GIS Thoughts

Google Geography Apps – Do they justify the hype ?

Tim Martin comments on the hype surrounding Google Earth, asking is google as much a hindrance as help to the GI industry? I think Tim is right to recognise some of the data quality issues apparent in both Google apps, but I think it is a mistake to see Google in any-ways trying to advance the traditional GIS industry.

That is not what they are trying to do, to be honest I don’t think they are very much bothered about the traditional GI industry, it is too small and too inward looking for them to care.

What they have done with great success is make “fit for purpose” geographic information available to the general public in a form that is easy to use and very accessible in the case of Google Earth, and with Google Maps, have made available a platform with which web developers can build their own map based applications complete with geodata – something ESRI has been trying to do for years.

Google are not likely to support spatial analysis in the near future because, it is too specialised and would be of little interest to the mass-market, rather than because it would expose issues with the available data. ESRI seem to have plans to address these more demanding applications across the web using their ArcWeb services project and will I assume understand and respond to the issue Martin identifies.

I thought it was about time I actually tried to use the Google Maps API rather than just talk about it, so I spent a couple of hours over the weekend building a simple google map application. The result Where’s ed? took just an hour or so to put together ( Can’ get it to work with Safari but the bug is a least recognised!), in contrast to build a similar application using Autodesk MapGuide, something I used to be very familiar with, would take a day or two and I would have to acquire the data from somewhere – something which could take weeks!

This is the one place where I think Google does justify the hype, in a few months Google Maps has done more to allow the individual to develop mapping based websites than the traditional GIS industry has done in 10 years. The democratisation of Geographic Information in this way is the result of two things, firstly a simple, slick API for developers and secondly and most importantly of all, the making available of a consistent source of commercial geographic information at no cost to the developer or user.

The advertising based business model of Google has not touched the Google Geography apps yet, if will in time .., but at which point, we the developers and consumers will already be hooked.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

7 replies on “Google Geography Apps – Do they justify the hype ?”

I agree, Ed. I think the value that Google had brought is it has given enough tools to enough tinkerers to make people think a little more spatially. Google Maps is a toy, a very powerful toy, but still a toy. What’s interesting is seeing how far the toy can be extended.

I’ve seen some pretty impressive stuff. And the most impressive thing is that people didn’t have to configure ArcIMS or Mapserver to do it. That ease of use is extremely important. Other web based GIS apps are a royal pain to use. This does a lot of work for you.

Minor accuracy problems are of minimal importance to these people who are rapidly innovating and pushing not the envelope of technology but the envelope of public expectation.

I blogged about this (sort of) here:

I think you’re dead on Ed. This is a for sure a hype and also easy to explain. For the first time can everyone! make their own GIS apps. promoted by one of the strong promoters out there. Google’s businessmodell here is straight forward with ad. plug ins that could be the beginning of yet another Google success story. With Microsoft and Yahoo tracking a little behind will this in the end benefit the professional GIS community as they will receive more attention than they ever had. With this attention they can show a larger market what they can do with pro solutions and no ads.

Also, maybe the best part is that this is fueling the creating force out there. This will result in many new ways of using GIS.

Cheers, Gjermund


The public and technical awareness achieved byGoogle overshadows the general excitement generated by the GIS industry over the past 15-20 years. The recent O’Reilly books on mapping shows how individuals can access complicated technology by relatively simple means to put their personal data on a map backdrop without knowing all the technical cartographic details.

For example, small retail businesses could plot the location of their customers to gain an understanding of their distribution in relation to their business location. This will lead to more questions and likely stimulate the desire to do more things with maps. It is at this point that the level of awareness will probably generate the demand for more mapping tools that are easy to use.

When the technical and educated hobbyists generate some interesting results the compelling nature of maps will generate further interest by individuals and small businesses that have been too small to take advantage of the technology. It is also possible that teenagers will pick up on mapping technology as they did on computer games a generation ago.

Then, look out!


I agree with Ed. Some of it is hype simply thanks to Google’s big name, I come to realise however that the APIs are not hype but very real, and all that talk by GI professionals to fault Google & Co strikes me as either fear-laden turf protection or misplaced perfectionism. To me, to ask for GIS analysis functions in Google Earth is like asking a car dealer to make a Golf fly.
Just the week after Google Earth came out, I went to my kids’ British school in the Hague to read them a story in class in native Luxembourgian. Obviously most 5-year olds don’t know where Luxembourg is, so I took along 3D GIS to show them, and to let them compare the sizes of the respective countries and continents.
The point is, I had both ArcGlobe and Google Earth on a standalone laptop to run the show. The kids of course didn’t care about the tools, they just cared about what they saw and learned. I used Google Earth for flying round the globe and ArcGlobe for showing custom data, e.g. georeferenced cartoon characters. Basically i used both apps to maximum advantage. I only spent 1 evening preparing for the event with both apps. Had I tried, in pursuit of elegant integration, to turn one app into the other, I suspect it would have taken me weeks, especially since I’m not so hands-on anymore. Perfectionists of course would balk at the lack of integration but the look on the kids faces was worth the weight of my laptop in gold! So – Mission completed.
When Google Earth came out I was wondering how long it would take our creative geologists in Shell to discover it and start using it for their project work alongside the professional enterprise GIS environment we provide them with. The answer turned out to be 2.5 days. After which they asked, why can’t our desktop GIS look like that? Now multiply that by over 1000 users alone in this company, and no-one is going to tell me that this has no impact on the professional GIS market.
Google Earth is helping to make GI a commodity just like oil – prices will no longer be driven by production costs, but purely by market sentiment and expectation. When emotions produce 60+ dollar-a-barrel prices then oil companies will make a killing. Google Earth & Co will probably force GIS and data vendors to revise their cost models downwards, and that is no bad thing. Maybe it will help kill off some of the perfectionism that prevents the GI community from being more outward looking. Ultimately, in a corporate organisation, less is more – a few geocodes, lat/longs or X/Y in business systems achieve more than a small group of GIS gurus holed up in their office to create super stand-alone applications. You still need the gurus, but their power is leveraged much more if they can help spatially enable non-spatial systems, rather than improve the already spatial ones.

Shell global GIS coordinator (views expressed here are entirely personal and not necessarily those of Shell)

Great points, Ed. Personally, I never would have developed my Web map applications (including if Google Maps hadn’t existed. I don’t want to have to deal with installing a bulky map server just to display a map. Google really understands developers’ needs, in this regard.

Some evidence that Google Earth has an impact on the traditional industry–this job ad came through the GITA mailing list yesterday:

“Client: Fortune 100 Financial Services Firm
Position Summary: Position will require geocoding a large number of facilities, mapping it to Google Earth and creating various overlays using Google Earth. Data must then be posted to Google Earth so that it can be shared with individuals outside of the firm.
The client has minimal experience with geocoding and Google Earth; therefore the individual must be fully able to complete the geocoding on his or her own with little supervision.”

This looks like if a larger company has just discovered the potential of GI.


Excellent point, ed, and also Theirry. I think that there is a growing fear in the GIS community that these easy geo-tools are making people jobs less valuable. And I think it is a valid concern. As the tools mature (google maps, earth and slick GIS products from ESRI and others) and data becomes more available and useable (thanks to standards and data providers) it’s inevitable for geo-awareness to spread quickly beyond the GIS-niche. As a long time GIS’er I’m a strong advocate of removing my blinder and start to really see how geography fits in with technology of the 21st centurty. Go-goooogle!

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