26 January 2012

PhyloPic Is Back!

Last year, I launched a project called PhyloPic. The goal of this project was to create an open database of freely reuseable silhouette images of organisms. Furthermore, it featured a phylogenetic taxonomy so that, if a taxon wasn't illustrated, an approximation could be found.

I launched it as a "public alpha", meaning that it wasn't complete and still had some bugs. The year turned out to be very busy for me: an awful thing happened, and a wonderful thing happened. And I didn't really have time to push PhyloPic to the next level.

Unfortunately, I hadn't built it well enough in the first place. The architecture was not optimized, and the site became extremely slow and buggy. I took it offline, hoping to release a new version in short order, but it turned out to need a lot more work than I first thought.

Happily, it is now ready again!

What's Changed?

Aside from general optimization, here's a summary of major changes:
  • Vector files (SVG) are now supported! Unlike raster bitmaps, vector images can be scaled to any size without loss of resolution. Most silhouettes are still only available as raster bitmaps (PNG format), but a few can also be downloaded as SVG files.
  • The submission process was completely rewritten. It now only uses Flash for opening and preparing the files; everything else is HTML/Ajax. (And I'll probably phase out the Flash component in the future, once HTML5 matures enough that it can reliably take that task over.)
    • A major new feature in the submission process is Social Network Login. You can now log in via Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo! This lowers the barrier to submission and will hopefully encourage more people to submit silhouettes.
  • Taxon and search pages load progressively. The first time anyone goes to a taxon page or performs a new search, PhyloPic grabs the appropriate data from uBio. (Subsequently the data is cached.) This can take a really long time, if there is a lot of data. (In fact, this was the main reason I shut the site down before.) Now the page will load instantaneously then try to update the data, if necessary. And taxon pages will show status updates as data is pulled.
  • Image search is enhanced. Now you can search for related taxa in addition to supertaxa and subtaxa.
  • There are no developer APIs. (What, you thought all the changes were positive?) I have been working on updated APIs, but it's not quite ready for primetime yet. I didn't want it to delay the relaunch, so it'll hopefully be bundled into public alpha 2.1.
  • URLs are different. (And a bit uglier, to be honest, but it's for the best in the long run.) Don't expect all the old ones to work, but do expect the new ones to work from here on out.
I have a lot of plans for the future of PhyloPic. You can keep abreast of the latest plans here. (Now we'll see if I have the time to finish them....)