2009 NMC Summer Conference Proceedings

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More than Meets the Eye: Using Google Earth and Geospatial Apps for Storytelling, Teaching and Finding Your Way

December 22nd, 2010 · No Comments · Papers

Keene Haywood (University of Texas at Austin)


The emergence of Google Earth and Google Maps in 2005 redefined and opened the door to what is possible on the geospatial web. These powerful technologies have enabled geospatial data to be easily visualized and shared in ways that were very difficult- if not impossible- before. The possibilities for using geodata in disciplines outside of the traditional geosciences is now greatly expanded, allowing these technologies to be a platform for data visualization, presentation, discovery and storytelling. Specific examples, resources and discussion about these possibilities are presented in a comprehensive fashion so that educators may better understand the emergence of this broad, rich field and further apply these technologies to their teaching and research, both within their classrooms and beyond.

Brave New Worlds

In 2005 the world of online mapping began a new era. Two significant products were launched in the first six months of the year that changed the course of how maps and geographic data are used on the World Wide Web. First, the 2D Google Maps were launched publicly on February 8, 2005 using the combined web technologies Javascript and XML. Collectively, these two technologies are called AJAX for asynchronous Javascript and XML, and give users a smooth, seamless interface with which to navigate maps. Several months later the 3D geobrowser Google Earth was released with high resolution satellite data allowing users to explore, interact, add data, and visualize geographic content in new ways. While both Google Maps and Google Earth were not new, the acquisition by Google gave these technologies a greatly expanded user base and much higher visibility to the public. Both were immediately received enthusiastically by the online world. Following these releases, Google launched the application programming interface (API) for Google Maps, and later, Google Earth. Using its plug-in allows users to have the same 3D globe experience within a web browser, instead of having to use the stand-alone Google Earth application.

These new products from Google are not the only web mapping technologies available, but they opened the flood gates and had wide adoption for the development of what is now commonly called the Geoweb. Yahoo!, OpenStreet Maps, and Microsoft’s Bing Maps have also developed 2D web mapping technologies, and Microsoft, NASA, and ESRI offer 3D Globe applications, as well. However, Google’s offerings have arguably been the most instrumental in moving web mapping into the mainstream. Today, geospatial data is being used in innovative ways to tell stories and visualize images, video, data and animations.

This discussion focuses primarily on the use of Google Earth and, to a lesser extent, Google Maps as the potential for new storytelling within a geographic context. Google Earth’s 3D experience, animation and touring capabilities make it especially compelling. Google Earth and Maps were chosen because they are free, cross platform, and have a broad and deep user base at the time of this writing. The focus here is on examples of this technology for storytelling to highlight its potential as an emerging technology that occupies a unique niche in the online world.

Lifting the Lid on Earth

In order to understand why Google Earth has such compelling storytelling capabilities, it’s worth taking a look at the features that make it unique. For this overview, the focus is on the stand alone Google Earth application. The browser plug-in will also be addressed, but for the authoring of geo-stories, the stand alone application is needed. Viewers of these tours can see the work using the browser plug-in.

As of this writing, Google Earth is at version 5. This was a major release which was publicly available in February 2009. There are five major features/capabilities which came out in this release:

  1. The ability to explore both Mars and the Universe through the Google Earth application. The Moon was recently added, as well, allowing viewers to virtually explore these extraterrestrial bodies, just like one can do with Earth in the application.
  2. Another major feature was the incorporation of underwater terrain data which now allows a user to fly underwater in 3D. This portion of the Google Earth is commonly referred to as Google Ocean and, with its release, a other ocean-oriented content was also released, all of it accessible through the same interface of the application. The Google Ocean layer has to be activated to see this content.
  3. A timeline feature that allows one to animate changes in geodata over time was improved for easier use and control.
  4. Google added their stockpile of historical satellite imagery to the application which can be activated in the Timeline feature to see changes in satellite imagery over time. Google has added all the historical imagery they have for this feature. Some areas may have more historical imagery than others. This is especially useful for educators who want to show changes through time on the landscape.
  5. One of the biggest improvements is the Touring feature. While Tours of geographic content have been around for a while in Google Earth, this improved feature set has made authoring Tours very easy; it has also made the ability to create sophisticated Tours a relatively straightforward affair.

The improved Tour feature along with the historical imagery capabilities and the underwater terrain addition has the potential for the greatest use by educators.

