Google Earth: un-upping north

I’ve been playing with Google Earth, the free 3D earth visualizer that you can download from Google. Three things strike me. First, I’m suprised that more people aren’t excited by this program. Using it is such a striking experience that I would have expected a meme-ish propagation of interest in it. Given that there is some capacity for user upload of points of interest and commentary into the “keyhole community” space, I also would have expected more interest in user-repurposing. Perhaps it isn’t an open enough platform to encourage data-mashing on the scale of Google Maps, which seems to spawn off a new user side project daily. Regardless, just as a beautiful toy, I’m suprised more folk aren’t obsessing about it.

Second, I’m intrigued that some versions of the program exist that allow importation of some standard GIS data formats for overlay. ERDAS Imagine and TIFF image files, and shape files for vector. The program has no analysis tools of course, so it has no pretensions of being a real GIS platform, but as a data visualizer it could be hard to beat. How many times have I seen wary biologists converted to a belief in spatial computing by seeing their study site spun about in 3D? Well, okay, 3 that I can remember off hand, but that’s a lot. Google Earth’s visualizations are wildly compelling in their intuitivness and scalability – you can see scenes as small as a barnyard placed concretley in the context of the relief of a valley or the expanse of a continent in a few smooth shifts of a mouse. Plug some data into this thing and it could make a major difference doing hard-sell for a project proposal. Everybody likes colourful maps, and these are some colourful maps.

And what if Google did decide to go into GIS analysis? They are the information people. Could be interesting.

Finally, it takes me at least 10 minutes of playing with the globe before I feel comfortable without having north close to being up. After a while I get used to the idea of north not having a specific direction, but I really have to overcome a mental barrier to do it. Once that barrier is past, it opens up some striking new vistas and ways of looking at the earth and it’s forms. But it definitely doesn’t come naturally.

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