The View from Here

By Adena Schutzberg

_Generation Gap
I hate to say this, but I'm finding myself in a bit of generation gap regarding geospatial technology. I grew up on the cusp of geography/cartography moving from our hands to computers. I took pen and ink cartography in college, but did my statistical methods course using Mini-Tab (1985). (I did it on a Mac my father bought me in 1983, during my first year in college. He said it was my graduation present. Smart man, my dad.) In graduate school I took a course in FORTRAN 77 (which served me only in so far as it taught me the basics of logic) and created the figures from my thesis in MacDraw (1988, same Mac). Once I got a "real job" I taught myself AutoCAD 9 (1989) and I've had a computer in front of me ever since.

I consider that history when I hear colleagues and readers extol the wonders of the imagery in Google Earth and Live Local. They are quite correct that simply rectifying and registering let alone overlaying imagery 20 or even 10 years ago was painstaking and time consuming. They see a "sea change" as anyone can view high resolution, fresh imagery, of any part of the world, registered and, integrated with other data sets, in 3D, at any time of night or day on the Web, and for free.

While I agree that there is significant change, I don't have the same sense of awe and wonder. Maybe it's the skeptic in me, or maybe, to me, it makes complete sense that such tools should appear about now. I say "should" in the context of both the technology being available and the level of understanding of the value of this data being high enough.

The next generation (say my niece and nephew, 11 and 9,) sees these tools as extensions of video games or movies. That also makes sense. They tie it to what they know in the entertainment space, so it seems familiar and logical. Growing up with Pong and Defender, I certainly didn't make that connection.

The bottom line, however, goes straight back to something I learned from someone who drew maps with crayons (my favorite: "invasion of the life savers"), Dr. Paul Simkins. He taught population geography to me and many others at Penn State. He made it abundantly clear that the most important part of the four questions of geography ("[1] What is [2] where? [3] why? [4] so what?") was that last part: "So what?" All of us, geographers and non-geographers, of all generations, need to ask that of each of these new technologies. We need to ask a whole series of "so what?" questions including:
  • What's in it for me?
  • What's in it for my local area? my country? the planet?
  • Does it empower the right people?
  • Does it impact commerce?
  • Does it threaten my livelihood?
  • What are the downstream consequences of it in this and other industries?
  • Am I giving up anything to have it? Is that ok with me? Is it a fair trade?
  • Does it impact local, national or global security?
Owning the Data
This week a series of things I knew to be true came together. First, a few years ago, as I tried to make sense of one geospatial company's motives, my dining companion said, "They are just trying to control all the data." Spin up to last year, when Tim O'Reilly gave the keynote at our Location Intelligence conference. He offered that "data" is the "Intel inside" of Web 2.0. Not so long ago I wrote in our blog about how "The data providers do hold all the cards just now."

So as I poured over this week's news and found an article from an Arkansas paper touting how new aerial imagery from two counties was now part of Google Earth, it hit me. Google, by design (most likely) or otherwise (less likely) is trying to own all the data. OK, "own" is not quite the right word as some of the data in that repository is public domain. Some of course, is not, like that from DigitalGlobe, for example. Maybe "manage" or "aggregate" or "provide the index for" are the right terms. In any case, it's one or more of the functions O'Reilly noted as key in Web 2.0.

And, it's working. Google is coming to states and counties and asking to use data. "Google Earth is always looking for the latest imagery so they contacted [the] CAST [University of Arkansas' Center for Advanced Spatial Technology] and asked for permission to put it on their Web site," said John McLarty, transportation planner for Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, regarding the two counties worth of imagery from that state now on the server. And, I suspect counties and states are going to Google to offer up their data. (It's cheaper than installing Google Enterprise, which the company touts as a solution for local government.) GIS companies are in on this move (By design? By force of their customer demands? By fear of being Google's lunch? It really doesn't matter why"¦) as they empower their systems to output Keyhole Markup Language (KML) or integrate with data from Google Earth (see for example MapInfo's solution).

The upshot? If regular people, heck even GIS people I'd offer, want to explore somewhere, they don't have to go to the Geography Network or or even National Geographic. They go to Google Earth (and maybe sometimes Google Local). And the behavior is reinforced by articles like the one in the Arkansas paper (Why bother with Geo-Stor? Go to Google Earth!) or the continuing saga offered by the New York Times, PC World, Wired, Technology Review, BusinessWeek or Forbes, which reinforce the idea that Google's mapping offerings are hip, sexy, easy to use, up-to-date and sparking controversy (on the security front).

But Google doesn't just "own" the data; it owns the format, KML, to integrate data into Google Earth. It's open in the sense that it's published, but it was not developed via an open process, or considered a standard except in the de facto sense. Still, if you want to integrate your stuff with Google Earth, you've got to get it encoded that way. While many apps can read and import KML (its just XML, right?) only Google's reader can tap into Google's steaming data. But then, that reader is free, so does that mean "no harm, no foul?"

Do we roll over and let Google be our provider of imagery, and maybe someday vector and other data? Do we do it in exchange for ads popping up when people use the data for consumer or local government or commercial purposes? I don't know the answer, but I do know that Google Earth has taken the geospatial community (and I mean that in the broadest sense to include consumer type users) by storm and created an excitement far beyond anything USGS/NASA or perhaps any international organization has in my memory. Maybe this is the most important question regarding Google's entry into this space. Maybe it's not, "Will Google impact GIS companies?" but, "Will and should Google create the infrastructure for NSDI and GSDI?"

Published Friday, January 13th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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