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Posted on April 2nd, 2013

G-FAQ – How Have Google Earth & Google Maps Changed the Geospatial Industry? Part II

In this, the second part of our examination of the mapping applications that changed the geospatial world, I pivot from last month’s history lesson to the positive and negative impacts that Google Earth and Google Maps have had on our industry. In 2005, my geospatial career started at DigitalGlobe shortly after the launch and addition of high resolution QuickBird imagery to both Google Earth and Maps – which is where this story will begin. As a quick recap, this two-part edition of the Geospatial Frequently Asked Question (G-FAQ), addresses this core set of questions:

How have Google Earth and Google Maps changed the geospatial industry? How and why were they created? How are Google Earth and Maps different? How will they change in the future?

In any discussion that hopes to discuss the impact of an idea or product, one needs to present both the positive and negative aspects as balanced as is possible. In some cases, the negative aspects can be taken as, well just that, negative rather than as part of a balanced discussion. With this in mind, I start this G-FAQ with the statement that I 100% appreciate everything Google Earth and Google Maps have done for the evolution of the mapping industry. I view each of these mapping applications as integral to the experience of geospatial professionals and casual map users alike – in fact, not a day goes by without my recommending clients use Google Earth and/or Maps to locate the latitude and longitude information required to order satellite imagery.

The Negative Impacts

A screengrab of Google Earth showing a KMZ file of the counties in Colorado and the attributes you can tie to each county.

With that said, let me start with the negative impacts of Google Earth and Google Maps on the geospatial industry, and specifically with the largest impact as I see it: the  devaluation of medium and high resolution imagery. Free imagery sources have long been part  of the ‘mapping experience,’ take for example the Digital Orthophoto Quarter Quads (DOQQs) that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has had available for download for many years now. But what makes Google Earth and Google Maps different is the amount of free data users can access in one location, nearly instantly and from the comfort of their office desk or family room couch – much of which was not free to start with. For example, the hundreds of millions of square kilometers (sq km) of high resolution imagery Google purchased from DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.

While natural color high resolution data from DigitalGlobe and GeoEye has a list price between $10 and $14 per sq km, users of Google Earth and Maps have come to expect that this imagery should be cheap or even free as it appears in these mapping applications. What these users do not appreciate is the tens of millions of dollars (I estimate well over $75 million since 2004) that Google has spent on employee salaries, IT hardware, satellite imagery, spatial databases, airplanes, cameras and so much more that has been required to build these amazing mapping applications. The enormity of the task of should be apparent to those who have followed Apple’s recent (failed) attempt at developing its own replacement for Google Maps. The free data in Google Earth and Google Maps not only devalues imagery, in some cases it means missed sales for resellers such as Apollo Mapping. Now it is not lost on me that one person’s folly is another person’s fancy, as a lost sale for Apollo Mapping means free data for someone else – and we all love free stuff after all!

Perhaps more universal concerns surrounding Google Earth and Maps are the security and privacy issues that were unheard of in the mapping industry before their launch. When I worked at DigitalGlobe in 2005, it was not uncommon for people to express outrage at the level of detail that was available in Google Earth over sensitive sites such as US Army bases, Washington DC and many urban centers around the world. While I appreciated the concern people expressed at the time, we did not have the contractual ability to control the imagery Google purchased and they maintained it was well within their legal rights to post the imagery online. From a personal perspective, I figured much of the concern was related to the ‘newness’ of the mapping applications as people had never had access to such high resolution data from a wide-variety of geographies; and with time, the emails did trail off as the novelty of high res data wore off. And then in 2008, the Mumbai massacre brought these security concerns to the forefront of media attention as one of the surviving attackers revealed that Google Earth was used to plan the deadly attacks. To this day, little has been done to address these security concerns; and in fact, if anything the resolution is improving in urban centers as users of Google Earth and Maps demand such.

