Google Earth hits the enterprise—good news?

Google Earth, the popular window to terabytes of satellite imagery, is surfacing behind the firewall in some unusual ways. Is this good for enterprise GIS and IT in general? Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton investigates with the help of some experts. GE is generally recognized as having great end-user potential. But the absence of a validating KML schema cripples enterprise deployment.

I discovered a cute function in Google Earth (GE) while checking out some cycling routes recently. You enter end points and get GE to play a video of your ride. Notionally, you can set camera angle, speed and whatever. Unfortunately, unless these are ‘features’ I have not understood, GE appears to be rather buggy.


The video freezes when the camera clips the mountainside, the parameter setting options want lots of coaxing to work at all. In the end I gave up and went back to the manual zooming and traveling around the wonderful scenery that has to a large extent replaced Solitaire in the geek’s repertoire of futzing away their employer’s time. I concluded that while GE is a great gateway to a phenomenal data set, it is after all freeware. You don’t really expect it to fill a particular ‘mission’.

400 copies

Not, that is, unless you are a nameless oil and gas major which was the talk of the town last month as it was rumored that some 400 copies of GE had been deployed (should I say allegedly here?) possibly illegally, by enthusiasts who obviously felt that they were getting more mileage out of GE than their own enterprise GIS! You might think that such IT anarchy would be greeted by a reading of the riot act and rapid removal of the illegal software. Not a bit of it! The company bowed to pressure, signing an enterprise contract with Google.


I must say that I found this reaction quite puzzling. The oil and gas business has a great affinity to ESRI whose products constitute many enterprise GIS fabrics. Since ESRI announced its Globe interface (which is pretty much like GE) three years ago (OITJ Vol. 8 N°3), why isn’t everyone using this?

BHP Billiton

Robert Graham was kind enough to share his presentation to the ESRI PUG with us, including some results from BHP Billiton’s analysis of GE. According to Graham and co-author Katya Casey, GE is good for quick, easy display of geodata. It is fast and intuitive but not customizable. For plotting, labeling and spatial analysis, ArcGIS is the tool of choice. Graham noted that ‘GIS has different technologies for different sets of skills, types of problem, budget and access requirements. GE-like applications are simple to use for geographic reference and simple interactions with geographic information. They are rapidly growing in popularity and can integrate limited amounts of custom vector layers.’


Meanwhile, in another PNEC* of the woods—more of which in next month’s Journal—OpenSpirit’s Clay Harter was showing how to use GE as a front end to geodata from OpenSpirit-enabled applications. The trick is to get OpenSpirit (OS) to generate data in GE’s KML format. This makes for an easy to use GIS window to data with good raster performance, caching for play back and dynamic links that avoid data replication.

Fat client?

We quizzed Harter as to the suitability of GE in the enterprise. After all it is a fat client which flies in the face of the web services paradigm. Harter agreed, there is no API for the GE server, not even an API which would let you extend the GE client. Perhaps most seriously, to quote from the GE website, ‘XML Schema validation is not yet enabled in Google Earth.’


We turned to another GIS specialist (who prefers to be anonymous) working with an international major for a different slant on GE in the enterprise. ‘GE is a double-edged sword. It’s great in creating greater awareness and accessibility of geo-information, but it dramatically raises user expectations of our corporate systems.’


‘A traditional Web-GIS environment, or even something like ArcGlobe looks rather clunky in comparison. Lay users do not appreciate the effort of loading high-res global imagery, or the licensing costs/models of satellite imagery. Once ESRI’s Google Earth look-alike, ArcGIS Explorer, is out, I think we will push that as our primary front end. Meanwhile we are not stopping people from using Google, but we are trying to educate them about what they are seeing in terms of positional accuracy and imagery vintage.’


‘So I think it’s a breakthrough. It’s a disruptive development that is good for everyone as it forces software vendors to have a fresh look at interfaces which haven’t changed in 10 years. I’m not surprised reading in your journal about people already coming out with Google Earth-based data mining systems. However it poses a challenge in education because a good interface does not automatically mean good data, and there’s no point in sticking it on top of rubbish legacy data. I think that’s where most expectations need to be managed.’

Marketing ploy?

My personal opinion is that the GE debate cuts to the heart of web services and what XML is about. If you think that web services are mainly about making the programmer’s life easier, or that they are just another marketing ploy then OK, jump on the bandwagon.

Validate, validate, validate…

If instead you think, as I do, that web services are potentially a solution to the interoperability issue and that the most important thing about XML is data validation via the schema, then some circumspection and IT dirigisme may be a necessary evil in holding everything together. Until, at least, Google publishes a validating schema that turns its GIS data browser into an enterprise-strength tool.

* Petroleum Network Continuing Education—Data and Information Conference, Houston 2006.

Click here to comment on this article

Click here to view this article in context on a desktop

© Oil IT Journal - all rights reserved.