Google Earth and the case for ‘clickable countries’ (cont.)

by Jon Thompson on July 18, 2008

Rich Treves over at Google Earth Design takes a shot at solving the bandwidth crunch issue and responds to my initial write up with his post ‘DVD of Data Shipped to the Field‘.  I sincerely appreciate Rich taking the time to address some of the issues that arise from the notion of ‘clickable countries’ .

Rich argues in Explanation of the Image Pyramid that the Image Pyramid locks you into a 1000×1000 pixel resolution no matter the elevation so that you are still eating up loads of bandwidth as you zoom into your destination.  I don’t dispute this point and I am glad that Rich details the case.  However, there is an advantage to loading all the pixels.  I was once told by a GE team member that Google Earth will cache enough imagery to cover an area roughly the size of California.  While the area devastated by the recent cyclone in Myanmar is slightly smaller in area than California you would want imagery for Thai border areas as well since it was Thailand that most aid was trucked in.  If I was to clear my GE cache and then load Myanmar and Thailand prior to my departure from the States there would be little issue with me eating bandwidth once I was in the field.  Even if I had to load it in the field the cost would be worth it and I could justify the expense as I would still only have to load the data one time.  I would then have data for the entire country and in the event my area of operation spreads this could come in very handy.

What is not considered is that more often than not aid workers are not going to load GE and find themselves directly over the country in which they a working.  Nor will they think to enter the city name of the location and will instead clutch and drag their way to wherever it is they are going thus loading even more data.  If the 3D Buildings layer is inadvertently activated I might load the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown SF before I notice the error and end up paying a few more dollars.  The key to remember is that in emergency situations people are often not thinking as clearly as they should, they are deprived of sleep and attempting to do a million different things simultaneously.  Mistakes are made all too often and the reality is that an NGO will end up paying through nose for imagery they will probably never use.  Never mind the inconvenience of trying to run Google Earth over a low bandwidth/high latency network.  As a friend once put after visiting the field, “Everybody loves it but nobody uses it because of the bandwidth issue.”

In Help is at Hand Rich brings up the DVD issue.  Rather than reiterate past arguments I’ll post an excerpt from the discussion we had over at Paul Currion’s excellent almost a year ago:

“..while I am a massive proponent of locally caching data (this is really the answer to most of our problems) I am very wary of trying to get DVD’s into a disaster zone. I love DHL but the reality is that they are not always on time (think customs). Sure, someone can carry it but who? And who decides who gets access to the data. Forget controls because once that DVD leaves the keepers hand bootleg copies will be in every bazaar from Banda to Baghdad. If one team gets the data and another doesn’t then there will be hell to pay. And who is to say the data won’t get passed to some rather unsavory individuals. There are a million things that can and will go wrong with DVD distribution. If it works, and I sure hope it does, that’s great.”

I will concede that if you could get a DVD, in an extremely accessible format like KMZ, to a UN coordination meeting in the location where you are working you might have a fairly good shot at getting some uptake.  However, you are still not ensuring that the data is getting to all those folks that need it.  Send it as a back-up, yes, but as a primary data source, no.  The reason I mention KMZ is that the UN is still not pushing their data sets (maps, imagery, etc.) in KMZ format.  Over at ReliefWeb your only option is still only PDF.

Lastly, in Am I missing something? Rich admits that help is often a long ways away and that while aid workers are specialists at sling loading choppers and giving injections they are not specialists in caching data.  Rich states,

“I’ve worked in Aid situations so I thoroughly understand that there can be no expectation of specialist GIS skills in Aid workers.”

Rich understands where we’re coming from.  Having that understanding is what is going to enable us to solve the problems we are discussing.  I wish more tech oriented people had Rich’s understanding.  I started Humanlink to try and foster this understanding and solve these problems in the field but that is fodder for another post…

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