Street View limitations pave way for competitors

Google Street View has finally reached Ireland, but its long-term future seems unclear as open-source competitors continue to expand, explains Seán O’Connell

Last month saw the launch of Google Street View in the Republic of Ireland. This free onlineresource allows users to virtually navigate through maps using panoramic views captured from its now infamous Street View cars. The online service has provoked both praise and criticism here and internationally. Ireland has now been added to an ever-expanding list of accessible areas including North America, the UK, Brazil, Australia, Singapore and many more.

Google’s commitment to cover the entire world, once seen as an unachievable pipe dream, now appears within the realm of possibly. Plans are already in place for South Africa, Chile and many Eastern European countries. The program has received praise for its innovation and usefulness, but has also irked many privacy groups and governments, potentially stalling Google’s plans. Groups have raised concerns about the photographing of people, particularly including sensitive buildings such as shelters and abortion clinics, as well as the potential use of the information in criminal activity.

In the UK, failed attempts were made to prevent Street View cars from entering certain areas by locals. Opposition in Ireland has not been as strong. The recent revelation that Street View cars also logged wifi information, including unencrypted passwords and information, has further inflamed privacy concerns. Alan Eustace, Google’s senior VP of Engineering & Research, recently acknowledged these concerns, apologised and has committed to deleting the offending information. This has done little to halt criticism, as the information was made available online and many question whether the action was an unintentional as Google suggests.

Authorities in several countries are said to be investigating this issue with possible action being taken in Germany, where Street View has divided public opinion. Recent surveys show more than half of Germans opposing the service including vocal critic, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. This has led to Google implementing an opt-out list for the country. Further restrictions imposed by the EU, such as requiring Google to permanently delete requested images including the original photos of blurred faces within 6 months, has lead Michael Jones, Google’s chief technology advocate, to question whether the company will be willing to continue its Street View roll out in Europe.

Whether or not Google will achieve its dream of worldwide coverage remains anyones guess at the moment, but it has both the commitment and resources to make a serious effort. While the future of Street View looks uncertain, its popularity nonetheless reflects the public desire for information and the reliance on online sources, something also illustrated by their other massively popular service, Google Maps.

Alternatives include OpenStreetMap (OSM), which is distinguished by being an open source collaborative project, editable by anyone, and has been dubbed the “Wikipedia of Mapping”.  Recently I met up with intrepid OSM mapper Dermot McNally, who gave a talk on the subject at the Irish Linux User Group AGM, and with whom I discussed the history, development and potential of OSM. Unlike Google Maps, which relies on commercially-obtained maps, OSM’s data is primarily sourced from its users who contribute GPS traces and add information to maps, such as the location of buildings, road types and much more. This real time access is one of its key strengths.

Like Linux and Wikipedia, OSM has shown the power of open source and crowd sourcing. A few years ago, Ireland was almost completely unmapped, lacking even a coastline; a daunting task for anyone to consider taking on. However, thanks to user contributions, that situation has changed radically. Those who contribute to the OSM project are difficult to categorise. There are holiday makers who bring GPS devices with them, people who simply wish to ensure their locality is mapped correctly, and those interested in infrastructure such as new roads. Governments and councils have also donated data to the project, such in the Netherlands, in recognition of its quality and potential.

The power of OSM was recently demonstrated after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. OSM users and other volunteers used existing tools and satellite imagery to create impressively detailed and accurate maps of roads, buildings and refugee camps around Port-au-Prince in just two days, immeasurably helping aid agencies organise relief work. The action has won worldwide praise and illustrates the power of the project.

While the future of Google Street View is questionable, the future for alternatives such as OSM seems bright. Unlike the restrictive Google Map licencing, which prevents users from storing data, OSM is a truly open source project and has spawned innovative new sites focusing on providing accurate cycle routes, public transport information and even ski slopes. OSM apps are readily available for the iPhone and Android, while the data is also being used more and more in commercial devices. The availability of maps online is now taken for granted by web users. However, many are now questioning where their information comes from and the openness of OSM is becoming more and more attractive.

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