How to explain what you're doing to passers-by?

In the Scandinavian region pages @Patrick opened the topic of explaining Mapillary mapping to people who “catch us in action” (in Swedish).

I think it would be great to expand this discussion to the international community. Would love to read your stories and opinions about how to explain your activity to passers-by and what the reactions have been!

Also, what kind of items could make it easier - having the Mapillary logo (sticker) on your phone, a T-shirt on you… etc. Do you think just the logo would help or could it be useful with e.g. T-shirts that have some short text on the back? Looking forward to hear your ideas and thanks @Patrick for raising this!

I’ll start… someone has to : )

No T-shirt, no sticker, nothing, on my side. I never know before when I’m going to map things, I tend to improvise.

Usually, to have acceptable sequences, I decide at the beginning of my mapping session a number of step to walk between each pictures. Depending on the subject it is usually 3 steps, 5 steps or 10 steps. So I walk, counting the steps, I stop, I aim and I wait as (reasonably) long as someone appears on my screen before shooting. If the area is crowded, I stand in a way that makes obvious I’m waiting for the conditions to be met to take a picture. Two reasons for this: privacy and quality of the resulting document. But this takes long.

Of course, seeing someone doing this makes some peoples to wonder what I’m doing. Most of the time they think I’m just willing to take landscape pictures (which is true) so that’s no problem and I have no questions. A couple of times though I was (kindly) asked was I was doing. I just explained I was documenting the area, which was satisfactory to those who asked. And when by accident someone appears close on my screen while I’m shooting, I just tell without being asked that either I’ll take another one or I’ll blur this person’s face. This is obviously sufficient as I never received bad comments. Just things like “don’t worry this is no problem”, “ah, OK, thanks” or a smile.

I also tend to map special events like festivals or outdoor gigs. In these case I’m just unnoticed, or if I am, this is by attendees who jump in front of the camera, smiling. So no problem here too (but doing the blurring right after, which takes horribly long : ) ). And when the special event consists in a city or street condition (garbage collectors strike, flood…), people tend to think I’m working for the district or for some administration (I was told that two or three times). In such cases I just reply I’m doing this on my own to document and keep track of these events, and I add this is going to be published on a website.


I use nothing in specific, nor was ever questioned. My main concern is to be questioned by people doing wrongdoings, which is quite common in Brazil, like illegal street sellers, illegal car watchers etc. In those cases, when doing sequences afoot or even in bicycle, I tend to lower the camera when passing by them, then resuming what I am doing.


Good topic! I’ll answer based on my capture mode…

When I’m in a car and is going off the main streets, I might be flagged down by people asking what I’m doing. My usual storyline goes along “I’m collection photage for the update of OpenStreetMap, an alternative to Google Maps”, which I find is the easiest way to get on. Trying to tell the story about “a company named Mapillary which is doing an alternative to Google Streetview” typically raises a lot more questions. It’s often a good idea to be dressed like the neigboorhood you are mapping, so a shirt makes less interest in well-to-be areas and a hoodie is easier in worker neighborhoods.

When mapping by bike, I personally like to have the sound on, so I’m aware if the application chrashed or the GPS signal is getting bad. But, I know that a high volume shutter sound may cause questions, so in some neighborhoods I will turn it off. Some neighborhoods I simply avoid all together on bicycle.

When mapping on foot, I generally make sure that people is not directly in the shoot and make sure to lower my phone when people are getting into the view. Only exception being a 360 degrees panorama, where I think that most people understand whats is going on when you revolve around yourself :smile:

In general I feel no need to “flag” what I’m doing, but, if I get to the point where I build myself a 2,3 or 4 camera rig to mount on top of my car, I will properly want to do it anyhow, as my assumption is that the combination of the rig and some “identification” will make it seem more formal.

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I […] make sure to lower my phone when people are getting into the view.

Ah, that’s true! Forgot to mention that as it comes naturally.

A long time ago I officially proposed to have the logo big in an about screen in the app, because most people are not sufficiently educated to understand mike alpha papa india lima lima alpha romeo yankee.


I’ve been thinking about this during the day…

I agree that in some places the best way is not to raise any awareness at all, but in some other places, for instance yesterday when I was shooting in central Gothenburg along a pedestrian street full of people, some kind of formal dress code would have been preferred.

How about:

  • A magnetic sticker with the text “Shooting for” in your local language, when using a car.
  • A reflective vest when walking, biking or riding an ATV. For several reasons: A vest is always a good and safe thing to wear when you are out, a printed text makes it more formal and (hopefully) understandable by passing people, and it’s handy to put on and off, if like someone said, mapping wasn’t intended when you went out. Just put on the vest and pick up the phone. :smile:

These two things should cover all needs, I think. :slight_smile:


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I wear my Mapillary shirt, and have Mapillary stickers everywhere on my rig. It makes me look professionnal, and most people will kindly get out of the way if they can.
The best thing is that I attract the curiosity of tech geeks, and they will easily engage conversation with me. I made many recruits this way.
So yes, having text on the back of the shirt could be helpful, something like “I am mapping this area. Join us at”

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When on foot, I’m not using the Mapillary app but an alternative that allows me to switch applications and even turn off the screen while it continues shooting. Most of the time I even have the phone cover closed.

I am casually holding my phone at hip height, carefully pointing the camera somewhat upwards to get whole buildings in the frame. In urban environments I am mostly photographing sideways instead of forwards, because I think in such environments getting the building fronts is most interesting. This way, nobody notices anything, and I can actually walk in a good pace while making photos. The photo quality is not the best (often somewhat lopsided because I can’t see the screen, and cars are often blocking the view because I’m holding the phone at hip height) but I’d rather walk a street several times than make it so obvious that I’m taking photos.

