Sunday, December 06, 2015

The past through Google Earth

There are some things on the Internet that are just fun, even if we don’t have any actual use for it. Sure, there are plenty of things that entertain us—from games to videos and music of every description (and some best not described…), to all sorts of reading matter. But there’s also stuff a little more off-road.

Google Earth is a Google product for using and interacting with map data in all sorts of ways beyond just looking at them. There are stand-alone apps for computers and mobile devices, and it’s also usable on the web through a browser plug-in.

Like Google Maps, users enter any address on the planet and are transported to that spot. Users can then look at the aerial images of the spot, but unlike Google Maps, people using Google Earth can tilt and pan and look at the address from numerous angles.

The panning and tilting is sometimes based on computer modelling, so buildings and such can look a bit odd. But that 3D modelling also makes it possible to understand the lay of the land—how steep hills are, for example, and among other things that means that when going to an unfamiliar street address, it’s possible to get a better idea of what that street actually looks like—including how hilly it is. Google Maps, even with Street View, isn’t as good for that.

But Goggle Earth can do so much more, and here’s a great trick I read about on Facebook.

Open the Google Earth desktop app (this doesn’t work on iOS mobile devices, and I don’t have an Android to try it on; it also doesn’t seem to work on Google Earth on the web). Next, enter an address to look at—your own house, a place you used to live, maybe just a street in a particular town. The map will go to that spot, as you’d expect, but then look in the lower left corner and you may see a year in a little button. Click on that, and it will take you to an aerial shot from that year.

The earliest year available will vary widely from place to place, and some are really poor quality. For example, many older aerial shots in the USA are NGS aerial photographs and very grainy (there may not be any old ones at all).

The two photos above are examples of this (click to embiggen somewhat). I’ve cropped it to just the main window so it’s less confusing, and you can see the “1963” icon in the lower left, which, in this example, is the earliest aerial images available.

These photos show the Highbury area of Birkenhead in 2015 (top, in colour) and 1963 (below, black and white). Today, the area is a bustling shopping area, with a shopping centre (the big white-roofed area in the top photo), which didn’t exist in 1963. But, then, many of the other shops and commercial buildings in the village didn’t exist in 1963, either. Neither did the curvy road in the centre of the colour photograph, the other side of the Highbury Shopping Centre; it’s usually called “Highbury Bypass”, but is also known as “Onewa Road Extension”.

I chose this area as an example because it’s now mostly a commercial area, so it seemed a little less creepy than using a primarily residential area. But, mainly, it’s an area I’ve spent a lot of time in during my 20 years in New Zealand: I shop there all the time, going to the Countdown and Warehouse in the Highbury Shopping Centre, the Postshop, banks, and the chemist. I got my library card at the Birkenhead Public Library in the lower right corner. In fact, many of the places I’ve mentioned on this blog are located within that photo, or not far from what can be seen.

So: What use is this? Well, for most of us most of the time, not much. It’s kind of interesting to look up your own house and see how the street has changed over the decades. In the case of our area, the vegetation has grown a LOT over the past half century, so by looking at the old photos it’s possible to get a better idea of the land we can no longer see in contemporary aerial photos, like ravines, creeks, and so on that are no longer visible.

For most of us, though, this is just a bit of fun. And PART of what the Internet is all about is fun.

Footnote: Long time readers of this blog may remember that like a lot of other people I used to have a Frappr map on this blog, which allowed visitors to put in a “pin” for their location (it was optional, unlike other visitor maps). Back in 2010 they ended the free maps, so I downloaded my data and can still review the pins using Google Earth. Quite why I’d want to is another matter—nostalgia? Maybe.

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