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Virtual Globes as Essential Services?

Virtually all of us use search engines several times a day. While not quite extensions of our brains, clearly lots of information is now accessed by “googling” rather than remembering. I think most of us would think of these search engines as more or less essential services in the sense that governments use that term – i.e. they must be available for the public good.

In the realm of geographic information this issue will arise in the not very distant future in a much more pointed fashion. Today, individuals, governments, and private corporations are increasingly relying on the information infrastructure provided by Google and Microsoft (and others) for a very wide range of activities from 911 to regional security, urban planning and disaster response. For some this might be a reason for concern, just as is already the case for the control of the production of oil, or the transmission of telephone calls. In fact, given the direct privacy and security concerns associated with geographic information, some may see this as more than just an item of concern – perhaps even a threat!

The first issue is of course the availability and accuracy of the service itself. While the job has been done rather remarkably, a quick look at the south of France over the past few weeks in Google Earth, will show it is far from infallible. The view is given by the KML file (http://www.galdosinc.com/ImageError.kmz ). This may be corrected before this goes to press – so the image did/does look like: 

You will notice that there are errors of several hundred meters, and a section of highway is duplicated.

Of course this is a rare event and only impacts a small area of France – but for some this would be an issue.

In addition to the issues of data quality and availability some will have issues about such an infrastructure being located in the United States where it is subject to US law and in times of uncertainty to the whims of US politicians. Will Europeans sleep well knowing that the bulk of the geographic information about their nations is located in California or at least on the West Coast of the U.S. While presenting a benign face, all of these search engines are “for profit” organizations, and their win scenario is not necessarily in common with that of national governments or their citizens. This is not to say there are any untoward motives – it is just to state the obvious.

The French government has made a great deal of noise about having a national Google Earth replacement, inspired in part by jealousy and national pride, and in part by the concerns raised above. GeoPortail (http://www.geoportail.fr/) is, however, unlikely to attract the number of viewers comparable to GE/GM (even in France), and in spite of its government support, risks falling into the abyss already inhabited by the “magnetoscope” of years ago.

The French are not alone in expressing these concerns.

Furthermore there is clearly a tension between the development of major search engine “globes” and the mission of cross border/jurisdiction initiatives like the European INSPIRE, and any number of National SDI programs in nation states around the world. At least some of the original objectives of these programs have already been realized by the global maps that the search engines have deployed. Of course the national governments played a major role in collecting or funding the collection of much of this data (and continue to do so) on which such maps depend. In many cases this does mean that the national or regional mapping agencies do need to rethink their role and mission in life. At the same time, the search engines may think to pass on some of the revenue generated (if even indirectly) through the use of government financed data. I cannot say that I know the right way forward here, but this is a tension that will not go away, and will likely intensify as the search engines drive to more large scale models of the world.

One might also wonder, why we need more than one of these globes? At least why would one need more than one from a user perspective? There is only one world after all. It may make perfect sense from a competitive standpoint to have as many globes as the market will bear, but does it make sense in terms of modeling, understanding, monitoring and observing our planet. Does it not represent a tremendous waste of energy to have this duplication?

Looked at through the lens of environmental degradation, this proliferation of globes driven predominantly by advertising, might be seen to be seriously out of place. Are we fiddling while Rome burns? At the same time one could very much argue that it is the ad driven globes and not INPSIRE that have taken us closer to regional and global understanding. The question now is whether or not this the right way forward into the future? This is not a question with a simple answer. Multiple search engines might be equally an argument to ensure the viability of the capability rather than just waste through duplication.

One wonders if we might somehow strike another sort of bargain between governments and the major search engines; one that supports a common earth model for government and its citizenry, while still enabling ad-based competition amongst the search engines?

Embracing standards is a start. Both Microsoft and Google now support KML. This has enabled MS Virtual Earth Imagery to be displayed on Google Earth, and will enable the live visualization of all sorts of geographic and geographically related information in these globes in the near future. Perhaps the search engines could extend this further to open up their tile structures so that anyone could directly access their imagery and other data layers?

Of course standards alone are not sufficient. Cloud computing, especially geographic cloud computing demands huge server farms and large amounts of electrical energy. Someone has to pay for this. Could this be a shared responsibility, perhaps not unlike the “international” space station? While Google and Microsoft doubtless have considerable experience and expertise in the operation and deployment of large server farms this expertise could be distributed amongst other organizations as well. Could we create a distributed geographic computing infrastructure (e.g. image servers, map servers etc) onto which Microsoft and Google (and others) layer their advertising and other value adds? This could then be fed by the government information departments and private sector organizations that have it as their business mission to create and update geographic information (e.g. land registries, building permits etc). Such a platform could then support access control as required by nation states (like it or not these still regulate corporations), deal with issues of privacy (these also vary considerably from one country to another), and recognize the true input of governments in the cost side of data generation.

Many (including the author) are doubtful of the ability of governments to deliver on such a mission. Clearly this would require that such a system be built and maintained by private sector corporations and that at least a part of their motivation will need to be profit. So how would that be any different from the situation today? The differences are subtle but important. There would be one, common, base infrastructure of servers and data that would be publically maintained and would be provided to the world at large, subject to national and other access control policies. Governments would pay for the creation and maintenance of this infrastructure through the private sector. Search engines and advertisers like Google and Microsoft would build on this government funded, but privately provided infrastructure. They may even host parts of it.

In a world of increasing global integration, this is not a totally crazy idea. Microsoft already co-operates with the US Census Bureau’s Data Modernization program. Google is building increasingly deep connections with NOAA, NASA and other similar organizations for its Google Ocean initiative. Deeper cooperation, combined with greater internationalization, could give rise to a new level of private-public partnership on a planetary scale. For some this prospect will seem utopian, while for others it is likely their worst nightmare. I have mixed feelings, however, this develops in the future.

What is clear is that these issues are not going to go away. At their base, these issues are about key societal concerns such as the limits to personal freedom, the role of government in our society, and the tradeoffs between individual liberty and preservation of the planet. There is much more going on here than just cool technology!

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