Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Flow Chart for Map Creation

There is lots of advice out there on how to create Google Earth (and Google Map) maps, and there are various tools to help as well. I thought I'd create a little flow chart as a guide to the useful resources I've come across:

Click to enlarge

Monday, April 28, 2008

Google Earth: Poster or Database?

The use of Google Earth for science visualization is growing, I don't think its reached anything like its true potential at the moment but one thing I notice is that my science colleagues are using it as a database rather than a poster.

Posters at the AGU conference I attended before Xmas.

When I say poster, I mean a conference poster. People put their data and , importantly , interpretation of that data on one big sheet and stand around to discuss the issues with others. A Google Earth version of this would include some data and lots of labels and highlighted areas to explain an idea. This is a preview of a project I'm working on at the moment:

Screen Shot from the BrahmaTwin project

Map Explained: What the blobs show are communities, the blob size shows population, the blob colour shows vulnerability to flooding from the Brahmaputra. The blurry map around the purple square is the large view of the whole project: I use it to show people the overall area. The purple square contains a high res sub map (another overlay) which I use to discuss interpretation: the yellow and blue blobs are areas where poor and rich live respectively, you can see that the rich occupy areas away from the river and the poor are left with flat areas close to the river that are liable to flood.

A good example of a database is Mark Mulligan's Terrascope, showing historical satellite data. Its excellent, I have made use of it elsewhere in the BrahmaTwin project.

To me the power of Google Earth is best used when presenting a kind of poster, its excellent at being a canvas on which to present the reults of interpretation as in the BrahmaTwin project. To put it another way, for authors who use GIS already, instead of printing to paper to produce a map, "print" to KML to produce a Google Earth project. I see very few examples where experts interpret data and explain it in Google Earth, most seem satisfied with producing data in a format where it can be explored with Google Earth.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Style Tags and Walkabout

A couple more observations on the new release of Google Earth 4.3

Walkabout: A recent post on navigating on the ground appeared from Google. Its pretty neat, Google Earth now notices you are zooming into the ground and turns you horizontal just before you hit the deck. Not only that but using the arrow keys from this postion you can simulate walking around. This wouldn't seem like a huge deal but I have heard rumours that Google are making Google Earth a virtual globe with avatars, allowing us all to 'meet' in Google Earth. Releasing this functionality now makes me suspect the rumours could be right as walking around is obviously something avatars would do a lot of as in second life.

Styles: If you are an advanced user of Google Earth you will have had to dive into KML, the files Google Earth uses to record data. One of the annoying things about KML editing is that as you generate placemarks and other objects separate style tags build up in the KML making it unecessarily long. I shan't go into more detail as those of you who know what I'm talking about already understand this and the rest of you don't care. In this new release Google have come up with a way of dealing with this, create a set of objects in a folder, if you right click > properties on the folder and select the 'style' tab Google Earth now asks you if you want all the objects in the folder to conform to the same style. If the answer is yes, GE performs the change and only uses one style tag to do so.

Not only is this tidier if you want to edit KML it also makes it easier to maintain your work. Come back to a KML months after you produced it and the structure will seem difficult to understand. Keeping style tags to a minimum helps with this as does keeping notes of what you do.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Improvement in Buildings, High Altitude

Stefan has made some interesting observations about the new version of Google Earth. IMHO he is broadly right about the 'brains' vs 'beauty' aspects, however, I do disagree with him on two points:

Buildings: Stefan writes:

"It’s true that the rendering of 3D buildings is now much more efficient, and that there are a lot more of them, but why doesn’t this constitute a huge informational boost? Because the satellite imagery already tells us there are buildings in those places; there is precious little else added by a 3D representation without metadata such as: Are the buildings residential, office, factory?..."

What about questions like: 'Will the new office development block my view of the golden gate bridge? How much of my view in the new house will be of trees and how much buildings? Will my hotel room have a view of San Francisco bay?

Screen shot is from my hotel window when I was in San Francisco in December, the supposed bay view is pretty difficult to justify

Whether this represents 'huge information' or just 'information' is a matter of opinion of course.

High Altitude View: He also writes:
"I like to be able to see the little rectangular strips of high resolution imagery across the face of Google Earth when zoomed out"
and explains its because he knows they represent high resolution imagery and are worth looking at. To most users I think the strips represent a visual glitch that they have to cope with when looking at the globe, it gets in the way of seeing and understanding the actual landscape. London is a grey/brown featureless splodge at altitude. I don't think its just eye candy to make the globe at high altitude look more like it does to astronauts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Illustrating Scale

One of the joys of Google Earth is that places that people don't know much about like the poles are suddenly one click away ('One Click to The World' would be a great advert tag line for GE). I think part of the problem with communicating global warming has been that most people in the west don't have to cross a glacier to get to the shops or see the smoke from the burning rainforest when they get up in the morning. But with a virtual globe, you can fly there in a trice (you don't even have to click your heels 3 times, just once on the mouse is enough).

