Streetview shenanigans

pw014-03About 10 years ago when I got my first digital camera to play with at work, I considered a project documenting London’s streets. The idea was that you would stand on a street corner and take a picture in each direction, and then upload it to a database with some metadata so that we could build a rich visual map of London so that if you were headed to say a bar or restaurant you could find a picture of the local area so that when you popped up out of the tube, you’d have a better chance of finding what you wanted.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t do it, mainly because devising instructions for how to take your photographs and constructing a metadata scheme that could accurately but simply describe any street corner in London proved way too complex. Plus the web was a very different kind of place – this was an information retrieval system, not a social one. Oh yeah and forget GPS, who was strong enough or rich enough to carry a GPS receiver around with them? Nonetheless, it would have been cool, right? I think the early podwalks had a similar inspiration.

Now the smart people at Google have caught up with my brilliant vision :)

And (nearly) everybody hates it.

In my opinion, Google Maps Streetview is just a rich enhancement to a map. I have used it to identify places I was going (in Paris, France and Austin, Texas) to get a feel for what sort of neighbourhood they were in and to understand better how I might walk there.

I don’t understand the privacy concerns that people have. Assuming you’ve been (un)lucky enough to be photographed by a car, what are the chances of anyone who knows you seeing it? And in the event that you (or some top-secret piece of your property) are snapped and you find out about it, then you can ask for it to be removed. This seems to me to be way beyond the power we have with CCTV in that 1. We can see it. and 2. We can get it removed. It’s ironic really that when a private company does it, we get to have a say, but when our democratically elected councils or government agencies do it, we don’t even have access.

What do you lose by having your home or car photographed? (mine isn’t there incidentally, they haven’t got beyond the A24 in Epsom) I’m not saying it’s nothing, just honestly trying to understand what it is.

Yes, I can imagine it leading to an imagined worse outcome of the BNP list leak last year, with the list “enhanced” with links to pictures of the outside of each member’s house. But the mashups there were pretty well regulated, once the first few had been done, people realised what a silly thing it was to do and what a dangerous precedent it was.

Before it came to the UK (and by the way, it’s only in selected cities), I’d used the Parisian and Texan versions to look at places I was just about to go to – working out how to walk there without having to cross 10 lanes of traffic etc.

I’ve also used it to look at places that I may never get to see, like parts of the Northern Territories in Australia (can’t remember how we ended up there…)

And it also works well for showing people places I’ve been and explaining something visual.

And as Russell points out, it’s good for the nostalgic – Places I used to live that are just the same and places I used to live that are very different.

I’m also interested in what’s not covered – No great views of Buckingham Palace for example and great chunks of the West End are missing including Oxford Street and Cavendish Sq.

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6 thoughts on “Streetview shenanigans”

  1. I wonder if people seem to be more up in arms about it in London is that the streets are so full of people walking around. Most cities don’t have that many people out and about in the pictures, as least as far as I’ve seen in my use of Street View. Personally, I found it very helpful for apartment hunting.

  2. I think it’s just another excuse for some people within the media to bash Google, as they are wont to do. Although I think that Google could have managed it a bit better – they could so easily have put all the photos through some sort of Mechanical Turk-like system so that a pair of eyes sees them and the obvious bad breaches of privacy are never put on the map. If Galaxy Zoo can find a few tens of thousands of people to check pictures of galaxies, Google can find a couple of million to each check that a photo isn’t invading someone’s privacy.

    So from that point of view, bad Google, could do better. But in terms of the service itself, I love it. Like Francine, I’ve been using it for flat hunting and it has been supremely useful. Indeed, it saved us a trip to Harrow to see a flat that sounded too good to be true – two bedroom, gym, pool… all for £245 pw? What was the catch? Well, the catch was a really shitty neighbourhood.

    I think Google do need to take privacy more seriously, because they are perceived not to, and there are some real no-brainer solutions that they’re just not implementing. But when people target them as being big evil anti-privacy overlords, well, they’re up against our government for that title and they’ve a long way to go to catch up.

  3. The comparison to CCTV is an important one, I think – plenty of government and private organisations are filming (and potentially broadcasting) your every move, whenever you go out. That doesn’t seem to bother people in the slightest – but perhaps only because most of us don’t get to see the images of ourselves?

    I’m guessing that the younger and tech crowds aren’t too bothered by this, as we’re all used to seeing photos of ourselves on Facebook and Flickr anyway. Okay, most of them aren’t too flattering, but it’s not really an invasion of privacy as I wasn’t in a private place (or situation) anyway.

  4. I think Street View might be a great boon for burglars – helping them case the joint (just as you worked out routes to walk in Paris!). But given that anyone can see my house if they walk down the road, I am not sure that, aside from specific breaches of privacy (the few arrests caught on camera, the man leaving the sex shop), it is an issue of privacy.

    When I walk along the road, I love looking through other people’s windows – looking at what pictures they have on their walls, how homes are decorated. This is probably more invasive than Street View!

    What might be a privacy issue – as you point out (re BNP) – is the ability to tie all this information together: and with Google hosting email, documents, pictures and video, there may well be some issues going on. This is one reason I don’t use G-mail or Google docs – I actually prefer having my data in different buckets!

  5. Something I forgot: at the Convention on Modern Liberty last month, a tech-database guy stood up and said that the ability to search CCTV footage digitally using face recognition was actually very close. This is more than a little scary.

    At the same conference, Sir Ken MacDonald QC – former DPP – said that David Ormond’s recent report recommends using data mining techniques to look for suspicious behaviour – essentially making us all suspects. These two ideas together – the ability to search CCTV digitally and creation of a suspect culture within the security forces – seem very dangerous.

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