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access to tools for the beginning of infinity

From Whole Earth to the geoweb: same idea, different tools

Now you can walk around the world through the computer, thanks to a new generation of geographical services that incorporates user content. Is there space here for sustainability?

The geoweb, or geospatial web, has arrived. It’s a fusion of technologies of geographical information with the fastest-growing information on the Internet: that created by users (for example, any user can place on the map photos from Flickr or Panoramio, videos from YouTube or news from Menéame, one Spanish Digg-like site).

Once a relationship is established between a content (video, photography, user, blog, news, presentation, personal itinerary) and a determined geographical place (latitude and longitude), any other user can consult these contents while he navigates a map of the world.

And we’re not talking in a figurative sense: the new services of the geoweb allow users to stroll (or better said, to fly) through a detailed representation of Planet Earth.

In practice: a user of the photographic community Flickr can introduce a photo or collection of images, retouch it, associate it with attributes or labels (“tags”) that will facilitate their subsequent relation with images of other users and, finally, put it on the map.

If the world map of Flickr grows with the photos of every interested user, the same principle of a relationship between contents and geographical coordinates has been put into practice by scores of services with all kinds of contents. It can be done with refugee camps, or animals in danger of extinction; or places that, like Rondônia, in the Amazon, are suffering unstoppable deforestation.

Hello, world

Saying “Hello, world!” makes more sense than ever when we’re talking about applications to which we can add content or even integrate on our website or blog.

The science fiction novel Snow Crash, written by Neal Stephenson in 1992, serves as an illustration for The Economist of how what was considered fantastic 16 years ago is currently reality thanks to virtual versions of the world in photographic quality, like Google Earth.

“Earth materialises, rotating majestically in front of his face. Hiro reaches out and grabs it. He twists it around so he’s looking at Oregon. Tells it to get rid of the clouds, and it does, giving him a crystalline view of the mountains and the seashore.”

Whether they’re using an Internet browser (Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Microsoft Live Maps, Mapquest, Viamichelin), or applications that show a virtual representation of Earth (Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, NASA World Wind), the new geographic locating programs represent, in an accurate way, every corner of the planet.

From time to time, the representation has been qualified as “too” accurate. For example, the “street view” option that Google Maps integrates in scores of cities in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain – the company sweeps all the streets of each chosen city with cars equipped with a special camera, has angered some of those who have been photographed and included, without their permission, on a map accessed daily by millions of people.

Besides Google Maps, similar applications that function through the browser, like Microsoft Live Search Maps, Yahoo Maps and Mapquest (in their new version) include satellite images with amazing photo-realism. The same thing happens with virtual applications.


The “street view” mode from Google Maps (for example, The Embarcadero, in San Francisco) includes only images of streets and known public spaces, to avoid invasions of privacy.

Although shortly after that service was included, in May of 2007, in Google Maps, users discovered scenes like a car being ticketed by the Miami police, a man scaling a locked fence or another man entering a sex shop, as explained by The Economist.

Learning from their mistakes, Google has decided to be more careful in guaranteeing people’s privacy and will blur things like registration numbers and the faces of the people who have been photographed.

Privacy also worries governments, although for other motives; some intelligence departments appeal to national security, when they pressure different companies with virtual mapping services that include satellite images to “shade out” some zones.

Michael Jones, one of the founders of Keyhole (a business that developed the “geobrowser” Google Earth, acquired by Google in 2004 and current technological director of the virtual application), told The Economist that the company has been contacted by three different administrations worried that the content offered too much detail of strategic locations or places susceptible to attacks. These complaints came from the governments of the U.S., India and a European country that has not gone public.

If the critics of the new services talk about loss of privacy and of a global big brother, the defenders of these technologies, on the contrary, talk about a powerful tool of denunciation.

Applications like Google Earth will become virtual environments where there will be room for all kinds of contents (as explained Marissa Mayer, a heavyweight inside Google, in January of 2007), and sustainability is one of the fields that will play a more important role.

Welcome to the Earth, with its virtues and its miseries (digital format)

Geographical information through the Internet, or geoweb, has been created to shorten, or almost to dispel, the separation between the Internet and the real world. As opposed to virtual environments such as Second Life, the new generation of geographical services represents, with a luxury of detail, any place on Earth.

Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth and NASA World Wind are, literally, virtual worlds: accurate representations of the planet, where one can find on the map the best boxers of all time or to locate the places where political representatives spend taxpayer money.

If the use of the geoweb allows any type of data to be represented by their geographical place, it also enables the mapping of pandemics and human catastrophes (to help resolve them and to prevent them from “disappearing” from the global information agenda and, therefore, of the reality that we know), endangered species, environmental and natural catastrophes, natural conservation projects, or others that recognize the boundaries of the ancient lands of Native villages.

