Embracing Google Earth

Five years ago, Google Earth worried government officials. But agencies have since realized that the benefits of using high-resolution, up-to-date imagery of our Earth outweigh its risks.
by | February 21, 2012
didbygraham/Flickr CC

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

Five years ago, Google Earth worried government -- the initial reaction to satellite photos available for commercial use was that someone might use it to do harm. But recently, some governments have realized that the benefits far outweigh the risks, and have turned to this tool to help them in numerous and varied capacities.

Some governments were more willing than others to embrace Google Earth. For example, Alabama's Department of Homeland Security established Virtual Alabama in 2007, an application that delivers data and query instruments to more than 1,200 state and local officials, such as health-care providers, firefighters, county assessors and sheriffs. In 2010, Riverhead, New York, officials used the tool to track down 250 unlicensed pools. In St. Louis County, Minn., Google Earth files show property boundary lines. Conservationists in the Los Gatos region of California's Santa Cruz Mountains use it to track illegal logging.

More recently, in August 2011, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) used Google Earth as a supplementary tool to track Hurricane Irene in real time. MEMA has its own in-house GIS tool called the Emergency Management Mapping Application (EMMA), created with Towson University. But Google Earth can be especially useful for collaboration on emergency management, says MEMA Technology Planner Mick Brierley.

During Hurricane Irene, people were posting up information and data that was made available. The newest data, Brierley says, can be processed quickly and thrown up on Google Earth, whereas if MEMA receives the raw data, it can't incorporate it into its tools as quickly. And in emergency situations, the most up-to-date data is most useful.

Some cities are just now starting to embrace Google Earth. In Contra Costa County, Calif., the Transportation Authority currently is updating its Countywide Travel Demand Forecasting Model, and asked for local experts help in reviewing land-use data and predictions through the year 2035.

Previously, the authority sent spreadsheets of this data to all the cities for their review, says Associate Transportation Planner Matt Kelly. But using this method, those people had to look at the spreadsheet, and then gather maps and aerial photos in order to evaluate -- a cumbersome process. "We've also had to pay for aerial photos in the past," Kelly says, "thousands of dollars for a whole county's worth of aerial imagery."

This year, the Transportation Authority changed it up. To serve up all of that data in one location, the authority turned to Google Earth. Kelly says the aerial imagery is much more up to date. "We'd probably be buying stuff that was a year or two old," he says, "and in some cases, the Google Earth stuff is a couple of months old."

The platform also now has historical imagery, so when the authority asks the various planners to look at what's happened in their communities between 2000 and 2010, they can quickly and easily see the change over those 10 years. "It just seemed like a really good way to serve up all these various layers to our local jurisdictions who have very few resources at this point," Kelly says, adding that a big draw is that the tool is free. "It's a cheap, quick and convenient way to distribute a lot of data to a lot of different people; it's easier for us and them."

This was the authority's first attempt at using the tool. Kelly says that because he's getting a good response from the users, it's likely the authority will look for more ways to use it in the future. "Anytime where we have to go out to all the cities at once," he says, "we feel like if we can find a way to use Google Earth, it will help everyone."


More from Columns