Posted on May 7th, 2013

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

In this, the third and final part (I promise!) of our examination of the mapping applications that changed the world, I focus my attention on the positive changes I have seen as a result of Google Earth and Google Maps. I will also offer a concluding remark on whether I see the Google twins as more positive or negative for the geospatial industry. As a quick recap, this multi-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?

How Google Earth & Maps Affected Positive Change in the Industry

After studying and working in the GIS industry for a decade plus, I have had more than my fair share of awkward conversations that always begin something like, “Wait…so what is it you do exactly for work [or school] again?” And before the launch and increasing popularity of Google Earth and Maps, the answer was always rather convoluted; involving references to computers, maps and layers of spatial information – its hard question to answer when you studied and worked in a field still in its ‘adolescent years.’

These days, the answer to what I do for work is always much easier, “I work in a field that is loosely tied to Google Earth. Basically, I sell the satellite imagery you see in foreign places like Africa and Asia.” While that is a vast over simplification of what we do here at Apollo Mapping, at least people have a sense of our jobs as opposed to the blank stares I received back in the early to mid-2000s.

digitalglobe_arrowsFigure 1. This graph shows the relative level of DigitalGlobe searches as seen by Google Trends since 2004. The first arrow corresponds with the date DigitalGlobe imagery (June 2005) was added to Google Earth and Maps. The second arrow shows the peak search interest in DigitalGlobe and that corresponds to the release of post-Hurricane Katrina imagery in Google Earth and Map during September 2005. (Graph Source: Google Trends)

While I certainly do not attribute this entire transition to Google Earth and Maps, to think that they did not play an integral role in the growth of our industry would be inaccurate as well. In my opinion, the single, most important impact of Google Earth and Maps on the digital mapping industry was simply visibility or advertising (which ever term you prefer). And as any successful business person can tell you, if people do not know who you are and what you do, then how can they buy your products and services? What Google Earth did in particular was peak the geographic imagination of its users. To expand the market penetration of a data product, such as satellite imagery, you need people to think and dream about how they can put it to use in their field(s) of expertise. Google Earth was/is the perfect tool for potential users of high and medium resolution imagery to explore the possibilities without spending part of their limited budgets.

To illustrate just how much Google Earth and Maps have changed our collective geographic expectations and imagination (not just the geospatial nerds who read this newsletter), have any of your friends try this out. First, picture the ‘map’ that you used on a road trip in the 1990s…for many, I am guessing that was a paper map with colored circles for cities and blue lines for highways. Now, picture the ‘map’ you took on your last road trip…for many, I am guessing that was a hand-held GPS or smartphone that featured audio directions, 3D fly-throughs of your route and high resolution imagery to orient yourself with. That is quite a change for a period covering just two decades when you consider people have been using paper maps for literally hundreds of years!

Now let’s turn our attention to the most direct evidence I could find of the influence of Google Earth and Google Maps on the visibility of its high resolution imagery providers, i.e. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. As I am guessing all of our readers have seen, when you zoom in on high resolution imagery in either of these mapping applications, the copyright of the data providers appear at the bottom of the screen and viola, free advertising that works! One way to track how interest in a company is evolving over time is with Google Trends. If you look at the trajectory of DigitalGlobe since 2004, you will see in Figure 1 that interest (i.e. the number of searches) peaked in mid to late 2005. This peak in interest corresponds to the addition of DigitalGlobe imagery to Google Earth and Maps and then to the chilling imagery collected the day after Hurricane Katrina when it was posted for free in these mapping applications.

While it is obvious that Google Earth and Maps were not responsible for every peak in the Google Trends graph for DigitalGlobe, it is also undeniable that they have contributed to increased interest in the company; and increased interest often leads to increased revenue. The story is similar though perhaps not as marked for the former GeoEye (now part of DigitalGlobe), the other historic provider of high-resolution satellite imagery to Google. Google has had a strong relationship with GeoEye since they started providing IKONOS imagery to them in 2008; in fact, the Google logo was on the side of the spacecraft that took their 50-cm satellite, GeoEye-1 into orbit. In Figure 2, you can see a large peak in 2011 that corresponds to Google’s posting  of GeoEye-1 data from the Japanese Tsunami. And if you look at the average interest in GeoEye before 2008, it is clear that the relationship with Google accelerated interest in the company which it has maintained since.

geoeyeFigure 2. This graph shows the relative level of GeoEye searches since 2004. GeoEye was not formed until 2006 hence there were no searches for the term prior to this. You can see that after 2008 when the relationship with Google was formalized, the average search interest in GeoEye has been above that from 2006 to 2007. (Graph Source: Google Trends)

Now that I have shown a link between two of the largest geospatial companies, their contracts with Google Earth and Maps and increased search interest in each, let’s look at the overall growth in the geospatial industry since 2004. The best figures I could find for this were produced by Daratech (a company that does not look to exist anymore) and divided the industry into three components – i.e. software, data and services. In Figure 4, you will see that the geospatial industry has grown steadily since 2004 with only a single dip during the Great Recession. And if you look closer, you will see that data providers such as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have seen steady growth (except for 2008/9), especially in 2006 and 2007 which follows the addition of QuickBird imagery to Google Earth and Maps in 2005. Again, while no one can attribute the growth in the geospatial industry to a single factor, I would make the argument that the advertising and exposure that Google Earth and Maps provided certainly contributed to this trend.

