What to do when Google Maps only goes so far

The work that I and three other George Mason University students have been doing as virtual interns with the Smithsonian Institute this semester, at its heart, is a matter of pinning down the locations of cultural repositories in the Caribbean Sea.

Among the data we have been asked to collect are the latitude and longitude coordinates of these sites. In many cases, this has been relatively easy. If we can find a street address, all we have to do is search for it in Google Maps and let the service’s geolocation feature take over.

But just how accurate is this method?

As it turns out, pretty accurate. Google has invested massively in making sure its maps are spot on, combining algorithms with human effort, according to Wired magazine. The company launched its Ground Truth project a decade ago and continues to refine its methodology to create an even more accurate two-dimensional depiction of the world.

Google’s Street View function, which allows the user to virtually travel down streets, to many people may be nothing more than interesting or entertaining. But it also is a valuable tool for researchers, including historians. I have used it to look at buildings as I’ve studied the geography of a former immigrant neighborhood. And Google itself employs Street View imagery to refine maps, applying optical character recognition to street signs and other text to get a better sense of what is what in a given location.

“Now, whenever a Street View car drives on a newly built road, our system can analyze the tens of thousands of images that would be captured, extract the street names and numbers, and properly create and locate the new addresses, automatically, on Google Maps,” according to a recent post on the Google Research Blog.

However, as I’ve noted before, Google’s Street View is valuable only if Google has sent a car to photograph the community you want to virtually explore. Many of the Caribbean islands we have been researching have not yet been visited by Google.

In those cases, we have tried to rely on other sources, such as the crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap or Wikimedia. In my experience, at least in the case of the Caribbean sites, neither has been all that helpful in locating geographical coordinates of cultural repositories. In those cases we have turned to TripAdvisor, Facebook, or other social media sources.

Over time, I’m sure Google will get its vehicles to these island countries and to other less-served locations around the world. If not, perhaps these locations will have to follow the path of the Faroe Islands, where a grass-roots effort caught the attention of Google and led to development of Sheep View — strapping 360-degree cameras to sheep as they freely roamed the landscape. (Read more about the project on instigator Durita Andreassen’s blog)