Google Earth, launched six years ago, expanded by orders of magnitude the market for geospatial technologies. The initial 3D viewer was supplemented over time by driving directions, sky and flight simulator modes, street view, bathymetry, historical imagery, and other features. It evolved into a full-fledged enterprise mapping and GIS platform and was widely adopted across the geosciences and other scientific disciplines, as well as for a variety of business and government applications.
Now Google is productizing the processing infrastructure it has developed for Google Earth and Google Maps, together with the power of its massive server farms, by launching Google Earth Builder. The new platform, which it announced at the Where 2.0 conference in April and has scheduled for release in Q3 of this year, will make Google’s back-end geospatial capabilities available to enterprise users – business customers.
What It Is and What It Does
Google Earth Builder is a cloud-computing platform that enables organizations to upload and manage all their geospatial data, create custom layers, and share them with staff to view on Google Earth and Google Maps. According to Google, the application will support spikes in user traffic — such as during a disaster response — and significantly reduce IT costs, by automatically scaling as needed and updating software and servers. “Google’s cloud scales to handle different scenarios and lets organizations focus more on building maps and less on managing on-premise hardware,” says Dylan Lorimer, Google Earth Builder’s product manager.
The platform will also enable organizations to set attribution on custom map layers and share access to the data without sharing the raw data files. It will let them process and publish large geospatial data files, access Google’s extensive basemap of imagery, roads, and points of interest, and create custom map layers for Google Earth and Google Maps. As one would expect from a Google product, Google Earth Builder also provides users with a lot of metrics as to who is viewing their data.
Google Earth Builder will enable users to view maps from desktop and mobile platforms, share them with individuals and groups, and visually analyze geospatial data without requiring GIS training. In most cases, however, for the foreseeable future, Google Earth Builder will store and catalog geospatial data files (shapefiles, TAB, Mr. SID, JPG2000, TIFF, KML, etc.) that were created using Esri GIS software. Users upload the files via a catalog interface, which allows them to enter layer names, attribution, tags, source, and other metadata. The application automatically extracts this metadata and indexes the files for quick search. Users can upload raw satellite imagery and perform masking, edge matching, some color balancing, and “feathering” of the tiles in order to create a seamless image map. “The user doesn’t have to make many decisions, but there are a few knobs and dials,” says Lorimer.
The application also supports vector data and allows users to create and manipulate map layers and style them dynamically to create thematic maps. “We create a spatial table in the cloud, which we manage,” Lorimer says. “You can define a style to create attributes and specify levels of details and cartographic rules. Maps can be rendered on the fly, in either a KLM layer or as raster tiles to be displayed on top of Google Maps. Users define one or more styles and marry them with the vectors. For example, you might display parcels for Montana in different ways on a Web site or on a tablet.”
Google Earth Builder allows users to publish their data in three ways: directly to a Google Earth client, through Web Map Services (WMS), and in Google Earth and Google Maps API for developers to access. As Google continues to increase its investments in geospatial technology — for example, through its Google Earth Engine image classification project — it will probably make more of it available through Google Earth Builder.
Google’s announcement of Google Earth Builder focused on two initial clients, both of which are very large organizations: Ergon Energy, a utility company owned by the government of the Australian state of Queensland, and the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). “However, the cloud scales,” says Lorimer. “If we did our job right, the product will suit the needs of the smallest to the largest organizations.” Regarding the pricing structure, he explains Google Maps Premier starts at $20,000 when you bundle vector data storage. “Google Earth Builder will start at a slightly higher price point, but will include more storage and page-view quota,” he says. It will be based on the quantity of data plus the amount of map consumption — for example, whether the maps are only for internal use or embedded on Web sites. “As we look to productize more of our technology, for example 3D models, we have to figure out how it fits into our pricing model.”
By launching Google Earth Builder, Lorimer says, Google is making it easier for organizations to build and publish maps as well as productizing its core competencies, in response to persistent requests from its customers to make the mapping infrastructure it has built available to them. “It has been fairly difficult for organizations to build maps,” he says. “They have needed complicated, on-premise solutions. We want to make it easy for them. We hope that organizations that are starting will consider using the cloud for mapping. The mission of Google Earth Builder is to take the innovation we have built into our consumer products and make it available to businesses.”
Google will provide both standard and premium support to users of Google Earth Builder through its Google Enterprise program, as well as online documentation and contextual help, code snippets and examples, a user group, and two yearly user conferences.
