Google Earth: Neighborhood watcher

The recipe for this post contains three ingredients:

  • In Switzerland, anyone who wants to put up a new building first has to erect poles at the edges of the proposed construction, indicating the correct size and height, so that neighbors can check for undue obstruction of their view or whether development codes are being broken. It’s a kind of SketchUp Unplugged; on a typical day in a Swiss town you’ll see scores of these future buildings, leaving it to us to color in the transparent walls with our imagination.
  • This KMZ file published by the local Stockholm government shows the exact locations of the 20,000 new homes it is building to alleviate a chronic housing shortage here. (Via the ever eagle-eyed Erik Stattin.)
  • James Fee asks, who cares about SketchUp? He argues that for GIS pros, the lack of analytical tools in Google Earth means that SketchUp objects placed in Google can’t be anything more than eyecandy.

All this got me thinking. Google Earth is a geobrowser, the first of a new breed of display tools for geographic content, akin to how web browsers display web content. And just as web browsers have come to incorporate client-side programming (Javascript, mainly), we can assume that Google Earth will do the same — SketchUp already comes with Ruby scripting built in, so it’s not outrageous to presuppose that one day soon, objects in Google Earth can be made to interact autonomously, or react to GIS layers. (I would love to get this Space Odyssey space station to rotate.)

Practically, this could lead to the following kind of useful tool: First, imagine a special “3D Warehouse”, just like Google’s but maintained by a local planning authority, containing all the proposed construction in the region. The network link published by this database to Google Earth shows at a minimum the height and extent of every proposed building, accurately georeferenced, or even highly detailed CAD objects for some projects.

Then, imagine being able to mark off regions Google Earth as watch areas. If anything new pops up in the vicinity, you get an alert. You could mark out the line of sight of the view of the sea from your house, for example.

What happens next? If new construction is proposed near you, the network link will have it, and Google Earth will automatically alert you. You can then check it out virtually — and if it worries you, click through to find out more from local records.

This doesn’t necessarily have to happen in Google Earth. There is no reason why future versions of my newsreader couldn’t have proximity alerts for GeoRSS-enabled feeds, just as it now has alerts for specific words. But it would sure be a lot more intuitive in Google Earth.

5 thoughts on “Google Earth: Neighborhood watcher”

  1. Actually I didn’t say anything about Google Earth. What I said was Google SketchUp doesn’t add anyting to our 3D analysis that we are performing in programs such as ArcGIS. Google Sketchup is eye candy for professional GIS as the only time clients will pay for such detail is when they want a 3D map to look great. Most of the time we’ll just stick to the block buildings and features because they don’t add anything to the analysis.

    As far as I’m concerned Google SketchUp and Google Earth are two different applications so just because I say one being eye candy doesn’t mean that I don’t think Google Earth won’t end up performing simple analysis in the future.

  2. Stephan, I agree. I think James’s comment may have been a bit harsh. In some aspects of the GIS continuim, such as an IT/GIS point of view, Google Earth/Google SketchUp could be a non-issue. Maybe that is where James Fee is coming from.

    Although, as you have shown with this Swiss example and outlined in your “vision”, GIS people working in or studying visualization or resource managment will find GE/GSU a very useful GIS tool; I certainly have. Also, as you have shown, beyond visualization, possibly aspects of reporting/alerting could be built in.

    Even though analysis is what sets GIS apart from general computer cartography, there are other parts to the equations where GE/GSU fits in.

    just my 2 cents.

  3. For clearity, I had not read James Fee’s comment before I left mine. It is not a counter-point.


  4. James, apologies if I sounded out like I implied you didn’t think Google Earth will have analytics capabilities in the future. My post intended merely to brainstorm what kinds of simple client-side analytics could make use of _both_ SketchUp and Google Earth.

  5. Damn, I had a very similar idea for using Google Earth with the planning system but was too lazy to write it up! I also thought it would allow people to have more input into the preparation of plan documents in the first place. I was even considering submitting something along these lines to’s call for proposals under the name OpenPlan. Anyway, nice to know that great minds think alike ;)

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