Environmentalists and Google Earth

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle shows the ways in which “desktop satellite tools” are changing the way environmentalists work. Google Earth is fast becoming the killer app for geographic information systems, or at least it’s the killer GUI for GIS.

Here’s the Sierra Club’s application of Google Earth to alert the US public to the problems of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Also look at Whirlwind, NASA’s geo-explorer, a blog that tracks all things Google Maps, and a blog that finds environmental problems by surfing Google Earth.

Why are Google products the killer app and not online GISs such as ArcIMS and MapXtreme? Because, in one easy interface, Google Earth drapes satellite images over three dimensional topography (digital elevation models or DEMs). Users can not only see the 3D data from a planimetric or top-down view, they also can fly or walk over the landscape. The interface allows editing: users can annotate places and activities on the images with labels or attributes (e.g., information about the place or photos). A recent arrangement between ESRI and Google allows users to add their own drapes. All this is available to anyone else on the web who has downloaded the Google Earth application. Obviously something like Google Earth and Google Maps have far less functionality than a GIS. But consider that most online mapping software makes it very difficult to create and maintain applications and provides clunky interfaces. And the online mapping software comes with no data. Then you see why Google products hold so much potential.

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