Google Trains Its All-Seeing Street View Eye on Japanese Earthquake Devastation

Google’s Street View cars have been spotted all over the world capturing ground-level photos of cities for the company’s unique mapping technology. But now that tech is being put to a new use: The cars are shooting pictures of the devastation in Japan left from the powerful earthquake the nation suffered last March. The goal is to help spread information about the extent of the remaining damage and help relief workers coordinate their efforts.

Google, which holds a rare number two position behind Yahoo in online search in Japan, says it believes that capturing 360-degree imagery of the wreckage can more fully state the scope of the damage. That can help workers, engineers and volunteers when they’re attacking the problem of how to rebuild.

Google did not provide further comment to TechNewsWorld.

The company says the stirring images can also better compel people to help in the relief effort.

Some have felt the disaster couldn’t be captured in just one photo, but 360-degree panoramic images can help people across the world better understand the scope of the destruction, according to Google.

The Street View cars aren’t the only way the search engine is helping. The company initiated a so-called Person Finder, a service with information in both Japanese and English to help either find a displaced person or post information about someone who was possibly missing.

More recently, as commerce in Japan tries to get back to normal, Google introduced its YouTube Business Support Channel, a way to show the world which businesses are back in action. There, local establishments can promote their products and get the message out that they are open.

Completely Altruistic?

It’s open to question whether part of Google’s intentions are as altruistic as the company may like them to seem.

It’s not the first time Google has given back in the wake of disaster. Much of the same technology now employed in Japan is being used in Haiti as volunteers and citizens there continue their long struggle to rebuild from the devastation left from its 2010 earthquake.

In addition, the company’s map-making technology has been used to create detailed response maps after the floods in Pakistan in 2010 and the storms that have wreaked havoc on the southern United States this past spring.

In New Zealand following the 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, volunteers used Google SketchUp and Google Earth as part of the rebuilding effort.

Street View Cars Frowned on Before

In Japan, Google isn’t the leader in online searches, and its Street View cars are wildly unpopular.

Widespread negativity followed the debut of Street View mapping. Many Japanese citizens, including prominent executives and technology bloggers, were outraged at the personal activities the cameras captured.

“Google Street View cars have been controversial, maybe more so than other countries, given the limited land where living spaces and public spaces often overlap,” Aki Nakamura, head of business development in Japan for Solidiance, told TechNewsWorld.

Citizens cited examples in which the cars caught the wife of a well-known executive on camera, men urinating in the streets, illicit couples entering “love motels,” and privacy concerns as reasons the service should be discontinued.

A popular blogger and IT professional, Osamu Higuchi, wrote a “Letter to the People” in which he outlined the security concerns surrounding Street View cars and asked that the residential roads be removed from the service.

He went so far as to ask people to remember this letter, in the event it “fell from favor” with Google and disappeared from search results.

Other local governments such as the Suginami Ward and the Machida City Council made movements to halt or remove Street View images.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that some coverage of the company’s relief efforts have been met with a fair share of cynicism.

However, this could be a golden opportunity to advance Google’s standing in the country.

“Google, like most companies, need to have good relationships with countries and governments. While management has been and certainly will continue to be altruistic from time to time, there is a lot to be gained from extending a helping hand,” Rick Summer, analyst at Morningstar, told TechNewsWorld.

“I think using [the Street View cars] to help in the rebuilding effort is simply good. It’s too cynical if someone thinks Google is doing this to make some points and change perception towards this service. The majority of the Japanese has the good judgment to determine what is from good or bad will,” said Nakamura.

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