Google Earth and the case for ‘clickable countries’

by Jon Thompson on July 14, 2008

I have been harping on this for some time and finally decided to lay out why I think it makes some sense for Google to consider making ‘clickable countries’ an option in Google Earth.  In the world of the aid worker communications bandwidth is the single most important factor.  We pay more for bandwidth than just about anyone in the world.  In an earlier post I pointed out that SIM cards in Myanmar cost $1500.  I can tell you that from experience a VSAT installation in the tsunami ravaged region of Aceh, Indonesia costs $1700 for service equivalent to a dial-up connection from the 1990’s and 1MB of data over an INMARSAT portable satellite modem costs aywhere from $4 to 8$.  To view just one time costs about $5.

Bandwidth is the Achille’s heal of the aid community and while things are getting easier (aircards are replacing data cables) the rates are still through the roof and the networks are dirtier a more fragile than most folks can comprehend.  The question I always ask is, “Do you know how many syringes I can buy for $5?”

That being the case it would save all of us a tremendous amount of money if the folks over at Google took it upon themselves to implement for Google Earth what I have long referred to as ‘clickable countries’.  The idea is to give the user the ability to turn off the image layers for any country, continent or body of water.  If I am working in Myanmar all I really need to see imagery for is Myanmar and Thailand.  I don’t need North America, South America, the Pacific Ocean, etc.  The bandwidth savings, if we were able to drop out all unnecessary imagery, would be tremendous and that translates into money saved which is money that can be used to buy more syringes, medecines and medical equipment.

I am not sure how easy it would be to accomplish this from a technical standpoint but the benefit to the humanitarian aid community would be tremendous.  I have heard time and time again from various aid workers that while they love Google Earth there is really no way they can you use it in the field because of the slow speed and high cost of bandwidth.  Implementing ‘clickable countries’ in the Layers section would make a somewhat inaccessible tool readily available to the people who desperately need it – aid workers in the field – and Google could take full credit for the countless lives they would save by doing so.  Not only would such an action benefit humanitarian aid workers, it would also benefit the communities they serve.  They communities we work in around the world all suffer from the same low bandwidth fate as we do yet they do not have the same cash resources to resolve the problem.  Google Earth’s market penetration could be significantly increased were they to implement the ‘clickable countries’ solution.

I have a heard a number of times that caching imagery is a viable solution to the bandwidth problem but the reality is that most folks have no idea how to cache imagery and when the fabled ‘DVD full of imagery that gets shipped to the field’ solution comes up it takes about 30 seconds to convince the other person that it is really just a nice idea that has little basis in reality.  The tech community needs to learn the rules we play by and we need to learn the same about the challenges they face.

I am hopeful that somewhere down the road Google will implement the ‘clickable countries’ solution but if I have learned anything during my foray into the world of technology it is patience.

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‘Alternative to Google Earth proposed at digital mapping conference’ « Aid Worker Daily
September 4, 2008 at 12:24 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Treves July 18, 2008 at 10:27 am


Interesting idea, if I’ve understood you correctly I don’t think it will work. See my response here

and I put forward a way that I think the DVD of data idea *could* work

Kelly July 28, 2008 at 9:15 pm

In addition to the data DVD, I have often thought it would be a good idea to be able to permanent cache a snapshot of land, downloading all 3-D data much like Google Sketch Up does. This would allow aid workers to download known terrain patches before they deploy, and access it while offline, removing the need for DVD’s or connectivity all together.

Jon July 30, 2008 at 2:41 am

Currently, you are able to cache an area about the size of California. If you empty the cache prior to deployment and load the entire area you are deploying to you should be able to cache everything you will need in the field.

Daniel August 13, 2008 at 7:53 pm

I stumbled upon your blog while trying to find out what countries google has web pages for. Why don’t you just use Google maps for accessing satellite photos or terrain? Just type in the country, click search maps, and zoom in. Google is really good. You can type in a city and country and it should work too.

Hope this helps with the band width. Keep up the good work.

Jon August 13, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Many thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, ‘online’ is the exception rather than the rule in the field.

Daniel August 15, 2008 at 12:31 pm

Sorry, I did not make my self clear. It sounds in your blog that you or other teams are trying to use Google Earth for satellite imagery and topography. As you said Google Earth is slow and takes a lot of bandwidth.

If someone is already connecting online and using bandwidth to use Google Earth they should switch over to Google Maps which also needs bandwidth but much less.

What you are suggesting with clickable countries in Google Earth you also would need bandwidth so why not just start with Google Maps which uses less.

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