When it comes to privacy concerns, most of them surround the street views that were added to Google Earth and Maps during May 2007. Users quickly found pictures of infidelity, crimes, drug use, solicitation and much more. And again, Google maintained that the street views were not a violation of privacy as they were captured during broad daylight in public locations. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, Google plans to add more street views in locations previously unmapped which is sure to only exacerbate the complaints of those who are concerned.

In a 3D world, you can tilt the view so that you get ‘perspective’ on a landscape. In this case, it is the view of the Front Range from about a mile above our office in Boulder, Colorado. You can see why scale does not work in a 3D world where the close up objects are larger and cover a much smaller area than the mountains in the distance.

From a corporate perspective, as they seem to do in many of the markets they enter, Google has also hurt the bottom line of mapping companies that do not focus on imagery sales as we do at Apollo. For instance, Google Earth and Google Maps maintain a dominant position in location based services with their early investment in mapping technology. But their competitors are not simply stepping back to let them continue this dominance, as can be seen by Apple’s failed attempt at their own mapping application. Another example is Nokia who has been in the mapping business for 25 years. They developed a True car mapping system to rival Google’s street views. Nokia’s True cars capture high resolution imagery from a street level and add in LiDAR which can be used to create extremely realistic 3D building models. These moves – which are more responses to Google’s dominance than leading – show that those in the mapping industry have taken notice of the advertising giant’s position in the marketplace.

From the perspective of a total GIS nerd (which both Katie and I qualify as!), Google Earth and Maps have changed the way that people talk about geography and define geographic areas. First there is the KMZ/KML file which is Google Earth’s replacement for the GIS shapefile. While a KMZ is highly portable being a single file, it is not as widely accepted in mapping applications as is a shapefile (though this is changing quickly admittedly), nor can they always be converted to another format. While conversion to another format might not be a huge issue for a casual user of Google Earth, it can be a large problem for a company such as Apollo Mapping who asks clients to define areas of interest with KMZs/KMLs. But again, we confront the dual nature of cause-and-effect in that while it is frustrating not to be able to convert or work with a KMZ file sent to me by a client, before Google Earth they could not have sent me a valid shapefile so we are really no worse off for it then!

Google Earth and Google Maps have not only changed the way we communicate geographic information with the KMZ, these mapping applications changed the concept of scale. In a top-down, 2-dimensional world of GIS, the concept of scale makes sense as it is a way to relate a distance on your computer screen to the real world. For example, a 1:2,000 scale means that one inch on your computer screen equals 2,000 inches in the real world (or about 167 feet). For a user of GIS, the concept of scale is a standardized way for fellow geographers to explain how far they are zooming-in or zooming-out on spatial data. Since the advent of Google Earth, it is more common for people to ask for data taken at an eye height of 2 miles rather than with a scale of 1:2,000. While this sounds minor, it can cause serious confusion when you are trying to get a client the correct data for their needs, as eye height has no relationship to scale and thus I cannot gauge the resolution they require.

Now in an effort to be even handed in my critiques of Google Earth, it should be stated that the concept of eye height is tied to displaying data in a 3D world, regardless of the application. Consider that in a 3D world you can tilt a look angle so that not every point on the ground below is equidistant from the eye. This means that objects closer to you look bigger and those farther away are smaller, as the ground you can see in the distance is also larger. Scale then by definition cannot apply to a 3D world as it requires equidistant measurements across the entire image. In 3-dimensions, you define a view of the ground by the X, Y and Z direction your eye is looking at as well as the height above the ground your eye would be. And once again, I think it is important to note that Google Earth and Google Maps were never invented as a replacement for GIS; and just because people use them that way, there is no reason to blame Google for the changes that may or may not happen in our GIS industry as a result of them. As a quick recap, Google Earth and Maps were invented to advertise to us and you have to admit they have been amazingly effective to that end.

Well now, this Part II of a two part G-FAQ has well turned into a much longer discussion than I had originally planned. As such, I will leave the conclusion of this series on Google Earth and Maps until next month!

Do you have an idea for a future G-FAQ? If so, let me know by email at

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Brock Adam McCarty
Map Wizard
(720) 470-7988

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