Taking it to the streets

Emerging geoWeb tools give agencies new ways to put their data to use<@VM>Sidebar | Candid cameras<@VM>Sidebar | Exploring the geoWeb

SMALLER WORLD: Pat Garvey, the Environmental Protection Agency's geospatial download service manager, is taking advantage of the explosion in geoWeb tools.

GCN Photo by Zaid Hamid

The competition to provide geospatial data via the Web has become a full-scale arms race, in which resolution makes the difference between a superpower and a has-been. But in this race, government agencies and their constituents stand to gain from each escalation.

Take location photography. Initially, Google got most of the attention with its Google Earth application. Enter a place name in the search box, and a representation of the Earth spins toward that general region and then zooms in on the location, showing satellite imagery sometimes down to a resolution as close as three inches per pixel.

Microsoft developed its own platform and even used some of the same imagery. And like Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth offered basic analytic and markup tools and let users import their own data into layers. Then Microsoft added something new: 3-D imagery. You could not only look down on cities but ' at least in some cases ' look out over them, as though you were looking out from a helicopter, rather than down from a satellite.

In April, Google upped the ante once again with Street View, a feature in the company's Web browser-based mapping product, Google Maps. As its name implies, Street View takes users down to street level. When you click on the Street View button, a human figure that you can move around on the map appears. Once you position the figure and click, you'll find yourself in the middle of a high-resolution image of the icon's surroundings, an image you can move through and turn a full 360 degrees.

Forget blogs ' they're pass'. The newest, hottest thing is the geoWeb ' the marriage of geospatial tools and the Internet. The geoWeb goes beyond simple maps pasted onto Web sites. The idea is that interactive maps contain lots of searchable, retrievable data, including, in some cases, real-time location data from the Global Positioning System.

Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth are the most obvious examples, but they are far from being the most innovative and powerful ones. Wiki sites offer editable user-generated maps where visitors offer their own impressions of the area. Onboard navigation sites download the latest gas prices and even reviews of restaurants near a driver's location. Cell phone services can alert you when a friend is nearby.

With many new technologies that first find popularity in commercial markets, the implications for the federal government may not be clear. With the geoWeb, however, the federal government has found itself with two major roles from the get-go. First, federal agencies are providing much of the data behind the geoWeb explosion. Second, government is finding the geoWeb to be an effective way to deliver information directly to citizens via its own Web applications.

'We're the government,' said Pat Garvey, geospatial download service manager at the Environmental Protection Agency. 'Everybody owns this data. And now we're able to provide it in a format where it can be used. It's not just Google, but Google Earth represents a turning point.'

Much of the data collected by the federal government is geographically sensitive. Census data, Geological Survey data, Commerce Department data, EPA data ' most or all of the information collected by these agencies has previously only been accessible in geospatial form via desktop applications designed by third-party companies. Historically, these applications are expensive and require significant training for users.

With the advent of the geoWeb, however, this data is becoming more broadly available to developers and consumers alike.

'This is booming,' Garvey said. 'Third parties are building applications to sell to companies. Nonprofits are building applications to analyze the data and interact with people.'

EPA's download service offers an impressive array of free data online, including the Superfund National Priorities List, the Toxic Release Inventory System, a list of hazardous-waste disposal facilities and others.

'Our data is generally going to be used by average citizens' Garvey said. 'But people are building applications to use the data that can be used by average citizens. Many other agencies and departments are also offering data online.'
Indeed, the Geospatial One-Stop project sponsored by the Office of Management and Budget aims to give all levels of government and the public easy access to most of its data. Project leaders are asking local governments and federal agencies and departments to register and publish metadata for Web mapping services on the GOS portal at www.geodata.gov.

Already, there is a broad array of data available online or for download. You can, for example, display all the earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5.0 between 1973 and 2001, using data from the Geological Survey. Or you can view health data in your locality courtesy of the Health and Human Services Department.

