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How to verify Location using Google Earth’s Street View

Photo Credit: HowToGeek 7 mins read

Most of the time, misleading videos or images are used to push false information to readers, and due to attention grabbing potentials that visuals usually have, audiences are not likely to escape the allure of visual narratives. While verification  techniques provide tools such as reverse image search, digital forensic examination and metadata extraction; Google has an option to enable  fact checkers to investigate location credibility after extracting images of video metadata with specific coordinates. 

In a previous article that relates to this topic,  an  explanation was offered on how extracting exif metadata of an image can help authenticate doubtful images by extracting camera details, that include settings such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO number, focal depth, dots per inch (DPI). Other auto-generated metadata that are sometimes unavailable but vital,  including the camera brand and model, the date and time when the image was created and the GPS location/coordinates where it was created. 

In this article,  the practical examples of how to use Google Earth to virtually explore these coordinates and examine features, such as weather, landmarks, etc. to determine if they correspond with claims on the visual you are investigating. 

The Google Earth 

Google Earth is a free web-based geospatial data viewer maintained by Google in Mountainview, California. It is a geo-browser (virtual globe) that accesses satellite and aerial imagery, topography, ocean bathymetry, and other geographic data over the internet to represent the Earth as a three-dimensional globe. 

An overview of Google Earth as a virtual globe

The program is essentially a globe atlas, similar to those found in classrooms. However, the exception is that this is computer based, and much more flexible in terms of the data that it represents. Also, users of the program are able to access hundreds of databases provided by Google Earth, and others by “geoweb.” 

The idea of ‘geoweb’ refers to the community of scientists who use open-and-closed source geospatial software like Google Earth to share data publicly. 

A short list of groups and agencies that publish free data to the “geoweb” include National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), and many other private and public entities in the scientific community.

Furthermore, Google earth allows anyone to upload and share data of their locations online for others to access. Even more, other users of Google Earth or Maps can equally verify this image and the acclaimed location. 

Google Maps also aids users  to determine whether  roads and locations are authentic by presenting how a place looks in reality.

This feature is important, because events that take place in locations far away from the user can easily be targeted for manipulation, due to the user’s unfamiliarity with those locations.  If the user wants to know if a photo is really of the location it claims to be, he or she should simply search for that same location on Google Earth or Street View on Google Maps to confirm the credibility of the information.

Versions 

Google Earth varies in versions as follows: 

Google Earth Pro – This current desktop version, now free to use, has many features, including displaying satellite and aerial imagery, a growing set of layers of mappable data, the ability to display third party data, tools for creating new data, and the ability to import GPS data. Additional capabilities include movie making, as well as importing ESRI shapefiles and MapInfo tab files, measuring areas of circles and polygons, and can print and save high-resolution images. 

Google has created a Google Earth Education site to provide helpful information on using Google Earth with students. For a number of years, the desktop version is what many people knew of as “Google Earth.”

Earlier, Google Earth Pro had additional capabilities and was not free. Now Google Earth Pro is free, “regular” Google Earth has moved to the Web. The desktop version (Google Earth Pro) has been the primary version of the software used in Earth science education, but that may be shifting more towards Web. Unless otherwise indicated, the following pages are referring to the desktop version, Google Earth Pro.

Versions of Google earth

Google Earth for Web (available for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera) – An easy to use, browser-based version that provides ease of access but is limited in terms of functionality. This version can load kml or kmz files, can be used to search for places, and has a Voyager option that, based on a user-selected subject such as Travel or Nature, can be used to follow a story from a collection contributed from various individuals and institutions.

Google Earth for Mobile – An app with similar viewing capabilities as the Google Earth for Web, but one cannot build projects with it.

Earth Engine – Combines satellite imagery and geospatial data with many tools for analysis, including the ability of the user to add their own algorithms for real world applications.

Enterprise – This product makes imagery and other geospatial data available to employees within organizations such as corporations.

Using Google Earth for Visual Investigation

In this article,  using Google Earth for Web is demonstrated. This version can be accessed by simply launching a browser (Chrome, Firefox Opera etc) on your PC. Log on to the Google Earth Website on https://earth.google.com/web/ an this will load with an overview of the interface. 

Google Earth provides search capabilities and the ability to pan, zoom, rotate, and tilt the view of the Earth. It also offers tools for creating new data and a growing set of layers of data, such as volcanoes and terrain, that reside on Google’s servers, and can be displayed in the view.

By the extreme right side is a menu bar which can collapse or expand as seen below: 

A Collapse menu bar on the Google Earth Interface
An expanded menu bar in the same region of the Google Earth

Similarly, by the left towards the foot of the interface are additional function tools, as seen below: 

Double left clicking on the global representation of the earth on the center of the interface will take you to the pointed location by your mouse cursor. The more you click, the more it zooms in. On the other hand, double right click can zoom out. But this can alternatively be achieved using the plus and minus two buttons on the right end foot of the interface, as seen above. 

Next to it is the compass, which restores you to normal view, while above the compass is the angle view for either two dimensional or three-dimensional view of the earth. Above that too is a human-like icon, this can simply be dragged and dropped in a given location or coordinate to give the “street view” and explore virtually. Clicking on the glob tool restores you to a general setting. 

Finding a Location

You can find a location by searching for a continent, country, state, location, coordinates or even landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. This can simply be achieved using the search bar at the top left, then dragging and dropping the “street view” icon to virtually explore. 

In my previous article, I shared a photo with an Exif Metadata that shows the Coordinates 34.N, 118.W. Entering the Coordinates on the search bar, “flies” me to a height in California. 

An aerial view of the California location
A street view of the same location which can be virtually toured to examine necessary features

Further on working with coordinates, imagine we have the following coordinates to work with: 

51.494175N, 0.009477E

51 32.65333N, 0 10.2222E

51 32 43.28333N, 0 10 30.32333E

Simply searching the first coordinate (51.494175N, 0.009477E) takes me to a location on Millenial Way in London. 

I have never been to Millenial Way in London, but using Google Earth and then Street View, I am Virtually there, so if I have any image that lays claim to the area, I could just examine the features and landmarks to verify the claim. 

Also in searching places using location, a facebook friend of mine recently shared a photo claiming that it was a view of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. 

This Image was claimed to be of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and it generated likes and comments with many expressing interest to enroll. 

When the search term “University of Cape Coast Ghana” was searched on Google earth, the result shows an aerial view that is not similar to what the picture claimed, neither do the topography and vegetation match and so it can be safely concluded that the claim was false.

Result showing and aerial view of the University of Cape Coast Ghana which is not in any way similar to what the first photo claimed. 
A street view of the surrounding area of the University of Cape Coast Ghana

Using such techniques and explorations, one can easily authenticate locations on image where exif metadata has been extracted with coordinates, this can help verify authenticity. Similarly it can also be easily used to fact-check if visuals correspond with claims of certain places. To use the mobile version, users can simply download the “Google Earth” App on your Android or IoS device, install, and launch for use.  

The researcher produced this media article per the Dubawa 2021 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with PRNigeria to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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