Instant Street View: The essential internet tool helping wannabes and expats in Cuenca and beyond

Dec 7, 2016 | 3 comments

“It sure doesn’t look like the brochure, I thought the condo was in a nicer neighborhood.”

It’s a common refrain, the modern internet version of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Shelley and Phil, two determined expat wannabe friends had been investigating a condo on the outskirts of Quito. They had all the information provided by the developers — purchase prices, HOA fees, floorchl scott logo plans for the various models, nice drawings of future tennis courts, a putting green, equestrian stables and a health club — even backup generators. The sales pitch was slick, it pushed every potential buyer’s buttons, all via email and pdf brochures. Who doesn’t want ideal weather, scenic views, privacy, tranquility and easy access to an international airport?

It was either a perfect retirement location or a testament to excellent marketing. Which would they be buying? The two don’t often go together.

Which condo? InstantStreetView reduces surprises.

Which condo? InstantStreetView reduces surprises.

I hate being the bucket of cold water, but some questions had to be asked. “Have you given them a deposit? No? Good. Where exactly is this place? What does that part of Quito look like?” If only they had a few pictures of the neighborhood, just to get a feel for the area.

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So, in lieu of my advice about waiting and renting, I did what real friends do these days, I sent them my favorite link. It’s the “worth a thousand words” idea, upgraded for the modern internet age.

The cold breeze of scrutiny began to blow. Floor plan drawings are good, but location, location, location is crucial. A single picture would have helped. Instead, Shelley and Phil saw a digital 360 degree, high definition panorama display, shot every 12 meters, up and down all the streets surrounding the condo development. They spent a weekend roaming Quito’s adjacent neighborhoods — all while sitting at home in Idaho. They decided against the condo purchase. Cuenca is now their destination of choice.

Thankfully, the internet age has brought Ecuador expats and wannabes a new tool for bursting real estate bubbles. It also works for locating hidden restaurants and offices, counting stray dogs on the street, checking for a noisy bus station next to your rental, finding all the livestock in your neighborhood, discovering obscure craft markets, searching out possible real estate bargains, and reviewing local wall art. It all sits on a massive server farm originally paid for by US taxpayers. The cost is perfect — it’s free.

It’s been a long trip down a wide digital road.

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Backpack cameras record Cuenca foot paths.

Why do so many mind-blowing digital gizmos get their start as weapons of war? Internet entrepreneurs Larry Page and Sergey Brin were fascinated by the satellite imagery used to promote the American rubble-ization of Iraq. The satellite-generated graphics were provided by a CIA funded outfit called Keyhole Inc. Page and Brin were allowed to buy the company, repackaged the software, and in 2005, Google Earth was born.

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A juggler works a Cuenca street corner.

By 2007, they had invented the best reason for any expat or wannabe to own a computer — Google Earth Street View. With their patented dodecahedral camera array set atop a moving car, the planet’s bazillion highways, boulevards and dirt tracks have steadily been logged into an immense data base for our armchair perusal. By early 2015, Ecuador’s streets and roads were being digitally recorded. In Cuenca alone, the project took weeks. Backpack cameras were used for popular city footpaths. On Thursday, November 12th, 2015 a historical event occurred. With zero fanfare or notification, Cuenca’s street views were uploaded to Google Earth. Amazingly, no festival celebration was planned.

Did you see the Google car in Cuenca? If so, then it saw you too. Congratulations. You have now achieved digital immortality as part of their permanent database.

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Google car with dodecahedral camera array.

Contrast seems to be part of their corporate charter. Notorious for being difficult to work with, or even contact, the modern Google Inc. has developed a sinister reputation. Much more complex than their famous search engine, the company is criticized for showing bias in the recent U.S. election, working with China to design a controlled internet, and a disturbing worldwide effort to shape public perception. In 1997, Google’s motto was “Don’t be evil.” Now, it is “Do the right thing.” They don’t specify for who. Still, their positive impact cannot be denied. In 2010, the entire suite of Google maps was made totally free to all. By 2011 they were charging programmers a nominal fee for access. As the company becomes more monolithic, major map data users like Uber can see the trend. Hopefully, Google technology will remain both economical and easily accessible to third party developers.

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The Google car bestows digital immortality.

