In OSINT as in sport, there is definitely such a thing as home fixture advantage. We are always going to be able to identify the important little clues in an environment we are familiar with rather than one we aren’t. So when I saw Paul Fennell post this geolocation challenge I was pleased because my initial gut reaction was that this must be in the UK. The design of the church, the red brick terrace houses and even the car park look like they must be in the UK somewhere.
There’s only one problem though – Paul tells us that this is not in the UK. There’s also something else staring us in the face that indicates this is not in the UK – the car registration plate. In the UK car registration plates are white at the front, but yellow at the back. The car clearly has white plates at the rear – so this is not a UK-registered vehicle. It seems there will be no home fixture advantage after all.
So what can we do to find out where this picture was taken? The image is quite low resolution so picking out street names and signs isn’t possible. Cropping out and reverse-image searching the houses and the church didn’t work either, the images are just not of sufficiently high quality to be useful. There is not going to be any quick fix to solve this puzzle so we need to extract a little more detail to move forward.
The plan I came up with to find this location went something like this:
1) Find a country that looks like the UK, but isn’t.
2) Focus on the church and try to find church spires in that country which match the one in the photo.
3) Use Google Maps 3D and/or Streetview to check the area around any matching churches to see if it is the correct location.
So far the car has indicated that despite my initial reaction, this is not in the UK. There’s something else we can learn from the car that will help find the correct country. Even though the image is of poor quality, if we zoom in on the car there’s a clue in the window.
If we look closely at the dashboard, what can we see? Nothing of note – and this is exactly what is so helpful. If this car were in a country that drives on the right, we would be able to see the steering wheel through the front window. Instead there’s just a plain old dashboard. This means that the car’s steering wheel must be on the right hand side, so the car must be a from a country that drives on the left.
If we have a look at a list of countries that drive on the left, there are very few that could physically resemble the location in Paul’s picture. It clearly isn’t taken in southern Africa, India, or Japan. We know it’s not the UK, so the most realistic possibility is Ireland. Irish cars also have white number plates at the rear, which helps to support the hypothesis.
Church Spire Hell
So how to find the right location in Ireland? I chose to focus on the church because it is by far the most unique and distinctive feature in the original image. This method is not without its own problems however. Ireland has a lot of churches. I spent some time browsing through image search results for Irish church spires but there are just too many. When searching for this kind of information it’s also worth remembering that search engines do not treat everything equally, and more popular locations will feature more prominently. If you Google for “church spires Ireland” you’ll find plenty of matches for some of the more well-known churches (and some that are not even in Ireland), but the search term is not specific enough to give the granularity we need.
This means we need to pause and refine our church spire searching a little. How about adding in town names to the search term? Instead of searching at country-level, searching for church spire + [town name] will give a much better level of detail. We still need to be careful not to make it too difficult though. If you’re an absolute masochist you could work through this list, but it would take a very long time to search through every last town and village. We need to be a little bit smarter and look at the photo again for a little more information.
What sort of a place do we think this is? It isn’t a tiny little rural village, but we can’t see the high rise buildings of a large city either. The church itself is not a massive cathedral, but neither is it a tiny little village chapel. This probably means that the picture was taken in a medium sized town, so we’ll just focus on those. We can always change the search parameters if this approach doesn’t work.
I decided to use this list of Irish towns and cities, sorted by size. It’s still a fairly long list, but it’s important to remember that towns in Northern Ireland can be excluded from our search since they are still classed as part of the UK. We can open up Google images and work through the list pretty quickly e.g.
church spire limerick
church spire galway
It’s usually immediately obvious whether there is a match or not, so it only takes a few seconds and a quick scan of the returned images to see if we’re on the right track. It’s slightly repetitive but it’s a fairly comprehensive way to find what we need quickly.
Sure enough after about 20 negative searches we search for church spire athlone and see a familiar looking building:
This photo is from a different angle to the one in the original image but all the features match: a single spire that is the correct shape, and also located at the end of the main building. Now we can use Google Maps to check our hypothesis. Here’s St Mary’s Church in Athlone, as returned by the targeted Google image search:
It’s near to a car park too, so let’s orientate Google Maps to match the original photo to see if we’re right:
Looks good. Even the terraced houses on the left seem to match. We can use Street View for a final check to see if we’re right:
A very familiar match! We can even see the same car in Street View, which of course means that this must be the source of Paul’s original challenge photo. So the correct location is Grace Road, Athlone, Ireland.