In addition to these features, Google’s release of a web browser plug-in was a major new addition to the Google suite of geospatial technologies. The plug-in now allows users to see and interact with content within the same 3D space as the stand alone Google Earth application, but through the convenience of a web browser. With this release was the API for the plug-in based on an extended Javascript library, allowing developers to do more customized developments with Google Earth, including sophisticated tours and animations. This ability is one of the reasons Google Earth and Maps are opening up to become compelling geo-story authoring and delivery platforms. Increasingly, there is a merging of the 2D Google Maps experience with the 3D experience of Google Earth. Google Earth’s Keyhole Markup Language (KML), which Google has released to the Open Geospatial Consortium, is tying these two applications together so both 2D and 3D mapping experiences can easily be experienced by users. Google Maps initially did not utilize KML, but now it is becoming an integral part of 2D Maps, allowing KML content from Google Earth to be imported and connected in Google Maps.

Google Maps – The 2D Map Web App is Becoming One with 3D Google Earth

Google Maps has rapidly evolved since its launch in 2005 to become an almost ubiquitous tool for Netizens needing maps. Increasingly, Google Maps is becoming a more interactive and user friendly web application that allows the most novice mappers to create maps quickly and easily. Integrated into the services of a user’s Google account is the MyMaps feature. MyMaps allows users to log into their account and create customized maps which can be shared, edited, and opened for collaboration. An important feature to mention is the ability to import Google Earth KML files into a 2D Google Map. The import feature is found at the lower left of MyMaps when one is editing or creating a new Map.

Google Maps is now able to support large data sets of points, lines, polygons, and overlays in a KML file. Initially, Google Maps could only load small sets of points, polygons, and lines, but increasingly, it is able to handle larger datasets as Google expands Maps’ capabilities. It should be noted that the latest release of the Google Maps API (v.3) will allow more seamless transition between the 2D Google Map and the 3D Google plug-in. It will also offer the ability to view 2D maps in a pseudo 3D mode for oblique viewing angles.

Another unique feature that began life in Google Maps (but has also migrated over into Google Earth) is StreetView. This allows users to see a street level panorama of photo images from one’s location. These images are stills pulled from video captured within 360 degrees. Also, user photos taken in this same area can also be shown through StreetView, giving additional content and context for the location the user is currently exploring. Google Earth adopted this feature, as well, and gives one a more immersive 3D view of an area with a photographic overlay. This is another example of the two mapping applications becoming more unified in their feature set.

Several intriguing sites that show off unique uses of the 2D Google Maps provide ideas and inspiration for how Google Maps can be used in various scenarios. These maps all make use of the Google Maps API, which makes use of Javascript.

  1. The Henry Hudson Map – This Google Map provides rich detail of the Henry Hudson voyages to the New World and gives lots of additional information within a geographic context. Google Maps provides a great anchor for telling this story of discovery and is a great example of what is possible with Google Maps.
  2. Hey What’s That? – This Google Map project allows users to pick a place on the planet and then see which major landmarks are within a 360 degree view. This is particularly handy for features such as mountains. It gives distance, heading, and more information about what one is looking at through the map interface.
  3. MashedWorld.com – This site gives users the ability to embed more than one map into their website or blog. It allows one to use map views such as StreetView, and also use map views from different services, such as Microsoft’s Bing Maps Birds’ Eye view which is a nice complement to 2D Google Maps. The service is free; just cut and paste code in your own site to enable.
  4. Thematic Mapping – Themed maps have long been a staple to cartographers and geographers. Up2Maps.net is a new site that allows one to upload, download, share and visualize thematically-based maps.
  5. Other optionsCNET recently reviewed a number of services that give users the ability to easily create, share and embed maps.

Getting Around the Globe – a Few Tips for Navigating and Touring Google Earth

The stand alone application of the 3D Google Earth is not an overly complicated program to master. However, many of its features are not intuitive, so it’s worth one’s while to look over the Google Earth User Guide for more information. Pay specific attention to the navigation features and the interface. Two particularly important areas are the Tour creation and familiarity with KML and KMZ file formats, which are detailed further below.

For authoring Tours or creating movies (done with Google Earth Pro or screen capture software), it may be beneficial to use a joystick controller which can give you smooth control over your movements in Google Earth. A particularly good tool for this is 3DConnexion’s SpaceNavigator, whose drivers are built into Google Earth providing plug and play capability. Typical joystick controllers can also be used for the controlling the built-in Flight Simulator, a full-featured simulator which can be activated under the Tools Menu.

