I’m not going to speculate on why Facebook purchased Instagram for one billion with a B dollars. The board wasn’t even privy to that information. Smart people have traded theories about the aquisition and most have settled here – Facebook’s business is data and Instagram gives them access to a lot more.

The price tag shocked a lot of people, partly because Instagram’s valuation in February 2011 was $20 million with an M, but there is also a large contingent of people who see the service as a novelty. The retro filters and hearts obscure the fact that Instagram is a consumer data gold mine.

Elsewhere and for a measley $200, Matt Richardson has created a device that is a simple illustration of how that sepia toned skyline actually does hold searchable data and maybe why Facebook was willing to pay fifty times Instagram’s previous valuation.

Richardson’s device is the Descriptive Camera. Point, click, and rather than producing an image, the Descriptive Camera prints out a short text description. It uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced “artificial intelligence” network to produce the text.

The Descriptive Camera is more thought experiment than actual product – it takes five minutes to print each description – but he talks about the possibilities on his website. It’s not hard to see how all of those Instagram photos could be automatically appended with metadata, which Facebook can use to show smarter, more targeted ads.

“As we amass an incredible amount of photos, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage our collections. Imagine if descriptive metadata about each photo could be appended to the image on the fly—information about who is in each photo, what they’re doing, and their environment could become incredibly useful in being able to search, filter, and cross-reference our photo collections. Of course, we don’t yet have the technology that makes this a practical proposition, but the Descriptive Camera explores these possibilities.”

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