Or, at least, this is the idea of organizations like Google.org, the self-sufficient branch of the Mountain View company (that works to bring to Google Earth the reality of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, for example); or of WWF (some projects on which this NGO is working, creating viable nature preserves and respecting adjacent populations, that benefit from this protection), among others institutions that use the Geoweb as a tool to improve different aspects of daily global life.

These programs allow anyone to introduce data and to adapt the system to their needs; thanks to the programming interfaces (API), anyone can integrate a system of geolocalization on their web page or blog.

These are the so-called mashups, or hybrid web applications, born from the mixture of other applications to create a content of new value.

The more famous mashups often use the programming interface of Google Maps (although Zillow does it with the API of Microsoft Live Search Maps).

The American Mike Pegg has elaborated a list of 100 things that one can do with the integrations of Google Maps and other services (Google Maps mashups).

And already they venture that we have only seen the beginning: geolocalization services will not remain in our computer, but they are increasingly more common on cellular phones and any another device with Internet connection, which many have already baptized Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web.

Google Earth: taking the temperature -social, environmental- of the Earth

The geoweb is a reality in 2008. Every day millions of people use maps with which they can interact and create content. Marissa Mayer explained in January of 2007 that the equivalent of “1,000 human lifetimes have been spent looking at Google Earth.”

All this time has been spent not only in navigating, like an omnipresent being, the globe (adding captivating layers to Google Earth, such as the photographic collection on different corners of the Earth of the French Yann Arthus-Bertrand, of GoodPlanet.org), but in acting like demagogues, creating content that others can use.

In June of 2007, Google announced the program Google Earth Outreach, that provides tools and resources to NGOs so that they can promote their cause through Google Earth.

Google Earth Outreach has a channel in YouTube, where a tutorial appears on the initiative and videos on each one of the projects -associated to NGOs and humanitarian organizations- integrated in Google Earth.

Also it is possible to upload all the contents of this initiative on the Google Earth application (free, although it requires download and installation: there are versions for PC, Mac and Linux).

The initiative divides the philanthropic efforts with information related to the sustainability of the planet into six sections: current affairs (explore Google Earth through this link to files that can be opened in the application called KML); environment and science, public health, education and culture, global development and social services.

The providers of this new generation of services, above all in the case of Google, encourage their users to create and put on the map photographs, three-dimensional models created with SketchUp (Microsoft has bought Caligari, a small firm with similar technology to SketchUp, that presumably will be integrated into Virtual Earth), videos, routes of interest with exact geographical data and annotations (again, thanks to standards like KML), blogs and even Wikipedia entries (one can read Wikipedia articles on the Google Earth globe, if a geographical label, or geotag, has been previously added).

The users themselves are elements that can appear on the map, showing their activity related to an action or task.

Watching the world, with good purposes?

The Economist explains that, in just Google Earth alone, 850,000 users have contributed with millions of annotations and more than 1 million images, competing with other users for the quality of their contributions.

These new virtual worlds have been employed to coordinate the reconstruction of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina; to monitor -and, in transit, to denounce- illegal landmines; to monitor reforestation; or to execute information campaigns on environmental phenomena related to the climatic change.

The open architecture of services such as Google Earth or Google Maps makes it possible to show environmental situations in determined geographical zones with a detail that was, until a decade ago, only within reach of supercomputers.

The users of Google Earth can add, for example, information created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that shows exactly the rate of environmental pollution in neighborhoods and cities, through a simple tool.

For those uninterested in messages of denunciation regarding the planet’s environmental situation, the option exists to explore sustainable initiatives in their geographical context, the option exists, for example, to view the most ecological buildings built in the United States, thanks to the contributions among Buildingreen.com, the Department of Energy and Google.

Opening the applications Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth or NASA World Wind is to find yourself before a vision of the Earth that amazed the public when the first missions manned by NASA could photograph the planet -blue, white and emerald, full of life-, from space.

Google Earth is the evolution of The Whole Earth Catalog, for people that knew the publication, like Steve Jobs.

A precursor of Google Earth: The Whole Earth Catalog

Autumn of 1968. In full effervescence of the American alternative movement, with its epicenter in Stanford and Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a rudimentary catalogue, concocted almost artisanally and with spirit of a fanzine, became a sensation, given the strength of its cover and contents.

The title of the publication was, in capital letters and with an austere font -remarkable in a moment of psychedelic typography- The Whole Earth Catalog.