Tours are created by clicking the small tour icon button at the top of the application window. A small controller Heads Up Display (HUD) appears at the bottom left of the 3D Viewer window. Clicking the Record button will capture all movements and audio as you navigate Google Earth. You then have the ability to redo the tour or save it. Once saved, it can be emailed to others for viewing or embedded into websites using the Google Earth plug-in. Very sophisticated tours can be done with this tour. These are authored automatically in KML and can only be viewed with Google Earth or the plug-in, so they are proprietary. However, the KML can be further edited by coders, if desired. A nice feature of Tours is that they can be paused and the user can go off and explore other areas in Google Earth. Hitting the play button picks right back up where the Tour left off. This is extremely useful and convenient for users.

It’s also important to become familiar with the two main file formats of Google Earth. These are called Keyhole Markup Language (KML) files and Keyhole Markup Language Zipped (KMZ) files. Keyhole Markup Language is a scripting language based on XML and is how all content is geographically scripted or marked-up for display in Google Earth. Its name comes from the company, Keyhole, which developed the Google Earth technology. It was purchased by Google and rebranded as Google Earth. A KMZ file is just a compressed (or zipped) archive of a KML file. KMZ files can be imported and decompressed within Google Earth. These cannot be indexed online and searched. KML files are uncompressed and can be indexed and searched if placed online. KML files can be edited within Google Earth and also in any text editor used for HTML or script authoring. KML files are the native file format for Google Earth.

Google Earth – The 3D Globe As a Storytelling Canvas

The refinements and progress of development in Google Earth and Maps illustrate that these platforms are maturing and becoming ideal tools for creating interactive content that is anchored to geographic information. Additionally, their increased ease of use, low cost (free), wide adoption, and cross-platform compatibility further strengthen their use as avenues for storytelling, particularly in academic settings where budgets are constrained and multiple OS platforms may be used in labs and on campus.

The area that holds perhaps the most promise is the arrival of innovative uses and applications of the Google Earth plug-in. Not only can the user benefit from the convenience of accessing Google Earth within a web browser, but developers can now customize and create new ways to use the Earth plug-in, thanks to its Javascript API (which was released with it). As the API and plug-in are relatively new for users, this is a time for experimenting and trying new things to see what is possible. These examples give a peek at the present and future of interactive geo-storytelling with the Google Earth plug-in:

  • Earth Pad (collaborative mapping) – This site shows how it’s possible to find, annotate and share locations within a collaborative environment between people with Google accounts.
  • Earth Atlas – This site allows one to upload their own KML/KMZ files for visualization with the Google Earth plug-in, or to view certain public databases which overlay pie charts and 3D graphics onto the globe for thematic viewing.
  • KML Factbook – The CIA Factbook containing a wide range of information is now available for customizing and downloading of KML/KMZ files. This is a good tool for putting together information about countries and visualizing this information within a 3D environment of the Google Earth plug-in.
  • Figure 1: KMLfactbook.org showing arable land using CIA Factbook data

    • Multiple Google Earths – This is an example of what is possible and is purely an experimental use of the plug-in. It shows how one can put up multiple instances of the plug-in onto one webpage. This is quite processor- and memory-intensive if more than about four globes are show at once.
    • MyMaps with GE Plug-in – Again, another experimental use of the plug-in. This one shows how it’s possible to visualize the custom-made maps in your MyMaps account within Google Earth using the plug-in.
    • EarthSwoop – Nice community site where people can upload, view and share places of interest found on Google Earth. The places are visualized through the GE plug-in.
    • Dreaming New Mexico presentation – This was one of the first examples of the Google Earth plug-in, appearing just after it was publicly launched. This project uses the GE plug-in in the context of a slideshow presentation within the web browser. The slides are actually views from within Google Earth using the plug-in. The site shows the potential uses (and sites of) green energy in New Mexico.
    • Mars Tour podcast – Another example of what is possible. This person took an NPR podcast and timed it with a Google Earth tour that he created.
    • YouTube synchronization – This example syncs a YouTube video of the Vatican with a tour using the plug-in.
    • Google Earth Tour Gallery – Google’s own gallery of projects people have submitted.
    • Interactive trips and photo galleries@Trip.com is a website that enables members to upload their geotagged images and GPS track logs to create travel stories or journals with the Google Earth plug-in. See Figure 2.

    Figure 2: A-Trip.com allows users to upload GPS data, video and images for display in Google Maps and Earth.

    • Snoovel.com – This German website allows you to create and edit Google Earth Tours using its Tour Director feature. A unique feature is the ability to incorporate 3D objects and other types of multimedia.

