Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Google Geo Family

Summary of a long post:  For an average Geography school teacher, Google Earth Engine time lapse and Google Maps Engine Lite (video tutorials) are useful tools to look at but don't replace Google Earth as the educators favourite yet. 

So I was at the AGU conference in San Francisco just before Christmas.  I went to a Google Event where they showcased their new stuff and hung around with the Googlers on the Google stand a lot.  As a result, I've finally got my head around their new set of tools.  I thought I'd lay it out in this post, thinking primarly of school teachers as an audience.  Lets start by meeting the ancestors:

Geo Ancestors:  

Google Maps were road maps which developers soon started 'mashing up' i.e. putting their own data on top of using code (wikipedia on mashups).   Google My Maps was a service where users could build there own simple map, share with others or group create a map.  Google Maps got a major revamp this year, but as a tool for navigating and searching for places I'm guessing it isn't much interest to educators.  Google Earth used the same satellite data set as Google Maps but overlaid it on topography meaning we got 3D maps.  wooo!  We all got very excited about this when it came out in 2005....

....and had mostly got over ourselves by 2007.  Google Earth Client is a stand alone program but there is also the Google Earth plugin - this allows Google Earth to be accessed in a browser either as a separate web page or embedded within a web page.

Google Earth in Education:  Up to now, Google Earth client has been more commonly used by school educators in the UK than any other mapping or GIS tool (survey).  There are a few reasons for this (opinion only now):
  1. Free
  2. Simple and Usable to use
  3. Fantastic imagery available
  4. Streetview
  5. Allowed students and teachers to create maps to show to each other.
with 1 and 2 being the killer reasons.  On a wobbly version 7, the Google Earth client seems destined to disappear at some point in the future as it isn't a cloud based tool.  Whether all the advantages I've listed above for Google Earth will be maintained in the Google Earth plugin remains to be seen.  

Current Family:  

As an overview, the general thrust of the new family of tools seems to move into new areas where Google feels it can be a player with an emphasis on cloud computing.  No surprises there as that is a general move in software everywhere.  For the moment, Google Earth client and Google Earth plugin are still available.

Google Earth Engine Group:  This consist of Google Earth Engine, Google Earth Engine Lite and Google Earth Engine Pro.  NASA released Landsat data as free to download and use instead of charging for it.  Google love organizing the world's data of course so they've processed it and given everyone access.  Google Earth Engine also comes with a set of remote sensing analysis tools (remote sensing = processing satellite raster images rather than GIS which is more about vector data).  The processing tools are too specialist for to school teachers, but the ability to access time lapse images from the whole world 1984 - 2012 has some lovely uses (watch glaciers retreat, river meanders develop and the Aral sea dry up).

Google Maps Engine, Lite and Pro compared as a table.

Google Maps Engine:  Whereas GMELite and GMEPro could be used really usefully in a schools setting, this tool is quite a high powered GIS tool.  It allows people who know about GIS to bring large amounts of mapping data together and publish it using Google's infrastructure.  If you know what you're doing, this could be a useful way of bringing your data together and publishing it.  Related Tutorial.

Google Maps Engine Lite:  This is a replacement for Google My maps.  However, not only can you still create your own map, you also use attribute tables.  This is a simple but powerful part of GIS - for all cafes in a town, produce a spreadsheet with cafe vs number of seats and number of floors.  All cafes are represented on a map and you can change their icons automatically.  So all cafes with 2 floors could be red, then you decide you want to change it and with a few clicks, all cafes with 1 floor become pink.  You can even upload a spreadsheet table from elsewhere to the map as a CSV file (CSV is an export function of spreadsheets).

GMEL is really nice combination of good usability whist allowing some powerful map control.  Where it comes apart for me is the symbology, there simply aren't enough icons or blends of colors available and the default Google map icons aren't 2D (more detail on my problems with Google Map symbols).  The palette controls in Fusion tables (see below) are much better IMHO as you can customize the colors more.

Google Maps Engine Pro:  Pretty much Lite but allows you to store and visualize more data.

UPDATE 14th Jan 14:  Ron Schott pointed out I'd left out Google Fusion Tables and I take his point. Fusion Tables can be used to make maps, I've successfully used it to collect data from groups of students previously, essentially making a crowd sourced map (write up - bit out of date on specific instructions now but generalities still apply).  However, Googlers have told me that the use of Fusion Tables for maps was always a bit of a clutchy solution, it did some neat things but they got fed up with fixing it as it wasn't really structured to do maps well.  Google Maps Engine is the tool they'll be developing to do all the things that Fusion Tables used to do so it's fairly certain that fusion tables is not going to develop further as a simple GIS tool.

I also missed out Google Earth Tour Builder which I've reviewed and for which I've also produced a tutorial.  This is designed for producing a tour of places with features such as adding images and youtube clips.  Lots of educational potential getting students to produce tours but early in its development cycle and still in beta.  Note that it isn't actually hosted on Google's domain (its on 'withgoogle' instead), its not clear what that implies.

Closing Thoughts:  

There's a lot to love with

  • Google Maps Engine Lite, 
  • Google Earth Tour Builder and 
  • Google Earth Engine (timelapse) 
for educational purposes.  However, good old Google Earth still allows all the basic map stuff we've been using for years so I expect educators will still go on using it.

A few thoughts for the future:

  • Google have a serious naming issue, what a mess of confusing terms!  Six different names for the new family that I reckon could be boiled down to two.  It would make better sense if they had 'Google Maps Engine' which wrapped up all the features of GME, Lite, Pro, and Tour Builder together.  Google Earth Engine still could be separate but I'd rename it to be something like 'Satellite Engine', its not really got a whole lot in common with Google Earth, it isn't even a virtual globe.
  • There is value in maintaining the layout of Google Earth in the future, this is what educators are mostly using so they'll be annoyed if they have to relearn a new Geo interface.  I predict cross teachers if Google decide to pull Google Earth and the services available are as they are today.
  • The great thing about Google Earth is its simplicity.  To attract users (not just educators) to a 'simpler than Arc' geo service you should have the simple stuff readily available in the interface (GMEL) and the complex stuff (like Google Maps Engine) in there but hidden away on a menu bar you have to deliberately pull up.

UPDATE 15th Jan 14:  I added bits about tour builder and heavily edited for grammar and structure.  I first published this post while I had a cold and I don't think I was thinking straight!


Ron Schott said...

Nice overview, but I'm curious why you didn't include Google Fusion Tables (, given the powerful mapping component therein?

Rich Treves said...

Good point. Will write something