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On Iqaluit streets, Google faces new challenges in first day of mapping

Raleigh Seamster, a project lead with Google Maps, walks around Iqaluit with a camera on her back on March 19, 2013.

MICHEL ALBERT/The Globe and Mail

Google's first day of mapping the streets of Nunavut's capital kicked off with a firsthand look at the unique challenges of geography in the Far North.

Using a couple of backpack-mounted cameras called Trekkers, volunteers took to the streets of Iqaluit on Wednesday to produce images of the city for Google's Street View service. Google usually uses a special vehicle to collect such data, but because of Iqaluit's weather and remoteness, the mapping team is doing the job on foot – often walking down the middle of streets, when traffic is light enough.

"It was really fun; you had lots of people asking questions," said Ben Wise, a Google ad-services employee who volunteered to help with the mapping.

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"If we were doing this in Toronto, I don't know if people would be asking questions so much as honking for you to get out of the way."

Mapping the streetscape of a city in the Far North poses a host of challenges Google map makers rarely see in any other parts of the North. For example, some of the roads the team will map this week don't exist in the summer. There are also few markers designating the split between private and public roads. In other cases, the Street View collection teams have to decide how far to go along a particular road or trail before turning around – a trail scheduled for mapping this week that begins in nearby Frobisher Bay runs for some 150 kilometres.

To map Iqaluit, the Google team divided the streets into 20 or so hikes between 2.5 and four kilometres, all designed to take about the same amount of time. However, because many Iqaluit streets have steep gradients, and Google's elevation data for the North are sparse, some of the hikes turned out to be more difficult than others.

For both Google and the city of Iqaluit, Street View is a commercial opportunity. By mapping one of Canada's more remote communities, the search engine builds on its lead in the growing and lucrative field of digital-location services. The city and its businesses, on the other hand, hope to improve their ability to lure tourists by showing off their exteriors – and in some cases, interiors – on Street View.

Google's first day of mapping on Wednesday also included a public-relations charm offensive, as staffers showed off the Trekker in local elementary and high schools. Overall, the reception appeared warm.

"You're going to put Iqaluit on the map, as far as Street View goes," said Iqaluit Mayor John Graham, who is originally from Scotland, and admitted to using Street View regularly to check up on the country of his birth.

"This means people around the world are going to be able to do with Iqaluit what I can do with my hometown."

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