Google Earth Enterprise eventRight – I’m winding down into holiday mode so jumped on the chance to feature some guest posts. First up is Lauren Noakes on the Google Earth Enterprise for the Public Sector evemt held at Google HQ on 3 November 2009.

Lauren is a cartographer with the British Geological Survey so creating maps for a different purpose and audience than us in local government but turns out some of the issues are pretty similar. Here Lauren gives us the lowdown on Google Enterprise for geospatial mapping.

Google Enterprise. It’s not a new galaxy class star ship captained by my beloved James T Kirk but these Googlers do have me believing it is the vehicle to the future. So step aboard and I’ll tell you what I learnt at Google HQ yesterday.

Skipping down the yellow brick road, lined by lush green (plastic) grass I find a striped deckchair under a fluffy white cloud. I sit down with my notebook and pen in hand. No, I’m not dreaming, I’m in Google HQ and they’re about to sell me stuff. The stuff is Google Earth Enterprise (GEE) and it’s aimed straight at Public Sector.

But first a word from Ed Parsons, Google’s Geospatial Technologist: “Google Enterprise was founded to take technology that has been successful in the consumer world and adapt it for use in the business environment.”

This is the well rehearsed sell of GEE and Ed wows his audience by outlining how they’re striving to use Google’s wealth of research, development and expertise to create products that are as simple to use at our desks as in our homes. He’s right, why shouldn’t we be able to use intuitive, visual and fast applications at work when we’re so used to it at our fingertips anywhere outside the office.

So GEE has developed many technologies available to business to help find, create and share information. For the Geospatial savvy of us there is particular emphasis on Google Earth Pro, Google Earth Enterprise and Google Maps. The big sell today is focused on getting GEE out to the public sector. As the tag line goes ‘Bring the power of Google Earth to your internal data.’ So what exactly is GEE offering us, well frankly The World. Or more precisely The Globe.

We’ve all flown around the Google Earth Globe, we’re all familiar with zooming in to find our own house, checking out the neighbours’ gardens and seeing if the car’s on the drive. Now GEE has developed the software to allow us all to build Globes at our desk. That’s right, we can get hold of the Google Globe and layer our own data onto it. It’s really exciting stuff, these Globes will make all our business’ geospatial data accessible and useful to employees via the power of Google tools, process and innovative design.

The Globes can handle any information no matter what format or size the data is stored in, it can incorporate data from ESRI, Oracle, MapInfo and more. I confess to a slight dribble onto the deckchair at Google HQ whilst this fast paced hard sell is being dished out.

They’re packing in some seriously exciting and thrilling Globe examples, it honestly looks amazing and the things they can do with data is floating my boat. There are whole states in the US who have made their own Globes that contain every single piece of geospatial information relevant to that area. The idea is grand and it works. More and more states are creating their own Globes and Google are obviously very proud of what they have achieved. They’ve seen the future and it’s Globes, but there has to be a catch?

All this data we’ve seen projected onto pretty Globes around the world is free at the point of use. Hang on I see some palms are getting sweaty, pulses are climbing because we’re in the Public Sector and we have sensitive data shrouded in legal issues and IP ownerships. Fear not they tell me, this is the point of GEE: They want you to have complete control of your own Globes.

They’ve seen the needs of us Public Sector bods with our data protection worries and they have the answer. Private globes you use in house. ‘Internally designed globes for internal data, the creation of your own Geoweb’ is how they’re pitching it and I have to sit on my hands for fear of giving our new speaker, Dylan Lorimer, a high five!

The science behind it is that Google Fusion can create N amount of Globes, Google Earth Server can serve these Globes and Google Earth can connect to each of these Globes through secure password protection. In the short of it your business can have a network of Globes that can be kept private or made public. All you need is GEE, the name of the Globe you want to see and a password if it’s protected.

I can see pulse rates slow, sweaty palms wiped dry, veins sink back into foreheads as everyone realises their Globes would be run from their own internal servers, sensitive data is kept safe behind the firewall with access restricted to authorised employees only.

In the case of British Geological Survey (BGS) access to Globes can be restrict to a few project leaders, a few 10s of researchers or a few hundred in the relevant department. *phew* so we don’t have to publish or share our data with anyone we don’t want to, it’s all still within privacy guidelines and IP is safe. But here at Google HQ there are a lot of shaking heads and grumpy looking faces about the room, it seems they all have dealings with a certain ‘no named land survey’ and the issue might not be that simple.

The suits are wary, they see figures, fights and legal headaches. I’m frustrated because the technology is impressive. The ideal is bold and progressive. For our business to store all its geospatial data in one place, be it terabytes worth of information in any format, to be able to access it with the wizardry of Google Earth makes my inner geek tingle. AND to restrict access according to privacy concerns and retain IP sounds like all problems solves. Surely there can be no more benefits?

Certainly there are tools I’ve seen here that would benefit me on a day to day basis. So many little good ideas that make working with Google Earth a pleasure not a chore. For example fading through satellite imagery in chronological order to witness development of made ground and changes to landscapes excites me. The interface is so simple, so beautifully crafted, the ‘Fusion Pro’ technology that GEE uses to combine all the data into a flyable Globe and then layer, attribute and zoom through it at lightening speed is obviously the future.

