Surviving deadline day – how we built a photo competition system to scale

Recent Work

In 2014 we were asked to build an online system, from the ground up, to sell and manage entries for the BJP’s International Photography Awards – a prestigious competition where photographers around the world enter series of photographs in the hope of winning a gallery show in London and a place in the British Journal of Photography. By the time we closed it down, around 5,000 images had been received, and our server was feeling the strain.

Since then we’ve used iterations of this system for three annual IPA awards, two seasons of the Breakthrough award for new photographic talent, and two annual Portrait of Britain competitions, the latest of which has just closed. The most popular awards now attract several thousand entries, with the count of individual images running in five figures. Each time we close down an iteration of the system we’ve analysed the results to see how it could be improved, and what we can learn from the entry pattern.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned? There’s nothing quite like a deadline to give your infrastructure a workout.

Even in an open call that runs for months, a very large proportion of all entries will arrive in the few hours just before the deadline. A recent example: over 2,000 photographers entered this year’s Portrait of Britain, submitting around 8,000 images in total, and of those over 25% entered so in the 24 hours before the deadline. Requests to our servers climbed throughout deadline day and peaked around half an hour before the midnight cutoff time:

We’ve used this pattern to inform not only how our competition infrastructure is managed during an open call period, but also how it’s designed. Rather than managing server hardware, much of which would sit idle during less busy periods, for the last two years our application has been deployed to Heroku dynos – logical cloud-based containers – allowing us to immediately scale it by adding additional dynos in parallel at any point – even automatically, based on the load.

All image data is stored in Amazon S3 – providing an effectively infinite amount of storage space, and allowing us to perform uploads directly into that infrastructure – avoiding a key bottleneck that held back our first system. For additional security, a separate server provides a 24/7 ongoing backup of all images to another location. Processing thousands of entries requires many thousands of emails, so we send those via Mandrill (owned by podcast-favourites MailChimp). Payments are handled via Stripe‘s rock-solid credit card infrastructure, while a promotional code system built into our front-end allows for discount campaigns or free entries.

Our multi-dyno formation, Stripe, S3 and Mandrill services give the platform the ability to stay up and keep processing both new entries and image uploads even through the busiest final few hours of a competition. With the deadline passed, we can scale the formation back down – but the process of running a competition doesn’t end there.

Having thousands of images, and tens of thousands of items of metadata, is useless without being able to sort and view them. Our platform handles judging online, allowing multiple judges – whether they’re around the world, or together in one room in London, to filter and browse the entries, working towards a shortlist, and then a winner. Our system manages this process to the very end – where the winning images can be downloaded, and the winners contacted. In some cases, an additional component is used to request even higher-quality images from shortlisted photographers.

The judging team for Portrait of Britain has just reached the end of the process, and we expect the winning images to be announced shortly – with the results on show on JCDecaux digital billboards all around the UK later this year.

Meanwhile, we’re already gearing up the next iteration of the system for another competition due to open shortly. Interested in working with us on a competition? Drop us a line – hi@mndigital.co.

1854 Media

Recent Work

In February 2013, the British Journal of Photography, and its editorial, sales and technical staff, left Incisive Media as a management buyout to form a new company: Apptitude Media Ltd. Over the following three years, Apptitude would develop the BJP into a beautiful, luxuriously redesigned magazine, while building a wider audience via an award-winning app and relaunched website – and simultaneously launching a successful business providing apps, in-app content, app-related consultancy and app backend technology for other companies.

The result was a growing company, but one with two divisions – one focused on photography, and the other on apps and app publishing technology. In July 2016, we decided that it would be beneficial for the two to separate, and split off the technology team into a separate business – MN Digital Media. This freed us to offer our services to other publishers and pursue new technology projects separate to the BJP’s audience, while Apptitude could pursue its photography-related business with renewed focus.

We’re now pleased to pass on the news that our former colleagues at Apptitude have now completed a rebrand, and are now known as 1854 Media – 1854 being the year the British Journal of Photography was first published. And we’re equally happy to announce that MN Digital has assisted with the launch of the company’s new website.

