The Importance of Google Earth

During my first visit to the US from Switzerland in 1995 I lost my rental car key in the endless sand of the Californian coast. I was attending a conference with leaders of my field of research and had driven four of them to the beach in Dana Point to enjoy the evening before a big poster session. I still hear jokes about my mishap today, particularly from some of my senior colleagues who had to walk back for three miles to get back to the hotel.


But, there is one other thing I will never forget: This mistake cost me a small fortune as a PhD student. The most important reason for this was the cost of the locksmith. Despite looking up his number in the local yellow pages, the guy drove his car for close to an hour – and I paid all of it. Needless to say, I also paid a weekend surcharge, quickly learning that 24-hour service did not mean what I thought. But, the key problem was that I was looking for the locksmith without any understanding or consideration of where his business was located. All I did was look up “locksmith” in the Yellow Pages.


Fast-forward 15 years: I was recently in Baltimore and I needed a GPS device – I had a very important meeting and I was short on time. Using Google Maps running on my BlackBerry I identified all relevant business in the area. I  found some ratings of previous customers and I now only worried about one thing: where is the closest store?  I got the GPS, and arrived 10 minutes early.


This is due to a major set of advances by Google and some of its other competitors. They recognized, of course, that most relevant information should not be organized alphabetically, but should be organized by location and time. If I am hungry, I only care about places in my vicinity that are open now.


However, Google Earth and related products have a much broader impact if the data-sets make public gain in importance and visibility. This opening of data, enabled by a visual interface, can have tremendous consequences and will generate opportunities for the scientific community, the business community, and the individual user of the internet.


To stimulate some thinking, here are two products that are tremendously important or just plain cool. In fact, they are so interesting I would pay a subscription fee if they become available.


Pollution meter: As a father of a child with asthma, I worry about pollution because there are too many clear and established relations between asthma and pollution. Imagine having position-resolved pollution data summarized in a pollution meter which consists of 3-4 key quantities with direct and established health impacts. Each home, each part, each road would have a PM value. For example, a PM of 20/20/10 might be indicative of Big Sky, MT, and a PM=80/70/80 may be the pollution in Houston, TX. This pollution meter would finally make pollution real and actionable. I would look at the PM scale when I buy a house – it really matters whether you are up-wind or down-wind from the big smoke-stack! I would look at this when I choose a hotel or a vacation spot for my family. The PM scale would start affecting property values if enough people start using them and the pressure on polluters would mount. I would like to populate this data-set with measurements from space so I don’t have to trust polluters at a national level. The PM scale could change the world.


Water quality: One of the most important challenges to humanity, especially in developing regions, is the availability of healthy water. Imagine if we made such water quality data available for all major water bodies on Earth. We would be able to transmit that information to people and enable action, save lives. There are some fantastic algorithms out there that people have developed. Some algorithms are in fact able to detect certain pollutants from space. We estimate that only 5-10% of these NASA or NOAA collected data ever get analyzed and even a smaller fraction ever gets disseminated. It’s a shame – life-saving data are stored away until they are irrelevant. So, put the data out there- disseminate the code openly, and let others deal with the data that are more passionate than you are! A friend recently told me about a study documenting a very high degree of correlation of the occurrence of certain illnesses, or even overall life-expectancy, and the correspondence to certain water-shed regions. In other words: people die because they are drinking bad water. One valley over, people are ok, because they are lucky enough to have better water. So, where are these data-sets? Where is the coordinated follow-up? I am sure over half of this problem may be solved, but the solution is sitting on a dusty hard-disc in some data-center someplace. Who wants to talk about international leadership today? Leadership today is not measured in megatons of TNT, but in gigabytes of data put to use in the interest of humanity!



Explore the universe: There are many problems in cosmology and astrophysics that require extremely complicated tools, such as billion-dollar spacecraft. Today, I saw the first data of the Fermi telescope recently launched by NASA. It’s just amazing! But, there is another frontier of research: many interested people world-wide working on one and the same project. Imagine if we imaged the sky every hour – the entire sky – and put all data in a data-base for everybody to look at and analyze. I think we would find the most amazing breakthroughs using entirely different paradigms. We would be able to sum up these images and see deeper and deeper into the sky. With sufficient image stabilization and large enough telescopes, we could do much of what the Hubble telescope did, but from the ground. But, there is more. People around the world and computer programs would find supernovae – exploding stars. We would double the number of known and observed supernovae in less than one year by some estimates. This has enormous consequences for our knowledge of distances of stars and the distribution of matter. We would also have the best survey of asteroids. In addition, we would find obstructions of stellar light by dark Jupiter-sized objects. We don’t have many observations of such events. Great statistics of such observations would have huge impact in our understanding of the mass in the universe and thus address key cosmological problems. The University of Michigan can take a leadership role in this through their ROTSE array which has provided exciting results already. But, it takes the paradigm shift: let’s turn the data lose and get them uploaded so others can use them.



I would like to know how I can help people to make a dent into this and to enable solving these problems. Very often, we think of social change only in the context of living in Africa in a cottage teaching farming. That is a wonderful activity. But, how about solving problems from your computer by attacking them head-on? I used to take images in my winter coat nearly freezing to death. Now, we can do breakthrough astronomy with a computer. We have lots of cool data in many labs – let’s unleash them for the good of the entire world and to the benefit of our science.



We have a meeting on Scientific Applications with Google Earth on October 22/23 at the University of Michigan. The morning of October 22 is open to the public. If you are from Michigan, please attend – we have some amazing speakers. Or you can also sign up for the Google Earth workshop at and attend tutorials and topical workshops in a wide range of areas.


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