Tuesday, June 12, 2018

In memoriam: Ron Schott

This is a joint post by Richard and John Bailey, (Program Manager Google Earth Education)

Ronald C. Schott was one of the original community users and advocates for the use of Google Earth in Earth Science and Education. Sadly we found out this weekend, that Ron died last week of natural causes.

In the early days of the Google Earth Community and related blogs, Ron was always the most positive voice, and led the charge for use of GE in Earth Science. It could be argued that he was THE original advocate as he was an early Keyhole user, and pushed the Earth Science / Education angle from those first days via his Geology Home Companion Blog. This all despite his traditional training as a geologist and focus on fieldwork. He saw there was a great opportunity for the science and technology to come together.

His blog, along with his active twitter and G+ profiles have been credited by many in the Geology and EdTech (and both) communities as major influences on their own geology careers, social media and other writings. He was known for spending a lot of time helping and interacting with geologists, students and armchair explorers that he’d never even met but who asked for help. One of his pet topics was advocating for a Google Earth “Geology layer”, which ironically the new layers now has the potential to make possible.

Ron was famous for his Gigapans - the one of his office is a classic.  As part of the fun, Edi and Berti are often lurking in there (someone tell me which one I've pictured below?).

It was in this world of Gigapan imagery where Ron excelled, he was one of the original beta testers and had few peers. His catalogue of uploaded images stands as a unique contribution to the world Geology community: Ron Schott and his 1,000 Gigapans.  He was also know for his excellent use of social media to promote Gigapanning and Gigapans and he did the same with Google Earth: his involvement in the #WOGE (Where on Google Earth?) game helped fuel an active blog and social media interest around Earth (and also led to the "Schott rule").

Ron was also part of the Virtual Globes at AGU sessions from day one, as both a contributor and organizer. Spun out from this, at the Penrose Conference held at Google in 2011, Ron organized the fieldtrip to the Marin headlands around using Google Earth “in the field”. We were later collaborators on on NSF-funded projects around using Google Earth and Geo for Education.

Coming into the present day, it was somewhat surreal that Rich messaged John with the sad news that we’d lost Ron and it flashed up on John’s phone as he stood watching sunrise over one the world’s most spectacular outcrops: Uluru, a massive sandstone inselberg in the heart of the Australia’s arid "Red Centre".

John writes: Although we’d both had fewer interactions in the last few years since I joined the GEO team, Ron was a friend, and a big part of the world that led me to joining Google, he will be greatly missed.

Rich writes:  Like John, I hadn’t spoken to Ron for a while at the start of this year.  However, I’m active on Twitter and Ron was ALWAYS popping up in my timeline and liking my tweets over the years since the Penrose conference.  The response to the news on Twitter shows it wasn’t just me, he was a huge part of many geologists experience on Twitter.

Rich writes:  Twitter led me to my last conversation with him, I had a hangout with him back in March picking up a thread of discussion on virtual fieldtrips.  We chatted about a ‘road trip’ geology idea I’d had, as always he was a technical guru and gave me some excellent notes to consider, both technical and educational.  We ended with me promising to set up a group web call with some other people about virtual fieldtrips, one of those ‘when I have the time’ ideas that we all have.  Of course everything else intervened and, to my shame, it fell off my todo list.  I feel sad to have missed the chance to hear his views on the recent developments in our field one last time.

The last word should go to Ron on his beloved gigapan work:
I hope that the images I shoot will help educators teach the science of geology and will inspire others to get interested in geology and strive to learn more about the planet they live on

Richard Treves, blog owner. 

John Bailey

Program Manager
Google Earth Education

We also lost Declan de Paor this week, a separate blog about him to follow.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Google have just released 'VR tour creator'.  Excellent!

This allows anyone to:
  • Identify a series of streetview photospheres
  • Add 'points of interest' to them with text or photos
  • Publish to the world

Which is essentially a way of authoring a Google Expedition.

This is a great tool for education projects, I've seen examples done already with other tools (sorry, can't find link) but Google make it very easy for students with this cloud offering.

Hello World tour (translation: my first tryout)
I've already had a play, creating a tour using photos of my work place:  the Open University campus at Milton Keynes (the OU is 100% distance learning so the campus isn't somewhere the majority of our students ever visit).  As with most recent Google tools, the usability and interface was well thought out and designed so I had no real problems.

The embedded iframe above won't work on certain machines, fire up the post on a recent laptop to see it.

