Quiztime — The one that got me started

It was a Thursday in November when I read a post from Christiaan Triebert from Bellingcat about a daily quiz to train verification skills. This was the beginning of a wonderful journey and I remember it well.

The article speaks about why Julia Bayer (Deutsche Welle) started posting little challenges via Twitter on Mondays, to let people try and find our where she was. She started doing this after she received a fact checking training with some of her colleagues and this way they could keep on practicing. Over the course of several months more people posting such challenges joined and soon every weekday a new puzzle was posted online. After reading the article and going over some of the previous Tweets, I knew I just had to be ready for the upcoming Friday challenge. And I could only hope it would be posted somewhere within my lunch break.

The Tweet with the Friday challenge came slightly later than I hoped for, but since I postponed my lunch break, I simply dropped everything I was doing and opened the following message:

Philipp posted a lovely scenery with two basic questions: Who runs the power plant in the background and when was it built? And as a little bonus question you could find the location where the photo was taken from. Without prior knowledge about these type of geolocation challenges, I set myself the task of trying to find the answer to the bonus question first, since that location seemed to be the easiest one to find. At least, so I thought.

I wanted to start by identifying the buildings and their intended usage, then go over the surrounding scenery and the direction of the waterway, after which the location of the power plant would reveal itself to me. And that’s where it didn’t quite go as planned.

On the left part of the photo, I noticed some German text on the sign near something that could be a gate. Since Philipp is German, this all made perfect sense and it gave me a first clue:

The first hints towards a German speaking country

The sign was slightly covered, but I could make out that it said something along the lines of: “Ruderboote Tredboote Kayak” and the red letters might be spelling out the word “VERLEIH”. Translated to English, it says: “rowboat, pedalo and kayak rental”. The sign underneath says “…er Biergarten”. On the other side of the water a parasol can be seen that was sponsored by a beer brand, but me and other people soon found out that searching for things related to beer or “Biergarten” in Germany is pretty much useless:

Take it easy, have a beer…

Then I had another look at the signs. Above the types of boats listed, there was something written in blue. Could it be the name of a city or town? I thought I read something along the lines of “Walla…” or “Waha…” and went over a huge list of German towns and cities, chose the town of “Wallau” to do an extensive search and ended up with nothing. I tried my luck with other cities and towns that started with “Wa” and after some time I found Waren in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Even though that was not the correct town, it finally gave me the correct state where I should be looking at. I could have had it a lot easier, but while searching it never occurred to me that the lack of hills and mountains would give me a reason to focus on the northern part of Germany instead of more south, where I initially started my search. Now that I was in the right area, it didn’t take long to find the power plants in Rostock.

By Vogone, derivate work of Alchemist-hp

And that is when the intelligence of modern search engines came in handy. One does not have to go over the Yellow Pages to find a boat rental in the area anymore. One does not have to go over dozens of web sites, because a simple search query is enough: “Bootsverleih near Rostock”.

The second hit was already what I needed. A boat rental, starting with the correct letters, somewhere near this particular power plant. So I quickly checked the direction of the river in regards to the target and found out that it could very well be the right place. The direction was spot on and the distance (I guessed it somewhere around 5 to 7 km) was well within my estimation.

The bearing and distance all checked out

A 3D image from Google maps gave me the right perspective and some verification that I was looking at the correct spot of where the photo was taken that Philipp had shared:

Location, view and direction of where the photo was made

Photos from the entrance of the boat rental can even be found using the photo feature within Google maps, and I used them to verify that the sign is indeed the same as in the photo of Philipp:

Comparing signs and scenery

Finding out who the owner is and when it was built was the easiest part and can be found by all, so I deliberately didn’t include it in this write-up. This was the first geolocation quiz in the series that I ever solved and it took me a lot less time than I expected. Especially where the source is a photo like this, where a lot of generic hints are available, it could have led me anywhere. But with a little bit of luck, some crafty Googling and a bit of common sense, this challenge proved to be easily solvable within about 45 minutes.

And it also took me less than an hour to actually get slightly addicted to geolocation challenges and other OSINT related verification questions. An addiction that requires a skill set that I already started developing withoutbeing aware of it. One of which I never knew there was an actual name for it and that people even do this for a job. And to be honest, this is one addiction I wouldn’t mind having for a bit longer.