CC Open Source Blog

Flickr Sub-provider Retrieval


by Charini Nanayakkara on 2020-06-24

This blog is part of the series: GSoC 2020: CC catalog


The Creative Commons (CC) licensed images made available via CC Search and CC Catalog API tools are retrieved from numerous sources (which we refer to as providers) such as Flickr and different museum collections. While the existing implementation of the CC Catalog tools enables filtering images in various manners such as based on image tags, the provider, and the license type, it does not facilitate searching for images from particularly valuable internal sources (referred to as sub-providers). For example, images related to 'NASA' have significant value in the Flickr collection, since 'NASA' related pictures are extensively used by a large audience especially for educational purposes. The aim of my first task in the GSoC project is to implement required changes in the API script level and in the existing data in the database, such that filtering by certain important sub-providers is made possible.

While there are several providers such as Flickr, Europeana, and Smithsonian from which we require to extract sub-providers, the consensus was to initially focus on Flickr due to that currently being in production, and since a substantial amount of images made available via CC Search come from Flickr. Thus, in this initial blog post, I will discuss how I addressed the requirement of sub-provider retrieval in Flickr by making the necessary changes in the Creative Commons Catalog repository.


The primary research involved in the Flickr sub-provider retrieval task was defining which entities to identify as sub-providers, and identifying how those sub-providers can be retrieved based on the image related information we retain.

Definition of a sub-provider

It was decided that a sub-provider should be a collection of user accounts in Flickr, where this collection corresponded to a common entity, and the common entity would reflect the sub-provider. For example, since both Flickr user accounts NASA HQ PHOTO and NASA Johnson provide images related to NASA, we would represent the NASA sub-provider by those two (and other related) user accounts.

The next challenge was to determine how to identify which collections of user accounts were important to a wider audience. The number of views per user account was an intuitive measure to rely on for this requirement. My supervisor Brent Moran executed a query on the existing CC database to obtain the 50 most popular user accounts in Flickr. A snippet of the query response is as follows:

user_account_name total_views
Apollo Image Gallery 1216297208
BioDivLibrary 625528813
manhhai 445714729
Thomas Hawk 300554527
Sangudo 258177509
NASA Goddard Photo and Video 225143949

Despite having a significant number of views, some of these user accounts did not appear to be worth being identified as belonging to a sub-provider due to their lack of educational importance. Thus, we manually curated this list to retain what we believed to be important to a wider audience.

Sub-provider identification

In order to identify the sub-provider each image from Flickr belonged to, it was necessary to determine which field in the stored image data referred to the user account. Among the various information contained in an API response, only a selected set of fields is stored on the CC end, and it was important to use such stored data for the identification of sub-providers. We initially decided to rely on the user account name which was reflected by the ownername field in the JSON response and stored as the creator in the CC database. However, we later realised that the names of accounts could potentially change over time, and therefore was not a reliable field for extracting the sub-provider. Another field from the JSON response that helped to uniquely identify a user account was the owner field, which acted like a unique user ID. Even though the owner value was not directly stored in the CC database, it was stored as part of the creator URL field, and fortunately, all creator URLs from Flickr consisted of a common prefix plus the owner value (the user id). Thus, we decided to use the creator URL value retained in the CC database for identifying sub-providers in Flickr.


There are two levels at which sub-provider retrieval needs to be supported, where the first concerns the API scripts from which we initially pull the data from different providers to keep the CC collections uptodate. The second is the CC database level where the existing data needs to be updated to ensure that those reflect the sub-providers similar to the newly added image information.

The following sections explain how we represented the sub-provider information in the implementation, the changes made at Flickr API script level and the database update logic to support sub-provider retrieval.

Representing the sub-provider information

As previously explained, we define a sub-provider as a collection of user accounts, and it was identified that the unique user ID returned in the Flickr JSON response (referred to as the owner) was a reliable field for uniquely identifying each user account. For the time being, we focused on sub-providers NASA, SpaceX, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BioDivLibrary) based on their considerable importance to the community. Using the top six NASA related user accounts, the 'Official SpaceX Photos' user account, and the 'BioDivLibrary' user account as filtered by Brent's query, we identified the corresponding user IDs (content of the owner field) using the flickr.people.findByUsername method made available in the Flickr API. The mapping between the sub-provider and the corresponding user IDs was stored in a dictionary as follows.

    'nasa': {
        '24662369@N07',  # NASA Goddard Photo and Video
        '35067687@N04',  # NASA HQ PHOTO
        '29988733@N04',  # NASA Johnson
        '28634332@N05',  # NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
        '108488366@N07',  # NASAKennedy
        '136485307@N06'  # Apollo Image Gallery
    'bio_diversity': {
        '61021753@N02'  # BioDivLibrary
    'spacex': {
        '130608600@N05'  # Official SpaceX Photos

Since this information was required both at the API script level and the database level to retrieve sub-providers, we stored it in a common file accessible from both levels.

