Photo and video geolocation: how to work with satellite images and maps

Satellite maps and images caused a revolution in investigative journalism. 15 years ago, we had to rely blindly on the photo and video evidence provided by anyone. Now, even using only free Google and Yandex services, you can get a lot of information, not to mention paid projects. In this article, we will describe in detail the algorithm for working with Google Maps and Yandex, as well as work with the Chinese project called Baidu

Basics of geolocation

The devil is in the details!

The first thing to keep in mind is that every detail is important. The key to finding the object may be the smallest detail in the photo or video. Consider, for example, the next snapshot, and find key details on it.

Besides the obvious keys (double-decker bus, red telephone booth and inscriptions indicating left-hand traffic, the logo on the bus tell us that it is London), there are a number of details that will help us pinpoint the location of the shooting.

Visual keys

  • Greggs name (café chain )
  • Road fork
  • A brick building with three windows, two of which are located above the signboard
  • A specific rectangular protrusion to the right of the entrance to the Greggs, probably located above the other door

This is a simple example, and the address of the building is easy to find using Google Image Search on “London Greggs” request. 

As can be seen in the photo from the screenshot, this is the very brick building; the rectangular protrusion is located above the closed entrance, three windows, two of which are located above the sign. If we use Google Maps and Google Street View we will find the photo at the indicated address, which would have a red telephone booth, and neighbouring public places on it. Looking at this point from satellite, we can make sure that this is exactly the road fork and easily find the exact position of the photographer at the time of the shooting.

Google Maps search

Let us complicate the task. We shall take a photo of worse quality and with fewer visual keys. For example, this one.

Visual keys:

  • The slogan “In unity with Russia” in the colours of the Russian flag and the flag of an unknown (yet) country.
  • Posters resembling movie posters.
  • The building of constructivism style with specific details and a sign (unfortunately difficult to read), one of the details is the eaves, whose design resembles a photographic tape.
  • Trees that can also be the keys.

First, we find out the country and its flag colours of which the slogan is painted. This is the flag of the Transdniestria Republic, an unrecognized state on the territory of Moldova. Searching for the slogan, we find out that the TMR participated in the “In Unity with Russia” forum, organized in 2016 by the Russian World Foundation, and Transdniestrian politicians frequently use the slogan. The building is quite large, judging by the scale, and we can assume that this is a cinema in a large city. There are only three large cities in Transdniestria, which are Tiraspol, Bender and Vinnytsia. Googling a bit more, we find out that there are practically three cinemas in Transdniestria, and all of them are in these cities. Looking at the maps, we can easily find photos taken by users near these cinemas. Thus, we can find the Tiraspol cinema in Tiraspol.

Features of Yandex services and reverse image search

The holy war between Google and Yandex fans should not interfere with the investigation. Yandex copes with a number of tasks better, for example, with searching by images. The Yandex algorithm allows you by downloading a snapshot to find and determine the location much more accurately. So, if the services of the “corporation of good” do not cope with the task, you can always ask for help in another search engine.

The most convenient for the task is the RevEye plugin, which can be installed in the Chrome or Firefox browser (by the way, we strongly recommend using only these browsers). It allows by opening any image to run it through all available reverse search services.

Yandex also provides a number of features that Google does not have (at least for now). For example, Yandex.Maps are better in working with Russian-speaking users and updates photos on the map more often. Therefore, if you need information on the CIS, then most likely Yandex will provide a more accurate search.

In addition, since 2014, Yandex maps provide information on the height of buildings, which can be very useful when conducting geolocation.

How to work with Chinese maps

Banned on Google

The phrase “banned on Google” as applied to the People’s Republic of China is not ironic at all. The great Chinese firewall not only restricts access of Chinese citizens to certain areas of the Network but also restricts the Google services themselves. Therefore, geolocation using the method described above will fail. Sometimes it is necessary.

For example, in the summer of 2018, a message was distributed, stating that Kazakhstan and China were introducing a visa-free regime (which turned out to be a fake). A video was attached where the Chinese were standing in a line to get to Kazakhstan without a visa. 

The message, coupled with the news of the introduction of a visa-free regime between China and Belarus, has caused a new wave of Sinophobic statements in social networks.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan responded quickly and denied the information, officially stating that negotiations on a visa-free regime are not being conducted.

Nevertheless, we were curious where this video came from and whether it really is the line to the Republic of Kazakhstan Embassy. Let’s see the video. 

The audio recording, which was distributed along with the video, states that it is the line in front of the consulate of Kazakhstan in Urumqi. Let’s check this statement.

Keys

  • In the frame, there is an inscription in Chinese with the date, voiced in the comments. Fortunately, there are enough specialists in Chinese in Kazakhstan and the translation is quite simple: Kazakhstan consulate, documentation department. Schedule of receiving documents after lunch from 16:00 to 19:00.
  • In the frame, you can see a blue plastic sunshade, wire fence.

Baidu maps

Step two. We check the location using Baidu maps (as we said, Google does not work properly in China).

In order to do this, we translate the address of the consulate into simplified Chinese with the help of Google translator and run the resulting address (乌鲁木齐 昆明 路 216 号) into Baidu maps.

On the maps, we launch the Street View analogue and look for the building of the consulate, and find out that the shots were actually taken on the territory of the consulate. This confirms the location of the trees, the visible part of the facade and the curved plastic roof. However, we note that the area has changed. The images on Baidu maps are updated irregularly, just like on the maps “corporation of good”. 

That is, a part of the material used corresponds to reality, as this is indeed the Kazakhstani consulate in Urumqi. This is the standard principle of creating a fake – a combination of a real video or photo with a fake comment or caption to it. We observed something similar during last year’s clashes in Myanmar and analyzed one of the cases in detail.

As for the line itself (using logic again), there is only one consulate in Urumqi, issuing visas to Kazakhstan, working three hours a day. Given the trade relations of Kazakhstan and China and the number of visa departments, the presence of a line, at least, should not be surprising.

Why do journalists need geolocation?

For example, to conduct such investigations. (We warn you, the video is not for the faint-hearted, it contains footage of the victims and the dead because of a chemical attack in Syria.)

How to improve your photo and video skills? Read Bellingcat

If you want to improve constantly your geolocation skills and information gathering in Russian or Kazakh, subscribe to our Facebook page. We regularly post tasks of varying complexity that you can do on your own or in collaboration with other people. You can also join the training and work in our open group.

Павел Банников
Журналист, редактор. Филолог-славист. Соавтор и составитель ряда работ по журналистике и языку вражды. Работал журналистом и редактором в различных научно-популярных, развлекательных и общественно-политических изданиях Казахстана. Главный редактор проекта «Фактчек в Казахстане». Медиатренер, создатель образовательного проекта Factcheck.Academy