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The curious case of Google Street View's missing streets

Zach Miners | July 10, 2015
With the arrival of El Capitan on Google Street View last month, you can now haul yourself virtually up one of the most famous rock faces in the world. Navigating certain streets in urban areas, however, can still be a challenge.

With the arrival of El Capitan on Google Street View last month, you can now haul yourself virtually up one of the most famous rock faces in the world. Navigating certain streets in urban areas, however, can still be a challenge.

As Google expands Street View into ever more exotic places, it appears to have a problem in many of the towns and cities where the service has been available for years. Look closely at any major city, especially the residential areas, and Street View is littered with hundreds, even thousands, of little gaps. And although it's hard to be sure, the problem may be getting worse.

Street View is still a powerful tool and the gaps don't greatly diminish its utility -- unless they happen to be in front of the building you're searching for. But it's strange that even in cities that Google's cars have photographed several times over, there are still numerous stretches -- sometimes whole streets -- where Street View imagery isn't available.

Google called the gaps a "known issue" and implied it's due partly to a glitch in its early mapping software. But it refused to answer questions beyond that, including whether privacy requests are a factor, and whether the gaps are becoming more frequent.

"In places where we collected very early Street View imagery, the old data may sometimes cause an issue that prevents new images from surfacing," the company said via email. "We've so far prioritized refresh of the bulk of the Street View imagery for our users, and we are certainly also working to fill these occasional gaps."

There are two types of gaps, broadly speaking. One is where a building has been blurred, which poses little problem for Street View explorers and is almost certainly due to a privacy request. Harder to fathom is where sections of streets are missing, signified by gaps in the blue lines that appear when you click on the yellow Street View icon in Google Maps.

There could be many reasons for the gaps, as Google has discussed in the past. In some cases, construction work may have prevented its mapping car from passing through. A wide swathe of Hunters Point in San Francisco is missing, for example, but the images of adjacent streets show a lot of construction was going on. In other cases, a Street View driver might have skipped a street by accident, or the camera or recording software might have malfunctioned.

But Google often revisits towns to update its imagery, and it's hard to see why the Sunset residential district in San Francisco, for example -- more or less in Google's back yard -- would have so many gaps. The pattern is similar in Tokyo, London, Berlin and many other cities around the world. The gaps aren't big, and it's possible to overlook them at first glance, but once you're aware they exist, they seem to appear all over the place.

 

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