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Very often, one of the first things people do when they use Google Street View is to check out where they live. And it’s not just for the sake of it — it’s how you tell if the folks at Silicon Valley got it right.
And very often, they do. Except when you can’t even find out if Google got your street view right or wrong because your area is not even covered.
That’s what Tawanda Kanhema discovered when he moved to the United States in 2009. Kanhema grew up in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe.
So when he moved 10,000 miles away from his homeland, it was only natural that the self-described tech enthusiast tried to see Harare on the map of panoramic images — he wanted to visit his birthplace once again, virtually.
But he couldn’t. He was unable to do that because there was nothing on Google Street View for Harare. Kanhema had eagerly looked forward to seeing the busy street and shops, the schools he attended, and even his church. But all he got was disappointment.
Zimbabwe, a country of more than 14 million people was not covered in the Street View platform, and neither were many other African countries.
“When you look at Street View, you’re looking at this mosaic of images that show how people live across the world, how people conduct commerce, how people get around,” he tells NPR. “I found it quite jarring that a lot of the countries in the region were not on the map.”
What Kanhema did next was both brazen and brilliant. He wouldn’t have been faulted for sulking and talking about how the digital chasm between the African continent and the western world was widening. But he took it upon himself to cover that chasm.
Since 2018, the Zimbabwean has been singlehandedly working to get his home country and several other African countries on Street View.
Officially, he is known in Silicon Valley as a Product Manager. But when he is not doing any of that tech stuff, he is enjoying his favourite pastime: freelance photography. And now a huge chunk of that pastime is taken up by him volunteering to map what has amounted to 2,000 miles of Zimbabwe.
Kanhema has combed the length and breadth of many parts of Zimbabwe, as well as other parts of Africa and even Canada with Google Street View gear in tow.
He has volunteered to file in the maps of all these places and the crazy part is he is not being paid for it. Actually, he’s spent up to USD 5 K of his own money. Crazy, isn’t it? But then, there’s no price too steep for passion.
Google has done some really serious work in mapping 87 of nearly 200 countries on the platform. Many of those countries, especially in the Americas and Europe, have also gotten reasonable street view coverage.
But gaps still abound. Regions like Central Asia, Africa and Antarctica, still have almost no street view coverage. While every street and corner in places like Milan or Bordeaux are covered, there’s almost nothing for cities like Windhoek or Blantyre.
And Kanhema wants to cover the gap and he’s unfazed by the fact that he’s going at it all by himself.
As covered by NPR, Kanhema applied to borrow a 360-degree camera through Google’s Street View camera loan program in 2018.
During the fall, he hiked through Zimbabwe with the equipment for two weeks. There was also a speedboat ride across the Zambezi River and a safari trip through a national park.
Most of his time, though, was spent driving down the streets of Harare and the highways that connect Zimbabwe’s major cities.
Kanhema’s work demands a lot of effort but the young man has taken to it like a fish does water. He’s committed to accurately translating the Harare experience to users around the world who may never have the opportunity to visit.
During the hike through Zimbabwe, he had Google’s tall camera strapped on him. At times, he looked like a superhero off of a Marvel comic. But he is a hero, alright — just one with an alien-like camera for a cape.
Kanhema photographed a lot of tourist attractions in Zimbabwe during the “Great Trek.” One of the more breathtaking shots is an image of the famous Victoria Falls which he captured from 400 feet above on a hovering helicopter.
Kanhema has since uploaded those images to Street View, and Google has also added businesses to the map in the areas of Harare that he drove.
He considers his work a form of documentary photography. The Zimbabwean is hopeful his images will draw tourists to the region and boost his home country’s economy.
Google calls volunteers like Kanhema contributors and the tech company doesn’t pay them for their work, though it’s more like a hobby for such persons. Indeed, he has spent around USD 5 K of his own money on his travels across Zimbabwe.
But for him, it was never about the money. As he says, it’s always been about snapping at the heels of these big tech firms to give attention to other parts of the world. It’s about creating awareness. And perhaps having fun while at it too.
To keep things going, he takes on paid mapping projects like the most recent one with the Mushkegowuk Council, in northern Ontario. Kanhema was contracted to document the network of ice roads that connect indigenous communities in the area.
Contributors to Street View maps can also access funding from tourism boards or travel agencies but Kanhema has chosen to steer clear of that path. This is so as to avoid certain restrictions and prevent unnatural imagery.
Next up, it could be Mozambique, Alaska, or Greenland for the intrepid Zimbabwean traveler who appears to committed to uncommon causes.
Featured Image Courtesy: BBC
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