Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Online detective work can amaze and find new markets

July 14, 2012

I long ago lost my ability to be really astonished by technology. That circuitry burned out after living through so many minor revolutions in my time: the birth of the personal computer, the Internet, cell phones, DVDs, MRIs, even satellites and pocket calculators.

My childhood bedroom had a small turntable, a clock-radio, and eventually a tiny hand-me-down, black-and-white TV that got four channels in good weather, and only three when the rains came. My family wasn’t poor. We were actually typical. Cable existed at the time, but it had only a few channels destined for the rural and isolated. One cable service had a weather channel that was just a camera that panned back and forth across an array of weather instruments.

But while astonishment probably isn’t attainable anymore, I still retain the ability to be impressed with how technology is used, and I was duly impressed recently when I read Dan Russell’s blog (searchresearch1.blogspot.com) on using Google Search.

I’ve written before about how to optimize Google, but Dan is a true search wizard and came up with some tricks I’d never imagined. The blog archive on his site has a search challenge from February of last year that still amazes me.

Dan showed a picture of a tall, unfamiliar skyscraper in a city somewhere. The photo was obviously taken from a height, but there were no apparent clues as to where that position might be. You might be thinking the challenge was to identify the skyscraper in the photo, but that would be too easy. The challenge was to figure out the phone number for the office from which the photo was taken. This was going to take some serious cyber-sleuthing.

First, Dan noticed that the structure was obviously what he termed a “trophy” building, one that is the pride and joy of its area. That meant it should have a proud website somewhere, and that its owners would want people to recognize it. But to identify it, Dan needed an identifying mark of some kind, and he found it at the very top of the building, a rather prominent “TP.”

A few minutes of search using “tp office building” turned up the Telekomunikacja Polska building in Warsaw, Poland. As he points out, an image search would have found it, too. Dan now had the street address for his mystery building. But how to figure out the other stuff?

He says he first tried Google Maps, but that didn’t quite cut it. The view wasn’t plain enough. But Google has other tools, and he picked another out of the toolbox: Google Earth.

Google Earth is one of Google’s odder and spottier applications. It started life as Keyhole, a 3-D mapping program originally paid for by the CIA and subsequently purchased by Google in 2004. Google Earth is a kind of virtual globe in 3-D that you can fly through. It’s actually an aggregation of satellite data, aerial photographic data, and other varied data, including user renderings of prominent buildings and landmarks.

One of those buildings happened to be the Telekomunikacja Polska building. Dan zipped to it and flew around it until he matched up the original photo with the onscreen drawing. Then he spun Google Earth around and looked behind him. There was the Warsaw Financial Center.

Google Earth tells you the elevation you’re viewing, so it’s relatively easy to guess the equivalent of the floor you’re standing on. But it’s only a guess, and Dan had to be sure. Here we leave Google for a bit and go into another kind of detective work. He blew up the original drawing until he could see what he describes as “blue squiggles.”

A bit of work in a drawing application showed the squiggles to be, of all things, the Google logo. The logo was on the Warsaw Financial Center, but reflected in the windows of the TP building. It was all downhill from there, looking up the address for Google’s offices in the Warsaw Financial Center and the phone number.

All of this might seem like a parlor game, but it demonstrates a serious business point. Today, information about the world is so plentiful that you can become both victim and beneficiary of it, making significant money from it if you know how.

You can market yourself and target prospects more precisely than ever before. You can find new markets and new opportunities, spot trends and solve problems. You can, in short, get a jump on the pack.

This kind of advantage was once available only to mega-corporations, but now every microbusiness has the same power in a laptop, waiting to be used. If Dan can find his photographer’s vantage point for a shot of a Warsaw building, you can find more and better revenue streams.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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