EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

GIS tools never looked better

Few technology products have transformed how people think about the world quite like Google Earth. 

However, for anyone who earns a living using geospatial mapping tools, the real transformation has been in the ability of organizations to build their own private globes. That ability gained significant ground last October with the release of Google Earth Enterprise 3.1. It allows organizations to feed geographic information from various sources into their own geospatial database rather than maintain terabytes of copied data, which dramatically frees resources.

The Feb. 2 release of Google Earth 5.0 has attracted a lot of attention for its newest feature, named Ocean. Using data and imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources, Google Earth now provides visual undersea details that previously were available only for terrestrial surfaces (GCN.com/1302).

Two other new Google Earth features have caught the eyes of geospatial specialists, including Chris Johnson. Johnson is best known for helping develop Virtual Alabama, which has drawn national praise for giving Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security a powerful, yet highly affordable, way to visualize the state’s physical assets and emergency resources.

One of 5.0’s new features is the ability to pack multiple images into a slice of geography. Previous versions of Google Earth could deliver only the most recent image for a given location. Now, historical images that span decades can be pulled into view.

Johnson, like many users, quickly dubbed the feature Google’s time machine. But its potential power for enterprise users, she said, isn’t so much in showing time as it is in saving time. For example, the ability to load and toggle through a series of before-and-after images of areas struck by disasters is just one of many potential applications that could speed governmental response to emergencies or other public concerns.

The other new feature lets users record and narrate tours, including displays of customized data layers. For Virtual Alabama, which supports more than 1,000 layers of specialized geospatial data, the touring capability promises to substantially improve communication and training.

Those features won’t be available for Google Earth Enterprise for another few months, Google officials said. But they — and other new geospatial imagery tools such as Microsoft’s Photosynth and Virtual Earth platform — promise to dramatically expand government’s ability to communicate vast amounts of data visually.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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