Shaking up the industry

The advent of the geoWeb, with lots of free data and browser-based mapping tools, is a challenge for many of the established geographic information systems vendors, who are used to delivering propriety applications to business and government. Some geospatial graybeards might be skittish about the trends, but others are jumping on board.

'The geoWeb is a natural evolution of GIS, from being a workstation-based system for individuals working on projects to workgroups of people working on client/server workgroup applications, to enterprise systems that connect together multiple nodes, and then on out to the Web as an environment for connecting systems together,' said David Maquire, director of products at ESRI.

Although ESRI continues to offer server and workstation solutions for enterprises ' which deliver much more database, map-editing and analytic muscle than Web-based solutions can yet provide ' the company also has embraced the geoWeb by contributing an array of Web services to developers and users that integrate with Web-based tools, such as Google Earth or ESRI's ArcExplorer, a downloadable mapping application. These services deliver data from back-end servers to a variety of Web applications for display and analysis.

Autodesk, another GIS heavyweight, also has embraced the geoWeb, especially its open-source aspect. Juliana Slye, director at Autodesk's government division, said two trends are emerging that encourage the democratization of GIS: the emergence of Web-based tools and the availability of open-source tools.

'There is a significant need to push GIS capabilities out to a nontechnical end user,' Slye said, 'to be able to take different types of GIS integrated data and enable communities of nontechnical users to not just interact but add to that data.'

Slye said Autodesk's open-source version of its MapGuide program received an enthusiastic response from government and citizen groups. One example of its implementation is the Urban Forest Mapping Project, a joint undertaking by the San Francisco Bureau of Urban Forestry and the nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest. The project keeps track of the city's existing and newly planted trees, and the system allows the city to map future planting locations and calculate costs.

'Because [the project] was an initiative that was not at the top of the city's management agenda, it wasn't funded,' Slye said. Autodesk provided a level of funding, along with engineering support and the MapGuide open-source product. 'Because the city used an open-source product, they were able to create a program where they wouldn't otherwise have been able to do so,' she said.

Still many hurdles to clear

Despite the recent explosion of the geoWeb, there are obstacles to further development. The primary hurdle, most experts say, is a continuing lack of standards.

'There are no practical standards right now in this area,' Maguire said. 'It's moving so fast, and everybody's working their hardest to optimize these systems, so there's a relatively limited lowest common denominator for interoperability.'

The development of geospatial standards is the goal of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a nonprofit consortium of 346 companies, government agencies and universities. OGC recently took a major step forward by securing an agreement with Google to develop its Keyhole Markup Language (KML) ' the Extensible Markup Language-based language used for developing Google Earth ' into a standard.

'It's a pretty big deal,' said Carl Reed, chief technology officer at OGC. 'It's the first time any of the big browser companies have brought geotechnology directly into a standards organization.'

Reed said he's hopeful that a standardized 3.0 version of KML can be released by the end of this year or early next year.

Making KML a standard will be a definite plus, Maguire said, though it's only one step on the road to greater interoperability. 'It will provide a mechanism that makes it easier for people to work with Google Earth and to put their data on Google Earth, no question about that,' he said.

But he warned that standardizing a single markup language is only a small part of what is needed. Even in those areas where standards are developed, 'a lot of standards are open to interpretation,' he said. 'So it's possible for organizations to produce a standards-compliant service which won't in fact work with someone else's interpretation. So there's work to be done there.'

Another issue facing geoWeb developers is the currency and verification of data. When large datasets are opened to Web access, keeping the information current and accurate can be a huge chore, especially in those implementations where end users are contributing data. What happens if a mapping company offers faulty directions that send a user into a dangerous location? The problem is especially challenging for applications that include user-contributed data.

'We have our lawyers looking at that right now,' said Mladen Stojic, director of enterprise products at Leica. 'One of the things we assume ' because we have to ' is that the quality and the fidelity of the data is really dependent upon having legitimate communities. The quality and the fidelity is managed by the authors of the data.' Stojic said the vendors' job is to make sure that the accuracy, quality and currency of data is fully disclosed to users.

