Every Street, Mapped

Google’s Street View project announced this week that it has hit a significant milestone–a “10 million mile” milestone, in fact. The tech giant has captured 10 million miles of photos in their Street View feature, enough mileage to circle the earth more than 400 times. 

Street map coverage extending across the globe since 2007. Graphic Source: CNET.

Street View launched in 2007 and has increased its purview of the world map substantially since then. Despite being around for so long, this is the first public announcement describing the breadth of Google’s mapping services. The tech giant has come under scrutiny for its lack of transparency surrounding its collection and use of Street View imagery. 

Privacy concerns have existed around Street View since its inception. Critics argue the service invites unwanted scrutiny or even risk to certain populations. Consider an individual captured entering a domestic violence center or a child playing outside their home.

Thousands of German citizens petitioned Google to blur out their homes when the service was first released. Courts in Japan and Switzerland forced the company to lower the height of its cameras so as not to capture photos over the height of private home fences. Some citizens in Broughton, UK took matters into their own hands and formed a human chain to stop a Street View vehicle from proceeding down their street, citing concerns of increased burglary risks. 

In addition to privacy concerns, Google has faced criticism for remaining tight-lipped on revenue derived from Street View data collection. The company generates most of its $140 billion in annual revenue from targeted ads, supported in part by user generated data on Google Maps. Google has declined to comment on what percentage of revenue derived specifically from their mapping service. When billions of dollars are on the line, it begs the question, who owns the data on the map? Who should profit? 

Despite these critiques, Street View has incredible benefits. Some people revel in getting caught on Street View–and wave. With 1 billion users each month, Street View puts small businesses on the map, encourages tourism, and eases mobility. Street View data is used by researchers and policy makers to inform high-impact decisions. However, these benefits are not always equally distributed. Some communities are left off the map, leading to a digital divide and exacerbating existing global inequalities. 

This year, photographer and tech-enthusiast Tawanda Kanhema made it his goal to get his home country of Zimbabwe on the map. Kanhema volunteered to carry Google’s Street View gear to map 2,000 miles of his home country in hopes of sharing his home with the global community, encouraging tourism, and boosting local economies. 

Kanhema sits atop his car planning a mapping route. Graphic Source Alan Sanchez, NPR.

Even with a tool as ubiquitous as Street View, there are many nuances to consider. Can we strike a balance between utility and privacy in GeoTech and GeoData? How much anonymity are we willing to sacrifice to improve our understanding of the world? Can the map be inclusive, without being invasive? There is always more to explore.