Exclusive: The search giant has also mapped out the parts of the world where 98% of people live, through satellite photos on Google Earth.
If Google were to have a mascot, it might be the Street View car, with its towering camera rig and corporate logo exterior. There’s good reason for that. In the 12 years since the search giant debuted Street View, which photographs the world at street level, the cars have been the company’s ambassadors around the globe, prowling urban metropolises and rural countrysides.
Recently Google revealed how much work those cars and other devices have done to map the world: the company has captured more than 10 million miles of Street View imagery. The distance, Google said, would amount to circling the Earth more than 400 times.
The company also said Google Earth, the search giant’s aerial mapping service, has a total of 36 million square miles of satellite imagery for people to browse. With that collection, Google has mapped out the parts of the world where 98% of people live.
The numbers mark the first time Google has released figures on how much of the world its services have charted, providing insight into the scope of Google Maps. With more than 1 billion monthly users, Maps is one of the company’s most popular products. It’s also a potent way for the search giant to deliver local advertising.
Google co-founder Larry Page, who stepped down as CEO of Google parent Alphabet earlier this month, conceived of Street View in 2004. The goal was to create a 360-degree map of the world that went beyond streets and highways to include alleyways, landmarks and mountain ranges. To get the imagery, Google uses cars, as well as backpacks called “trekkers” worn by hikers or strapped to camels and sheep.
“Imagery is at the core of everything we do,” Ethan Russell, a director of product at Google Maps, said in an email. “We think of it as the foundation of the entire mapmaking process.”
Knowing the extent to which Google has photographed the physical world will be of little comfort to people who think the company already has too much data about us, our surroundings and our activity online.
Google, like its peers in Silicon Valley, is under pressure over its data collection practices. The company generates most of its nearly $140 billion in annual revenue from targeted ads, which are buttressed by user data. That includes ads on Google Maps, though the company doesn’t break out those revenue figures. Google declined to comment on Maps ad revenue.”Imagery is at the core of everything we do. We think of it as the foundation of the entire mapmaking process.”Ethan Russell
The search giant’s mapping features have drawn criticism in the past. Google faced blowback after the Associated Press reported last year that it tracked people’s location even after they’d turned off location-sharing on their phones. Google has also faced scrutiny for reportedly handing over user location data to law enforcement and other federal agents looking for leads in investigations.
Russell stressed that Google’s mapping imagery is from public places you’d see while standing in the street or flying overhead. He said the company gets all of its satellite photographs from third-party providers.
For a while, though, Google had ambitious satellite plans. In 2014, Google bought Sky Box, a high-resolution satellite imaging company that Google said would help keep the Maps app up to date. Sky Box also touted its ability to provide analytics and intelligence through aerial photography. For example, a company could predict economic trends by, say, examining the containers in an oil facility from above. But Google sold off the company three years later and got out of the satellite business.
Live View to land mines
In the last few years, Google has tried to build out Maps a hub of information, rather than simply a navigation tool. Over the past couple of months, Google has added translation features, food delivery options and information on flight information and hotel bookings.
But at its core, Google Maps has always been about places and how to get to and from them. That includes the exterior of a particular building or knowing the topography of a certain region.
In touting its vast repository of mapping imagery, Google points to a feature called Live View. The tool uses augmented reality — overlaying digital graphics on top of real-world images — to spruce up walking directions on the app. Live View is designed to solve the “blue dot problem,” the familiar feeling of getting out of a subway station, looking down at the blue dot on the Maps app and spinning in circles to find your bearings. Live View uses your phone’s camera to display arrows that tell you where to go.
For the feature to work, Google developed a new technology because the GPS in phones isn’t precise enough. To give people real-time directions, the app matches “tens of billions” of Street View images to the data on your phone to show you where to walk.
Google’s satellite images also have a do-gooder spin. Three years ago, CNET sent a team to Angola to examine the role of technology in clearing land mines left behind from the country’s decades-long civil war. One nonprofit that clears land mines, a UK-based organization named Halo, relies on Google Earth for aerial images of minefields. The royal family partnered with Halo when Princess Diana toured Angola’s minefields more than 20 years ago, and when Prince Harry retraced her steps in September.
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