Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Google and Bing Maps

It hardly needs to be said that my case studies would not be possible without Google's Street View and Bing's aerial views. They're an invaluable tool to anyone interested in cities they've never been to, though I also frequently used them to identify locations in London I'd like to walk in, or to see from above a location I'd just walked in. Largely thanks to these technologies, the map of London is practically in my subconscious. I always joked I could be plopped down anywhere in central London and be able to identify my location to an accuracy of a block or two. My case studies are making me similarly knowledgeable about these other cities.

Google Street View in particular has attracted a strong amount of controversy the world over, most recently in Germany, where for many years Google was unable to launch the service due to "privacy concerns". Eventually they got the all clear but not before hiring hundreds of extra employees to blur hundreds of thousands of homes of concerned homeowners. An absolute joke. What has the world come to when people are afraid of having their home unveiled online, as if each and everyone one of them was directly targeted by someone or another. It's immensely frustrating and completely defeats the purpose of the service to enter some neighborhoods in Germany and have every other house blurred. Worse, if just one resident in a multi-unit building requested their home blurred, the entire building had to be blurred as it is impossible for Google to know which windows belong to who. I must admit I sympathize with the group in Essen which egged blurred homes. If those residents don't want their homes visible from the street, they are more than welcome to build walls or plant trees, but if it's visible from the street, it's public domain. Period. Germany's decision is a serious blow to all interested in gaining a greater understanding about the cities we live in. I hope Google can reverse the law in the near future. 

Bing's aerial views are less controversial as it offers a top down bird's eye view, though arguably it offers a well-detailed view of private gardens and the such. Nothing more than what you'd see from a plane, however. Recently I discovered the Streetside option in Bing, essentially the same thing as Street View but Bing's camera seems to be positioned slightly higher, offering a different perspective. The resolution is marginally lower than Street View, with images a bit blurrier, and Bing seems to automatically color the sky a saturated blue in places that otherwise might not be. Still, I appreciate the competition. Both services can only get better with time. Another big plus with Streetside is that images are spaced closer together, perhaps just a few meters, whereas Street View can often jump a couple of homes. 

It's quite remarkable, but as I'm writing this I've just noticed Bing has expanded its Streetside service. A week ago Presidio Heights had no coverage, but now it does. This is fantastic. It's also better integrated, no longer an "app" but as with Google's Street View, it's a button off to the side.

A feature I wish would be integrated in one or the other is the option to switch views to a different time of day or different season, for example. Both seem to target clear sunny days but what do they look like in the winter? Or at night, sunrise or sunset? This sort of interaction would greatly enhance the attractiveness to a wider audience. With any luck the quality of my case studies will improve as Google and Bing step up their game.