Google Earth and the case for ‘clickable countries’ (cont.)

Rich Treves over at Google Earth Design takes a shot at solving the bandwidth crunch issue and responds to my initial write up with his post ‘DVD of Data Shipped to the Field‘.  I sincerely appreciate Rich taking the time to address some of the issues that arise from the notion of ‘clickable countries’ .

Rich argues in Explanation of the Image Pyramid that the Image Pyramid locks you into a 1000×1000 pixel resolution no matter the elevation so that you are still eating up loads of bandwidth as you zoom into your destination.  I don’t dispute this point and I am glad that Rich details the case.  However, there is an advantage to loading all the pixels.  I was once told by a GE team member that Google Earth will cache enough imagery to cover an area roughly the size of California.  While the area devastated by the recent cyclone in Myanmar is slightly smaller in area than California you would want imagery for Thai border areas as well since it was Thailand that most aid was trucked in.  If I was to clear my GE cache and then load Myanmar and Thailand prior to my departure from the States there would be little issue with me eating bandwidth once I was in the field.  Even if I had to load it in the field the cost would be worth it and I could justify the expense as I would still only have to load the data one time.  I would then have data for the entire country and in the event my area of operation spreads this could come in very handy.

What is not considered is that more often than not aid workers are not going to load GE and find themselves directly over the country in which they a working.  Nor will they think to enter the city name of the location and will instead clutch and drag their way to wherever it is they are going thus loading even more data.  If the 3D Buildings layer is inadvertently activated I might load the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown SF before I notice the error and end up paying a few more dollars.  The key to remember is that in emergency situations people are often not thinking as clearly as they should, they are deprived of sleep and attempting to do a million different things simultaneously.  Mistakes are made all too often and the reality is that an NGO will end up paying through nose for imagery they will probably never use.  Never mind the inconvenience of trying to run Google Earth over a low bandwidth/high latency network.  As a friend once put after visiting the field, “Everybody loves it but nobody uses it because of the bandwidth issue.”

In Help is at Hand Rich brings up the DVD issue.  Rather than reiterate past arguments I’ll post an excerpt from the discussion we had over at Paul Currion’s excellent almost a year ago:

“..while I am a massive proponent of locally caching data (this is really the answer to most of our problems) I am very wary of trying to get DVD’s into a disaster zone. I love DHL but the reality is that they are not always on time (think customs). Sure, someone can carry it but who? And who decides who gets access to the data. Forget controls because once that DVD leaves the keepers hand bootleg copies will be in every bazaar from Banda to Baghdad. If one team gets the data and another doesn’t then there will be hell to pay. And who is to say the data won’t get passed to some rather unsavory individuals. There are a million things that can and will go wrong with DVD distribution. If it works, and I sure hope it does, that’s great.”

I will concede that if you could get a DVD, in an extremely accessible format like KMZ, to a UN coordination meeting in the location where you are working you might have a fairly good shot at getting some uptake.  However, you are still not ensuring that the data is getting to all those folks that need it.  Send it as a back-up, yes, but as a primary data source, no.  The reason I mention KMZ is that the UN is still not pushing their data sets (maps, imagery, etc.) in KMZ format.  Over at ReliefWeb your only option is still only PDF.

Lastly, in Am I missing something? Rich admits that help is often a long ways away and that while aid workers are specialists at sling loading choppers and giving injections they are not specialists in caching data.  Rich states,

“I’ve worked in Aid situations so I thoroughly understand that there can be no expectation of specialist GIS skills in Aid workers.”

Rich understands where we’re coming from.  Having that understanding is what is going to enable us to solve the problems we are discussing.  I wish more tech oriented people had Rich’s understanding.  I started Humanlink to try and foster this understanding and solve these problems in the field but that is fodder for another post…


6 responses to “Google Earth and the case for ‘clickable countries’ (cont.)

  1. I don’t think Google could let you cache the imagery for off line use even if they wanted to. Because they don’t own the imagery. They license it and have very strict restrictions on how they can serve it. I’m fairly certain that the licensing agreement forbids them from proving the imagery for off-line use.

    One way or another you’d need to purchase the imagery or get the data provider to donate it to you for free. And then Google would need to reprogram GE so that only that particular data could be used for offline use and only your organization could access it. I don’t see it happening.


  2. One thing I forgot to mention. In case you’re not aware of it, the USGS has a website dedicated to the dissemination of GIS data of natural disasters throughout the world. It often includes aerial photographs taken shortly after the disaster occurred. Due to the time delay probably wouldn’t be of use to the initial responders, but might be of use during the weeks and months of cleanup following.

    Any aerial photographs on this website could easily be converted into KML to be read directly by Google Earth.

    And it’s all free.

  3. I’ve long agreed this should happen. But agree that licensing seems to be the main issue.

    But the functionality is already there for caching- I’ve seen hacks that automatically cache a defined area for the user (
    Far too complicated now, but couldn’t we make a user-friendly web service, a website on which someone could simply click the word Afghanistan and GE caches the area through an automated process?

    We could also integrate the GE browser plugin into such a service to make web-enabled clickable countries. Not offline of course, but still only downloading a defined area for lower bandwith.

    At least in the short term this might be as close as we get.

  4. Johnathon,

    Aha. I thought there was more to it than a simple techy problem. Some points:

    1] Just in case there is some confusion, the “1000×1000” example I gave isn’t real, its a very simple version of what actually happens in GE to make the point. I hope that the point I was making was that for each change of scene in GE you are paying for the bandwidth to provide a new download image. Avoiding some download in the first view is not going to save you much money though I do admit that if the 3D layer is left on and you happen to start over London then the bandwidth will be eaten up until you turn that layer off.

    2] The simplest technical solution is to grab the data and put it into a KMZ file controlled by regions. Not only is this easier from the techies point of view, it also allows people to load up ‘countries’ when they need them so I could be working on Myanmar but knowing I’m about to go to China I could change discs and start working on that countries data before I fly to it. I understand that even with the data on a disc its still difficult to transport to an emergency situation. The value is that once you have one DVD in country it is pretty trivial to reproduce it and thus spread the data to anyone who needs/wants it. A possible situation: NGO X could agree to download the data and distribute it and the cost could be shared amongst a number of NGOs. Would that be practical?

    3] but the major hurdle appears to be a copyright one with the data. The way around this is to get the data providers to donate/sell it to you with an agreement for 50 installations (say). Someone packages it into a KMZ and this is transported into country via a physical DVD or by download to one machine. Once there it is reproduced and distrubuted as needed.

    Can you forsee practical problems with that?


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