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​How a GIS expert’s simple app became Google Street View

​How a GIS expert’s simple app became Google Street View

Mel VanderWal was hired on a $10,000 software development contract. A prototype app he created was the beginning of what is now Google Street View.

A Google car on the streets of Paris

A Google car on the streets of Paris

In 2005, Canadian-born GIS specialist, Mel VanderWal was contracted by Immersive Media to create software that would run on its 360 degree video cameras. Within a couple of weeks, he had built prototype application that would eventually become Google Street View.

VanderWal – who is currently real estate firm JLL’s Brisbane-based global director, GIS innovation and APAC GIS technology lead – was asked to integrate Immersive Media’s technology with conventional GIS desktop software.

“They would go out and take full motion 360 degree video with these cameras but didn’t have a good way of displaying it. They had a nice video player, but it didn’t give you any context for what the information was used for,” VanderWal told CIO Australia.

These cameras were largely used for environment monitoring and assessment activities. “They would hang the camera below a helicopter and fly a proposed pipeline route for instance, and use the images for stakeholder engagement,” he said.

VanderWal was contracted around the time Google Maps had become available and he suggested that Immersive Media’s technology could tie into the web mapping service. He built a simple app that showed a Google Maps-based map with ‘blue lines’ superimposed wherever the cars with cameras had driven.

“You could click on the map on one of these blue lines and a viewer would pop up and you could spin it around and look and what was around there [at a street level],” said VanderWal. “I don’t think they ever brought the application I built into production – they just used it for demonstration purposes.”

In 2006, Immersive Media sent out Volkswagen Beetle cars – fitted with 360 degree cameras – to gather ‘geo-referenced’ video of city streets in the United States and Canada under its “GeoImmersive City Collect” project.

This project later became known as Google Street View under an agreement between Immersive Media and Google. Immersive Media says on its website that data mapped from the first 35 cities was viewed by more than 75 million people in the first four days.

“I’d like to say that I had the idea but I was probably a month before someone else having the same idea,” he said. “I know I could have worked for them [Immersive] and turned it into something bigger and better … but for me to work on one project for a long time, I get bored,” he admitted.

“Even something as cool as that, if I got really thrown into it and it became my life, I’d want to do something else. I am continually looking for the new and great thing we should be doing. That’s my mindset.”

Today as JLL's GIS leader, VanderWal investigates new GIS-related technologies and integrates them into the global real estate firm's workflows. He said JLL’s head of IT, Andrew Clowes sees the value in locational intelligence and how it can benefit the firm.

“That’s what I like about working here – we have people in authoritative positions who are big believers in what we do. It’s the bane of the GIS [expert’s] existence. If you ever talk to anybody who’s been in this field, it continually feels like you are justifying your existence so it’s nice working in a company where there’s people who understand why this is important.”

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