Example activity - comparing town and city shopping.
If it would help get your creative juices flowing, here's an an example student activity I thought up: compare town shopping and city shopping.  I live in Leighton Buzzard, UK, a small town (streetview).  I work in Milton Keynes, a city with well developed shopping centres (malls)(streetview).  Students could be challenged with a field trip task:  Go and take photos to illustrate the differences of shopping in a small market town with a traditional UK high street vs shopping in Milton Keynes.  What you'd hope they'd identify:
  • City shops are all under cover with easy parking and lots of choice
  • Town shopping offers less choice, less service (e.g no cover or particularly good parking) but maybe more personal - you may get to know the people running the shops. 

The challenge for students would be to:
  • Identify photos to take
  • Identify photospheres (in streetview) to use
  • What points of interest to use and what text to put with them.

Solving these challenges is a great way of getting the students to explore the problem AND comes with the advantage that they can share their work with parents (school kids) or a link from their CV/resume (Uni students).

Educational advantages:
I happen to be writing up a paper on students creating map tours as an assignment, here's some thoughts expanding on the above (and the comments work for Esri story maps or Google Earth tour builder too):

Novelty:  Students react well to using a new medium provided they don't have to invest too much time learning to use it - i.e. It is highly usable.  Their feedback will say things like 'Creative', 'taught me new skills', 'fun', 'interesting', different'(based on studies I've read on student produced podcasts, story maps, films)

Interactivity:  Based just on the current study I'm doing, Students appreciate being able to create interactive resources with little effort.  They haven't created something a tour like this before, they've all seen interactive materials on the web so being able to create one for themselves adds lots of value.

Reflection:  Creating a tour like this can involve students in some really helpful thinking and reflection particularly if they are guided to:
  • Plan what they’ll do before starting (easy to do if it’s a field trip)
  • Think what they can do in the field (or what they're going to get done in class if its not a field trip)
  • Have a clear 'write up' phase where they collect their materials together in the tour and reflect on what they did and try and improve it. 
These distinct stages of processing can encourage deep learning of a subject if students engage properly.

Power of Photos:  Finally, deciding what photos to take, looking to see what they've taken and being able to link the photo in with the photosphere is very rewarding for students based on feedback from student created map tours I'm analysing (in Esri Story maps as it happens).

Educational disadvantages to a VR tour:
Problems to watch out for:

Techincal issues:  Is the equipment/software the students are going to use easy to operate and reliable?  Tour creator caused me no problems but I had trouble getting photos from my phone onto my laptop for editing.  Technical glitches like this can destroy the value of doing something adventurous like a VR tour for students.

Instructions:  Are students clear what they're doing?  They will obviously need more guidance than if they are just writing a report like they've done before and their excitement and enthusiasm will be seriously affected if they aren't clear about what they're doing.  For university students, this is related to having to take great care explaining how their work will be marked.

Versions:   There are advantages to cloud based software but one of the disadvantages is that there is no tutor control on versions used.  You have to use the latest version and Google are bound to change VR tour creator, this means annually instructions have to be changed and adapted to the tool.  With PC based software, the educator can choose whether to update or stay with an old version.

Some thoughts on what could be added
There is enough power in the tool as it is to develop some really interesting student activities.  However, there are limitations and any activity needs to be designed to avoid a situation where the limitations create problems.  Here are some of my thoughts on this:

No map 'spine' possible:  The 'spine' refers to where the narrative sits, so for this blog post, the spine is web text and you can follow links off the spine to streetview, other web pages etc.  The spine in VR tour creator is a web page which links you to the photospheres.  This design can work very well in cases where the relative location on the earth of the photosphere photos is not interesting, e.g. the international space station expedition:  the interest is what it looks like on the inside rather than the spatial spread of the photospheres.  However, some situations cry out for a map which illustrates the spatial relationship.  E.g. if you were looking at vegetation in West Wales (a favourite holiday destination of mine), Photospheres of grass with no trees are found in exposed locations out in the strong wind coming straight off the Atlantic.  In protected deep valleys out of the wind, woodland predominates in the mild, wet climate.  To explain this situation in an expedition it really helps to use a map to point out exposed and unexposed locations.  So IMHO, a good addition to the tool would be the option to have a map as the spine.

Can't easily add your own photospheres:  To create a photosphere for use in this tool you'd need to do it in advance and upload it to Google Maps.  I'm not clear if doing this guarantees it will be available to use for students.  This prevents some nice possible activities such as a geology field trip to a quarry which isn't on a public road and doesn't have a photosphere - you can currently only use locations in streetview.

Can't add links or videos:  The only media that can be added currently is text or photos.  This is limiting, often a video is much more meaningful.

