Thursday, June 20, 2013

Answer: How hard can it be? What color is the roof?

I’ve been slightly holding off on saying anything because I’m enjoying watching all of the comments coming in from the SearchResearch literati.   Excellent job!    

First, my answers: 

1.  What is the color of the roof at Beatrixstraat 5, Noordwijk, Netherlands? 

The obvious approach here is just to use Google Maps and look at the roof.  BUT, as you can see, this part of Noordwijk is obscured by a funny tiled pattern.  

Oddly enough, you can still get Google Streetview for this part of the city, just not the aerial view. 
You see the problem.  The roof is flat at Beatrixstraat 5.  Ignore the Dali car with a misaligned bumper.

So NOW what?

Here’s the twist:  There are other satellite imaging systems beyond Google.  This is a genuinely deep and interesting point… 

don’t get too locked into a single information provider.  

For anything.  If you can’t find it one way, try another source. 

In this case, there are multiple other ways to see the rooftop at 5 Beatrixstraat.  

Here’s Yahoo’s map:  

And here’s Bing’s map, with a nice clear view of the roof:  

I can go on in this vein. 

So clearly, Google received a “please obscure this aerial view” request from someone (or some entity) in this area.  But also, just as clearly, it’s either out of date, or the requester isn’t especially savvy about this kind of thing. 

If you’re interested, the Wikipedia article on Noodwijk has a wonderful link to GeoHack (the Wikimedia Tools) that lists all (currently) known maps and satellite imagery for the Noodwijk area. 

The Wikimedia Tools "GeoHack" that shows all imagery for a given location.

This tool generalizes as well.  If you have a lat/long it will tell you what imagery resources are available.   Here, for instance, is the GeoHack listing all image resources for the GooglePlex.  

To do this, I got the lat/long for the Googleplex, plugged it into GeoHack and found a long list of resources.  (Including this fantastic image from Blue Marble.)   
The dark areas are woods and open spaces.  It's one of the reasons I love living here. 

More generally, the GeoHack tool will list all of the known imagery sites for ANY location. 

And even more generally… try to use multiple information resources to confirm or triangulate on your questions. 

And so.. the roof color is… dark grey or black.  (And since it’s a flat roof, it’s not visible from the street.) 

2.  Why is this part of Nordwijk obscured?

What’s up with the strange obscuration on Google Earth (and Google Maps)? 

Most people found one of two possibilities.  A good starting search is something like: 

[Nordwijk obscured google maps]

This quickly leads you to the hypothesis that the reason for hiding is the presence of ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre).  

ON THE OTHER HAND... people who searched on the address (Beatrixstraat 5)  found that it might be the presence of the Defense Pipeline Organization (DPO) in the neighborhood.  If you then follow up this question…

[Defense Pipeline Organisation Noordwijk ]

you get to the Gizmodo page about obscured Google Maps with the comment  
"The blurring in Noordwijk marks the site of the former headquarters of the Defense Pipeline Organisation, overseeing the Dutch part of Central European Pipeline System (CEPS). However, the DPO headquarters have been relocated to the Hague years ago."  

And there's a link to the Wikipedia page with a list of "Satellite map images with missing or unclear data".

But with an additional search, you can find that the DPO’s former address is at Hoogwakersbosstraat 12.  This is odd, because it’s OUTSIDE of the obscured area.  (It’s to the SE of the tiles.) 

And likewise, ESTEC is at  Keplerlaan 1, a few km south of the blurred area… that’s also an unlikely rationale. 

You can check out ESTEC's website at:   Since they have video tours of their site, it seems unlikely that this would be the reason for the blurring. 

So.. thus far, we don’t have a definitive reason!  Yes, I could go to the next building at the Googleplex and ask, but that would be cheating!  We’re trying to figure this out from the open web.

Bottomline:  sometimes you just can’t come up with a definitive answer.  Rats.  Keep searching. 

Search Lessons:  

1.  Don't become overly reliant on one source.  Remember there are multiple providers for most data.  Seek them out and see what THEY say.  Stay flexible.  

2.  Triangulate.  Look not just at the given reasons, but double check to see if what they say (e.g., "It's the DPO!")  makes sense.  In this case, the DPO both moved away a while ago AND their previous location wasn't in the obscured area anyway... 

3.  Think of other ways to approach the problem.   As Ramón pointed out, you can also use Google Earth to go back in time.  Also a good trick to remember if you want to see roughly when the obscuring started.  (There might be an event around that time you can search for that might give a hint about who wanted what to be hidden.)  

And lastly... 

4.  Take note of resources you find along the way.  I hadn't know about the Wikipedia satellite image tools until I stumbled across it while doing this search.  You never know when that kind of thing will come in very handy.  Take a note!  (And in so doing, become a illuminatus of Search!) 

Search on! 