Under the title, could be read, in lower-case letters, the phrase “access to tools”. Under the name of the publication and its subtitle appeared a photograph that changed the vision of the world for a generation: the Earth, blue, viewed from space.

A cold and dark universe and, in the center, the Earth, full of life, although small and fragile, situated as if at random in an inert universe. The Planet, seen from space, was beautiful, although the sensation of fragility, of an anomaly that should be conserved, extended the conservationist movement.

Stewart Brand, creator of the catalog, had convinced NASA to allow him to use the famous photo on the cover, although the interior of the catalog harbored as much force as its front page: it contained a listing of resources to help readers diminish their environmental impact and, simultaneously, improve their way of life.

Brand had explained to a graphic designer in San Francisco, his vision for the project: “I want to make this thing called a Whole Earth Catalog so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything. …That’s my goal”. For that reason Steve Jobs, of Apple, has declared The Whole Earth Catalog the precursor of search engines.

Steve Jobs: “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

Jobs recognizes not only having bought The Whole Earth Catalog, but having taken acid in his youth, an experience that, as explains John Markoff in the book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer (the “dormouse”, of the title is a reference to Alice In Wonderland, one of the literary references of Californian psychedelia), helped him to conceive a device as “autonomous” and “independent” as the personal computer.

1936. More than 30 years before Stewart Brand, a friend of Ken Kesey and also a member of the Merry Pranksters, published The Whole Earth Catalog, which aimed to be a summary of resources to reestablish the equilibrium between humans and a fragile planet, the American scientist Vannevar Bush dreamt of a machine which he baptized Memex.

Memex was a conceptual device where any person could store all her knowledge (books, disks and communications). Given the mechanization of the device, the contents would be accessible instantly, through a user interface that incorporated (in the 1930s) a screen; the user would be able even to make notes in the margins of every content consulted.

The device, that Vannevar Bush described in As We May Think, functioned in a similar way to human thought: the relationship between elements was capillary, neuronal.

Bush was describing, decades before the birth of personal data processing, the operation of the Internet. Ted Nelson completed the idea in the 1960s with the concepts of hypermedia and hypertext (Xanadu Project).

Vannevar Bush (Memex) and Ted Nelson (Xanadu) were little less than two lunatics to their acolytes and incredulous contemporaries, as was J. C. R. Licklider, who complements the creators of Memex and Xanadú with various ideas connecting computers amongst themselves. He ventured to imagine the creation of an intelligence shared by several interconnected machines. The Internet.

In his paper Man-Computer Symbiosis, of 1960, “Lick” spoke of graphic user interfaces (graphic representations that help to interpret the operation of an operating system, like the interfaces based on windows), in which personal data processing is still based.

The idea of Memex, perfected with Xanadu and, later, with the graphic interfaces of Licklider, did not fall on deaf ears. If Ted Nelson read the work of Vannevar Bush before describing hypertext, Memex also inspired Douglas “Doug” Engelbart, inventor of the mouse.

Besides being an inventor and computer specialist, Engelbart gave Stewart Brand work in 1968, while working on The Mother of All Demos, a legendary presentation of several data processing technologies that were ahead of their time, many of which ended up being integrated in personal data processing.

The experience Doug Engelbart gave to Stewart Brand, a young biologist with humanist and ecological aspirations, the certainty that, with the information and the adequate tools, Human Beings would be capable of redirecting the world that they had created (and continued creating) into a socially just and sustainable place.

The Whole Earth Catalog aimed to express in a printed publication what data processing had not obtained in practice, just on paper (Memex, Xanadu and hypertext, graphic interface, networked computers: transgressive and utopian ideas, like those of the counterculture that aimed to change the world from the West Coast of the U.S.).

The publication also aimed to be become the first universal index of “fair” tools. A type of Google Earth with information related to sustainability.

The geoweb has been consolidated in the last five years, with applications that function on the Internet browser or applications that show, with every detail, any point on the planet with a reality that until just ten years ago was only available for the espionage of the most advanced countries.

For many, the new geographical tools, that can be used and adapted by any, are an opportunity to show development opportunities, to negotiate natural disasters or to denounce indiscriminate drawn-out, humanitarian catastrophes or animals in danger of extinction.

Finally, the authentic Whole Earth Catalog seems ready to be perfected and used by anyone, from anywhere in the world.

With difficulty the geoweb is capable of changing the world or eliminating its injustices. It is, however, a powerful tool that makes it very difficult that determined zones of the planet will “disappear” or be “obscured”.

Wherever there is an endangered species, an environmental catastrophe or indiscriminate killing, there will be more eyeballs watching.

There are no real-time images in Google Earth (for the time being). But up until now, all of our news has been open to interpretation.