BUT, its worth repeating, this is a great free tool which opens up lots of opportunities for use, I'd love to see what activities educators create with it!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Google Earth: Thoughts for educators

So the new Google Earth is out.  Frank is covering it in detail but I thought I'd do a quick post about what it means for educators.  For clarity Google Earth the program I refer to as 'GE classic' and the new version as 'GE Web'.

Why the web: I'm guessing there are several reasons for this move:
- You can use GE web on Chromebooks, key for educators in the Google ecosystem
- Enables integration with G drive so your maps will be on the web
- All sorts of other reasons for which you should Google 'advantages of the cloud'

Usability:  In making the leap from GE classic to web Google have had a long hard think about their usability of GE and I think they've come up with good solutions to old problems that were in classic.  For example:
- Content is now mainly in a tile based graphic 'Voyager' section which is sumptuous and intuitive.
- Other base map type layers, that used to be in the places column, are now much more hidden away in 'map style' (in the three lined section, top left of screen) which presents you with three main options about which layers to have showing in your base map.  You can choose more options by choosing 'custom' at the bottom.

Both these interface elements are cleverly designed to direct people to the cool content they're most likely to use (Voyager) and little used layers that used to just confuse users are hidden away (Map Style > custom).  The tile based Voyager is quick to access and easy to understand.

The GE web navigation tool (bottom right of screen) is a lot better than the classic version, its more intuitive and I especially liked the ability to see the main screen view projected onto the mini globe (as a red border) as you navigate around.

Content:  Google has gone all out with this tool to link their great content (primarily youtube and streetview) to place (the main screen).   You can create and import your old KML but Google is making it quite clear that they think that this content/place link is the main reason for using Google Earth and map creation is less important.  It's interesting to compare this approach to Esri's approach with ArcGIS Online, IMHO they have gone the other way, tools for creating your own map are the priority and curating content for users is secondary.  This is an important fact to bear in mind when using GE web in the classroom, its probably good as a tool at the top of a lesson to showcase some content but maybe you'll want students to switch to Esri or GE classic at the back end of the lesson when they create maps?

Tours?:  I have been convinced for ages that student created tours are a great tool to teach simple GIS to students.  Google Earth Tour Builder has been lagging behind Esri Story maps for a while now IMHO.  I would expect to see GETB brought into GE web at some point in the future, again, Google don't see this as a priority as it isn't in this release.

Conclusion:  As Frank points out, to get GE web operating at a similar frame rate (how smoothly it works) as GE classic is a huge job, this will have occupied most of the developers time in producing GE web.  As a result, and in common with all software making the jump from program to cloud, functionality is lost, and generally comes back with time.   However, Google have invested time in sorting out some of the usability issues with GE classic and trying to link their great content to place.  I think they've done a good job.  In educational terms they're leading ArcGIS online in terms of usability and wow factor (from the content), however, they're lagging in terms of creation and measurement tools which are still only in GE classic.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Three Geo-Animations for Atlas Tours (Google Earth Tours, Esri Story Maps)

Just less than a year ago I published a post about 3 types of Atlas tour (1).   I've been thinking about the topic over the last year as I've been writing papers so I thought I should develop that post with some more detail.  I discussed this in my recent Google Education talk.

Just as you can have different types of PowerPoint (fieldwork briefing, photo slide show, talk etc. etc.) you can have different types of Atlas Tour.  Esri Story Maps (ESM) have identified a number of different types which emphacise text narrative, I believe most Atlas Tours should be narrated using audio, so I'm not going to discuss those.  My sorting works on two axes:

  • 3D or 2D:  ATs can be used to discuss both landscape (3D) or map views (2D).  
  • Realistic base map vs Symbolized:  showing realistic imagery works well when illustrating landscape but symbolising is endlessly useful in paring down a map to simlyfy it to the elements needed (e.g. temperature and wind but nothing else bottom right below)  
which produces 4 groups.  These are illustrated in an image grid below (2):

I give examples of the four groups in this videod section of my Google Education talk recently.

Within an Atlas Tour, you can have different types of animation that are highly suited to the format, I've identified 3 which I think are particularly useful and to illustrate them I've prepared a story board of an Atlas tour discussing the famous Snow cholera map:

1] Map Sequence:  using annotations or revealing layers (build animation) of a map one by one in order to explain a complex map.  The sequence above illustrates the build animation with street names added and then the pump.  It becomes much more important on complex maps.

Click to expand.  The audio narrative script is found under each image.

