ve been able to find (none of which I’ve tried out yet) which use open standard metadata for storing image descriptions:

  • MS Photo Pro Tools (freeware) is another Microsft Windows Explorer extension. With it you can edit several images at once.
  • PixVue (freeware) seemed promising but it’s integration into the Windows Explorer appears to have broken at some point since Windows XP.
  • XNView (freeware) also provides a means to add/edit image metadata – but you have to open each image first and then select metadata in the menu.

In 2012, the VRA (Visual Resources Association) Foundation funded the development of an add-on to PowerPoint for displaying image metdata in presentations: Metdata Deluxe MetaShotPPt (Win | Mac). I’m looking forward to testing this.

Finally, Tiny Web Gallery (TWG) is server side code for displaying images over a website. It can read and display IPTC metadata from the images it serves. This could work on personal and company websites.

Again, I haven’t tried out any of these solutions individually or as part of a workflow, but I think it behooves professionals who rely on digital images for their presentations to explore these options thoroughly.

A parting note (in a minor key).

Nothing pushes my buttons more than finding my parents made vulnerable and victimized by proprietary software and the capricious and arbitrary decisions of international megacorps.

Just as my grandparents once translated English for their Romanian-Jewish, Italian, and Hungarian parents, I do a lot of translating of computer and web interface design for my parents.

It’s a humbling experience for them, a challenging experience for me, and frustrating for all of us. I want them to be more capable in thinking through and solving the limitless problems that might arise, and they want the convenience of getting what they need done and moving on to the next thing.

It’s not as if computers are new for them. In the 1970s, my family was connected through a dummy terminal via a modem to the University of Cincinnati’s mainframe computer. My parents both used computers at work and my family was privileged to own a personal computer in the 1980s (an Epson QX-10 running CP/M). After many upgrades everyone here has their own laptop.

And yet, our orientation to computer technology is so vastly different. I struggle to understand why. Perhaps its my experience trying to convert documents saved in archaic CP/M file formats to open in DOS. Perhaps it’s the coursework I took in archiving back when I attended Drexel University. Perhaps its due to my first hand experience working with and developing open-source software while working for a small web hosting company in Philadelphia in the early 2000s. It’s not ideological — choosing open, standard solutions, especially for critical documents and client deliverables is the PRACTICAL solution to ensure that data is accessible five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now. Human beings — especially in our money-driven culture — seem to have an extraordinarily hard time thinking beyond the present, beyond the immediate needs of now. While captions document the context of past memories for future generations, open, standard technological solutions preserve our documents so that they may be accessible to future generations.


About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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