ABU DHABI // The shape of the capital is changing so quickly, it is hard to believe that in the not-so-distant future you might be able to access a picture on your mobile phone, compare it with the landmark you are standing in front of, and know exactly where you are.
Representatives of Google, the internet search engine, are already working on the technology to bring Street View, available through the Google Maps application, to the UAE and the rest of the Middle East. But there are a number of hurdles to overcome, including how to intricately map still-in-flux growth centres such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where roads are being laid, old buildings torn down and new ones built with a frequency not seen in other parts of the world. There is also the issue of accessing the right mapping information, or having it available at all, something that can be harder to come by in this region.
Jessica Powell, the UK-based head of product public relations for Google in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, experienced some of those issues first-hand this week while using her mobile's location feature. "I now appreciate it after I've been in Dubai for five days," she said. "Those are the kinds of things that would very much be a challenge. "If I really tried to find some of the little alleyways of Dubai, which is the case in many parts of the Middle East, and many parts of eastern Europe, the product isn't there yet."
Google launched Street View in May 2007 in five US centres, and has since expanded it to nine countries including Australia, France, Italy, Japan and most recently, 25 cities in the UK. The company's cars - distinctive with their Google logo and nine, roof-mounted cameras - have also been spotted at work in several cities in Canada. The process involves taking hundreds of thousands of 360░ horizontal and 290░ vertical photographs, which are then used to create a highly detailed, panoramic view of the street that can be accessed online through Google Earth and Google Maps.
Street View sparked controversy soon after it was launched and has continued to do so, mostly over privacy concerns and whether Google's system of automatically blurring out identifying features, including faces and vehicle licence plates, actually worked to protect people. This week, however, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office ruled that the service did not constitute a violation of personal privacy. The office compared Street View with televised football, arguing it would be unreasonable to expect a broadcaster to obtain the consent of every person in the crowd before the match in case their image was broadcast.
The entertainment value alone of Street View is considerable. Users can check out their own neighbourhoods or take a virtual walk through the streets of a city they have never seen. Would-be tourists can get the lay of the land and firm up their travel plans, checking out restaurant fašades, attractions, even bus stops and street signs from afar. The photos can also help after they arrive, by providing important visual clues should they get lost.
There are many other challenges to providing more coverage, however. The photos need to be taken in the proper light and the drivers need to navigate the area in their vehicles. That may be why so much of more-accessible Australia - even some of the Outback - is available, while other areas are not, said Ms Powell. And before Google turns to Street View, the company will first concentrate on building up its supply of Google Maps throughout this part of the world.
There is information available on Google Maps for the UAE, and other countries in the region such as Egypt, as well as Arabic interfaces on some of the maps, said Joanne Kubba, Google's manager for the Middle East and North Africa, global communications and public affairs. "We're at the stage where we're working country by country to establish that," she said. For now, anyone who finds information while searching Google Maps in the UAE will probably be accessing it through another country's domain. Only when Google has reached a level of "basic functionality" will the company use a UAE domain name for its maps, and subsequently fill in detail with the Street View option. Ms Powell would give no indication as to when that will be.
Another feature, Mapmaker, should prove useful in future as well, particularly in the ever-changing UAE. Mapmaker allows users to correct maps, changes that would be vetted before they were released, said Ms Powell. "Whether we're talking about a road or a building that will all of a sudden spring up, the idea with this is that users can edit the map," she said, "and tell us actually this restaurant that you put 50 metres from here is actually here or this street; there's actually a street here that you've marked incorrectly."
There are many other complicated, back-end technical challenges facing a more functional Google mapping of the region. For example, the company is working to overcome regional differences in how people search for information, which can be as simple as whether a postal code is placed before the city or after it. "All that means you can't just roll maps out," said Ms Powell. "You can't just slap an Arabic interface on it and say 'we're done'."
While in the Emirates this week, Google representatives also met private and government representatives, as well as Dubai's chief of police, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim. He had previously asked for inappropriate content to be filtered from YouTube, and said this week police had been working with Etisalat on implementing the process. Although Google has worked with governments to uphold local laws - most controversially in the case of China, where some content has been censored - the company reported there was no such plan for the Emirates. Instead, search limitations have generally been left up to internet service providers such as Etisalat or du.
Said Ms Kubba: "I think it's just more about bridging the dialogue than it is about 'these are the terms, please block them'." firstname.lastname@example.org