MIT student logs a million Boston skyline photos over five years – Metro US

MIT student logs a million Boston skyline photos over five years

Over the past five years or so, MIT doctoral candidate and photography hobbyist Adrian Dalca has been slowly amassing a massive trove of photos of Boston — all from his 22nd-floor perch on Wadsworth Street in Cambridge, with its enviable panoramic view of the cities’ skylines.

Soon, the 30-year-old from Toronto plans to release every piece of his 4-5 terabytes of pictures for worldwide dissection — free to sort, study, pick apart and repurpose — in an experiment he’s calling The Boston Timescape Project.

He’s captured thousands upon thousands of the cities’ fleeting moments from above: a violent lightning storm, a double rainbow, clouds of smoke from transistor fires, adventurers navigating the post-flurry city on skis. Far from just a big data art project, though, Dalca believes his collection of identical pictures, released into the wilds of scientific research, could fuel anything from cell phone camera improvements to weather prediction technology.

“You can actually do an awful lot,” Dalca said in an interview with Metro. “There are more scientific questions you can answer with a lot of data, which you couldn’t do if you only had a few images. You need a lot of images to really study something.”

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His pictures, he said, could fuel the newly expanding field of computer vision — making computers smarter about analyzing pictures they see by, for example, guessing the temperature or predicting weather, gauging air quality or monitoring the tides, all from cameras suction-cupped to a window, quietly snapping away at the same subject again and again and again.

Algorithms derived from matching the images taken with his high-powered SLR, and his pair of decidedly less high-powered GoPros, he said, could help computers learn to make fuzzy, flat pictures look sharper and brighter.

Dalca tends to his rig of equipment the way others might a high-maintenance plant, or a high-tech lobster trap – checking on it every few days, sometimes for 10 or 20 minutes at a time, tweaking the settings, angling the lenses just so and downloading the day’s catches, slowly filling up external hard-drives with sunrises and sunsets, clear nights and foggy afternoons.

In the Timescape files are curious snapshots of city life, natural and otherwise. His automated cameras have watched snow rest on a thinly-iced Charles River, then disappear, captured several rounds of holiday fireworks, spotted the many cranes come up among the skyscrapers, then come down. They’ve also spotted people ambling on a fully iced Charles as it started to break, “straddling the cracks.”

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“There are these moments when I have pictures I think are really nice,” he said, but sometimes, “I have 1,000 photos of Boston at night where the only thing that happens is the planes take off and you see their trail and that’s all that happens.”

As far as he knows, no one else has taken so many pictures of a city skyline in such high quality over such a long period of time.

Those looking to get their hands on chunks of his data can contact him and request it. He’s agreed to let anyone print off any picture that’s to their liking — as long as it’s for research or personal consumption. Eventually, he hopes to make all of it available on an open-source basis by hosting it on MIT’s servers.

It’s not like anyone with the equipment and time, and a killer view, couldn’t do what Dalca has done on their own — they could.

“It just so happens that they don’t,” he said. “If you put your mind to it, really, you could do it.”

Soon, someone else will have to, or his project will come to an end. Dalca, a medical imaging specialist, plans to finish his Ph.D. sometime this year, at which point he’ll be leaving for good the MIT-owned apartment he scoped out specifically for its uncommonly good sight line.

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He’s considered asking neighbors to let him set up shop in their windows, or at least inviting them to submit their own photos to his collection online. His dream: permanent access to the higher-up view on his apartment building’s roof, or to the penthouse on the 26th floor.

For now, he’s just enjoying the last few months at The Boston Timescape’s helm, his cameras primed to watch as this year’s sluggish winter rolls into Boston.

“There is probably no better vantage point than from where we’re standing,” he said.