Google Verifies that GIS Is Media
BY MATT BALL
On 2005, the geospatial technology industry gained
unprecedented exposure primarily due to the offerings
of one company. Google launched Google Maps in February,
offered free download of the Google Earth geographic
exploration system in June, made the application programming
interface (API) available for Google Maps in August
and, in early November, opened up the Google Local feature
on mobile devices that use the Java Brew programming
With its advertising-driven model, the number of viewers
that use its site is the primarily measure of Google’s
success. To maintain the number of viewers, Google will
continue to innovate and enhance the site to maximize
usability and offer features targeted to draw the masses.
Innovative and Free
Google Maps is driven by the same Internet technology
platform as Yahoo Maps, Rand McNally and others. The
few innovations that set Google Maps‘ use of the Telcontar
platform apart from other online mapping sites was the
„drag-to-scroll“ map feature, shadowed push pins, clean
maps, and a hybrid view that combines maps and aerial
Google Earth was previously the Keyhole viewer, a
subscription-only offering. Google opened up this service
for free download and, with the open Keyhole Markup
Language, allowed users to manipulate and add data to
the viewer. The open API of Google Maps similarly transforms
map use to the user’s imagination. „Hacks“ and „mashups“
abound, proving that an open interface grows the number
The Google Local feature places a small map on a mobile
device and unlocks the GPS capability of the phone.
The innovation here is the delivery of a map of immediate
surroundings with Google’s Local business directory
in the background.
GIS as Media
All of the aforementioned innovations were certainly
within the grasp of GIS vendors. The primary difference
is the business model, which gives away the content
and tools for free in exchange for advertising.
In a 2001 article for the International Journal of
Geographical Information Science, GeoWorld columnist
Daniel Z. Sui and Michael F. Goodchild suggested that
GIS is a form of media. This vision has certainly come
Advertising was always a part of Google Maps, and
ads recently were added to Google Earth. The proliferation
of map hacks and mashups has, in effect, created a variety
of content channels for the Google Map and Earth medium.
Media Means Masses
With this role as media comes a massive audience that
brings greater awareness of, and scrutiny on, the geospatial
Google’s John Hanke addressed an enthusiastic crowd
at a recent National Association of Realtors convention.
Users were excited about the Google Earth and Map interfaces
as well as the many map hacks that have opened up navigation
to real estate listings. The buzz that his company’s
tools have created in the real estate market confound
those that have spent years of hard work trying to break
open this obvious geospatial market.
The world has taken notice of the global data offered
by Google Earth, and politicians are uncertain about
what can be seen. India’s President Abdul Kalam has
expressed concern, saying that there may be a security
threat posed by Google Earth. Australia’s nuclear regulator
has called on Google to censor high-quality satellite
imagery of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor. South
Korea, Thailand and The Netherlands also have expressed
The exposure is certainly beneficial, but the scrutiny
on privacy and security implications may pose problems
for the industry. It’s clear that we’ve entered an entirely
new and exciting phase of geospatial technology development.
It’s imperative that we „circle the wagons“ against
the threats to open use of the technology, while taking
advantage of the increased interest and awareness.
Matt Ball is editor of GeoWorld magazine, 6666
Gunpark Drive, Suite 102, Boulder, CO 80301; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.