France’s national mapping site Géoportail launched on Friday. French President Jacques Chirac made a speech on the occasion, covered by Reuters, in which he stressed the need for a national map site, though not for the sake of the consumer, curiously:
[...] Chirac stressed the need for France to have such a site [...] saying the state had to be at the cutting edge of modern technology.
“It is also a case of economics,” Chirac was quoted by his office as saying [...]
So Géoportail is great for the state, and for economics. Meanwhile, Géoportail has been down or dog slow for exactly as long as it’s been live, crushed by what an apologetic message on the site calls “several milion connections in a few hours” — probably pesky visitors encouraged by the main evening news to go check out their house.
Some free advice, then, to France’s National Geographic Institute (IGN), makers of Géoportail:
- If you have your president launch your website, you will definitely get lots of visitors.
- Don’t launch a generic 2D online map of France — what amounts to a stop-gap measure as you ready your 3D browser for later this year — and hype it in the international press as your response to Google Earth. People will be disappointed. Many of them will already have Google Earth. They know what it is.
- In sum, perhaps you should also have imitated Google’s habit of calling initial launches betas. Humility has the added benefit of lowering expectations.
Meanwhile, Google Earth’s latest data update shows many of France’s overseas island territories at a similar resolution as the 2 pixels per meter on Géoportail. If you live in rural European France, Géoportail will have better images than Google Maps or Yahoo! Maps or Microsoft Live Local… if you can get in. But for people living in French cities or French terittories overseas, try Google Earth first.
Wait, there’s more just in. Le Monde has a detailed article out today (in French) about the political mess this project has engendered behind the scenes. Some interesting points:
- Géoportail censors French strategic and military sites, which Le Monde has verified are visible in high detail in Google Earth. In other words, Géoportail is good for pinpointing which sites are worth taking a closer look at with Google Earth.
- The site was launched a week earlier than initially planned, to coincide with an announcement by three French ministers regarding an agreement about the future course of French GIS. Perhaps they wanted to go on vacation?
- IGN is not the only state entity involved in the Géoportail project — it is responsible for the imagery, but not for the other official layers that are mooted to eventually be available. IGN has nevertheless been speeding ahead with a 2D Géoportail without really consulting others. According to Le Monde, it considers Géoportail to be an excellent oportunity to sell more maps. The other partners — most notably the Office of Geological and Mineral Research (BRM) — see it more as a public platform to which they can publish their cadastral data, and resent IGN for its opportunism. Then there is also the problem of integrating all these data layers. Apparently, the necessary coöperation to make this happen hasn’t yet materialized. Nut graf (translated):
It is as if the effect of Google Earth was to rekindle the ceaseless turf wars of French GIS, where everyone defends its borders by accusing neighbors of the blackest intentions. “I have never seen such an environment”, confided one participant of the interdepartmental meetings, which resulted in pressure to sign a cease-fire in the form of a charter signed in extremis.
- Still, the roadmap is clearer now: a 3D version of Géoportail in the autumn with some simple layers, and then an enhanced version, with “rich and varied” layers, in 2007.
(An aside: Curiously, Le Monde introduces Géoportail as an attempt by France to redress the relative scarcity of high resolution imagery of France in Google Earth — it talks of Géoportail restoring the “national honor”. I’m not sure if this is an official motivation for the site, or a journalistic flourish. If this was an actual concern, IGN could have donated the imagery to Google, though now that we know it’s censored, I’m not so sure if I’d want it.)
[Update 10:50 UTC: The International Herald Tribune today has an article with a great quote from IGN explaining the launch fiasco:
“It’s just temporary,” said Bernard Delbey, a spokesman for IGN. “We are surprised and proud of the interest people are showing in the Web site.”