Google Street View: Spatial Technology and Behavioural Change

by Jen Turner

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Google Street View is a tool that many people will likely have used at some point in their lives.  I myself have ‘dragged and dropped’ the little orange man onto a map of the street where I live to find my house.  I’ve also spent a lot of time reminiscing over the facades of old childhood homes and that of my neighbours, hoping to spot someone I think I know, or a car I should recognise.

However, a recent BBC report questions how, in addition to using 3D maps to look at the places they already know, has it also changed the way they relate to the wider world?

Google’s Street View cars have now driven over 39 countries.  In addition they have pictured 65% of the UK’s roads and interestingly the interiors of some museums, cathedrals and shops can also be explored. More recently, I also used Street View to investigate further afield.  Firstly, I spent some time trying to gauge the quality of a cheap hotel I’d booked for a last minute holiday in the Algarve in Portugal. Secondly, I planned a route to show my second-year students around Ground Zero on their field trip to New York next week.  It seems that many people are using Street View for similar reasons.  Duncan Walker describes some of these in the BBC article.

Previously, Haas would have turned to guidebooks to provide the information for a successful trip. But he feels that being able to see the outside of a hotel, the surrounding city and its inhabitants is an entirely different experience. “It’s definitely changed the way I would approach travel… I look at Street View first to see where I’m going, what’s around me.” And it is not the first time he has used it to eliminate uncertainty. “If I’m going to a friend’s house for a dinner party I check whether there’s parking on the street, so I know if I’m driving, or if I can take a cab.”

Walker continues by emphasising how the transformation from traditional street plan to Street View has facilitated a change in certain practices.  For instance, tradesmen such as glaziers and satellite dish installers can look at a property online and talk to potential customers about their services without actually visiting. Drivers can find landmarks to make unfamiliar car journeys easier; and architects can study buildings without being there. Furthermore, the neighbourhood and its homes can be explored virtually by house hunters – and can have some significant influence.  Although between 40 and 50 houses looked good in the estate agents’ details, Curt Parks, who is looking for a four-bed detached home in Berkshire with his partner, Denise, have only bothered to visit four or five after walking past the others on Street View. “We were looking at one that looked lovely,” he says. “You go into Street View and you realise that it’s on a main road and at the end of a grotty row of houses.”

It is the uses of these technologies that have been the subject of recent geographical enquiry.  In an Early View article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski explore the relationship between new spatial media (in this case – the informational artefacts and mediating technologies of the geoweb) and social change.  The paper argues that these types of media represent new opportunities for activist, civic, grassroots, indigenous and other groups to leverage web-based geographic information technologies in their efforts to effect social change.  Using five new spatial media initiatives, they explore how knowledge is constructed and represented in ways often different to geographic information technologies, such as GIS. One aspect of this considers the individual ways in which people interact and explore spaces, particularly compared to conventional cartographical practices.

Certainly, cartography is changing; and with it, our everyday interactions, constructions and memories of the spaces around us.

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Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski, New spatial media, new knowledge politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Article first published online: 28 August 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00543.x.

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Duncan Walker, Has Street View changed the way we behave?, BBC News, 25 March 2013.

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