The new site runs on WordPress, using a child-themed version of ElmaStudio’s excellent Zeitreise theme, heavily customised to adapt it for (largely) one-page use, to meet the new company’s branding requirements:

Changes made – besides the usual typographic alterations – include additional widgets and extra widget slots on an adapted front page template, allowing 1854’s staff to easily edit its content, as well as changes to the core page templates to remove the more blog-like elements in favour of strong headlines and prominent custom excerpts throughout.

The site is live now at http://1854.media

We Have Moved

Company News

We’re pleased to announce that, following a weekend spent largely surrounded by bubble-wrap and cardboard boxes, MN Digital Media has moved into its new home. We’ve joined our colleagues from the British Journal of Photography and Apptitude Media at the Trampery Republic in East India. Our new address is:

The Trampery Republic
9th Floor
Anchorage House
2 Clove Crescent
E14 2BE

We’re excited to be joining a number of creative businesses and individuals in a beautiful space with panoramic views over London’s docklands. So long, Shoreditch – it’s been totally Mexico.

Adding a live news feed to a Mag+ app

Guides

We’re occasionally asked if it’s possible to incorporate a live news element into an app built using Mag+ Designd, so here’s an example of how it can be done, and how the result looks.

In the Build Options section of Mag+ Publish, we’ve ticked the option “Enable Live menu option”. This adds a new item, labeled “Live”, to the main menu. In Customizations, we’ve changed this text to say “News Feed” instead.

Finally, in Live Settings, we’ve set the URL that we want to display. In this case, we’ve pointed it at a simple page that lists news stories from the BBC World News RSS feed. We’ve applied hardly any styling and formatting here, but as this is an HTML page it could be customised however you wish.

The result: an item called “News Feed” appears in our app’s main menu, displaying all the latest stories for the reader to browse. Check out the video below to see how it looks (hit fullscreen for a better view).

Animal Crackers for the iPad and iPhone

Recent Work

This month we’ve been proud to help out with an app for a great cause. Animal Crackers is a new magazine, produced by Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice in north London, and we created an app version that’s out now for iPad and iPhone.

Having an app version allows the charity to include videos to accompany all the key stories in the magazine – ideal for children who can’t read the printed version, but who can enjoy watching and listening instead. It also allows for extra features such as an interactive version of the “Spot the Difference” game page.

Our work involved creating a new, interactive version of the content, designed for both tablet and phone screens, based on the original print InDesign layouts. Once those were complete we configured and built the app itself, before delivering it to the App Store. For the backend we used Mag+ Designd, creating content to support all iPad devices as well as iPhones from the iPhone 5/SE and up. In order to keep the app’s download size as light as possible, all video content is streamed in from the web on demand.

We think the app’s bold, colourful layouts and video content will be great for kids, and we hope that it will prove a great way for the hospice to spread the news about its great work supporting children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions in London.

The app is, of course, free – if you’d like to donate to the hospice, you can do so here.

Powering the Portrait of Britain Exhibition

Recent Work

If you pass through a train station or shopping centre this month, there’s a good chance you’ll see something unusual on the screens that usually display advertising. Portrait of Britain, a collaboration between British Journal of Photography and JCDecaux, is showing 100 portraits on screens across the country – and we’re proud to say that we were involved in the early stages of the project.

Portrait of Britain was an open call, with any photographer welcome to submit their work. Over 4,000 images were submitted across the entry period, all via a system built and managed by MN Digital. Our system processed entry fees using Stripe, created accounts for each photographer to manage their entries, and handled the upload and storage of those photos along with their captions.

From our experience of running several photo competitions previously, we knew that demand on the system would be uneven, and would peak dramatically in the hours before the entry deadline, so we built it on Heroku dynos – allowing us to scale it as required.

As well as the entry system, we also delivered a secure online browser – so British Journal of Photography staff could view entries as they arrived – and a system for shortlisting and selecting the winning images from the thousands submitted.

All the Portrait of Britain images are available to view here. Photo above: Stormzy, photographed by Dan Wilton.