Look! We’re on Google Street View!

Yesterday morning the buzz on Twitter was about the newly updated Google Street View service. Although Google launched their UK service back in March last year only 25 cities were available. Google have now updated their site to 96% UK coverage with nearly a quarter of a million miles of British roads photographed.

The images are captured by a fleet of Google vehicles including vans, cars and trikes, all specially modified with a panoramic roof camera. Their current platforms include nine directional cameras for the 360° views, a GPS unit for positioning and laser range scanners.

Our house (in the middle of our street…)

Everyone’s first instinct once they realise that the images are live is to search for their own house. Mine was there looking just like it does in real life. Both our cars were outside and you can even see our cat sitting under one of the cars and peeking up the Google camera. Google maps coverage hasn’t been that great in our area and the satellite images available are nothing to write home about, so when I first saw the Google street view of my house it struck me as being pretty impressive. It’s not only impressive it is actually quite scary. The fact is that anyone who knows my address can now see what my house and my road look like at the click of a button. OK so I’m posting the image here, but that’s my choice. Google Street View have taken away my choice about whether or not people can see my house. The implications of that are incredible, in fact it’s hard to know at this stage what they will be.

The images in my area were probably taken over 6 months ago. I’ve yet to discover a date stamp and I don’t think that data is actually available. Some people have said that they can pinpoint exactly when the photos were taken (I know mine were taken on a Tuesday as our green bins are out!). One suggestion is to find your nearest newsagents and look for a news board outside with the date on. There are probably ways you can find out, but then the overall view of the UK is like a huge jigsaw puzzle so definitive dates are probably tricky. After a virtual tour of my town it’s amazing how many things have changed since Google visited. Shops have closed and new shops have opened, walls have been painted and signs have been replaced…but the fact remains that you can pretty much experience what it is like to walk round my town without actually visiting it.

Street View Uses

On the Google street view site there are suggestions of how we can use the images. Ideas range from promoting your business by showing them your building facade, nearby amenities, landmarks and lesser-known attractions to embedding views into geography and history lessons. As a remote worker having a real world view of the planet at our finger tips could make life a lot easier. We can all be armchair tourists never having to travel again. Last week I visited Sheffield to run a workshop. While there I checked out the University as we are holding an event there in the Summer. I could quite easily have used Google Street View for about 90% of what I needed to see. Admittedly it couldn’t have taken me inside buildings and sometimes it is difficult to get a feel for how far apart locations are but it now seems difficult to justify a £70 train fare and £50 overnight stay when the job can be done from a PC.

Organisations like the National Trust, VisitBritain, VisitEurope and the Tate Gallery have all already embarked on projects using Street View. The Tate has linked up locations depicted in images in its collection with the the online street view image from today. Users can see how urban and rural environments have changed and consider how artists such as Turner and Constable painted views that are now lost.


So what about the privacy issues? I must admit that seeing my house up there for all to see did make me feel a little exposed at first. Most of my life is already on the Web: there are photos, videos, status updates and my inner most thoughts (but only the ones I chose to share). So now my house joins the list, what’s the big deal? Well critics claim that street-level information could be exploited by criminals. Despite steps to preserve anonymity (Google’s technology automatically blurs number plates and faces) people can identify themselves on photos. Google has made it very easy for people to request that inappropriate photos be removed but will people be able to find the inappropriate photos of relevance to them that are out there? That is a needle in a haystack challenge for anyone. Apparently some places have tried to stop the Google car entering their area but still their town is available online. As for me I’m undecided. There is no doubt that this is an amazing tool…but sometimes it feels like that for everything amazing there is a price to pay.

I thought the Tweet observation made by Bethan Ruddock (bethanr on Twitter) was interesting:

odd to see everyone’s responses re street view – we’ve been on it for over a year. guess I’ve just got used to it..

Maybe it won’t be long till being able to do a virtual tour of every neighbourhood in our country seems as normal as can be. Right now I find myself in the funny position of feeling both a little bit vulnerable and a little bit impressed by Google’s offerings of the day.