google street view
From the U.S. to Japan, people across the world are finding their deceased loved ones on Google Street View. Photo courtesy of Kisawanda James (left) and Paula Sullivan.
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These People Found Deceased Loved Ones on Google Maps

Some people across the world have been able to catch one last glimpse of their relatives, friends, and even pets through Google Street View.
January 20, 2021, 2:20pm

Ever since Google Street View was first launched in the U.S. in 2007, people have spotted all kinds of things on it. A feature on Google Maps and Google Earth, Street View provides interactive panoramas from many streets across the world, captured by the famous Street View cars

In a blog post dated December 2019, Google claims its Street View cars that prowl urban metropolises and rural countryside, have captured more than 10 million miles of Street View imagery—a distance that could circle the globe over 400 times. The tech giant says the idea of Street View started as a side project more than 12 years ago as part of a goal to map the entire world, even the parts that are the hardest to map. The company collects street imagery using a fleet of Street View cars, each equipped with nine cameras that capture high-definition imagery from every vantage point possible. And for non-motorable locations, they employ the Street View trekker, a backpack carried by boats, sheep, camels, or even scout troops to gather high quality photos from multiple angles.

The process is long and tedious, but has resulted in some gems from all across the world. Be it a llama crossing sign somewhere in Peru, or cows in a compromising position in a small town in India, Google Street View has become a gift that keeps on giving.

Funny and bizarre captures aside, the technology has also emerged as a heartwarming way for people to reconnect with their loved ones who have passed away. In recent years, many people have chanced upon images of their relatives or friends that they have lost, while browsing through Google Maps. Some have found them after they got inspired by someone else’s experience that they shared on social media. 

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Something similar happened to Paula Sullivan when she came across a viral tweet by a girl who found her grandmother on Google Street View in January 2020 and decided to do some looking around herself. 

“I saw the replies and the attention it (the tweet) was getting, so I decided to try it out for myself. I kept playing with the Street View angles and I eventually found my dad walking out of the house,” the 23-year-old resident of Florida, U.S.  who lost her dad unexpectedly, told VICE. “It was a bittersweet moment and it made me happy but very emotional.”

It had been almost four years since Sullivan’s father had passed away, and so, seeing him outside his Pennsylvania home, captured by the Google Street View car, became a unique way for her to preserve his memory. “I took a screenshot of it and will always keep that,” she said.

Paula with her father, and a Street View image

Paula with her father (left) and the Street View image of him outside his Pennsylvania home. Photo courtesy of Paula Sullivan.

For 55-year-old David Fulton, it took over four years after his father’s passing to find him virtually immortalised by Google Street View. “I come from an obscure small town called Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, U.S., so it was out of sheer curiosity that I was snooping around on Street View one day,” the London resident told VICE. “That’s when I saw him sitting right outside his house.”

David and his father

David with his father. Photo courtesy of David Fulton.

While his face was blurred, as is done by Google to protect the identity of the people whose faces are captured in the process, Fulton was sure it was him and thought it was “nice to see him sitting out there like old times”.

These images captured by Google are giving people another chance to find their family, friends, and even pets in their natural surroundings, even after they’ve been gone for years.

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Five years ago, 34-years-old Kisawanda James lost her grandmother, who she thinks about often. “One day in 2019, I randomly googled her address. Once the photo came up I noticed that she was sitting in the shade out in the front yard,” James, who’s from Albany in the U.S. state of Georgia, told VICE. “It was so shocking because I did not expect to see her. It brought me to tears.”

Kisawanda's grandmother on google street view

Kisawanda James found her late grandmother on Street View when she randomly looked up her address one day. Photo courtesy of Kisawanda James.

Like James and Fulton, many others have found these images of their loved ones by sheer chance.

Khail, who lives in Los Angeles, told VICE he was lucky to have found his dog Riley on Google Maps on the day of his death in December 2020. 

“I was looking up my mom's zip code to send sympathy flowers and out of curiosity, I opened Street View. There he was, guarding the house from the backyard as always,” he said. Khail thinks it was the perfect way to say goodbye to his loyal friend and to honour his memory. “I felt an immediate tug in my heart. A sense of what a good boy he was, how sad I was, and that, at least digitally, he'll always be guarding the house,” he said.

Khail's dog Riley and his Street View image

Khail's dog Riley (left) and the Street View image of him guarding the house from the backyard. Photo courtesy of Khail.

Khail has been keeping the special image a secret from his mom and step-dad to share with them on the one-year anniversary of Riley’s passing, but thinks it will be even more special for them to find out through this VICE piece. “This is a much better way to honour him,” he said.

Not just in the U.S., people all across the world have been catching one last glimpse of their loved ones through this feature as well.

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Recently, a Japanese man accidentally found his late father, who passed away seven years ago, on Google Earth. He prompted many more similar searches when he shared the moment on social media.

“I decided to search for my parents’ house on Google Earth because I had nothing to do due to the pandemic,” Twitter user @TeacherUfo said, as translated by 9Gag. “I saw my father who had passed away 7 years ago. I then zoomed past him and saw my mum on her way home. My father must have been waiting for my mother to return home. My father was a quiet but kind man. I hope that Google Earth doesn’t update the photo for this place.”

It is natural for people to wish these images of their loved ones remain unchanged on Street View for posterity. 

However, whether or not Google updates its Street View images depends on a number of factors, including if you live in a rural or urban area. This Quora thread compiles details on how this works, along with information on how you can update your own images using the user generated Street View feature. The same feature, however, has caused trouble for the tech giant in the past.

Only last year, Google had to take down user-generated images of the summit of Uluru in Australia, in accordance with the wishes of the indigenous Anangu people, who are the traditional owners of the area. Google has also faced legal retribution for violating users’ privacy during the Street View mapping project by allegedly collecting password, e-mail, and other personal information without consent.

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