Geography · Economics · Visualization

15 Years of Google Earth and the Lessons That Went Unlearned

Google Earth turns 15 this Sunday.  Are you celebrating?

oil production impacts due to Hurricanes Katrina & Rita–extruded data bars ain’t new bro


If you’re a mapping professional, your reaction might be a mix of wistfulness and condescension as you haven’t popped open Google Earth in years let alone dealt with a KML file.  The urge of the carto-cognoscenti to dismiss Google Earth has been strong from the outset, and now all these years later we’re still too slow to acknowledge what it’s gotten right.

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The week after launch I was at a Fourth of July picnic outside Philadelphia where I knew few people, so was uncharacteristically in listening mode.  I remember clearly a not-sober guy with only two things on his mind:  a) arguing with his wife about having a third child and b) a new mapping thing he discovered–

“Go to EARTH DOT GOOGLE DOT COM and download that sh*t!”

That is what Silicon Valley refers to as traction.

It was immediately on its way to be the most successful desktop mapping interface ever.  Despite its popularity–or because of it, honestly–those of us who build and sell web mapping applications continue to draw the wrong conclusions as to what it all meant to us professionally.  Three aspects come to mind:

  •  Google Earth led us to vastly overestimate the average user’s willingness to figure out our map interfaces.  The user experience was so novel and absorbing that people invested time into learning the interface:  semi-complex navigation, toggling layers on and off, managing their own content, etc.  Unfortunately, our stuff isn’t so novel and absorbing and we’ve learned the hard way that even those forced to use our interfaces for work seem very uninterested in even the most basic interactions.
  • A killer use case that the industry still hasn’t replicated is “double-click email attachment, immediately see map content.”  The popularity of Google Earth–and its ultimate penetration in the workplace (especially Oil & Gas / natural resources sectors) — meant you could send a KML file as an email attachment and be somewhat certain you knew what ended up on the recipient’s screen.
  • Users creating and sharing data.  The KML data format combining both spatial coordinates as well as styling made many insiders uneasy.  I wonder if the preference for this tidy segregation didn’t also carry a faint whiff  of the-guild-made-uneasy-by-the-democratization-of-tools.  We never tire of reciting the horrors of Excel while never bothering to tally the benefits side of the ledger:  there’s more than a little of that with KML and how it empowered the masses to create, style, and share spatial data much easier than in the past.

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We don’t hear much of Google Earth these days, though even my recent experience in the energy industry is any indication, its usage and ubiquity still remain strong.  Development of the original application seems to have  mostly stopped and the Mapboxes, Cesiums, and the Cartos of the world have taken up the web mapping mantle.  But what hasn’t been replicated has been the absorption and sense of wonder that a mapping application triggered fifteen years ago this week.

Singapore Harbor and the Failure of Geospatial Marketing

If the global economy were collapsing, how would we know?

In mid-February as parts of Asia wrestled with COVID-19, Twitter user @IAMIRONMAN7 had some data to share and he wasn’t shy about connecting the dots:

As I doom-scrolled through the responses, folks who were familiar with Singapore chimed in that this looked like business-as-usual to them, with anecdata reaching High Art in this flex by a Ben Eliott-Yates:

But what troubled me as a geospatial professional is not one of the tweeters in the thread thought to say “there’s probably data that could answer this question.”

And that’s our failure–the failure of the geospatial industry’s marketing message to resonate even faintly with a crowd willing to debate on social media whether Singapore Harbor was crowded or not.  Because our industry’s default setting is to sell rasters and vectors and point clouds and the complicated tools that are supposed to make sense of it all.

Answers?  That’s the customer’s problem.

Bill Emison recounted how too many LiDAR projects concluded with handing the client a hard drive with a few terabytes of LAS files along with the Net-30 invoice.  For most of us the project is over when we zip our Geotiffs or shapefiles, maybe with some metadata, and email the client a download link.

Will Cadell put it more succinctly at last week’s virtual FOSS4G-UK gathering:

Geospatial people excel at building geospatial things for other geospatial people.

While no one ever starved selling pixels to the NGA, the complacent delivery of the same-old/same-old to the legacy set of tried-and-true set of customers (often, a government entity) has limited our market reach as an industry and left the “vision thing” to others.  You can point to new-ish players like Descartes Labs and Orbital Insight who get this and are building businesses around “answers” and not raw data:  I say good on them and that they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

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So, was Singapore Harbor unusually crowded in mid-February?

As I wondered about that myself, I came across this web map cooked up by Kristof Van Tricht based on Google Earth Engine which houses a bunch of different datasets including the Sentinel SAR stuff that I knew could answer my question.  Let’s go to the animated GIF:

Maybe it’s the hindsight talking, but to this untrained eye the collapse of the global economy doesn’t seem obvious.

The geospatial industry never tires of trumpeting the ubiquity and centrality of Location.  But until we learn how to deliver meaning and not just raw data pushed through a pipe, the potential of the new markets we’ve been telling each other about for years will remain unrealized, likely to be seized by others.

 — Brian Timoney 

Mapping’s Gaming Future Can’t Come Quick Enough

Confession:  my gaming career ended in 1979 when Asteroids was released.  Overwhelmed by multi-axis movement and the hyperspace button, I allocated my arcade quarters to analog pinball and turned my back on console gaming.

As my mapping career marches into its third decade, I impatiently await the re-energizing of online mapping that can transform the massive amounts of new geographic data and visualization techniques into something even fractionally compelling as fake gaming landscapes.

In 2013 my frustration with the stale GIS paradigm being stuffed into a browser and called a “portal” was extreme enough to write five blog posts on the topic.  Fast forward to the present, and every couple of months a well-meaning soul will reference the series and remark “and nothing has changed!”

If only I could weaponize an exclamation mark.

While the mapping tilt towards gaming and gaming-like landscapes and experiences has been underway awhile, whether it be Google Maps and Mapbox offering Unity SDKs or ESRI’s CityEngine offering.  But a couple of recent announcements caught my eye:

Now with frames-per-second being one of the most important metrics to be optimized in gaming, one of the advantages of fake landscapes is they can be created, modified, and, well, faked to optimize on frame rate.  Howard raises the question as to whether these optimizations can’t help but come at the expense of geodetic accuracy when using “real” geographic data:

That said, the second announcement is very interesting insofar as it appears to be a global scale effort to make the “real world” work in the gaming context:  I’ll be cheering Cesium on.

Now if the current status quo of online mapping mostly works for you, you’re asking if all of this is “must have” or merely “nice to have”. During a recent webinar put on by L3 Harris, multiple participants talked about the desire for a more immersive experience, etc.  But I would put it more strongly:  in a world where organizations are spending more money for custom data collection– imagery, LiDAR. IoT, etc.—they will soon demand a consumption experience commensurate with their data purchase.  We can’t make our clients spend more on ingredients but continue to serve them generic too-long-under-the-heat-lamp consumption experiences.

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Enough with this weak tea hand-wavy thought leadership bro–I want custom terrain in my video games now.

No problem.  Bro.  I hope you like golf.

Because we here at Mapbrief believe in the spirit of DIY.  In The Golf Club 2019  , there are tools for users to create their own courses, etc.  So one particularly motivated user published a tutorial for using USGS LIDAR data and OpenStreetMap data for creating your own real courses.

So let’s celebrate that in some small measure that the era of Bring-Your-Own-Data to your favorite video game has already arrived!

— Brian Timoney