UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Google Street View Arrives on University Campuses

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 November 2011

Google Street View

A few days ago Martin Hamilton, Head of Internet Services at Loughborough University, tweeted:

Google StreetView of @lborouniversity now available – http://goo.gl/vcpds /cc @LufbraPresident

and followed this with:

My favourite StreetView image of Loughborough campus http://goo.gl/Ex7gf (yes, you can cross the bridge :-)

I read this tweet on my Android phone and followed the link – and was impressed. Whilst many of us will probably have explored Google Street View on a desktop PC, I suspect I’m not alone in not having used it on a mobile phone. I found that rather than having to move the mouse to orientate myself I simply positioned that phone in the direction I was interested in.

Using Google Street View on an Android Phone

On the same day that Martin Hamilton was tweeting the news, Mike Nolan, head of Web Services at Edge Hill University published a post which also announced the news that Street View Live!, in his case at Edge Hill University. As illustrated, Mike’s blog post included an embedded live Street View (although note that I can’t embed the Street View in this WordPress.com blog).

As Mike described in a post he published a year ago in 2010 Edge Hill University was “visited by the Google Street View trike to take imagery of the Ormskirk campus. Unlike roads which are photographed using a car, private property like university campuses and Disneyland Paris are photographed using a trike allowing them to get along footpaths”.

Since I used to work at Loughborough University I decided to explore the Street View for the Loughborough University campus. I found that the experience on my HTC Sensation Android phone was far superior to use of my iPod Touch. I’ll therefore describe my experiences of using my Android phone – and make the observation that when comparing experiences with others there will be a need to understand how different devices will provide different functionality.

As Martin said in his tweet, you can cross the footbridge. I therefore turned around so that I was facing the bridge and dragged the icon so that I walked across the bridge into the car park. I then turned back so that I could see the bridge I had walked across. I have to admit it seems slightly strange doing this while in somebody’s house! But having walked across the bridge I wanted to explore areas of the campus I was familiar with.

I recognised various buildings but I became distracted from visiting the Hazelgrave Building where I worked for six years. Instead I was intrigued by the people I saw and wondered if I would recognise anyone.

Google do obscure facial views on Street Views but I suspect that it would probably be possible to sometimes recognise people from a side view. In addition, as can be seen, it is probably possible to recognise people from their clothing and appearance even if the face is blurred.

Discussion

How many other universities have Google Street Views available for their campuses, I wonder? I also wonder how institutions will be addressing the privacy implications. The Google Maps Street Views Privacy page states that “Street View contains imagery from public roads, which is no different from what you might see driving or walking down the street. Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world” and goes on to add that “Google will partner with an organisation such as Disneyland Paris to schedule imagery collection of their property“. I imagine that such partnership arrangements will also cover the digitisation of University campuses.

Google go on to describe how they “have developed cutting-edge face and licence plate blurring technology that is applied to all Street View images. This means that if one of our images contains an identifiable face (for example, that of a passer-by on the pavement) or an identifiable licence plate, our technology will blur it automatically, meaning that the individual or the vehicle cannot be identified.” Google also “provide easily accessible tools allowing users to request further blurring of any image that features the user, their family, their car or their home. In addition to the automatic blurring of faces and licence plates, we will blur the entire car, house or person when a user makes this request for additional blurring.

Rather than seeking permission before publishing such images Google are relying on a technical solution for blurring images and allowing users to choose to opt-out. This has some parallel with the “seek forgiveness, not permission” meme from a few years ago, which encouraging early adopters to deploy social media services such as blog even if they hadn’t received official sanction.

In previous discussions about privacy issues and social media services we, in the higher education sector, have been responding to issues which are relevant to society in general. This has previously been the case for Google Street Views but now when Google is partnering with organisations such as universities in order to be given permission to take photographs on private property, the situation is different.

I personally welcome developments such as Google Street Views and am pleased to see that it is becoming available across university campuses. as we know from the Wikipedia entry on Google Street View privacy concerns there have been examples of a man leaving a sex shop, a man vomiting and another man being arrested. But I feel that such concerns can be addressed by policy decisions (such as not taking photos late at night when students might be leaving the Union bar) and management of the content, including automated blurring of content and the provision of a “Complain about this image” facility. It also seems to me that it would be useful to seek to engage students in this process, as part of an institution’s digital literacy work.

But I am aware that these are the views of a white middle class and technically literate member of the higher education sector. We will have people on campus from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultural norms. How should we widen the debate on use of tools such as Google Street Views across our campuses?


Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

3 Responses to “Google Street View Arrives on University Campuses”

  1. Ah, but is StreetView a threat or an opportunity? :-)

    We’re really excited about being able to do things like embed the imagery on our websites for marketing purposes. And, with the StreetView imagery of all those buildings we should be in a position to create a pretty impressive 3D campus. As you know I managed to bodge together a 3D version of one of our old buildings in a couple of hours (it is conveniently rectilinear, though)…

    I’m talking to the Students Union about having a competition to encourage students to build 3D versions of all the buildings on campus – we can use the StreetView images of the walls of the buildings as textures in SketchUp. If this works out, I figure we’ll have an online poll to choose the best building, and hand out some prizes. Should be pretty cool.

    • I agree with you, StreevIew does provide opportunities :-) I’m pleased to see that institutions do seem to become less risk-averse and more willing to embrace such opportunities and manage associated risks rather than seeking to avoid risks at all costs.

  2. FWIW it did take quite a long time to go through all the due process around which buildings should and shouldn’t be captured, and as you say, when it should happen. TBH I can’t even remember now when our pictures were taken it was so long ago! Early spring maybe?

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