2] Time Animation:  Showing a sequence of maps to show change due to time.  This is well discussed in the cartographic literature.  Note that I've invented data, the spread was actually not recorded.
Click to expand

Avatar animation:  flying down from a symbolised map view into a 'human' view.  This is an original idea of mine and IMHO is very powerful, you can illustrate spatial relationships and then follow up with showing what they look like in real life.  In this case, on the street.

Click to expand

these aren't the only animations you can use and you can certainly usefully link out to static imagery and non-map video from within a Atlas Tour.  However, they are all very spatial and so worth highlighting above other formats in an Atlas Tour.

1] at the time I called them Google Earth Tours but to include people interested in using Esri Story Maps I now use Atlas tours as an encompassing term.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fieldscapes: A new idea for Virtual Fieldtrips

A while back I wrote a post about Google Expeditions.  Since then I've come across a couple of colleagues working on a format that has a lot of similar, interesting features.  I presented these to Geography school teachers on Wednesday night at a 'TeachMeet' run at the RGS (thanks for hospitality RGS and for Alan Parkinson for standing in to compere).  Google were there promoting their expeditions in schools.  I couldn't post my slides for copyright reasons so I thought I'd write some notes.

Basic Idea:

Much as in a third person shooter game you enter a fieldtrip 'world' and explore it.  You can find markers which can be clicked bringing up web materials (related images, videos, multiple choice questions).  The environment can be customized by the teacher allowing them to put in instructions, self assessment questions and links 'in world'.  This means you can re-use the environment for different levels of students.

The video above gives you a nice taste, I am not convinced by the 'learning fieldwork skills' functionality but the other features it shows are very interesting.

As an aside, Declan De Poar came up with a similar idea for use in Google Earth  that I remember him showing me.

Who is doing this?

Daden are a commercial company already working with the Open University on this, Fieldscapes is their project.  A colleague of mine at Hertfordshire (Phil Porter) came up with a similar idea.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

New Paper: How to make an Excellent Google Earth tour

We (myself and Artemis Skarlatidou) have just submitted a paper to a cartographic journal about a successful experiment we did on users' understanding of Google Earth Tours.  The work produced two rules of thumb to consider when making Google Earth tours so I thought I'd blog about it.  Note that the title of this post isn't how to make a 'cool' Google Earth tour that grabs users' attention, this is about how to use them as an effective communication tool.

Why should I care about Google Earth tours?
Before we get to the two best practices its useful to think about the media we're discussing.  Is it worth using?  My answer to that is that Google Earth tours are common on the web and the wider generic group of Google Earth like animations (Atlas tours) are everywhere!  e.g.:
- TV (e.g. weather forecasts)
- The web (e.g. National Geographic)
- Mobile satnav apps

As an example of Atlas tours in satnav apps, both Google Maps and Apple Maps in driving directions mode will zoom into tricky road junctions when you approach them but then zoom out when you are on a straight road section to show you the wider view.

So you should consider creating a Google Earth tour (or Atlas tour if you prefer) as a way to tell your spatial story.

Best practice 1: use high paths
If you are producing a tour with two or more low points, you get to choose how the camera moves between the two low views.  Users' mental map of the study area will be better when your tour following a 'Rocket' path(1) where there is a mid point where you can see the start and end of your tour. This video explains the point and tells you how to achieve it technically in Google Earth:

Best practice 2: use of speed
We haven't explicitly proved it but an animation speed of 1 second for any camera motion is a good rule of thumb(2).  If the tour is more visually complex, you may want to slow the speed down.  Reasons to take more time:
- You are flying through a complex 3D cityscape
- There are lots of elements on screen (points, lines, areas) that you want users to understand

As an example, these are some of the experimental Google Earth tours; only the 'low, fast' condition really troubled the users in the experiment.

Atlas tours are very common as they are an effective media to communicate a spatial story or data.  Google Earth is one of a suite of software that can be used to produce Atlas tours, I think the principles described here will apply whatever software is used.

I read all the studies I could find in 2011 and produced an earlier paper which discussed these and 17 other best practices for producing Google Earth tours.  This is the shorter blog version of the paper.

1] In the paper, this is called the high path.  Less memorable but more professional sounding.

