The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February is being followed online by billions worldwide.
Anyone with an Internet connection has access to news, opinion, information, misinformation, disinformation, fact, fiction, the whole kitchen sink of a global event that’s unparalleled in its accessibility.
That Internet connectivity would let you see a real-time view of anywhere in Ukraine courtesy of Google Maps. In Google Maps, I captured the screenshot image of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv that you see at top at 13:34 UTC on Saturday 26 February which shows that many roads out of the city west and northwest are closed.
Undoubtedly some closures are due to diversions in place as a result of damage from Russian missile attacks although it could also be the presence of arriving Russian forces that news reports have been talking about much of today Saturday, that are reportedly approaching the city from the northwest.
It’s but a small example to illustrate the ease with which you can get a real-time view of almost anywhere on earth using a software tool like Google Maps.
[Update 28 Feb: Google has temporarily disabled for Ukraine some Google Maps tools which provide live information about traffic conditions and how busy different places are, Reuters reports. The company said it had taken the action in Ukraine for the safety of local communities in the country, after consulting with sources including regional authorities.]
A street-level view
Perhaps a more dramatic example is that of a university professor in California – half a world away from Ukraine – who noticed a traffic jam at 3:15am on Thursday 24 February on a road in Belgorod, Russia, about 25 miles from the border with Ukraine.
The Washington Post reported that Jeffrey Lewis was monitoring Google Maps with a research team of students he mentors as part of a project to analyze images taken from space. He and his team realized what was happening: a Russian armoured unit was moving toward the border with Ukraine.
By combining Google Maps traffic information with a radar image that showed troops, Lewis and his team realized an invasion was underway hours before the news became public and from thousands of miles away in California. Russia officially announced its assault on Ukraine on Thursday morning.
“In the old days, we would have relied on a reporter to show us what was happening on the ground,” Lewis said. “And today, you can open Google Maps and see people fleeing Kyiv.”
Lewis’s sleuthing helps demonstrate how technology — and specifically Google Maps — is making it so people even far away can see in real time what’s happening , all the way down to the street level. What billions of people around the world can see from the palm of their hands reflects that people on the ground, in the midst of troop movements, are also constantly connected to their devices. And in some cases those devices are becoming a tool for civilians.
Welcome to Russian President Putin’s war in Europe as captured virtually by the rest of the world.