Photographing forwards is a bit more conspicuous, holding my phone in front of my belly, but I learn that people only notice it if I am feeling awkward myself. If I do it casually, then nobody pays any attention.

In public transport I often glue my phone to the side window using some blu-tacks. This attracts more attention, but funnily enough people are more interested in how I get my phone to stick to the window, than into what I am actually doing. :smile:

Note that this is in Norway, where smartphones are very common, and society is so safe that people don’t feel threatened by weird behavior.


pbb, what alternative app is this? I’m very curious. One of main issues when shooting from bikes or buses in long trips is battery, if I can shoot with the screen off it will definitely improve my shooting time.

@Nighto, I am using several alternative apps. None of them is ideal (but neither is the Mapillary app). Note that these are all Android apps, though there may be iOS versions of these.

Most alternatives either don’t store GPS or only very course coordinates (I think 1/10 degree), but I use a separate GPS tracking app anyway, so that I can interpolate in case of bad GPS reception.

  • DailyRoads Voyager ( - Without doubt the most stable alternative. Not only can I turn the screen off, I can also switch to other applications without problems. Failures are extremely rare. Main drawback is that the minimal interval is hardcoded to 5 seconds, but it does support video also if you really need more. Active development, but developer does not seem to want to lower the minimum interval.
  • Time and Tide ( - Pretty advanced alternative. I can turn the screen off, but I can’t switch applications. Minimum interval 1 second. Often fails to start or fails halfway a sequence without warning, I think this has to do with fragmentation of the SD card. (Less failures with a clean SD card.) Last update was in 2013.
  • Time Lapse Creator ( - Allows me to turn the screen off or switch applications. Minimum interval 1 second. Screen turns back on when the proximity sensor is triggered (ie, often). Sometimes fails to start a sequence. Works nicely with my old Samsung S3, but always complains the shooting rate is too fast on my LG G4 (even with 1 photo per minute).
  • Tina Time-Lapse ( - Allows to turn off the screen, but not switch applications. Minimum interval 1 second. Unstable, may stop halfway a sequence of fail to start, without giving any warning. Works on my old Samsung S3, but fails to find the camera on my LG G4.
  • Lapse It ( - Allows to turn off the screen, but not switch applications. Minimum interval 100 ms(!) Photo resolution is limited to 640x480 in the free version, and 1920x1080 in the paid version.

Several of these alternatives really drain the battery and some even overheat my G4 to the point of automatic shutdown. Still have to do more investigation into that. But also here DailyRoads seems the least problematic.


Awesome! I’ll give it a try on my Galaxy S5. Thanks!

@katrin, you’ve opened a doooooooooooosy. Are you sure you want me babbling on abou this one?

I’ve done enoug walking with my Garmin Virb that I have all sorts of sequences where people were looking right at the camera. This one from a walk in downtown Asheville, North Carolina is a good example. You can’t see her face now because of the blur but she’s giving it the evil eye.

Most people don’t say anything. A few ask in a friendly way and I share. One night by my house a couple guys from the business there asked. They were concerned because it was weird. I introduced myself, let them know who I was and that it’s a hobby a kin to google streetview.

Once I had a lady call the cops on me. That was in a park in Apple Valley, MN. She was to be blunt, bat shit crazy and she had her kids parroting the same tin-foil hat stuff too boot. It was extra funny since she didn’t freak out over the shady looking white conversion van with some home made Sonic the Hedgehodge painted on it selling ice cream - stereotpical creepy van stuff - and yet me walking around the park freaked her out.

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When it comes to draining the battery:

I have a “battery case” around my iPhone that gives me twice as much battery capacity as the phone’s built-in battery. I’m pretty sure they are available for other brands than iPhone.
A second option would be to use an “emergency battery” connected to the phone via a USB cable. Not so handy, but at least it’s extra battery.
For those who are shooting in the outback, there are larger solar panels that fit on the outside of a backpack.

Charging my phone while using it greatly increases the temperature. Shooting photos and having the screen on high brightness (because of bright daylight) and charging the battery at the same time, my phone will shutdown within an hour because of overheating.

I would be careful with an “emergency battery” connected to the phone while walking around with it. The cable moving around puts extra strain on the connector, I’ve destroyed the USB connection of my S3 this way.

A better solution (but not possible for iPhone users) is a replacement battery that is being charged (by a portable powerbank) while using the other battery. Though this requires a battery exchange every 1.5-2 hours.

No, being able to turn off the screen is still my #1 wish. In addition to conserving power and reducing heat, this also prevents me pushing buttons while holding the phone in my hand, and makes it less visible that I am making photos.

With a full battery that’s being connected to an external battery, the phone itself shouldn’t be that hot.
It should be like a night charging session with the screen on.

Another option would be finding an Android phone with a huge battery capacity - like those “work phones” that can be run over by a truck or dropped from 4th floor to the pavement. :smile:
When such a phone needs charging, I’m pretty sure I would need to be “charged” too. :smile:

If you get a phone that always for the battery to be swapped out, you can carry spare batteries. I do that for my phone even though I don’t use it for photo mapping. it’s pretty handy in general.

You can also try Open Camera (free in Android), which is a very flexible app that allows you to store location and compass direction and setup the frequency, sounds… I have a short presentation (in Spanish) of the OC setup that I use for Mapillary: Preparando app Open Camera para Mapillary


Oh that is your wife ?, here it looks like a pokemon.

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Can you use OpenCamera saving pictures in the SD card, instead of internal memory? I tried to do it here but apparently there’s no option to do that, or at least I couldn’t find it somehow.