Digital Earth

Abhijeet Chavan's picture
In his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, writer Neal Stephenson imagined the ultimate user interface to access geographic information:

"There is something new: a globe about the size of grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm's length in front of his eyes... It's a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth. It is the user interface that the CIC uses to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns -- all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff." [More excerpts ]

Though a working version of Stephenson's vision may take a while to become reality, Google seems to be moving in that direction. A new feature on Google maps enables "hybrid" views that combine road maps with satellite images. The results are impressive considering that all this geographic information is being delivered to and viewed with a regular web browser. For example, here is a view of downtown Los Angeles as seen in Google Maps' hybrid mode.

 Downtown Los Angeles

Source: Google Maps

By allowing others to use their map service, Google has spawned websites that use Google's geographic information in innovative ways.

Here is another interesting use of Google Maps. Take a look at this excerpt from a post on the Houston Strategies Blog :

"This Google satellite map shows that stopping at Richmond would leave too long a walk and would probably confuse visitors. Getting all the way up to Westheimer (or at least Alabama) also improves access to some substantial officebuildings west of Sage that can be seen in the map with their long shadows. This Sage hook is also interesting because it leaves all of Post Oak open for the Uptown BRT, creating more overall transit coverage for the Uptown area (map)."

Note how blogger Tory Gattis is using Google Maps for research and directly linking to hybrid map-satellite visuals to support his argument. Services such a Google Maps can be used for more than just getting driving directions.

But there are limitations to such use. Posting on the "Why" blog, Michael Patrick wonders if Google data may have been modified or "censored" for security reasons. And Wired News reports that Microsoft had found a way to wipe Apple Computer off the map.
Internet sleuths discovered that anyone using Microsoft's new Virtual Earth website for a bird's-eye view of Apple's corporate headquarters saw only a grainy overhead photograph of what appears to be a single, nondescript warehouse and a deserted parking lot -- not Apple's sprawling campus, with 11 modern buildings surrounding a plush courtyard.

The article goes on the point out a weakness of services such as Google Maps and Microsoft's Virtual Earth:

"One satellite expert said companies should provide more details, such as the date for each photograph, to help internet users make sense of these images.

'It's a problem, one of the real challenges. There's a reason why most pictures in magazines and newspapers have captions,' said John Pike, director of 'What's missing from this imagery is, there are no captions to tell you when the image was acquired or what you're seeing or why you should care.'"

Abhijeet Chavan is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.


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