Archives for posts with tag: google

Google satellite imagery that covers the entire globe is a relatively recent technological innovation relative to the history of cartography. Yet, it has been around long enough that over the years, Google has updated the aerial imagery in many parts of the world many times.

This happens more often than you might expect. In fact, in very major cities like New York, Google offers almost monthly satellite imagery from 2004 on, and  even some images from as far back as 1978! (though the quality is understandably much poorer from earlier dates).

On Google Earth, one now has the ability to flip through the various editions of satellite images over the same geographic space, enabling the experience of a city in one of its most fundamental forms: as a constantly changing, dynamic entity, as opposed to the static image that online Google maps offer.

Check out this progression back in time of a small area of Greenwich Village in New York City:








Click on the thumb nails to see a bigger image. Google provides images almost monthly for more recent years, but data becomes more disparate from earlier dates. The satellite imagery from 1978 is almost illegible at this scale.

Though pretty amazing, this feature is  somewhat meaningless to someone unfamiliar to an area of a city, but even to someone very familiar with an area or/of a city. It’s very hard to detect what must be incredible change between 1978 and 2009. An aerial view lacks certain features that are significant to our urban experiences, namely, people, store facades, trees and plants, urban furniture. Instead you get a more generalized sense of change, and meaningful differences register only with major redevelopments.

Take this example near in downtown Toronto:





Notice how the golf course in the middle disappears between 2002 and 2006, and buildings on the right are slowly developed and multiplied on this tract of formerly light industrial land west of Fort York and East of the Skydome. Expect major condo-ization here in the years to come.

The change in land is registered meaningfully in these aerial images.

Another incredible example from Toronto is the ability to visualize the frontier of suburbanization at the city’s edge. These shot are from the Major Mackenzie/Bathurst area, a spot that has seen the transformation of many farms into suburban developments recently:



With close examination, one can see the transformation of farmland to suburban developments, especially in the centre of these photos.

Street view is a relatively more recent innovation, and I am excited for the opportunity to similarly browse through time on the street-view scale – this will most definitely provide a rich and interesting perspective on the way cities change over the years; a plane on which both the subtle differences and major redevelopments of the same street corner will, as never before, be able to be visually experienced. The US street view photos were taken in 2003, and compared to the most recent additions (Romania!), are of very poor quality. An update is immanent, and I can only hope they enable the time-travel function as they do on Google Earth.

The impact of this on our conceptions of space and place is immense. Never before have we had the ability to concretely visualize the change of a place in such an “objective” way. The advent of street-view time travel will definitely further impact our sense of space and history in the city.

Microsoft’s attempts to compete with Google have been quite obvious over the last year. With the launch of Bing, there now truly stands a search engine that can reach the standards and qualities that Google has become famous for.

The difference between the two is that Google grew organically to its current state, while Bing has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. Responding slowly to meet its users needs, the current Google interface reflects countless actions from its users, and responses from Google’s programmers. We now have access to unbelievable search algorithms that yield exactly the information we are looking for, and functions such as “Instant search” that have made Googling that much easier. There also exists an extensive database of user generated content, and the ease of using Google has played a major role in the open source data movement. Nevertheless, Bing has artificially  created a search engine that meets Google’s standards.

Yes, these companies are search engines, but it has become obvious that their more primary projects are to be the portal (and master?) to all the world’s information. Google Scholar, news, maps, streetview, countless side projects and the Bing equivalents are representative of the immense fishing-nets these technological superpowers have cast out into the world of knowledge.

As a geographer, the maps are of most interest to me. It’s interesting to compare Google and Bing’s approach to cartography. Bing essentially copied the Google model, exactly: with one subtle difference. While Google’s satellite maps are taken from  directly above, Bing maps has the “Bird’s Eye” option; the photos are taken from a slightly lower angle.

The experiences of both maps, as a result, are dramatically different. And ultimately, to the common user, I think Bing has triumphed in this respect. The lower angles provide an easier plane for orientation. The buildings and streets are more recognizable, and the overlaid street map limits confusion. When you rotate to gauge the map, viewing it from another cardinal direction, the image changes to suit this angle, enabling views from the other side of the street. The result is a much deeper and thorough experience than the Google satellite equivalents.

Compare the satellite photos of my corner in Montreal, Duluth and St Urbain:

Bing satellite view is on the top, Google on the bottom

If evoking a sense of place is the name of the game, the Bing map definitely captures the character of the Plateau much more than the Google satellite photos. One can get a sense of the scale of the street and a feel for the architectural features of the buildings. The Google map, on the other hand, is confusing in that this block of triplexes could be any other block when viewed from above.

We have to consider though, that evoking a sense of place is not a map’s job. It’s to orient ourselves, (or if you’re someone concerned with collecting Remote Sensing data, it’s to carry out thoughtful analysis involving light spectrums, or something) and perhaps the view from above that Google provides does a better job of this. I tend to use Google more… I guess it’s habit, or a trust in the natural processes that lead to Google’s highly intuitive interface. But orienting ourselves consists more of the geometry of the streets, and perhaps I’ll adopt Bing maps soon as my “go to”.

In any case, it will be interesting to see Bing’s answer to street view (hopefully nothing too scary…).