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Back to the Future With Google’s Street View

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Time travel is now a reality, sort of.

Late last month, Google Maps released a new tool for its wildly popular Street View to experience how areas have changed over the past seven years. With Google making available archived images taken by its fleet of camera-toting vehicles each year, reporters can now use Street View as a new form of storytelling.

Journalists can use the time-lapse tool to offer an interactive, visual element to their reporting, showing changes in development in neighborhoods, construction of buildings and areas destroyed by natural disasters. The evolution of an area can all be seen instantaneously, creating a digital time capsule with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Once in Google Maps, a user selects a location, drags the avatar – which has an uncanny resemblance to Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” – to the desired area on the map and clicks on a clock icon in the upper left hand corner of the screen.

By using a bar within Street View to manually travel through the years, the tool can be used to illustrate how the renovations of the historic Howard Theatre brought a part of the nation’s capital back to life.

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In New York City, Street View can be activated to show the construction of the One World Trade Center.

In New Orleans, the tool can document how neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have improved over time.

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Street View can uncover other cultural changes, too. Billboards in Times Square, for example, shift to feature smartphones instead of flip phones, while on the other side of Manhattan, viewers can catch a glimpse of how the graffiti on the famous Bowery Mural change as the years pass.

Reporters could use the tool to show:

  • Urban development
  • Construction projects
  • Before and after natural disasters
  • Sports arenas/stadiums changing over time
  • Aging of a building

The good news is that the free tool is not restricted to showing change over time just in the United States. The tool can offer a before-and-after look at how cities like Tohoku, Japan, have been impacted since the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the area in 2011.

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The time-tripping feature is available in all but three countries: Germany and Switzerland, where government regulations restrict Google’s use of previous images, and South Africa, where technical problems have slowed the feature’s rollout, according to the Associated Press.

News outlets could also use Street View as an interactive element to keep audiences engaged. Similar to the slider used by USA Today, a slide divider could be used over a digital picture captured by Street View to allow viewers to shift back-and-forth between an older and more recent shot to compare how the landscape has changed over time.

A photo gallery or GIF featuring images from each available year could also be an effective multimedia element to incorporate into a story.

However, Street View has its limits. Not all places captured by Street View have photos available for every year. This can restrict the user to which topics are featured and which areas may be explored, as Google’s photo-capturing cars have revisited some areas around the world more than others.

But the tool still provides a plethora of photos that were not easily accessible previously, which gives users a chance to be their own pilot in a digital time-traveling DeLorean.

Watch a video of the revamped Street View:

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