Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Google Street View in Việt Nam?

Perhaps that's a premature question to ask at this time. Only four countries have Google Street View now, with Australia possessing the best coverage of them all. (Even Canada misses out, and that's a surprise. Located next door to the U.S., it's generally the second stop for new ideas and tech coming from there.) I know Google Street View would be mostly popular in Việt Nam. My wife told her friends about it, and they want one too. Mostly popular. But I see a few issues in the way.

If Google Street View comes to South-East Asia, it's likely to hit Singapore first, because it is small and thus easily mappable - and also prosperous. Then bordering Malaysia, which is a little less prosperous but shares a border and English - then Thailand. All three of these countries have excellent coverages under Google Maps, with Thailand's being utterly superb - it displays place names in the original Thai with their transliteration underneath. Both are represented well in Map View and Satellite View - all countries are displayed in the latter, but it's the fortunate few that have city streets shown in the former.)

Alas, Google's coverage of Việt Nam is lousy. It's not that it limits itself to showing highways, and misses city streets - let along missing the common hẻm - the alleys in which most people live. I expect the granularity - the detail - to improve in time, and the company has to start somewhere. What gets my goat is that Google makes mistakes with the place names they've written. There's an attempt to get the tone markers right (to its credit), but either misses a few or gets the letters in the wrong order. For example, Biên Hoà (a satellite city of Sài Gòn) is rendered as "Bein Hoa". It's like they got their information from an old encyclopedia. I can complain to them (and I will), but I also take it as a sign of how important Google considers the country. Not very.

Having said this, do I need to mention the paranoia of the Vietnamese government - the one who would be certain to nix any deal? I doubt they'd like foreign companies taking detailed pictures of their roads - no matter how pure their intentions are. It's not just the military angle, although Street View allows the United States China foreign governments to case the place without even visiting. It's the vested interests of the local party hacks that are endangered. Imagine if Street View could show roads as they really were? Not a nice yellow line on the map, but potholes and rubble where streets should be? And that the same people who were in charge of maintenance are suspected of embezzling the budget blind? I know these people are quite vicious when their interests, livelihoods, or lives are threatened.

Street View won't stand a chance.