Scale Problem: The problem with showing remote regions of our planet is that people sometimes fail to grasp the true size of such areas, especially if you live on a crowded little island full of history and people like I do (the UK). A common way of dealing with this in text books is to show outlines of other countries for comparison. There's no reason they can't be used in GE too, I used one in my talk to UK school kids just the other day to give them a sense of the size of the North USA and Canada*. I think there should be more use made of them, especially in introductory sections of Google Earth projects.

HowTo: To produce the file I took a screenshot over the UK with the latitude longitude lines of GE turned on. I then cropped the image and added as an overlay. To get the size right I made sure the latitude lines (which are evenly spaced apart all over the globe) lined up, i.e. I sized the map so that 5 degrees of latitude on my overlay lined up with 5 degrees on Google Earth. To make it even clearer, I drew a polygon line around the coast of England/Scotland/Wales, gave it an elevation then turned the original overlay off.

*which isn't to say these areas are remote, its just UK school kids won't grasp the scale they are looking at.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Google Earth Outreach UK Launch Part 2

So I had a great time yesterday at the Outreach launch. When I arrived there must have been 250 of the great and good of the NGO world sat waiting to hear how Google Earth could be used to help them. As I said, David Attenborough was inspiring, he is a fantastic presenter, after watching him all through my life on the small screen it was distinctly odd to see him talking in the flesh. I won't report all the other 'launch' speakers as I have seen them before and they have been blogged elsewhere, which was fine because I'm sure they were new to all the NGO people present.

So how come I'd got in? Well, I'm consulting for USHMM but also I hang out a fair bit in the Google Earth outreach forum helping people with problems. Its also a bit of a hark back to an earlier life for me, in the 90s I used to work as a water geologist in Africa and as part of that was seconded to Oxfam for a while and they had we working on a refugee site. When I got back I was helping WaterAid asess a new tool for finding water

I spoke to people from , WaterAid (who launched their new layer) and others. There seemed to be a belief that Google Earth could be used to help with outreach which is wonderful to see, I've always thought that Google Earth could be used wonderfully in this way and it is fantastic to see a growing awareness of the opportunities amongst non geographers. It has to be said that Google do know how to throw a party too, the food and service was wonderful and they had built up the event by inviting some great speakers and keeping the layers quite to generate interest. There was a lot of press there.

The other week I discussed HowTo use movie clips instead of Google Earth in a talk. It's a time consuming process capturing the clips, yesterday a lot of the speakers used live demos of Google Earth and had it crash or slow right down on them which is why I don't think that a live demo is the right approach. I remarked on this to one of the Google speakers and he seemed to imply that there was value in showing how the software behaves warts and all. I can see his point but I think in front of such a big audience you have a responsibility to make everything run smoothly.

In explaining this blog and the importance of design to another Googler (who will remain nameless) I pointed out that the latest UNHCR layer uses red and green triangles as different classes of icon that 6% of the population won't be able to distinguish (a point I hope to elaborate sometime in the near future). 'Are they different colours?' , he said,'I'm red green color blind myself and I thought they were all the same icon'. Nuff said.

But the final word should go to John Snow from Channel 4 news who was there to help field questions after the moring 'launch', he did a great job but then thanked Google for showing us all these clever 'gizmos'. Rebecca Moore who heads up Google Outreach joked that she'd tell Larry and Sergey that that was what he thought of their tools.

update: link to forums led instead to USHMM. Thanks for the heads up Frank

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Outreach Launch in the UK

I'm blogging this from the launch of Outreach at the Google office in the UK. At the moment Sean is showing the spreadsheet tool, sorry Sean, I love it already so I'm doing a post.

Outreach is about helping NGOs (non government organizations such as charities) to use Google Earth as an outreach tool. This morning there was a talk by Sir David Attenborough launching ARKive, he told a story about how he first filmed the Komodo dragons for the first time and later in the day we saw a movie clip from Google Earth of the dragons from within GE. The highlight of the day for me so far has been his quote:

"Google Earth is an amazingly powerful weapon that we all can use to protect our planet"

couldn't put it better myself.

Sorry for the lack of links but I'm doing this from a machine that isn't my own laptop.

This blog isn't about breaking news like Stefan and Frank (Ogle Earth or Google Earth Blog respectively) but I am finding it kind of fun reporting on something that they are missing. Hi guys :)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Map Design Improvements

This is a short post this week as I've suffered my 2nd hardware failure in 2 weeks and am chasing to catch up. I did prepare this image last week:

I was looking at Stefan's quick mash up of the images from his post (again, its worth saying this is not meant as criticism of Stefan or NSDIC) and thought that it gave an oppotunity to discuss map design. There are two main characteristics of this image I want to improve:
  1. The way it appears in Google Earth is that a more detailed central image is placed over a less detailed main image, which itself appears over the background Google Earth imagery.
  2. Someone at NSDIC has labelled 'Cloud' on the image.
I have made it apparent what is going on in (1) by adding a purple square and made it clearer to the viewer the limits of (part of) the cloud (2) by adding a black lined polygon filled with a semi transparent yellow colour.

These are small things in themselves but when you're preparing elements in Google Earth its worth it to sit back and try and think what your users will see and understand when they first see your work.

Right, back to recovering from the crash.