    Potential for Visualization, Animation, Gaming and 3D Environments

    A rich area for innovation and exploration using the Google Earth plug-in is with animations and the possibilities of game development. Additionally, complex and compelling visualizations are now possible for developers who know or are willing to learn KML, JavaScript, HTML and some PHP. The use of KML Network Links is very useful for updating information over the Internet and for dynamic data that is constantly changing. Many Google Earth visualizations and animations make use of Network Links and have made the process of sharing dynamic imagery and projects much easier and accessible.

    Two excellent examples of the Google Earth plug-in possibilities in terms of gaming and animations is the work done at PlanetInAction.com and the work done by James Stafford. The ship game at Planet In Action is particularly innovative and an example of the types of games situated in the real world via Google Earth that are possible. The interface of the Shipping animation/game demonstrates the ability to overlay a sophisticated user interface over the 3D view of the Google Earth plug-in, which is done with HTML and Javascript using the API.

    Another area where the Google Earth platform is proving to be valuable is in the visualization of panoramic imagery, such as the type created with a Gigapan System or other spherical panorama stitching applications (i.e. Autopano Pro Giga and PTGui Pro software). The end result images from devices like this can be seen in the Gigapan and 360cities.net layers within Google Earth or at the Gigapan.org and 360cities.net websites. The 180 degree panorama images and the 360 degree spherical images give users a real world immersive experience within Google Earth.

    The websites for these technologies give tutorials and instructions on how to create spherical panoramas and then how to embed them into Google Earth so users are not dependent on Google hosting their images in the 360cities.net layers within Google Earth. The Gigapan Systems website also gives users tutorials in how to do this. Note: These layers are controlled by Google and only certain content may be seen in these layers.

    As Google Earth and Maps begin to merge, another area of Google Earth is also gaining prominence. This is the ability to embed 3D objects with the Google Earth environment. Using tools like Google’s Sketchup, authors can create 3D objects ranging from the simple to the complex. These can be shared via the 3D Warehouse from within Google Earth or loaded as KML files. Many major cities now have a great deal of 3D building imagery. Animations and games are also using 3D objects. Moving forward, the Google Earth of tomorrow will have more than just rich 3D terrain, it will have buildings and objects.

    Figure 3: 3D buildings in Google Earth (Manhattan, New York)

    Finally, rich geospatial visualizations are one of the main strengths of Google Earth. Currently, one of the most impressive examples is the Map The Fallen project, which maps casualties of the wars in Iraq and Pakistan. It tells a poignant and powerful story purely with the data it visualizes, including arcs across the globe connecting the places of where a fallen soldier perished to their home town, while liking out to various public databases where this information is found.

    Figure 4 : Map the Fallen visualization linking casualties to their home towns in Google Earth.

    Integration with Traditional GPS and GIS

    Finally, Google Earth and Google maps have ushered in a new era of geographic visualization by rapidly expanding what is called the Geoweb. The Geoweb and geo visualization are becoming powerful areas of development, and research giving users much broader leverage of geographic content that can be mashed up, shared, and visualized in ways that were either impossible or very difficult a few years ago is now becoming available.

    It’s important to note that geospatial visualization has been with us since humans first wanted to know about their surroundings and map the lay of the land. The concepts are not new, but the tools and means to do them easily certainly are. These new tools are democratizing the process, resulting in an explosion of geographically based content now made available on the Web. More traditional areas of geo-visualization have been cartography, geographic information system (GIS) analysis, and more recently, Global Positions Systems (GPS), which collect geographic content that can be visualized with tools like Google Earth and Google maps. Data from these traditional geo-systems can now be shared and visualized easily creating geo-story opportunities that are unprecedented.

    A plethora of software now supports geotagging of media content, such as photographs. Almost all of these offer some level of support of visualizing the locations of images by exporting of KML/KMZ files that can be loaded into Google Earth or Google Maps through the MyMaps feature. For photographs, iPhoto 09 (Mac only, no Google Earth KML support yet) and Picasa (PC only for geotagging, Mac geotagging coming) are major examples of desktop apps that offer the ability to geotag your images, but others exist, too. Websites such as Flickr, Locr, and Panoramio also offer this capability. For using GPS data to geotag images, programs such as HoudahGeo (Mac), GeoSetter (PC), and RoboGeo (PC) offer good features and support for both data collected with GPS data loggers or traditional hand held GPS devices. There are other utilities to handle this, too, and more seem to appear on a regular basis. On the Web, sites like gpsvisualizer.com, everytrail.com, and mygeodiary.com offer the ability to link photos and GPS data together and to create KML files for visualizing in Google Earth.

