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10/22/2010
01:53 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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How Google's Street View Saved My Dirty Underwear

Prior to the existence of Google's Street View, solving this "killer" problem in the matter of minutes that it was solved would not have been possible. Thank you Google.

Imagine the horror. The New York City taxi cab you're in arrives at your destination, you pay the fare, get your receipt, exit the cab, close the door, and the driver guns the accelerator. He and his cab, and your dirty underwear (as well as other sundry items in your luggage that's in the cab's trunk) disappear into the bowels of Manhattan.

Actually, some items weren't quite so sundry. There's my special sack that contained all of my electronic chargers and USB cables. Also, the stereo Bluetooth headphones that I use for my workouts in the hotels and the heart rate monitoring strap that goes with my Garmin 405 GPS watch, my Norelco electric razor, and several articles of business clothing that were given to me as gifts by my father (ever since taking my first real tech job as a systems analyst at Swiss Bank, his "concern" for my business attire has adorned my closet).

I was in a panic. Not only that, there were only minutes to go before I was scheduled to videotape a demo with MaestroDev in the company's exhibit at Interop. This was my situation as I stood paralyzed outside the Jacob Javits Convention Center (the site of Interop) on Manhattan's West Side. Just to add insult to injury, it started to rain.

After realizing that my violent outburst of profanity wasn't getting me anywhere, I took out my receipt and dialed the number printed on it (311) for New York City's Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC). Despair started to set in when it became clear that it could be another hour before an actual human came onto the line.

Parked directly in front of me were two New York City cops in a police car. As the rain poured down and not expecting them to do much about the situation, I walked up to the car and explained my predicament. One good reason to get a receipt from your NYC cabbie is so that your company will reimburse you for the expense. Another is that the taxi's unique 4 digit medallion number is printed on it. The cops asked for the medallion number and within a few minutes, while my phone was still stuck to my ear waiting for a human at the TLC to come onto the line, one of the cops produced a piece of paper with the name and address of the company that owned the cab. Hard as they tried (one of the cops had an iPhone and did his best), they were unable to mine the Internet for a phone number.

Even so, I had a name (Tops Cab Corp.) and an address. My luck had turned slightly for the better.

Suddenly, a human comes onto the other end of the TLC line! But the news gets worse. "Letama" can take a report by hand but can't do anything else for me (like maybe get a phone number) because the TLC's systems are down. She suggests I call back later when the terminal hold times will most certainly be longer. She also informs me that the next "shift change" (this is when all the cabbies return to their headquarters to end their shift) is at 5:00pm. My flight on JetBlue (Like!) is due to depart JFK at 4:35pm. Even if I found my way to Long Island City (where Tops Cab Corp is located) from the West Side of Manhattan (this means traveling clear across Manhattan and then over the East River) and camped out at the cab's headquarters, I would still miss my flight (not to mention the complete destruction of my work day at Interop).

I ran into the Javits center, popped open my notebook, connected to the Internet from Interop's Network Operations Center (NOC), and conducted my own search for Tops Cab Corp thinking that, for sure, I'd be able to do better on my Mac than the cop did on his iPhone. Still, no number.

Tap, tap, tap. I had a four-letter explicative for each roll of my fingertips on the table next to my Mac.

But, as Google's Marissa Meyers has famously said, "It's not what you know, it's how you find it." On a wing and a prayer, I plugged the address for Tops Cab Corp into Google Maps. Up came a map with a pin stuck straight into the heart of Long Island City in Queens, NY.

And then, I clicked "satellite" which, as most everyone familiar with Google Maps knows, toggles the view from map mode to last-taken-satellite-picture mode. I zoomed in as tight as I could to put myself into Google Map's Street View mode and Voila! As you can see from the screenshot below, not only did I have a perfect view of Tops Cab Corp's headquarters, but there was a huge sign hanging on the fence with the company's phone number.

I called. A gentleman name Wiley picked up the phone. I explained what happened. He asked if I had the medallion number. After feeding it to him, he said, "That's Roberto. I'll give you his cell number and you can call him directly."

Seconds later...."Hello.. Roberto? I'm the guy you just dropped off at the Javits Center. You have my luggage in your trunk."

Fifteen minutes later (the total episode lasted about 40 minutes), Roberto pulled up to the front curb of the Javits Center where the sun was shining and my dirty underwear was returned. He refused to take an additional tip from me (he probably had to turn down a fare or two to get back to the Javits Center so quickly) and apologized profusely for the mistake.

Thank you to the cops who helped (I wish I had your badge numbers). Thank you Google. And thank you Roberto. I made it to my flight with all of my belongings and even though the flight was running behind (as late afternoon flights at JFK so often do), it didn't matter. I had enough good luck for one day.

Oh, and if you missed Interop, be sure to check out all of InformationWeek's Interop Special Report which is chock full of news and videos taken directly from the show floor.

David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at dberlind@techweb.com and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).

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