Occasionally you will come across videos that will tell you exactly where they were filmed. You’ll get excited thinking that geolocating it will be extremely fast and easy. You jump to Google Maps, write the name of the village and nothing. Google has no idea what you mean.
You try another similar word. Maybe another one? Nop, not happening.
Fine! You can start with the province, move to the district and just find the village. Sorry, Google Maps can tell you the province but then you’re on your own. It has no idea where the district is located within that province and even if it did, the name you have does not match it.
Ok, forget the district, you will just look for the specific village. You have the name, it must be somewhere! Nop, not a single village is labelled on Google Maps within the entire area of your search.
This exact scenario has happened to me a few times. If you are attempting to geolocate videos or photos in very remote areas of developing countries you will struggle with the lack of labelling. I wanted to show you how it can still be done, just with a few extra steps.
On December 18, 2022, Aamaj, an Afghan news agency, published a video on Twitter claiming that the “Taliban whipped three women and three men in Kapisa“, a province in the north-east of the country. The footage showed a large group of Afghan men in front of a building, probably in Kapisa. No public punishments were visible in the video but I was curious about the location.
From watching the 21 second footage I can tell that it is near a mountain which would be useful if Afghanistan wasn’t made out of mountains! The building featured on the video had an interesting shape, with a bit of a curve on one of the sides but not many details visible. It will definitely be easy enough to verify from a satellite image but first we need to find the correct place. That is the tricky part.
Below you can see the video shared on Aamaj’s Twitter account:
Gathering more information
Unless you have a week to waste, the name of a province is simply not enough to geolocate this video. We need to find more information about this incident. As it was a recent event, I simply searched for the name of the province, in Farsi (Kapisa, کاپيسا), on Twitter and checked all the results containing media. I quickly found the tweet seen below. The image looked like a screenshot of the video we just watched. The person that shared it also claimed it was filmed in Kapisa and was related to the whipping of people in public by the Taliban.
However, this time, the tweet had some interesting information. It said: “The Taliban whipped four men and two women for various crimes in “Shirwani” market of Najarab district of Kapisa province.”
The details on how many women and men were lashed were different but we don’t need to focus on that as we just want to know the location. Suddenly we know that this was (allegedly) in the Shirwani market of Najarab district in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan.
Brilliant! Let’s Google that!
Finding the district
We can find the Afghan province of Kapisa without any issues by just typing کاپيسا (Kapisa) into Google Maps. Then we can start narrowing it down a bit. We can try to go with نجراب (Nijarab) which gets corrected by Google Maps to “Nijrab”. Close enough, probably the same place. We can keep going.
Below is a screenshot of the district of Nijrab according to Google Maps. I simply searched for نجراب (Nijrab/Najarab), and کاپیسا (Kapisa), both words copy pasted from the tweet.
I can assure you that, no matter how much you zoom in the area marked below on the map, there is not a single village labelled other than what we can see. A quick scan revealed that Shirwani, the name of the village we are looking for, is simply not anywhere to be seen.
What now? Do we just zoom in and go through the entire area until we find a building that could match the shape of the one we are looking for? That would not only be a waste of time but also incredibly ineffective. I can already tell you that the village, and the building I geolocated, was not even located in the region marked above. I found the correct village over 20 Km to the west of the area that Google Maps claimed to be the Nijrab district in Kapisa.
Finding the village(s)
So if the village was not found on Google Maps how did I track it down? Just because it is not labelled on Google Maps does not mean it was not labelled somewhere else. If you are thinking about Yandex or Bing Maps you’re going in the wrong direction. Who best to know the location of small villages in developing countries other than people whose jobs depend on it? Perhaps people and/or groups that go to these countries and need to find a way to access these villages. Organisations that not only collect data, but also map and label locations, and write detailed reports that can be easily found and accessed online. I am talking about humanitarian relief non governmental organisations (a huge thanks to all their work!).
I have often used maps from the Humanitarian Response website to find the names of small villages in various rural areas of developing countries. This website, part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, provides free and easily accessible reports on a variety of topics. For our specific geolocation we want to access their maps/infographics of Afghanistan. For that we can either select the “Afghanistan” option as seen below on the left, or the “Maps/Infographics” option on the right.
For this tutorial let’s go with the “Maps / Infographics” option and then refine our search parameters to get all the available maps from the Kapisa province of Afghanistan, as seen below. There are only 2 files that match our criteria, one is entitled “Kapisa Province District Atlas”, and the other “Afg: Kapisa Province – Reference Map”. You can view them by simply clicking the “download button”. It will open the pdf file and you can zoom in quite a lot. It’s amazing!
