This Man is Filling in the Gaps by Mapping His Hometown in Zimbabwe

Did you ever wonder how Google Street View gets their photos?

Jun 18, 2020

Street View is a really fun Google tool that people can use on their computers or smartphones to help find an address, look for a romantic holiday resort, a subway station, or just virtually visit their childhood home. After all, who doesn’t want to explore their old hometown?

That’s exactly what Tawanda Kanhema tried to do when he moved to the US in 2009 from Zimbabwe. He searched for his hometown Harare – the country’s capital – on Google Maps but according to National Public Radio, there was nothing to see. Harare wasn’t there, actually none of Zimbabwe was there. That’s when Kanhema knew he had to get his country on the map.

“When you look at Street View, you're looking at this mosaic of images that show how people live across the world, how people conduct commerce, how people get around,” Kanhema told NPR “I found it quite jarring that a lot of the countries in the region were not on the map.”

Zimbabwe is far from being alone. In fact, there are only 87 countries mapped. While most of the Western world has been mapped there are major gaps in Africa and Asia. “We start in the large metropolitan areas where we know we have users, where it's easy for us to drive and we can execute quickly,” said Stafford Marquardt, a product manager for Street View.

Street View, according to Google, is a virtual representation on Google Maps that consists of panoramic images. It began as a Google-sponsored Stanford University research project to map the California city in 2001. The project ended in June 2006 and the technology and data were incorporated into Street View. While there is some criticism that taking the Street View photos are a violation of privacy, the mapping tool is considered a great success.

The company gets the images by taking them themselves or by contributors who volunteer to take photos. The images are obtained by moving vehicles like cars, trucks, bicycles and even by drones or helicopters. Volunteers can borrow Google’s equipment or use their own.

In 2018, Kanhema applied to borrow a 360-degree camera from Street view’s camera loan program according to NPR. He then took a two-week journey to photograph Zimbabwe. He traversed Harare snapping the city streets and highways, even taking a cruise on the Zambezi River and on a safari in a national park. He even took photos of Victoria Falls from a helicopter

“It's so conspicuous to have a 4-foot contraption attached to the roof of your car,” Kanhema told NPR. “People are walking up and asking questions about, 'Is that a camera? What are you recording? What are you filming? It is for Google Maps? Will my house be on the map? Will my face be on the map?'”

After Kanhema returned to the US, he uploaded the images to Street View and Google used them to map out the places he visited. He hopes that being “on the map” will bring tourism and boost the economy of his native home.

What does he want to do next? Kanhema said he wants to keep mapping the world so he may head to Mozambique, or Greenland. Wherever he goes, it will end up virtually on Street View. Who knows, he may even photograph your childhood home.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.