Monday, December 7, 2009

A New View

Google Street View has just put Winnipeg on the map. We are just the latest in line to have our city on visual display for the world to see.

Earlier this spring, the Google vehicles that are equipped with special cameras that allow 360 degree shots, cruised through the city for several weeks.

Why they came in spring was beyond most of us living here as Winnipeg is not exactly at its most picturesque at that time of year. Snowbanks, melting snow, puddles and leafless trees abound. It just looks dull to even a seasoned Winnipegger.

We knew they were planning on coming at some point, we just hoped that it would be a little later in spring - like once the last remnants of winter had been cleared away.

The Google crew was actually here for several weeks though, so some parts of the city were rather well "greened" by the time they got shot. Pity the poor folks who were shot in the first couple of weeks!

I went looking for several addresses, just to see what was there and how user friendly the Street View system is. The system isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Once you type in your address or cross streets, the regular map comes up and you then drag "pegman" - the little yellow guy who sits above the zoom toolbar in the Google maps window - to that location to get the street view.

The main problem that I found, was that pegman seems to drop at least 1/2 block from where you want him. If you aren't familiar with the area, know the street number, or the colour/shape of the building you are wanting, then you are pretty much screwed! It does say "address is approximate" but it can be very frustrating trying to get the exact address in view. Depending on the view, street numbers can be covered by trees, lattice work, poles or other objects. Some buildings don't seem to have visible numbers at all.

One building I went looking for, was only found because I knew the shape and colour. Another one, I found purely by luck after clicking on several other buildings on the same street. I had hit it earlier but the first view obliterated the number so I didn't know I'd found what I wanted until much later when another view of the same building came up.

Another problem that I found was the extreme variations in the scenery due to the shooting schedule. When you start looking at various areas of the city, it is rather odd to see snow in some sections (mostly the south end) and leafy green trees in others. At one point, I found an address on a main drag that was rather bizarre. The first shot was leafless, but when I double clicked for a closer view, I got a different angle with leafy trees. Another angle was also leafy, but shot at a different time of day. My guess is that the vehicle went through all the main thoroughfares first then went back to get the secondary and side streets thus creating the differences.

I checked out the route from downtown to a business in the south end of town and the pics literally went from leafy green to winter as I headed south on the virtual route. And here I thought that things got colder as you headed north not south!! LOL!

License plates and peoples faces are blurred, but if you know what someone's vehicle looks like or the way certain people stand or something specific they wear/carry, then it could be pretty easy to be recognized.

There has been repeated concern by privacy advocates around the world that this whole system is an invasion of privacy. I see their point, but given the flaws in this system, most people aren't going to have the patience to play with pegman to find what they are looking for.

This could have been a brilliant system - and may be someday - if Google could actually have the address automatically match the exact picture rather than playing a virtual version of "pin the tail on the donkey"!.

An improved system could be a great boon to the local transit system if the street view could be matched with telebus numbers so transit riders could see where specific stops are. Is the stop before or after the intersection? When I get off the bus what direction do I go? Where is the nearest set of lights or cross walk?

As it is, the Google Street View is well intentioned but greatly flawed. If you can follow directions or read a road map, then do yourself a favour and skip the Google street view. You'll get to your destination a lot faster without this virtual tool.


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