Street View is a product that has puzzled me for a long time. It’s technologically an impressive feat, but why do people actually care about it? What are the use cases?
Generally the only time I use it with any regularity is when I’m looking for an apartment. It’s a quick and easy way to get a feel for the neighborhoods that I’m considering. It certainly beats driving around in San Francisco traffic. But looking for apartments is not something I do frequently.
I asked followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook how they use Street View. It turns out that house hunting is one of the more common use cases.
Here’s what people are using Street View for:
“I’ve used it to evaluate neighborhoods I’ve moved to. Result: signing a lease having never visited the place,” wrote Christopher Mims.
“When looking for hotels and when meeting people in unfamiliar settings. Mostly it’s not a daily utility,” wrote Greg Sterling.
“Not often — only to see my house. and I saw my mom standing in front of it – LOLd for a bit,” wrote @m_Keef.
Others used it to plan out their driving trips.
“Whenever I am driving to a new address, I like to “look” at the house or business so it’s easier for me to spot when I get there,” wrote Sriram Chatrathi.
“I use it mostly to confirm destinations,” wrote Jason Hart. “I also use it occasionally to “visit” places I used to live or places I’m planning to go. I use satellite view less but for the same purposes. Also, I’ll use it to figure out where parking lot entrances and exits are.”
“I use it to determine which way the metro station exit faces when mapping out directions. I hate getting off the escalator and not knowing which way to start walking,” wrote a friend on Facebook.
Despite being popularized by Google, other companies had Street View-like functionality earlier. Before Google existed as a company, I was working for a newspaper in Minneapolis. We discovered that a local company had driven every street in Minneapolis, taking pictures of every house. We incorporated that data into our real estate search product. Amazon’s A9 search engine had Block View in 2005. I was talking to a Google engineer at the time of the A9 launch, and he thought Block View was ridiculous because driving cars around cities to capture the imagery would never scale. Not only has Google driven cars around cities, it’s also taken to bicycles, trikes, and snowmobiles.
I also discovered some creative uses for Street View among my friends.
“I just used it to confirm my last US address for my election ballot request,” wrote a friend who moved to Canada. “I wasn’t sure of the address, but I punched in what I remembered and located my old house. Faster than digging up old documents.”
“It’s sometimes refreshing to judge old acquaintances (bullies, etc.) by their images on Street View,” wrote the same friend who was scoping Metro escalators. “(Don’t tell me you’ve never done this — I’ll call you a liar.)”
Interested in more on mapping? Tune in to NPR’s Science Friday today at 3 Eastern, noon Pacific to hear me talk about the state of online maps.