History of the CalPhotos Image Database   

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Chabot and DWR Photos

The CalPhotos image retrieval system had its roots in a 1993-94 research project called Chabot, which was a part of the Database Research Group at UC Berkeley. Chabot was developed by UC Berkeley EECS graduate student Ginger Ogle. It used a relational database, Postgres, to store not only textual information about the images, but also image content. Through the use of pre-computed color histograms, Chabot provided the ability to search for "Mostly Red" photos, or images with "White Stuff" in them. The images used for this research were provided by the Film Library of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), an early adopter of digital image technology, in particular PhotoCD format. DWR continued to provide digital photos to the Digital Library Project and by December 1998 there were over 17,000 images online. After the events of Sept 11, 2001, DWR removed the images from online access due to security concerns.

Computer Vision Research

Chabot became a part of the Digital Library Project in 1995, when it was renamed "Cypress" and given a web-based interface and a new database engine, Illustra, which was developing a commercial version of University Postgres. The image collection continued to grow, and collaboration with the State of California expanded to DWR's parent agency the California Resources Agency, along with its just-created information service CERES. At the same time, researchers from the UCB Computer Vision Group (Jitendra Malik and David Forsyth and their students Chad Carson, Serge J. Belongie, and Thomas Leung) began using the DWR photos for their work in recognition and retrieval using image content. They aquired a set of 40,000 Corel Stock Photos to use for this research; these images were added to the online collection. These images were used for testing and demonstrating Blobworld, an image retrieval system that uses regions of color and texture to find images in a very large collection.

Brousseau Collection of California Wildflowers

In 1996, Sheila Hurst, Outreach Projects Coordinator for CERES, and CERES Director Gary Darling, were contacted by Brother Eric Vogel of St. Mary's College about a set of California wildflower slides that he wanted to make publicly available. Using funds from DWR and the Digital Library project, these slides were scanned and put online as the Brousseau Collection of California Wildflowers. Later, trees and fungi slides were added, and they now number over 12,000. The Brousseau photographs became the initial collection of CalPhotos.

The Biology Community

The Brousseau collection of photographs sparked an interest in the botanical community and led to new collaborations. Hugh Wilson of Texas A&M's Bioinformatics Working Group began generating links to the Brousseau pictures from his own work with the CalFlora Database which was being developed by Ann Dennis, then of the US Forest Service. The Digital Library Project developed an online query and retrieval system based on the photo database for CalFlora, linking the photos to species information from CalFlora, and vice versa. Interest in the CalFlora system extended to other biological sciences and collections as well, resulting in our development of online specimen databases for the UC Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (launched in 1999), AmphibiaWeb (2000), the UC Museum of Paleontology (2002), and the Essig Museum of Entomology (2003). The data model that was originally based on the CalPhotos database has subsequently been used for a variety of other biodiversity research projects and is now called the GO Model (click for more information).

The California Academy of Sciences

In 1997, we began to add the photographs of other individuals and organizations to the Brousseau Collection. Most notably, the California Academy of Sciences in 1998 allowed us to include thousands of their photographs of California plants and animals that were part of the Manzanita Project. The Academy continues to add several thousand new photos to CalPhotos every year and provides funding assistance to CalPhotos.


To accommodate the new collections, we changed the name of the database from "California Wildflowers" to CalPhotos. In September 2000 we introduced a new web-based image upload system that has allowed hundreds of photographers to easily contribute new photos to CalPhotos. Currently we receive around 1,700 new photos every month using this system. See About Contributing Photos for more information. Around this time we also developed an Annotation System for CalPhotos which allows registered experts to review photos, add comments, and make corrections to the scientific names of photos.

Other Image Collections and Technologies

In November 1999 we made more than 1000 historical photos available from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, using TilePic software we developed to provide zoom and pan capability for large-resolution photos. In 2007, more than 8,000 historical MVZ photos, with TilePics, were added. The TilePic technology is also being used for the University and Jepson Herbaria specimen photos and for UCMP Paleontology Collections Photos, in particular, a collection of modern cleared leaves used for fossil identification. In 2006, for the Moorea Biocode project, we developed a field-based photo upload feature for specimen photos and we are extending this to other specimen databases in the Berkeley Natural History Museums.

In May 2000 we began providing online access to 80,000 high-resolution images of the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. These zoom-able images were originally made available as part of another computer science research project at Berkeley a few years earlier. When the Digital Library Project ended in 2005, the Fine Arts Museum began hosting these images themselves.

As of 2008, CalPhotos contains more than 160,000 photos of worldwide plants, animals, and habitats. CalPhotos is particularly strong in California plants and world-wide amphibian species, but it contains thousands of photos of plants and animals from all over the world.

The database receives more than 100,000 distinct queries each day, and serves more than 1 million photos each day. Current usage information can be found here: Database Query Statistics. For more information about the photo database, see About CalPhotos.

CalPhotos is a project of BNHM   University of California, Berkeley

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this page last updated: Jan 14, 2018