Maguire agrees. 'Like a lot of these things on the Web, it's the responsibility of the user both to ensure that they have a proper license to use the data and that the data suits the purpose,' he said. 'When I get driving instructions from MapQuest, it's my responsibility. If I want to drive into a river, I think it's my responsibility.'

Maguire figures that the open market of the Web will ultimately rule. 'What's going to happen is there will be brands that emerge on the Web, just as they do in other areas, and the brands will stand for something in terms of integrity of the data, completeness of the data and quality,' he said. 'That's the key thing about the Web ' people gravitate to useful sites and sites that have the type of information they're interested in.'
In addition to offering slick and powerful new applications, the geoWeb brings new challenges to privacy.

'The issue is whether and how that information is going to be stored, and what legal protections will exist to prevent others from accessing it,' said Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 'A comprehensive dossier of all your movements is very clearly a sensitive collection of information. People need to be wary of adopting these services without being fully informed about exactly what information is being collected and stored and under what circumstances it will be accessed.'

Two obvious threats are street photography ' such as Google's new Street View ' and location-based services.

Suppose you join a service such as Loopt, which tracks your location using the Global Positioning System and feeds that information ' the location of nearby friends, for example ' related to your current location. Who might gain access to that information? Police? Your employer?

Bankston said federal law is not clear about what protections apply to such information. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 did not specifically anticipate location-based Internet services.

'Our goal is to ensure that the strongest protections in ECPA would apply to stored records of your location, and also that the government must meet a very high bar ' i.e., obtain a search warrant ' before they track your location in real time.'

Bankston added that Loopt, for one, actually sets a good example for privacy protection. 'Each time you report your position, [Loopt] overwrites the previous record of your position,' he said. If the government or a civil litigant went to Loopt with the idea of issuing a subpoena seeking to discover every place someone has been for the past month, for example, Loopt 'has the best answer possible, which is 'We don't have that. We don't keep that information,' ' Bankston said.

To collect images for street photography, a number of mapping companies send unmarked vans to photograph city streets, which creates the risk that citizens could be caught unawares in some sort of compromising situation. Bankston said he himself was photographed ' and his image subsequently displayed on the Internet ' by Google Earth sneaking a cigarette outside his San Francisco office.

'My concern here isn't so much for people like me who are caught smoking, but [for] people in much more compromising or embarrassing positions who might have been captured by Google's unmarked camera van,' Bankston said. 'Say, someone walking out of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or an abortion clinic, or being photographed at a controversial political or religious event.'

Bankston said he was able to get Google to remove his image from the Internet, but it wasn't easy.

As technology changes, so do your concepts of privacy in public places, Bankston said. 'Although as a general rule I don't think what [Google] is doing is illegal, there is definitely a possibility that there are photos in Street View that could walk up to the line of liability or maybe even cross it.'

'It's these kinds of social-norms questions that get pressed whenever a new technology like this debuts,' he said.
OpenStreetMap

A free, user-generated wiki world map, created and updated by users around the world. Coverage is spotty ' London is pretty thoroughly mapped, for example, but only a couple of streets are identified in Boston ' and the toolset is limited.

http://www.openstreetmap.org

Garmin Nuvi680

A car navigation system from Garmin uses Global Positioning System data to plot your route and direct you to your goal, but it also connects to the Web via MSN Direct to give you constantly updated information about everything from movie times to the price of gas at various locations.

https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do?cID=137&pID=8579

Leica Titan

Although the interface for Leica Titan, from Switzerland-based geospatial vendor Leica Geosystems AG, looks similar to Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth, Titan focuses on providing channels for data sharing that the other applications lack. With the program's Instant Messenger utility, users can join others' worlds to access data they have published. All data is stored on the owner's computer rather than on a central server, and each publisher controls access to his or her world.

http://gi.leica-geosystems.com/LGISub1x447x0.aspx

Loopt

Offers a cell phone-based Web service that lets users track one another and share information about locations. You can set the program to alert you when a designated friend comes within a certain geographical range, and you can broadcast your location to friends to join you.

http://www.loopt.com

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above