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Google Street View – snapshots of Britain

Google’s UK version of Street View rolled out somewhat literally last week, with 238,000 miles of public roads revealed to view amidst a predictable storm of protest.

95% of the UK is now covered by the car-roof view camera footage, to add to the initial coverage of 25 cities that were unveiled last year.

Discount website My Voucher Codes UK canvassed its members on their view of the new service and 57% came down on it as an intrusion into their private lives. 24% rather predictably believed that the service made it easier for burglars to pinpoint security weakness, although newspaper articles focussing on a report from Thames Valley Policethe suggests that there is no evidence for this belief. Three quarters of the respondants objected to the fact they hadn’t been asked for permission to use images.

You could argue about the various objections for ever – and some people probably will, though as far back as 23 April 2009 it was ruled that Google Street View does not breach the Data Protection Act – but what you see from Steetview is no more than you could see from the cab of a roaming articulated lorry or the top deck of a bus.

Arguably, the cameras could have been fixed a bit lower to avoid some of the “peering over peoples’ hedges” moments, but nothing that the service shows you is what you could not see already from a public highway.

And of course, the snapshots we see are already history. Much to peoples’ amusement, the bust businesses Woolies and Zavvi were still packed full of shoppers in the orginaly rollout in 2009.

In fact, the overhead ‘satellite’ view from Google Maps is genuinely far more intrusive, yet aerial photos have been available for decades; I believe it was the Luftwaffe who compiled the first aerial survey of the UK in the years prior to WWII.

And it’s not just been something open to government agencies. Not that long ago it was quite a trendy thing to hang an aerial photo of your house on the wall, a photo that clearly showed the neighbours’ back gardens and swimming pools, parked cars and patios.

I wonder how many of the people who commissioned such photos popped round and rang the doorbell to ask “do you mind if I have an aeroplane fly overhead snapping pictures of your garden?”. I should think the answer approximated to zero!

Streetlevel photos have been available publically almost since the camera was invented. And the proliferation of digital imaging has merely accelerated the trend. I wonder how many of the objectors in that survey have snapped off a holiday photo of “our holiday in XYZ” and posted it up to Flickr or one of other very public and very searchable image hosting services which now geo-reference exactly where the image came from?

I’ve only seen negative uses suggested. But what about the positives?

My partner spent a happy few hours trawling round the neighbourhoods where she grew up, peering into gardens (“Look, they knocked my grandad’s workshop down”) and following new streets where there were fields when she was a kid (“those houses are all new, I wonder when they went up”).

There’s virtual tourism. There’s the obvious stuff like standing in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, but also some slightly less obvious uses. I’m planning a trip to Belgium in a month’s time and trying to find some interesting roads that cross the dullest part of NW France and SW Belgium. I discovered Google Maps now covers most French roads too. I was able to ‘ride’ down a few roads that looked good on the map and see what they would look like from the saddle.

And that exercise really demonstrated the falsity of the argument that burglars will be sitting down virtually driving along our roads perusing Street View for soft targets.

It takes almost as long for the interlaced picture to sharpen to clarity as you move along the street as it takes you to jog the same distance in real life.

It is hardly a “cruising” tool. Moving a couple of kilometres down the road took a couple of minutes, and all I was doing was moving straight ahead!

And if you want to glance over fences and hedges to see what the views are like, pause and wait even longer. And longer still if you zoom in.

I guess it might run a bit faster with a quicker broadband connection, but realistically you already have to know what you want to look at before you start peering intently at the shot of a property.

And that made me think of a couple of other uses.

Ever looked at a photo of a house in an estate agent’s advert, and thought “that looks nice” only to discover on arrival that there’s an industrial unit next to it that the photographer carefully cut out of the shot? Or that the “expansive garden” is more like a pocket handkerchief you’d struggle to blow your nose on?

No more wasted journeys – just check out the property in Google Maps!

Had an accident? Other driver claiming that he couldn’t see you?

Load up Google Maps, put yourself in his car and ‘drive’ along the street and see what he could – maybe you HAD stopped on a blind corner!

From my perspective, what a teaching tool it is for rider training! An instructor can do virtual walk-throughs of a particular hazard area, look at it from different angles, check lines-of-sight and so on.

And of course, there are the funnies Street View has already captured:

Secret Nuclear Bunker

I wonder if the bunker is on my GPS?

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