It has been a few years now since Google Earth first appeared on the scene. According to figures released by Google, over 350 million people have used the software. But how many of these users have moved beyond looking at their own house or perhaps researching a holiday destination? And how does the arrival of earth browsers (the generic name for software that displays virtual globes) change the way geographical information is represented?
One of the barriers to the full-scale use of Google Earth has been the need to download the software separately from your internet or web browser (software such as Internet Explorer or Firefox). This means that users will go to a website to view information, and then be redirected to download data in a separate application, with the associated 15-30 second wait for Google Earth to load.
Some of this has changed through the use of Google Maps and the ability to create bespoke maps and embed them in a web page using the ‘My Maps’ service. However, this takes away from the awesome 3D experience of Google Earth.
The most recent innovation has been the Google Earth browser plug-in, allowing for the full 3D world to be displayed within a web page. There is as yet no data as to how many downloads of the plug-in there have been. Educators and expeditions, as well as international NGOs must be hoping that the plug-in download may become as ubiquitous as browser plug-ins such as Flash and Java.
I am in two minds as to whether I think that the Google Earth plug-in should be an included download with other Google products. It is a really powerful tool, and yet I am reticent about software providers bundling products together. The other problem at the moment is that the plug-in is only available on PC. Mac users will have to wait, alongside anyone using Google’s new Chrome internet browser (oops!).
Let’s say by some time in 2009, the Google Earth plug-in will be installed on enough computers globally that we can start to make it a primary, rather than secondary mode of online communication. Where does that take us?
First, have a quick think about how much of the web content that you consume or produce is geographically located. Then, ponder how much better we can communicate what is happening in the world if instead of using the blank slate of a web page, we can start to use an interactive 3D globe as a starting point.
By using a 3D environment, web designers are not limited to placing the media we are all used to (video, photographs, text and graphics) but 3D models (using SketchUp) and 3D graphs come into play.
This development marks a exciting departure for expeditions (really take the online audience with you), education (the ability to use this new 3D world for anything from a decision-making and scenario-planning environment to locating news stories and lessons about our world), news (watch and read where it happened) and NGOs and development organisations (real-time media and statistics to encourage public involvement in development and disaster relief).
So what does geo-web 2.0 look like? We are already there in some ways. Google ‘My Maps’ allows users to create and share maps in the same way that Flickr allows users to share photos or YouTube enables video sharing. Maps have entered the media sharing/hosting aspect of web 2.0. Some blogs use geo-blogging plug-ins to show the location of a particular post on a 2D map.
The social networking side is lacking and it is in the sphere of MySpace, Facebook and friends that the real innovation and societal worth could be realised. It is accepted that we must act locally and yet think globally. The geo-web can become a tool that allows us to understand the world better and provide a platform for informed debate and action.
We can start to tell stories geographically, place media that ehance our understanding of the world and now place all these in a 3D global environment, and maybe in the not too distant future we will be able to add comments and interact more fully.
Take for instance the decision by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to plant 10,000 new trees in London. Wouldn’t it be great if Londoners had some say in the matter. Here’s my image of a beech tree planted on Columbia Road. Should other people have the same ability to choose the type of tree they would like and where it should go. Maybe my neighbours think it will block too much light and would prefer a shorter tree such as a rowan or willow. Can their voice be heard too? Or could I get a community group together and buy a tree online which the council would then plant?
The geo-web fully realised means a citizenship-based world, with communities making decisions about their lives and their environments using participatory technology. These stories can then be shared globally to create a web of information and positive action.
We have the technology, do we have the will?