Below is the screenshot of how to find the document I used to geolocate the building in the video with the alleged lashings in Kapisa. At the search bar at the top I simply wrote “Kapisa” and then downloaded the second document on the list. It was published in 2014 but it is still extremely useful.
Both documents contained the name and location of all the villages in this region and because it is in pdf format you can zoom in quite a lot without losing image quality. I have chosen to work with the “Kapisa Province Reference Map” document because you can see the topography of the area which will be extremely useful to us in a bit.
If you zoom around a bit you will quickly spot a large word saying Nejrab, then a smaller word also saying Nejrab and an even smaller one saying Nijrab. At this point I just want to say: “Welcome to geolocating data in Afghanistan! If you are ever bored of easy geolocation challenges online try to find something in Afghanistan. You will never be bored again. It’s on a whole new level of difficulty.”
Let’s examine our new map then. At first glance I would guess that the big Nejrab is the name of the district, the medium sized Nejrab is a large city, and the small Nijrab is a village. As the names of locations in Afghanistan are translated phonetically, it is very common for them to have different spellings. This unfortunately just makes our job harder (and more exciting).
You may remember that, according to the tweet we found earlier, we are looking for a village named Shirwani, within the Najarab/Nejrab district of Kapisa province of Afghanistan. By scrolling around the area shown above, we can easily spot two areas that could be our village, as seen below. The reference map claims there is a village called Shairwani Payen and another one, further north, called Shairwani Bala, both names quite similar to Shirwani. They are also within the Nejrab region so there are very high chances one of them could be our location!
The pdf document unfortunately does not provide satellite imagery (wouldn’t that be nice) so at this point we need to jump back into Google Maps or Google Earth Pro to find the building within the village. The problem is now locating the village since, as you may remember, this area is not labelled on Google Maps at all. But that does not mean we cannot triangulate its location based on the topography of the area.
If you jump into Google Maps and choose to display the terrain layer you will be able to see the elevation and topography of the region. Using that information, alongside the roads seen in dashed lines in our reference map, we can quickly figure out where our villages are (probably) located.
The map below illustrates how I triangulated and narrowed down my area of search fairly quickly. Highlighted in red you can see the road split, in green and dark blue you can see the shape of the mountains, similar in both maps. Using that information I figured out that the Shairwani Payen village was just north of the mountains highlighted in dark blue, whilst the Shairwani Bala village was east of the mountainous area highlighted in dark green. If you can read Farsi you may have noticed that the school in the middle of our Google Maps screenshot (with the “temporary closed” sign) is called “Qala Ghani Girls’ High School” (لیسه نسوان قلعه غنی). This would indicate that the location of the Qala Ghani village, also seen on our reference map, is around there. Its location is a bit off from map to map so I chose to base my search around the mountain range as it is less likely to be wrong (they don’t often move do they?).
Finding the building
Once we have a (limited) area of search we can switch to Google Earth Pro and scan one of the villages. We are looking for a long building near some mountains (ah!). We know that on one side of the building there is a small tower similar to a castle’s turret, and the other side of the building has a bit of an angle. It should be easy enough to spot on satellite imagery. And it was.
I started around the area that I identified as Shairwani Bala, the northern of the two villages. I entered the coordinates on Google Earth Pro and changed the historical view to September 2018 as the other options did not provide an image clear enough. Below you can see how easy it was to spot the building (yellow arrow).
Verifying the location
Now that we have found our building, it is time to match all the details. For that we will compare the video where the Taliban were allegedly lashing people, and the satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro captured in September 2018. Below you can see how all the details match. Highlighted in orange on the right you can see the little turret like tower at the end of the building, highlighted in green is the tall tree behind the building, and the dark blue line highlights the unusual shape of the building.
The image above therefore confirms that the video was recorded in the Shairwani Bala village, Nejrab district of Kapisa province in Afghanistan. The coordinates of the location are: 35.012852, 69.597979.
There are numerous open source tools that can help you navigate maps and find semi isolated and unlabelled areas of the globe. Humanitarian relief non governmental organisations do an amazing job going to developing countries, collecting data and mapping locations. Websites like the Humanitarian Response have a wealth of resources and data shared, for free, to all who want to access it. Sometimes you just need to know where to look for information.
I hope this tutorial was helpful if you ever need to geolocate something in the middle of nowhere and Google Maps has no idea how to help you.
Thank you for reading!
Leave a Reply