It can be built up progressively too. If you only have one or two geospatial datasets why not stick them on your Globe and work from there, add as you go, as your needs develops your Globe can develop. It’s made clear there doesn’t have to be a complex, predesigned structure to the Globe. The Globe is fluid. Layers can be switched on and off, information can be continually added, revised and updated, as your needs evolves the Globe evolves. It’s at this point I’m considering tattooing Google across my forehead, then it gets better.

Oh yes, did they mention GEE is completely mobile too? You can create a Globe, plug in all the data you need for a project, a task, a meeting and keep it all on a memory stick or portable thumb drive. So the big question, would BGS really benefit from Globes? Have Google seduced me enough to make me believe their way is the only way?

I’ve been told one third of all users of the web have used Google Earth. And their most recent client was none other than the PM himself. When Brown wanted CO2 statistics to show at the summit who did he call? Yup that’s right Google. In 10 days they published a Globe showing all CO2 information which the PM used as a visual aid and which the public could access through Google Earth to get real current scientific information.

Not a bad pitch I have to admit. But, focus, what does this mean for the Public Sector and most of all BGS? We don’t need to have our data accessed by millions, we sell our data to those who seek it out. The data we want to share is already available as a Google Earth download from our website. So the question is would our science or business benefit from the construction of internally managed Globes?

Urm, well we already have one. Kind of. Granted it’s not so shiny, doesn’t have all the cool tools, isn’t as user-friendly. Oh and it certainly lacks the Fusion technology. But is this a need we have? Our GIS software allows us to compile, interrogate, analyse, manage and map the geospatial data we collect. We’re becoming masters of the software and everyday we sculpt it to better suit our GIS needs. Our needs met, job done then? But if GEE is the future shouldn’t we be ready for it, planning for it?

While we already have the best solution to create our business procucts is it the best solution for displaying and handling the finished results. We have many many datasets of points, lines and polygons. Could Globes be the way forward? Could it be the way we store, access and manage our geospatial data? Should it be the customer interface? At this point let me introduce you to Google Earth Plug In.

Plug In is the interface of Google Earth and can be totally customised, although the default setting is typically high quality and offers a multitude of functions and tools. From fly-through tours which can be exported and emailed internal/external, it also allows limited geoprocessing of ESRI data and other information from key datasets kept internally or on the web. So does using Google products make it more attractive, sellable and therefore profitable?

As Ed said at the beginning there is great value in visual data. Google have excelled at promoting their Globe image and getting people to embrace it and feel comfortable using it. Google know the public want well displayed and visually appealing data.

I know this too of course, I’m a Cartographer!! My very job is to accurately communicate the science and information BGS has in the form of visually pleasing maps and other derived products. Using research, technology, development, boffins and good old hard work the BGS is at the forefront of geological science and with our GIS package we’re gathering more and more information and producing multiple derived products.

DigMapGB is our proudest achievement; we have 1:625 000, 1:250 000 and 1:50 000 scale geological coverage for England, Wales and Scotland. We work continuously to update this are aiming towards the holy grail of full 1:10 000 coverage.

This tireless work means costs are high; we’re not fully Goverment funded so we have to issue DigMapGB on a licence by licence basis. But the big question I guess im asking when I get back to work is can Google give us more for our money than what we have now? Is there any benefit to having these datasets  stored internally on a Globe or releasing it to the public through a GEE interface? Is it worth the change from our present GIS package? Will our profits or scientific understanding be increased? Can I have it tomorrow please?

Now, I like Google, that is clear. But as I sit here editing the excited scribbles I made at Google HQ yesterday I have had time to reflect. Yes I believe they are leaders in their field and the Globe is certainly exciting and it’s plain to see it’ll be a big part of the way information is stored and accessed in the future. But I must admit, however much I’d like to be flying round the Google Globe at my desk and using all the great wizzkid tools that Enterprise have built, we already have the appropriate GIS software for our business needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way dismissing GEE completely. As I said I believe it’s the future. When data sharing in the Public Sector is easier and less of a legal mine field, we’ll all be using Globes (or something similar) to get our data and our corporate message out to the masses. Google Earth Plug In is certainly the interface that will bring our science to the public and I’d like to see the BGS give it some serious consideration. As Ed says, the value of information is in having simple tools to allow universal access, and that after all is what Google is in the business of.

So as for the Public Sector, Google were right to get us all into the green fields of their HQ. We needed to get thinking about information sharing and how we store, view and utilise the information we have. Google have become such a force on the web through good design, clever thinking and great ambition. They might not be the right choice right now for many areas of the Public Sector. But the future is coming and I see it filled with Globes.

The picture Google painted today was a bright one, one of collaboration and partnership. There is good business opportunity for both sides if we keep the lines of communication open and I think it can only benefit the communities we serve. The panic over licensing issues and IP ownership are being addressed and with continued feedback I think great progress can be made to speed us all into the great Google Globe future.

As for cartography, well that’s easy. My job description has always been the same: I must display information in a visually appealing manner whilst retaining its scientific integrity. I must strive to produce the best possible product which allows the information to be easily understood by the user through scale, symbology and colour. The only thing that has changed through my career is the technology, software, hardware and methodology behind the capture and display of the information. I see Google Globes as the next logical step in an ever evolving technological staircase. So up, up we go.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter or visit the BGS website for more maps and cool stuff like earthquakes etc.