    In the area of GIS, there are a number of tools emerging that can take GIS data and easily export it for visualization within Google Earth, including Microsoft’s Explorer and Esri’s ArcGIS, another 3D geo-browser. An important distinction to make between a GIS and tools like Google Earth is these 3D globes are geo-browsers, much like a web browser is for viewing content online. Geobrowsers do not support geographic information analysis, but rather offer a platform for visualizing the end result of analysis and enabling easy sharing and viewing of these outcomes. Several examples of GIS integration with Google Earth include the MapWindow GIS (Win) plug-in Shape2Earth, the plug-in Arc2Earth, for use with ESRI’s ArcGIS (Win), and the newly released Cartographica, a Mac only GIS that can import and export KML files . Several other GIS platforms that support KML files are: the open source GIS GRASS, and MicroImages’ TNTmips, a full featured GIS. ESRI’s ArcGIS supports the export of KML files, as well, but the plug-in mentioned above offers more options and better customization options of the KML.

    Together, these tools and technologies enable the Google Earth experience to be easily incorporated into the mature tech realm of GIS, helping to bridge the gap between traditional geographic analysis and end result visualizations that can be shared and edited with ease. The emergences of Google Earth and Maps have ushered in a new era of geo visualization and the geospatial web. As these technologies mature, expect further integration and sophistication of GIS, GPS, and Geoweb projects.

    Tools for Everyone

    In many of the examples shown, specific knowledge of KML, Javascript, HTML, and some PHP is necessary to create these projects. However, non-programmers can get up to speed fairly easily and do some interesting things without creating or tweaking any code at all. Several resources are available for those interested in delving further into this aspect of Google Earth. The book KML Handbook is a great resource for learning KML. Google has also provided free and comprehensive documentation for the Google Earth Plug-in, Google Maps and KML.

    Additionally, the excellent Google Earth Outreach Group has provided extensive videos, examples, and tutorials for how to use Google Earth. They have also created a Google Spreadsheet called the Spreadsheet Mapper, which enables users to upload large amounts of georeferenced data that can be customized, edited, and then exported as KML. Finally, Google provides a Google Earth API code playground that allows one to copy, paste, change, and experiment with KML to see what it can do. This is an excellent resource.

    A particularly helpful tool for non-programmers is a Google Gadget which allows one to embed a Google Earth Tour in a website. The Gadget creates all the code; just cut and paste to the desired website. The user needs to have the plug-in installed and the KML/KMZ file needs to be uploaded to a server for web access. This is an indispensable tool for those wishing to create and share elaborate Google Earth Tours.

    It’s important to keep in mind that these tools and technologies have opened the door for geographic visualization beyond the traditional geosciences. Today, the humanities and social sciences can equally benefit from geo-storytelling and visualization, as many areas deal with geographic information. Disciplines such as anthropology (incl. archaeology), urban studies (incl. architecture), literature, and information design can stand to benefit greatly as tools like Google Earth become ubiquitously embedded in the web. They provide low overhead learning curves for non-technically minded researchers and teachers.

    These resources offer a range of options and opportunities for educators to quickly dive into Google Earth and Google Maps to begin mapping projects that can offer compelling stories for teaching, training, presentation and research. This is one of the richest areas of the web at the moment. This will only get larger as more people realize the power and potential of geographic visualization in a range of disciplines.

    For a more academic take on the geospatial web and the geo visualizations, the publications listed below offer some additional insight.


    Sharl, Arno and Tochtermann, Klaus, eds., The Geospatial Web: How Geobrowsers Social Software and the Web 2.0 are Shaping the Network Society, (London: Springer-Verlag, 2007).

    Dodge, Martin, McDerby, Mary and Turner, Martin, eds., Geographic Visualization: Concepts, Tools and Applications, (West Sussex, England: John Wiley and Sons, 2008).

    Lastly, two great resources for Google Earth in general and for geo developer news are two blogs: Google Earth Blog (not affiliated with Google) and Google’s Geo Developers Blog.

    Author Biography

    At the time of this publication Keene Haywood was charged with researching and exploring emerging technologies that have potential for integration into teaching and research at UT-Austin. He worked closely with faculty and staff giving presentations, consultations, and training on emerging technology. His specialties include digital video production, geospatial technologies, and emerging media technology. Prior to UT, Keene worked for The National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy of Texas. Keene holds a Ph.D in Geography from the University of Texas, an MFA in filmmaking from Montana State Univ. and an MA and BA from the University of Miami, Florida.


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