Panoramio: To boldly go where no Google car has gone before

Well, how about that?

No sooner had I removed all my photos from Google Places did Google dispatch their fleet of Street View cars to fill in the missing locations in Germany!

It’s just coincidence, of course.

Although both statements are correct they are completely unrelated.

Still, seeing as this year seems to be revolving around nothing but salaried work and digitising my stash of photos, there is a bit of a story to tell. It begins with Flickr.

Flickr is/was a great place to showcase photographs. I’ve been using it for nearly 20 years. Naturally, many of my photos featured city or rural environments with an emphasis on places or objects within them. Eventually I discovered a site called Panoramio.

Panoramio was a geo-located tagging photo sharing site whose goal was to allow Google Earth users to learn more about a given area by viewing the photos that other users had taken at that location. It was sometime around 2008 that I signed up, and Panoramio soon became my new home for (retroactively) geotagged digital photos of mostly Johannesburg (my previous geographic home) as well as any other places we visited.

My profile read that I was…

“On a mission to boldly go where no Google car has gone before. Here are the most clichéd, topical, typical, noteworthy, interesting, relevant, memorable and LOCATABLE photos snapped during whatever trips a person takes with a humble point ‘n shoot digicam or camera phone in tow and which may be worth sharing with other armchair tourists and Google Earth aficionados.”

It’s worth mentioning that, at the time, South Africa had minimal visual online presence. This changed dramatically when the Street View cars rolled into town shortly before the country hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. South Africa was now firmly on the world map. Photos via social media were plentiful and proved that lions do not roam the streets.

Google, by then, had acquired Panoramio but the latter’s community stubbornly resisted the behemoth closing it down, delaying its integration into their Google Maps service. For a while both services ran concurrently while I diligently added more photos to Panoramio (as did thousands of other devoted users).

Soon after, Google set their eyes on mapping Germany (my current geographic domicile). Now it was an entire country’s population’s turn to protest, with some 3 percent of residents exercising their right to have their houses blurred out in Street View.

People in Hamburg live in strange houses (image via reddit)

Eventually, Google just gave up.

Google Maps revolutionized how we view the world when it introduced Street View in 2007, spreading throughout the world in subsequent years. However, the service wasn’t met with open arms everywhere in the world. One of the countries to shun the service early on was Germany, where privacy outcries and lawsuits led to Google halt the Street View rollout in 2011 after only covering about 20 big cities, shortly after it was launched in the country. — Android Police

I, too, found the Germans’ resistance utterly ridiculous and have yet to meet a living opponent of Street View. It’s all the more absurd when you realise that many ordinary businesses or public places, seen (and perhaps even photographed) by hundreds of tourists daily, got milkglassed.

At one point I was playing with the idea to seek out some of these blurred buildings, knock on their door, ask the residents about the corpses in their basement, and promptly photograph the house and upload the pictures to Panoramio from where they will ultimately be made visible on Google Earth / Street View, too.

Although I never got around to that stunt, I did take the dog and the camera on several photo safaris around my neighbourhood — which the Google cars had not been to.

Seeing my photos appear on Google Earth gave me a small sense of accomplishment.

hmvh single-handedly put the quiet suburb of Dortelweil on the map. Bad boy!

Following several petitions, Panoramio managed to survive well into late 2016 before Google ultimately shut it down. User photos were migrated to Google Maps, and I also uploaded copies to Flickr (before they, too, threatened to remove them – but that’s another story).

And there my 430 or so photos languished, waiting to be moved to a decent Panoramio substitute that never was found. As time passed, some managed to clock up thousands of views because they somehow got attached to nearby landmarks or businesses. Others didn’t because they were taken in the middle of nowhere. Google couldn’t monetise them.

Courage the cowardly dog in the middle of nowhere.

In November of last year I decided to put them out their misery and deleted the whole lot.

Just about every place that has a spot on Google Maps has now been photographed by other people — by both locals and tourists from the furthest corner of the Earth. The range is astounding, and the quality is often appalling.

“Fast-forward to June 2023, and [Google Street View] is finally returning to the European country, allowing tourists and residents to explore sights and neighborhoods with up-to-date imagery.”

Post-COVID Germany is gradually crawling out from under its digital rock.

All photos and scans by Herby Hönigsperger unless specified otherwise.

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