One thing is certain. Google is the top dog when it comes to maps.

How could this travel technology get even better for expats and wannabes? How about skipping the cumbersome installation and system overhead involved with the huge Google Earth software package. The Street View functions only please — and on a fast website easily accessible from any browser or smart phone. In 2012, a bright young Brit recognized that very need.

Welcome to www.instantstreetview.com.

After a decade of experience in developing mapping websites, Nick Nicholaou had the idea to take what was truly amazing, and improve on it. His goal was a helpful website highlighting only Google Earth’s Street View functions. It took 3,000 lines of code and a month to develop a working model. InstantStreetView went live in 2012.

It now gets my vote as the single best internet tool for wannabes and expats — in Cuenca and beyond.

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Find the best entrance for your favorite markets.

I recently spoke with Nick in his office in north London’s Finsbury Park area.

SF: What gave you the idea for InstantStreetView?

NN: I realized using the best elements of Google Earth wasn’t easy for users…. even quite clunky….. their StreetView function seemed like a secondary feature…. I wanted to make it more accessible…. even fun.

SF: How popular is InstantStreetView?

NN: Very popular from the first day….. the site gets two million hits per month…. users are located worldwide…. growth has been steady.

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Get to know the neighborhood.

SF: Cuenca, like many cities in Ecuador, often has no address numbers on buildings and homes, or even names on streets. How does InstantStreetView find locations?

NN: Google has the best geo-coding services in the world…. street tests are manually verified…. its considered rooftop accurate…. user requested addresses are converted into earth coordinates…. then into specific locations….. it’s surprisingly precise…. of course, accuracy varies by country.

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Know which door your looking for.

SF: Describe the blurring that’s seen in the InstantStreetView videos.

NN: Google runs special blurring software for privacy purposes…. originally intended to hide children’s faces…. it soon included all faces…. then license plates…. the algorithm is not perfect…. most annoying mistake…. they often obscure address numbers on buildings…. blurred faces show up on livestock…. road signs too…. blurring is a tricky business…. they err on the side of security.

Blurring provides anonymity – sort of.

Blurring provides anonymity – sort of.

SF: How is the Google company to work with?

NN: Once you get in the door, surprisingly good actually…. they are still providing me with affordable access to their map data…. they actually promote my website because they like it…. but I’m independent…. I posted a disclaimer on InstantStreetView to make sure people understand…. I’m not affiliated with Google.

The blurring algorithm also finds wall art.

The blurring algorithm also finds wall art.

SF: What does the future hold for InstantStreetView?

NN: My goal is to keep the site intuitive, fast and clean…. and free…. many users are not technical….  I try to improve ease of use….like replacing the dragged yellow peg man with crosshairs…. it’s much easier to pinpoint locations.

SF: How will InstantStreetView change regarding Ecuador?

NN: Accuracy on address searches should increase over time…. Cuenca’s street views were only just posted…. updates will probably be a few years off…. interior videos for buildings and shops are purchased by vendors…. shown by red and blue dots on the map…. those are added regularly.

Map dots show building interior views.

Map dots show building interior views.

As my wife Dee and I prepare to leave our condo for another day of adventure in Cuenca, we follow a now familiar routine. This time, we’re looking for a cooking class held in a private home in north Cuenca. An address search with InstantStreetView quickly gives us a moveable, street level panoramic view of the narrow lane — of course, the homes are not numbered. I take two pictures of the laptop screen for our cab driver. One shows the map view with street names, the second is a picture of the target home’s front gate. He drives straight to it.

For expats and wannabes, it’s a fine line between adventurous wandering, or just being lost. Personally, I like to know where I’m going.

For that, InstantStreetView is a remarkable tool. It also does something else that’s incredible.

It makes this old gringo look smarter.

All photos are screen clips from Cuenca on www.InstantStreetView.com.

Check out Nick’s other projects at:
http://www.mapcrunch.com (random street views from around the world)
http://www.newsola.com (news visualization tool)
http://www.theinstantweb.com (instant website search engine)

Contact Nick Nicholaou at nick@interworld.co.uk

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After Ecuador’s highest appellate court confirms guilt and sentences of defendants in Bribery 2012-2016 case, Correa can never run for public office again
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