2] our experiment ran at speeds slower than this and user's had little problem building up a mental map of the study area.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Embedding Google Expeditions in teaching

tl;dr summary  

  • Interface and technology:  Excellent
  • Content: Very good
  • Educational design: Could do better.
  • Worth investigating: Yes


Google launched expeditions for iOS this week (announcement of release).  This is important as previously expeditions was only available for Android devices and, being made available for both of the main platforms, removes a serious hurdle for schools in using it.  In the UK, they have also promised to produce lesson plans which goes some way to answering a criticism I raised previously, that they are passive ‘Cook’s tours’ and need to be more active.  So while my dearly beloved watched some TV last night I geeked out looking at the expeditions currently available.  I concentrated on the biology models, the natural history museums and the geography expeditions.  Here are some thoughts on those expeditions:


Just like street view before it (my post on educational ideas on how to use streetview in teaching) there is some fantastic content available for teachers to use in teaching Earth sciences.  It's totally free.  You don't even need the cardboard, you could plug a tablet into a projector to show students the content.

Slick interface and no problems combining platforms:

I experimented using two devices, one following (student), one leading (teacher).  No problems mixing iPhone, iPad and Android devices in all sorts of combinations.  The ‘show and tell’ interface worked slickly and intuitively, you can direct student's attention to where they should be looking and see where students are looking to check they're keeping up.  Nice work.

I'm told that it throws up some errors being used on schools' wifi systems.  Having your own WLAN (about £30) gets around this.


You can download the data to the teacher's device and then from there, over a WLAN (wireless local area network, think wifi not necessarily connected to internet) it streams to all the student's devices - no need to download the same data to everyone's device.  It also means if you have the technical chops you could set up a WLAN in a study centre in the middle of nowhere without access to the internet and run expeditions with students.  I'm thinking this will also be very useful in schools with dodgy internet.

Not the right media for the Biology Models

There are a number of human biology expeditions including the heart, the skeleton etc.  I'm not convinced they work because they consist of a static, 360 degree view of a the model where you can only see one side.  With this type of media you can't see the context e.g, considering the heart:

  • Where is it in relation to the lungs/ribs/diaphragm?  
  • How does the heart fit in with the circulation system?
IMHO a much better media to use in this context is what I call a 'build animation': video with audio where layers of graphic information are revealed one by one.  See Khan Academy's content and compare it with the heart expedition:

One of the photospheres in the ear model expedition is particularly poor:  it shows a model of an ear from the outside.  Much better to get students to look at the real thing, and, you know what?   There are lots of great examples attached to other students' heads all around them.

Museum Expeditions - hmmmm.

I also think the museum expeditions are pushing the format too far.  A museum is intrinsically designed around a 'skim view' and 'zoom in' viewing model* - you walk around the hall looking about you generally (skimming), you then see something that interests you so you zoom in: you walk towards it and read the information at the kiosk or exhibit.  Presenting materials formatted in this way in an expedition is preventing the zooming in part - you are 'stuck' to one point on the floor without the ability to walk up to an exhibit and access the detail.  

However, when the museum is impressing us with scale, e.g. discussing the dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History museum (see image), then an expedition becomes more effective because the museum experience is all about staying at the 'zoomed out' view.

Scale in Geography Expeditions:

If there are no familiar items in view (people, houses, etc. etc.) it's impossible to tell the scale of the view: 

Any idea how big those icebergs are?  A scale comparison needs to be provided, this could be the human drone operator as a Point of Interest (POI) or providing a POI showing a 100m line.

Geography Expeditions need maps:

I also think that the Geography expeditions really need to use maps.  Combining what I call the 'avatar view' (human scale view, as in expeditions) with the map view (views from altitude setting the place in context geographically) is a very powerful narrative tool and I haven't seen any examples of this being done in the expeditions.  I'll tackle that in a separate blog post.

Teaching tool:

Google are going to publish lesson plans about how to use expeditions in teaching.  Good, but I don't think that's enough.  IMHO expeditions need to be more customisable, in effect becoming a simple content creation tool.  Teachers need to be able to easily:
- Add polls with their own questions.
- Add their own POIs - there are many teaching reasons you may want to show students a jungle in an expedition, e.g. environmental science, biology, geography or tourism.  Having only one set of POIs available per expedition is limiting.
- Add traditional PowerPoint slides between the photospheres, e.g. maps putting the location in geographical context (see 'expeditions need maps' above) or showing a zoomed in view of a dinosaur tooth with annotations in the dinosaur example discussed earlier. 

Watch the journey into a glacier expedition, its done by Jamie Buchan-Dunlop (of Digital Explorer fame) and, as usual, he does it really well.  My favourite was the Mt Everest expedition, lovely example of taking students to a place that they will never probably go. 

*I'm sure there's some literature about this, do comment and let me know if there are some proper terms I should be using.