https://dfid.blog.gov.uk/2013/05/24/development-through-a-lens/

Development through a lens

With news of Yahoo’s Yahoo's $1.1bn purchase of Tumblr still rumbling, I thought I’d seen the big social media story of the week. Then late that same night, surprise news of Flickr's revamp began to emerge. A radical, Pinterest-influenced new layout. One free terabyte of storage for every user.

A torrent of emotion ensued on feedback forums. “I HATE IT! CHANGE IT BACK!” is the defining comment from Flickr’s loyal base of members. Nearly 16,000 comments later, and pockets of positivity are starting to temper the wrath. The debate will rage on. As ever, a major new vs. old bun fight is developing. Digital media commentators could rival the Paris Left Bank in fashion week for backstabbing and vitriol.

As the digital team lead for DFID, I must admit the new format came as a shock. There was no warning. The page looks and feels very different. Gone is the lightbox-style of viewing each picture individually, with a civilised amount of air, space and text around it.

The new, masonry-style picture stream completely fills the screen, refilling as you scroll down into what feels like infinity. The images somehow feel less meaningful when viewed packed alongside hundreds of others, I thought. How will we get used to this? Is it better?

Captions are completely sidelined. While they are still there, the redesign makes it harder to find them and we will need to rethink our approach to the text we publish alongside. Wired calls these captions and picture info “icky white space and meta-data that only your photographer cousin cares about.” It’s true we need to know a whole lot more about what people want or need out of both.

DFID has been posting on Flickr for almost six years, so we could be forgiven for getting used to the format. Our 2,000 or so photographs have been viewed more than 2 million times, so it’s a vital tool to communicate the important work British taxpayers are funding in developing countries.

The archive covers everything from flood and earthquake relief efforts to maternal health and mine clearing initiatives. Many of our photographs are taken by staff in the field and by members of this team, sometimes with extraordinary reach, such as this series of spider web trees following the Pakistan floods by our picture editor Russell Watkins.

Trees cocooned in spiders webs, an unexpected side effect of the flooding in Sindh, Pakistan. Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Our Flickr pics have been well received so far. Having high quality images online in one place makes them easy to share too. Whenever possible, we allow the images to be reused free of charge, providing they are credited to the source (known as creative commons licencing, but also the Open Government licence).

Now we’ve worked with the new format, I’m reassured. Our latest batch of photos from a cement factory in Ethiopia by colleagues Simon Davis and Gavin Houtheusen looks fantastic:

The detail of the factory and the people working there stand out in a way they didn’t before. There is a sense of purpose and direction in the pictures which reflect that country’s growing economy. Indeed, different perspectives on African countries – such as the BBC’s recent Africa Rising series – are beginning to change how the world thinks about the continent.

So, now the stream looks rich and varied. The question is what will users think? Will they miss the prominent, information-rich captions, or will they be happy simply browsing pictures?

Suffice to say we care deeply about photography at DFID. It’s a topic I hope we can explore in these blogposts as part of the Digital for Development blogging group, along with thoughts on the rest of our social media, meeting needs of the citizen on GOV.UK and collaboration with the other digital teams within the organisation. So please stay tuned.

The Flickr changes make two things clear to me more than ever about digital communication. Firstly, never get too comfortable – the oft-quoted “change or die” mantra. The times shift relentlessly and half the job is keeping up. Secondly, the visual web is more important than ever, and central to this is photography.

Unlike traditional communications work, digital comms people need to be ready to adapt to the market forces that determine the direction of big web endeavours. While it can be tiring, it can also be really rewarding and exciting.

Lastly, we would love to hear from you about any aspect of digital communication, DFID’s or otherwise, so do get in touch via this blog.

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