Another proxy for increased interest in medium and high resolution imagery is the number of commercial satellite launches since 2007. From 1999 to 2006, there were only two 1-meter or better satellites in orbit, DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird and Space Imaging’s IKONOS (now owned by the combined DigitalGlobe and GeoEye). From 2007 to 2009, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye launched three high-resolution satellites: GeoEye-1 (2008), WorldView-1 (2007) and WorldView-2 (2009). Since 2009, two high resolution satellites, Pléiades 1A (2011) and 1B (2012), were launched by a Astrium GEO. DigitalGlobe, who recently purchased GeoEye, plans to launch their third 50-cm satellite, WorldView-3, in 2014. And let’s not forget the high resolution launches of ImageSat’s EROS B (2006, Israel) and KARI’s KOMPSAT-3 (2012, South Korea); or the flurry of medium resolution satellites including RapidEye (2008), DEIMOS-1 (2009) and SPOT 6 (2012, with SPOT 7 planned for 2013). Wow – okay that’s a lot of satellites since 2007 and this list is not even inclusive of every medium resolution satellite launch! Now of course, not all of this increased launch activity is due to Google Earth and Maps. But again, to think the exposure they offered did not contribute to this launch explosion would be incorrect as well: with more people thinking about ways to use imagery, comes more people purchasing imagery and more satellite launches.

A finally way to look at the growth in the mapping industry that is attributed to Google Maps and Google Earth is to look at the growth of each since they launched – and the figures I could find really are phenomenal. For example, in October 2010, Google Blog states there were 350,000 sites with a Google Maps API installed; and by November 2011, this figured more than tripled (according to Builtwith data) to 1,115,000 sites. Or that in 2008, Google maps included 13 million miles of turn-by-turn directions in 22 countries; and by September 2012, there were 26 million miles of guidance in 187 countries. And finally, even the academic community has embraced the mapping twins with 91% using Google Earth and 93% using Google Maps in teaching, research and general school activities.

googleFigure 3. As an interesting side note, this graph shows that as relative interest in Google Earth has declined since its 2005 launch, there has been a nearly inverse relationship in interest in Google Maps. Perhaps this is due to the ubiquity of Google location-based search results that link directly to Google Maps. (Graph Source: Google Trends)

Pivoting away from my focus on the growth in the geospatial industry that can be attributed (at least in part) to Google Earth and Maps, let me conclude this discussion on the good they have done with two smaller points. First, with Google Earth came the KMZ/KML file which I discussed in last month’s G-FAQ edition as a negative. Well, as I also mentioned last month, the KMZ file has allowed non-GIS users to create a geographic file that can communicate much the same information that is in an Esri shapefile with a completely free program. This is definitely a positive change for our industry, especially if you do not have the thousands of dollars to buy a program such as ArcGIS to do this for you. And with more exposure of geographic data through the KMZ, comes new ideas and ways for us to grow the mapping industry.

Google Earth and Google Maps have also enabled people around the world to make some exciting discoveries. Users have found a variety of natural features that were unknown to science, for example a pristine rainforest around Mount Mabu, Mozambique protected by years of civil war and a 148-foot wide crater in the middle of the Sahara. Multiple anthropologically discoveries have also been made with the imagery available in the mapping twins, including a 40-million year old fossil in Egypt, an ancient fish trap, a humanoid fossil in South Africa and even a lost city in Italy.

Conclusions

After a three part series on Google Earth and Google Maps which explored their history as well as the negative and positive impacts they have affected on the mapping industry, it is time I offer you my conclusions on the topic. And perhaps it comes as no surprise to our readers that without a doubt, I believe the good Google Earth and Maps have done for the geospatial industry far out-weighs any negatives they may be responsible for. As a business owner, it’s hard for me to ignore the single most important factor in my decision: the exposure and advertising Google Earth and Google Maps have offered to our industry are second to none. Without exposure and advertising, companies rarely if ever grow. Consider the first time many of you ever heard of DigitalGlobe….for a good percentage of you, it was during Hurricane Katrina when every major news outlet in the US (and world I would assume) used a fuzzy QuickBird image to show the extent of the damage in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. Without people dreaming up new ways to use your imagery, it is hard to have continued growth as both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have had since 2005; and people cannot dream up new uses for your data without the exposure and free ‘testing’ they can do in Google Earth and Google Maps.

As a final note to those who maybe concerned about lost revenue due to these applications, I put forth the argument that people who use the free imagery and/or spatial data they can find in Google Earth/Maps would have never had the money to buy it in the first place. Those clients who see true value in imagery and spatial data will continue to purchase as most of them need to use this data in programs like ArcGIS, ENVI and AutoCAD. Therefore, the ‘free stuff’ Google offers would not help to begin with.

I hope you enjoyed my three part series on Google Earth and Google Maps. I would be interested to hear from you about the good and the bad they have done for your organization and/or industry.

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

Find Out More About This Topic Here

Brock Adam McCarty
Map Wizard
(720) 470-7988

brock@apollomapping.com

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