Streetview on Great Walks

Several days ago, Google announced that it has adapted its Streetview technology for use on most of New Zealand’s Great Walks (also from Stuff, and from the Herald). Thanks to some guy who was employed to walk most of them with an 18kg camera on his back, it’s now possible to see a glimpse of any point along the walks from a web browser.


Crossing Awarua Inlet.

Streetview has potential to be a very useful tool. I have a couple of concerns about how it’s come to be (mentioned below), but there are several potential uses which I like.

The most obvious is simply being able to see a place without going there. Since Streetview on Great Walks was announced, I’ve seen this very advantage criticised in social media. It’s been declared a waste of time, or people have expressed outright offence that certain places which some consider to be personal experiences might suddenly be so easily available on the web to people who aren’t actually going there themselves. Popular media’s framing of the whole thing being about “armchair trampers” and little else has probably encouraged some of this view, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

A counter to this is that not everybody can physically reach these places. Others simply lack the flexibility to escape other commitments. For these people, a technology like Streetview has the potential to be a brilliant thing if there’s a desire to see some of the scenes, and in my view it certainly beats blasting a road through the wilderness. I’m also interested in a third group of people, who simply won’t visit the places even if they could. Great Walks, in particular, might well have been seen in the past few years by more people from overseas than by New Zealanders. I don’t expect all 3.14 million voters on New Zealand’s electoral role to look at the Great Walks via Streetview and be inspired, but if it helps a few to view some places they’d never have otherwise seen, and thus have a clearer understanding for seriously considering their future, then I believe it’s a good thing.

I don’t mind Streetview covering Great Walks. The conservation estate is public land. It has already been photographed to death, and those photos have been published widely for anyone wishing to look for them them. Great Walks are especially well represented in this. The main thing which Google’s Streetview adds is a robust way to connect these spots together and place them on a map. It also covers the boring places in between.

Maybe the concerns are justified, though, if considering where this might go some day. Google is just one company which thrives on collecting, organising and searching data about everything, everywhere. It mightn’t be too long before similar technology is visiting and documenting the estate on a much more massive scale, whether it’s from drones zooming around with DOC permission slips, or volunteers wearing a new generation of miniaturised Streetview hat-cam and submitting data back to the hive. I’m not yet decided on if or where I’d draw the line on what I’d be comfortable seeing. As a friend of mine pointed out, though, if technologies like Streetview should be declared bad, should high resolution satellite imagery also be declared bad? How about topographic maps? Software like Google Earth? All of these things help us to understand places before we’ve been there, and they’ve taken their place in what’s normally considered to be good advance planning.

I do think that it’s a reasonable enough point, however, that not everyone can physically go tramping. In addition, not everyone has the freedom to escape other commitments. For people in these situations, a technology like Streetview has the potential to be a brilliant thing.


Appraching and crossing the Pompolona Creek
catchment, albeit with an in-season bridge
and without it being flooded.

Another interesting use, might be to aid a better understanding of incidents when they occur. This will probably be used in popular media as soon as someone figures out that it’s useful, but it could also be used in any random discussion. For example, when a person drowned on the Milford Track last year, a Streetview rendition of the crossing might have helped to inform some of the discussion which ensued.

This advantage can also lead to a trap, though, which is nicely demonstrated in the example above because Streetview does not correctly represent the conditions of Pompolona Creek in May 2014 when that accident occurred: The temporary bridge was not in place in May 2014, and the creek was also in flood at the time.

Robin McNeill of Federated Mountain Clubs, via Radio New Zealand, also expresses concerns that the Streetview view could give ill-prepared people skewed impressions of low risk. For example, images from a good-weather day don’t necessarily reflect what should really be expected.

I think Streetview should be a positive addition to New Zealand’s conservation estate, but I do have a couple of concerns about how it’s come about.

I’d like to know more about what sort of concession fee Google has paid for its commercial activity. Google makes billions of dollars anually from its operations, and this is no doubt contributing. For a company that has some questionable tax practices, the question of what it’s giving back is something I’ve yet to see reported on.

I’m also wondering about the press coming from the Department of Conservation on this. Lou Sanson, CEO of DOC, has been quoted multiple times, enthusiastically talking about tourism benefits. The Radio New Zealand story (same as the earlier link) is one example. DOC has a very strictly defined mandate, in law, where it is to foster recreation, but only to allow for tourism. To me this says that DOC shouldn’t be out spending its time, money and resources on actively attracting tourists to New Zealand, and that line doesn’t seem to match what Lou Sanson appears to be saying DOC is doing. It’d be nice to be reassured that that’s not what’s happening.

Neither of these concerns will affect that Streetview is now here, and it’s probably not going away. I hope it’ll amount to something useful.

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