Cedar Rapids remains under-mapped by Google Street View

Officials, experts at odds on effect

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In the four and a half years since the 2008 flood that damaged downtown Cedar Rapids, much of the city has been restored.

Signs include reopening of the historic Paramount Theatre and businesses moving downtown, as well as the rise and reimagining of the New Bohemia and Czech Village neighborhoods nearby.

But good luck finding those improvements on a map.

Google Maps, arguably the most pervasive and comprehensive mapping tool in the world, provides users the ability to go beyond simple road lines and street names. Through a tool called Google Street View, a person is able to virtually tour city streets and businesses through panoramic photographs.

But not every road in the country is mapped with this functionality, and here in Cedar Rapids, large areas — including much of downtown, virtually all of the New Bo neighborhood and large expanses from Coe College toward Lindale Mall — lack this functionality.

And when comparing the Google Street View map of Cedar Rapids to metropolitan areas of similar size in terms of population — such as Waco, Texas, Topeka, Kan., New Haven, Conn., or Visalia, Calif. — Cedar Rapids has fewer roads mapped and is the only city of the five to have large portions of its downtown not mapped.

This shortage of smart maps is something one city official said is a detriment to attracting people to explore new areas.

“Walkability is a huge part of that,” said Sandi Fowler, assistant city manager of Cedar Rapids. “If I were someone who is not downtown a lot, but I wanted to come to downtown, walk around, and experience everything from the amphitheater to the New Bo Market, I would want to go on to Street View and see what it looks like and know how I can walk those streets.”

How Mapping Occurs

There are two components to the  Street View experience.

The road view launched in 2007, and the data is collected by Google cars driven by photographers who drive along streets snapping the panoramic shots.

And while Google spokesperson Deanna Yick was tightlipped regarding when and where cars drive, she said they often begin in downtown areas, traversing the northern states during the summer months and head south as winter arrives.

The second part of the street view experience is Google’s newer Business Photos program. These are an extension of the street view, allowing users who are stepping down a road view to enter a business, and continue the panoramic views from within a business.

But while Google internally collects the road view, a pool of independently licensed photographers collects the business photos.

Randy Justis is one of three licensed photographers based in Iowa. He said for businesses to take part, they simply need to contact him.

“That is what I think is so cool,” Justis said of the business shoots, whose costs range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the amount of photos taken. “If you are a business that has a really cool interior or products and you want to show off, it doesn’t matter where you are, you don’t have to be on the busiest streets.”

How The Corridor Compares

It is not an easy task to compare how “street viewed” one city is to another.

One way is from within Google Maps, by dragging the orange “pegman” onto a map — which will turn roads blue and add orange circles to the map for streets and businesses that have the panoramic functionality — and visually compare one city to another.

That method shows Cedar Rapids — when compared to the earlier mentioned Wacos, Topeka, New Haven or Visalia — has far less blue roads and zero orange circles, and many of the maps available are of pre-flood Cedar Rapids.

“It would be nice to have something more updated,” said Tammy Koolbeck, the senior vice president of VenuWorks, the company that manages  the Paramount Theatre, among other Cedar Rapids businesses. “If they are pre-flood, they are more than four years old and now going on five years, so certainly Cedar Rapids post-flood is different than pre-flood."

There is hope for an update as there have been multiple sightings of the Street View car in Cedar Rapids over the past year. While Yick said Google has no plans to announce any new additions at this time, Justis noted he expects to be photographing Corridor businesses in the coming year. He finished photographing the first Corridor business to take part in the program through him last week — the Bread Garden Market in Iowa City.

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Economic Impact

Economic development experts and business owners are somewhat at odds with regard to the benefit of Street View mapping.

From a site-development standpoint, some have pointed out the relative age of the photographs as devaluing the data.

“In a general sense I can say, yes, site selectors do use a broad range of tools in gathering information, and Street View is one of them,” said Adam Bruns, the managing editor for Site Selection Magazine. “However, there are other, more-focused resources than (Google Maps) that corporate site selectors, as well as service providers, use to serve their needs.”

Pam Hinman, the communications manager for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said that while Google Maps is a nice tool, GIS maps created and monitored at the county or city level are usually more up to date, and the information provided within is more robust.

“Obviously to have (Google Maps) updated is better,” Hinman said. “But I cannot imagine if someone was seriously looking at the community that would be the only thing they were looking at.”

But for an existing business, especially those that provide retail services, having the panoramic photos of their building can drive valuable traffic to their establishment.

“If you Google our address (the interior tour) is one of the first things that pops up,” said Michael DeWitte, the owner of Barrel House 211 Restaurant & Bar in Davenport, whose shoot he estimated cost $300. “I think it gives us an advantage over someone who doesn’t have that.”

DeWitte is among a handful of business owners in the Quad Cities who have latched onto the interior business photo portion of street view.

But Heath Brewer, the assistant store director of the Bread Garden Market in Iowa City, said he was excited the market was first in the Corridor to add the functionality, and he expects there will be even more adoption.

“I think we are going to take pride in people seeing what we have done, and hope they will try to do the same,” he said, adding that he fully expects other businesses owned by Jim Mondanaro will soon be photographed. “Downtown Iowa City is a community, and I think bringing this here and letting people see what we have done will be a good thing for the whole Corridor.”

How Things Can Change

Street View is ever changing.

But with no timetable from Google regarding when an update will be made to the local roadway maps, some city officials said they would be actively approaching Google with requests.

Dominic Roberts, the chief information officer for Cedar Rapids, said he personally followed the Street View car around town when he spotted it last summer. And during a future talk with Google — which he said is focused around the sale of data services and will occur early next year  — he would make sure to bring up Street View.

“We have had this kind of reach out before, and they are looking to sell products,” he said. “But while we have them captive, I don’t know what their timetable is, but we can find out.”

And while currently there are no Cedar Rapids businesses with interior Google tours, freelance photographer Randy Justis said he is in the process of negotiations with at least two area businesses in addition to the Bread Garden, and expects interest to grow.

“There will be a more concerted effort on our part to present this service directly to businesses,” he said. “We have done some trial marketing campaigns in Cedar Rapids, and there was a desire for this service.”

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