  1. Hi Dan,

    Trying to solve this week challenge, I found these links:
    (with __very__ interesting stuff on this site)

    And it looks it's not Google fault: It's the data provider, AeroData here, that camouflages the areas as requested by the Dutch Government… Is it true? This a question you could ask your Google's friends next door.

    (Btw, just like you, I couldn't find the real reason of this "blurring")



  2. Yes, I could go to the next building at the Googleplex and ask, but that would be cheating! We’re trying to figure this out from the open web.
    — wouldn't this fall under the recently described "ground truth"?
    is it really concern over "cheating"/having an advantage not available to all?
    (and isn't that a key element to effective search?) or is there a NTK element in that "next building" and you run the risk of being vaporized for the imprudent query?;•)
    If Google is implementing the blur at a request, then Google is going to be the only source as to what/why and the information is going to be shielded from the open web… to do otherwise would defeat the purpose of the action - or am I missing the point?
    This is an interesting example where there is no apparent reason for a blur - Google seems to revise such situations on a somewhat regular basis - and yet, this one has persisted for years - it makes for a serious quandary. Is it just a case of bad/outdated info taking on a life of its own? I concede it is a handsome blur - maybe it could just randomly crawl maps showing up in the least expected places like:
    perhaps there is value in the mystery, curiosity is at the root of search.

  3. forgot to mention a nice little discovery out of searching in and around Noordwijk - found this:
    more DECOS
    and this little mystery:
    missing DECOS

  4. This one fooled me all around. I didn't think of alternatives etc and I believed the Estec explanation until I read the comments and realised my fellow search researchers were correct!
    Not covered myself in glory this week - must do better next time. But I have learnt something and that's the point, isn't it?
    On a semi related point about misinformation perpetuating on the net, there's a piece on BBC news site about a school librarian who has discovered a poem falsely attributed to William Blake on the net.

    Another lesson in double check your resources!

  5. Posting this late but good to know that we were on the right track. My colleague Anne and I were able to find the color of the roof by searching street views as others did. That didn't take long at all. We thought we hit on the answer to the map being obscured when we did a search and found an article on the ESTEC. We thought we hit the answer rather quickly. But then when we searched the map we saw it was outside of the blurred area. We did a lot of searching in street view and saw that the site appears to be a school. We saw the name of the school on the building and looked that up trying to find some clues. At that point we had to stop because we had other work we had to get to. This was a really interesting search.

  6. Doctor D - felt like I was missing something, so i asked a friend who works as an analyst to have a look at the questions you posed… fresh eyes on target, so to speak. What she looked at was the way you framed the question and what you ask about. Why out of all the buildings & addresses in the blurred area did you pick that specific apartment block on that specific street and why that specific apartment number - the only one out of the dozen (1-23 odd) that is blurred in street view - the number, door handle area and a portion of the window are obscured in the same manner street view deals with car tags & faces, etc.. Like I said, she wasn't interested in the search aspect, but rather what you revealed (or didn't) with the way you ask the question… all of which leaves me wondering: what did you know and when did you know it, going into this question? You must have known something about Beatrixstraat 5 beforehand -
    it defies logic that you would have randomly picked that address in blurred overhead view area. Whatever the reason for the overall blur on Noordwijk is, it may remain a mystery, but you must have some idea what is going on with Beatrixstraat 5 and that is why you picked it - you'd be "cheating" if you didn't share. Ever stay at Violet's?
    just because this reminds me of the Goo campus -

  7. remmij Asks the same question I wondered about. Why specify the only house number that is fuzzed out (along with portions of the house) ?

    This I thought was a key part of the Challenge. Apparently not. Why not ?


  8. @Jon @Remiij -- You know, sometimes you get false clues. An important part of doing this kind of research is to learning to identify what's "signal" vs. what's not useful. In this case, the blurred number was a pure accident. I noticed that, but didn't think it was all that important because you can see #3 and #7 and can figure out where #5 is. So, although it defies logic, it's true that the address was more-or-less randomly chosen. (I just wanted to have a specific address for that building block. I picked 5 randomly. Really.) But it makes a good point--sometimes there ARE things that look like clues... but aren't.

    1. perhaps search has a dualistic aspect that allows for simultaneous obfuscation and clarity -
      you don't work on the side for any of the 3-4 letter organizations that specialize in such activity
      NSA, IRS, GCHQ, SIS, SRS, etc.. do you?
      Dan, you seemed to be getting your " Werfel" on with that explanation - that was about as clear as pixelated
      blur mud, but I'm also curiously satisfied with the response… the only thing that might have been better: if your response
      had been in Dutch. searching on ;•0 sometimes…
      Dutch ducks
      for M. Newport:
      Henner T
      D landscapes
      “Less Américains”

  9. Mystery solved? [Page is partially NSFW)