Tag Archives: relief

Google Earth and the case for ‘clickable countries’

I have been harping on this for some time and finally decided to lay out why I think it makes some sense for Google to consider making ‘clickable countries’ an option in Google Earth.  In the world of the aid worker communications bandwidth is the single most important factor.  We pay more for bandwidth than just about anyone in the world.  In an earlier post I pointed out that SIM cards in Myanmar cost $1500.  I can tell you that from experience a VSAT installation in the tsunami ravaged region of Aceh, Indonesia costs $1700 for service equivalent to a dial-up connection from the 1990’s and 1MB of data over an INMARSAT portable satellite modem costs aywhere from $4 to 8$.  To view http://www.cnn.com just one time costs about $5.

Bandwidth is the Achille’s heal of the aid community and while things are getting easier (aircards are replacing data cables) the rates are still through the roof and the networks are dirtier a more fragile than most folks can comprehend.  The question I always ask is, “Do you know how many syringes I can buy for $5?”

That being the case it would save all of us a tremendous amount of money if the folks over at Google took it upon themselves to implement for Google Earth what I have long referred to as ‘clickable countries’.  The idea is to give the user the ability to turn off the image layers for any country, continent or body of water.  If I am working in Myanmar all I really need to see imagery for is Myanmar and Thailand.  I don’t need North America, South America, the Pacific Ocean, etc.  The bandwidth savings, if we were able to drop out all unnecessary imagery, would be tremendous and that translates into money saved which is money that can be used to buy more syringes, medecines and medical equipment.

I am not sure how easy it would be to accomplish this from a technical standpoint but the benefit to the humanitarian aid community would be tremendous.  I have heard time and time again from various aid workers that while they love Google Earth there is really no way they can you use it in the field because of the slow speed and high cost of bandwidth.  Implementing ‘clickable countries’ in the Layers section would make a somewhat inaccessible tool readily available to the people who desperately need it – aid workers in the field – and Google could take full credit for the countless lives they would save by doing so.  Not only would such an action benefit humanitarian aid workers, it would also benefit the communities they serve.  They communities we work in around the world all suffer from the same low bandwidth fate as we do yet they do not have the same cash resources to resolve the problem.  Google Earth’s market penetration could be significantly increased were they to implement the ‘clickable countries’ solution.

I have a heard a number of times that caching imagery is a viable solution to the bandwidth problem but the reality is that most folks have no idea how to cache imagery and when the fabled ‘DVD full of imagery that gets shipped to the field’ solution comes up it takes about 30 seconds to convince the other person that it is really just a nice idea that has little basis in reality.  The tech community needs to learn the rules we play by and we need to learn the same about the challenges they face.

I am hopeful that somewhere down the road Google will implement the ‘clickable countries’ solution but if I have learned anything during my foray into the world of technology it is patience.

FooCamp – After the fire

Well, I made it.  After driving back and forth numerous times to the O’Reilly campus in Sebastopol I am now back in Marin and reflecting on what an incredible time I had at FooCamp.  Here is the Wikipedia definition of FooCamp which is fitting as I found myself at one point talking to Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales over chicken and black beans.  Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch, who was also in attendance, has posted his review of FooCamp here.  One of the best parts about the event is that only your name appears on your little tag with no mention of affiliations other than your favorite Star Wars character (which I didn’t quite get).  For the semi-technorati illiterate like myself it makes for good fun as you get to just walk up to people and say, “Hi, what do you do?”  I met a whole slew of people who I knew nothing about but after getting home and Googling their name I would sit back and say, “No s@#$!”

It was an impressive collection of PhD’s from MIT, astronauts, investors, journalists and dozens of tech icons.  The brain power was overwhelming and I had a hard time geting my head around some of the discussions.  (After dinner one night some folks got together and synthesized bacteria to smell like bananas.)  At one point it occurred to me that if 1% of the folks in attendance focused their energy on some of the problems facing the aid industry we would be in a much better place.

I took part in a disaster tech event run by Jesse Robbins which had a good size turn out.  Some folks presented a very cool app having to do with geo-location and information in emergencies. The development was for Google’s Android and not the iPhone 3G so I was a bit off in my previous post where I surmised that the weekend would be about the iPhone 3G.  (As a matter of fact almost no one spoke about the new iPhone 3G.)  We told some good stories, brainstormed possibilities but mostly just spent our time trying to explain to the rest of the room just how difficult it is to work in an emergency setting.  As always, the biggest obstacle to progress is the total lack of understanding, on the part of both the tech industry and the relief industry, as to how things get done in our worlds.

I am hopeful that by attending such events (I am pretty sure I was the only aid worker in attendance) I can not only come away with new ideas that can make our job easier but also educate and energize the tech community to rally around our efforts and come up with some solutions that could greatly improve the way we do things.  Hopefully, FooCamp will serve as a catalyst for future events that will draw the both the humanitarian aid community and the tech industry closer together.

I had a great time and thanks to Tim O’Reilly for throwing the event.