Quality Control and Improvements
To help ensure the quality of the data uploaded, the data catalog is access-controlled. Google then performs some limited quality control. “We strive to do the heavy lifting, but are not trying to fix your data,” Lorimer says. “We will not rectify or fix data, but we will notify our users of any errors we see.” Publishing has a completely separate set of access controls.
Cloud technology will allow Google to quickly share improvements with all users of Google Earth Builder. “We can hear from a customer about a feature request and we can implement it and make the innovation available almost at the speed of browser refresh,” says Lorimer.
Image Processing and Spatial Analysis
One of the data pipelines that is available at the push of a button, Lorimer explains, is massive image processing, whether one image or thousands, gigabytes or petabytes. “As a user, you can get access to Google’s infrastructure of thousands of machines, with no set-up required. We will have customers that will have a tremendous amount of imagery; they will not need to provision any additional hardware; it will scale automatically.” However, it is not clear whether this will speed up image processing, compared to software and services that are already available.
For most users, Google Earth Builder will not replace GIS any time soon, due to its limited ability to perform spatial analysis and geoprocessing. “Right now, we are not exposing any standard vector analytical operations beyond spatially constrained search,” says Lorimer. “We want to provide all the useful mechanisms you may need to access and make use of your data. The goal is to expose all of our infrastructure for enterprise use.”
The NGA’s Adoption of Google Earth Builder
The NGA contract with Google is one of the first major government geospatial cloud initiatives. For four years, the NGA has been using Google Earth Enterprise to build globes and related products, under a program called GEOINT Visualization Services (GVS), according to Daniel Vernon, a technical executive with the agency’s Acquisition Engineering Office. GVS operates on three of the network levels the NGA supports, he explains. The Joint Chiefs of Staff asked the NGA to expand GVS to an enterprise-level solution, called Geospatial Visualization - Enterprise Services (GV-ES). “With GV-ES and the ever-increasing volume of raster and vector data,” says Vernon, “the NGA needs greater capacity now and in the future to build and provision globes and related products. We have reached the limits of what we can do to build 2D and 3D products using the Google Earth Enterprise software we presently use.” Such visualization and ease of access is in alignment with NGA Director Tish Long’s vision for the agency.
“In addition,” Vernon continues, “while the NGA has been serving customers on the classified networks, we have the increasing need to provide this same capability on unclassified networks. We therefore began using Google Earth Builder to build, provision, and serve products that will support Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Earth plug-in users. The NGA will also be able to serve users that can consume Open Geospatial Consortium-compliant Web services such as WMS and WMTS, and be able to export the products produced with Google Earth Builder for use on the classified networks.”
“Google Earth Builder is one of the core elements of the GV-ES architecture,” Vernon explains, “and allows the NGA to produce globes and services at a much faster, more time-relevant rate. In addition to the NGA geospatial analysts, our partners also benefit from our provisioning of globes, maps, and OGC services to include organizations that provide humanitarian assistance, disaster response and relief, as well as federal, Department of Defense, and intelligence agencies.”
“Once our customers start using the product and services the NGA will provide from Google Earth Builder,” Vernon concludes, “it will be their comments to NGA that will most influence where we go with this capability. Our customers have shown a lot of imagination in using the capabilities we have offered thus far under GVS, which will continue to expand under GV-ES.”
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of Google Earth Builder will be state and local governments, who will save considerably on storing the massive amounts of imagery that they are acquiring through digital aerial photography by replacing on-premise servers with Google’s cloud. In addition, it will allow them to push their data to this platform while keeping it publicly open, rather than waiting for Google to update its data.
Google Earth Builder’s limited analytical capabilities do not make it a substitute for GIS for any organization that requires complex geographical analysis. Nor will its floor pricing make it affordable for small businesses. Perhaps a good private sector candidate for adopting Google Earth Builder would be a real estate developer who needs to store and manage large amounts of aerial photography and use it to create simple maps for use in assessing the suitability of sites for various uses. Google Earth Builder would save the company on the cost of training its staff in GIS and in buying and maintaining large servers on which to store the imagery.
Google Earth Builder will also give governments and companies access to the massive amount of data Google has already collected for Google Maps and Google Earth (including 3D images of landscapes), let them combine it with their own data, and allow them to publish it in an interface now familiar to millions of people.