For and Against: is Google’s Street View really giving us a better view of the world?
Head of Geography Outdoors
Profile: Shane Winser
Shane Winser is the head of Geography Outdoors at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) the centre supporting field research, exploration and outdoor learning. She has a long history of encouraging the use of innovative technologies to support exploration and discovery, and sharing the results of such endeavours with a wide range of audiences.
Reporter and commentator
Profile: Chris Edwards
Chris Edwards is a reporter and commentator on electronics, IT and synthetic biology. He has two decades’ experience of journalism as an editor and writer. He is a long-standing contributor to E&T and other IET publications, including Flipside. He also writes for the Guardian.
I’ve been with the Royal Geographical Society for more than 35 years and when I first started working here, helping to support remote field research projects, the only mapping available was in paper format. Often these maps could only be bought ‘in country’ and would have strict security conditions attached to them. Today it’s different and we’re all geographers, largely because we’re able to make use of online geospatial data mapping and photographic technologies. And the great thing is, we don’t have to be map-readers. We can look at Google’s Street View for a virtual representation of places. This curiosity can lead us from being a desktop explorer or an armchair traveller to enabling us to move between different types of imagery that can help us interpret what we are seeing.
We need to stop thinking of these systems as fledgling technologies or toys on a level with so many of the applications that we see on smartphones these days. These geographic information systems are potent educative tools in the teaching of geography. You could also say that they have strong appeal to today’s students who are willing to engage with a digital learning environment. When Google Earth first came online there was a fear that that we’d all end up doing virtual fieldwork and that we would never get out of the classroom again. But we have now seen the benefits of new technology complementing real-world learning.
We ran a programme to show teachers how they could bring Google Earth into the classroom. In partnership with an online educational charity called Digital Explorer, we trained over 500 teachers to use these technologies. As a result, pupils are now able to integrate Google Earth and Street View into field studies of their local areas.
When it comes to sensitive and fragile ecosystems, where there may be ethical or environmental considerations, digital online mapping and visual resources can be of great benefit. For example, interior panoramas of Captain Scott’s huts in Antarctica are now on Street View. This provides an excellent way of putting the physical artefacts that you can currently see on display at exhibitions in London and Cambridge, into their original context. Being able to take a virtual tour, we can look at and marvel at a special place without causing it physical damage.
Throughout my time at the Royal Geographical Society there have been extraordinary changes in the technology that has been available to explorers, travellers and field scientists. One of my roles here is to host a weekend conference called Explore, where one of the things we do is showcase innovation in digital technology. Geographers were, of course, early adopters of geographic information systems, but initial high costs meant that GIS was only really available to the university community, professional mapping companies or large-scale NGOs.
Google Earth has completely transformed that by putting mapping tools into the hands of anyone at the click of a mouse and at little or no cost. As a result we now have digital mapping integrated into scientific field research and disaster relief efforts. I’ve been involved in helping to train people going out into the field in the use of these technologies and how to integrate them into other digital communications platforms such as websites and blogs.
It’s fascinating that in the 1960s high-resolution imagery satellite imagery was in the hands of governments and space research agencies, but was never available to the public. As the decades progressed there was much discussion about large-scale databases being used to monitor changes in the world. But very few organisations had the money or inclination to make that happen. So thank goodness Google had the resources and vision to bring this data together and make it available to us all both as maps and photographic records to enable us to interact with our own geographies.
When companies publicise their good works, it’s often worth having a closer look at why they are so keen to make a splash. This is going to seem churlish given what visual mapping can potentially do. But Google’s Street View smacks of geeky tokenism down to the cheeky little penguin you move along a fixed path across a small outlying island of Antarctica. Street View, as implemented today, is a snapshot. A guided tour of a location where you are not allowed to step off the yellow brick road. You can peer into Shackleton’s Hut, using the view presented by a panoramic camera to at least get a sense of the space. But the visual distortion presented by these wide-angle lenses does little to help provide a sense of real space. The user is entirely reliant on visual cues to get information that would instantly click into place if one were there in real life. Because the user’s viewpoint is from a fixed point, with limited ability to zoom, the vital visual data that we use everyday is missing. The question is: is this better today than a set of well-shot photographs that are designed to show the space and its relationship to the outside world?
Similarly, we cannot move around the outside of the hut. You can walk up to it virtually and move inside. But you are not free to skirt around the outside. We can hardly expect the online-advertising company to deploy a fleet of motorised sleds to the continent in the name of mapping and tagging every chunk of ice just so we can explore it vicariously. But the implementation feels half done, as though it was simply an advertisement for an advertisement-driven empire’s bigger project: the much more mundane interactive maps of big cities and towns closer to home.
Here again, the problem of taking a snapshot of a scene becomes quickly apparent. It suffers from the same problem as a satnav with an old map, which will cheerfully guide you the wrong way down a one-way street if the local council has moved faster than the mapmakers. The place where I store my stuff after a recent move is, according to Street View, a hole in the ground. Since the Google car last drove by - in 2008 - a two-storey building has sprung up and opened to the public.
Broadly speaking, bit-rot in mapping is not a major issue most of the time. Entire street layouts don’t change overnight and Street View can often provide at least a broad-brush view of how places look. But it presents the question of what is the real use of Street View. For people looking at a new house or getting an idea of what landmarks to look for when heading for an obscure destination, it certainly has its uses. But for the former application, it’s still not a patch on actually going there, unless you want to simply rule out an area based on how many broken-down cars there are in the gardens nearby.
But you have to question the usefulness of the data overall in a physical world that changes at a different rate to what Google can currently keep up with. As a historical document that assembles over time, Street View has some promise. We have already seen the power of that in images provided by other organisations that show the change in a location over time thanks to the power of Photoshop rather than mobile panoramic camera.
Something that processes the imagery to fit user-taken pictures into the overall dataset might help keep the database up to date and would increase the utility of Street View in other areas. We have to weigh the concerns over privacy - how would you like a neighbour regularly posting pictures of your house just for fun on a public mapping site?
In its current state, mapping applications such as Street View feel as though they are neither fish nor fowl, and survive courtesy of a few narrow applications and the odd publicity-seeking gimmick in order to make the service seem relevant to a wider audience.
Do you agree?
Google Street View is really giving us a better view of the world
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