The next challenge was to identify how to reflect the sub-provider of each image using the existing database schema. There are two different fields in the database as provider and the source. The provider reflects the main source from which the images are retrieved, which happens to be 'Flickr' in this scenario. The source field reflects an organisation or entity that has published the photos using 'Flickr' in this instance (or some other site that we recognise as a provider).The source field was previously not utilised and was simply set to the value of the provider in the Flickr API script. Based on internal discussions, it was decided that the source field was to be used for reflecting the sub-provider, if the corresponding image belonged to any of the user accounts contained in our dictionary FLICKR_SUB_PROVIDERS. Otherwise the source was set to the default provider value 'Flickr'.

Sub-provider retrieval at API script level

Retrieving the sub-provider from the Flickr API script was fairly straightforward. Since the complete JSON response was available at the API script level, we did not have to worry about retrieving the user ID (owner value) from the creator URL field in our data. Rather, we simply get the owner value from the API response, and try to search for it in the FLICKR_SUB_PROVIDERS dictionary as follows.

owner = image_data.get('owner').strip()
source = next((s for s in FLICKR_SUB_PROVIDERS if owner in FLICKR_SUB_PROVIDERS[s]), 'Flickr')

Since the collection of user IDs corresponding to each sub-provider is represented as a set, the time complexity for each sub-provider is O(1) and therefore the total time complexity is linear in the number of sub-providers (that is O(n) for n sub-providers). Due to the number of sub-providers of interest being minimal (currently it is 3), this search logic is quite efficient.

Once we determine whether the source field should be set to a sub-provider value or the default ‘Flickr’ value with the given logic, we set the source value in the image store likewise.

Sub-provider update at the database level

When updating sub-providers at the database level, we need to rely on the creator URL field to obtain the user ID of each image. The creator URL is of the following form.

'' + User ID

For the purpose of automating the process of updating the database to reflect sub-providers, I added the necessary SQL queries and made it accessible via the Apache Airflow UI. The database update logic is as follows.

As the first step, I create a temporary table and populate it with the sub-provider values and the corresponding creator URLs. This is done by iterating through the sub-provider, user ID value pairs in the FLICKR_SUB_PROVIDERS dictionary, and concatenating the user ID with the prefix '' to obtain the creator URL.

The initial plan was to then perform a join on the CC image table (where all the image related information is stored) with the temporary table on the condition that the creator URL from the image table matches that of the temporary table. This query which filters all the rows in the image table where we need to update the sub-provider values, looks as follows.

UPDATE {image_table}
SET {col.SOURCE} = public.{temp_table}.{col.SUB_PROVIDER}
FROM public.{temp_table}
{image_table}.{col.CREATOR_URL} = public.{temp_table}.{col.CREATOR_URL};

However, a major concern with this query, as my supervisor Brent Moran pointed out, was that it locked all the rows which matched the 'WHERE' clause at once. With respect to the magnitude of the Flickr data available in the CC image table, this meant that the above query would lock millions of rows, thus hindering the execution of other queries on the image table. To mitigate this issue, we decided to update the SQL query as follows, such that we perform a 'SELECT' query on the rows to be updated by joining the previously created temporary table with the CC image table (a 'SELECT' query does not lock the table), and iterate row by row over the query result to set the source value in the image table to the sub-provider value.

{col.FOREIGN_ID} AS foreign_id,
public.{temp_table}.{col.PROVIDER} AS sub_provider
FROM {image_table}
INNER JOIN public.{temp_table}
{image_table}.{col.CREATOR_URL} = public.{temp_table}.{col.CREATOR_URL}
{image_table}.{col.PROVIDER} = 'Flickr';

# Let us refer to the result produced from the SELECT query as 'selected_records'

for (foreign_id, sub_provider) in selected_records:
    UPDATE {image_table}
    SET {col.SOURCE} = '{sub_provider}'
    {image_table}.{col.PROVIDER} = 'Flickr'
    MD5({image_table}.{col.FOREIGN_ID}) = MD5('{foreign_id}');

To make this functionality available from the Airflow UI, I have added the Airflow DAG flickr_sub_provider_update_workflow. The changes in the source field after updating the image table in the database looks like follows.

id provider source before the update source after the update
14369 flickr flickr bio_diversity
14372 flickr flickr bio_diversity
14375 flickr flickr bio_diversity
14378 flickr flickr bio_diversity
14382 flickr flickr bio_diversity
40784 flickr flickr nasa
47237 flickr flickr nasa
47242 flickr flickr nasa
47244 flickr flickr nasa
47245 flickr flickr nasa

For more information regarding the implementation, please refer to the following PR:


I express my gratitude to Brent Moran and Anna Tumadóttir for their assistance with my first task in GSoC 2020 by helping me to filter the sub-providers of interest and conducting the necessary research.