Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Street-Level Imagery in a Pandemic

Earlier today, I passed a Google Street View vehicle,1 and it got me thinking about the time capsule that this imagery is creating.

Google has already updated many areas with Street View photos collected in 2020. It is going to be noteworthy to look back at, for example, this sidewalk in Seine-Saint-Denis, France compared to just a couple of years prior. Most are wearing masks and standing far apart. This is a view of our world that many of us will remember, but it has been captured in a uniquely contemporary way.

Apple recently updated the image collection disclosure on its website to acknowledge that it will be collecting more Canadian imagery this summer in all provinces but, sadly, no territories.2 It rolled out Canadian availability of Look Around in December using imagery collected in summer 2019. It could have a similarly jarring before-and-after effect, except for the fact that Apple Maps does not have a comparable feature to move through different collections. As Apple begins to re-photograph regions that already exist in Look Around, I would like to see this feature come to Apple Maps.

There is a uniquely twenty-first century storytelling quality in being able to drive through the scenes of a pandemic. I do not wish to put any sort of positive spin on a globally devastating catastrophe. In thirty or forty years, though, I think comparing these images with those from other years will help communicate this reality those who are now very young or who have not yet been born. They are evidence that many of us cooperated to reduce the spread of disease. They show shops shuttered because it is a sacrifice required to minimize infection. Perhaps it is because we are still very much living through these hardships, but I find these images compelling and disturbing. Perhaps future generations will feel the same.


  1. A Honda HR-V, I think, not the usual Subaru Impreza. It had a flatter UFO-like camera array on its roof. I would love to read an article about why certain specific cars are chosen by Apple and Google, and why Apple stopped using vans↩︎

  2. In Canada, Apple also collected imagery in 2020. I added this footnote on June 8. ↩︎