Michael Jones | Geospatial Democracy

GCN interview with Michael Jones, Google Earth Chief Technologist

This idea of seeing Earth from space is no longer a military secret topic. They're like postcards from Europe. -Michael Jones

Photo by Michael Caronna

When it comes to getting new photographic equipment, most people would settle for buying a new camera. Not Google technologist Michael Jones ' he has actually built his own four-megapixel digital camera. This intuitiveness also shows through in the company products and services he oversees, including Google Earth, Google Maps and the company's local search service. Jones was formerly chief technology officer at Keyhole, the company that developed the technology used in Google Earth. He was also director of advanced graphics at SGI.

GCN: Google recently launched a street-level video-recording project for major cities, StreetView. What is this about?

JONES: We've been doing research for two years now on ways of capturing street-level imagery. We have high-resolution imagery captured at the street level. If you use our product and fly to San Francisco, say, and turn on the street views in Google Maps, then you put the icon there anywhere you like and you can zoom in and see the window on the restaurant. You see what time they are opened. You can see if they are closed for summer. You can go to a parking sign and see what time parking is allowed.

GCN: What technologies are you using to capture, manage and deploy these images online?

JONES: It involves many servers, which people have estimated to be tens of thousands. It is involves many data centers around the world to reduce latency to each user. It involves redundancy so the data is always online. So, basically, it is a matter of scale and configuration and software.

Something else that goes on is that the sources of imagery are changing. Ten years ago, if you wanted a high-resolution picture of Moscow, you would need to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. Now you can buy it from 20 different sources, including [those in] Moscow, France, India or China. So this idea of seeing Earth from space is no longer a military secret topic. They're like postcards from Europe.

GCN: Google and NASA have entered a partnership to make NASA's information available on the Internet. How is the work progressing?

JONES: There are technical challenges and logistical challenges. NASA is a federal agency with federal employees, and just the style of management is a little bit different than Google. It's not better or worse. NASA is more like a real company, and we're more like a bunch of graduate students.

We spent a honeymoon period just trying to figure out the tens of thousands of kinds of data that NASA has. Each of their researchers feels their data is the most important data in all of mankind. But which of that data is the most important? So we've had a lot of juried, refereed internal NASA panels deciding that historic pictures of the moon might be good, but the temperature of Pluto might not be.

So we're working on that, and then we were working together on getting the data organized and marshaled so that it could be rolled out on Google Earth.

GCN: Google recently handed over its geographic markup language, KML, to the Open Geospatial Consortium to ratify as a standard. People have been calling for KML to become an open standard for a while ' is this a response to their requests?

JONES: The idea is that OGC is going to be building an OGC standard version of KML and that's going to be a further checkmark for people who are concerned about compliance with the International Standards Organization and other standards body compliance. There isn't anything other than KML; it's the de facto standard. But having it be the standard is fine with us. We've agreed to surrender patent rights to let people implement that properly. We've done a lot of work to build a conformance suite and orientation guides and references.

GCN: We've been watching the volunteer work going with GeoRSS (RSS feeds with latitude and longitude coordinates). Do you see a use for this technology?

JONES: I think GeoRSS is fabulous. We're totally supportive of that. The only issue ' and it's not a problem ' is that RSS is a very simple mechanism. It says here's a fact and there's a Web page that holds the information about that. It's not the actual page itself. It doesn't really have enough information to, say, draw a line around the toxic spill. You can imagine the questions that a program like Google Earth is going to need answered to draw the scene properly.
We support GeoRSS and support KML, but we'd like a richer discourse, like a word processor where you could change the font.

GCN: Google Earth has different versions, including some that are paid. Do you envision any that will meet government's unique needs?

JONES: I don't. We're a consumer company. I'm sure the government buys screwdrivers from Stanley, but they are not special government screwdrivers. Our tools are used by everybody, including government. But they are not used differently in government.

We do have an enterprise version of Google Earth for organizations that have their own imagery. So instead of flying through Google Earth, you can fly through your own Earth.

Sometimes tools are built for special-purpose government use, where they are not as easy to use. A military radio is not as easy to use as a cell phone. So what is happening is some of these formerly arcane and esoteric technologies are things all children use as part of their homework. So the result is [that] they get a lot of polishing from commercial companies, such as Google.

So it is becoming normal to look for things [through a computer interface based on a] globe. That was not normal before we introduced it. It was an only-government type of thing.

A lot of things are changing to put rich information into people's hands, like YouTube, where you can search for video. Well, government has a lot of video, and they don't have a way to share. It's the same basic problem: How do you find a needle in the haystack? I don't think wanting to know what things mean is a consumer activity. It's a universal activity. It applies as much to a 911 call center as it does to looking for a hotel in Austria. It's the same mechanism.

About the Authors

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.

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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