Interview: Brian Timoney, Google Earth developer

TimoneyLogo.gifThe Timoney Group has been responsible for groundbreaking demonstrations of Google Earth’s usefulness as an analytical tool — Envisioning Jonah Gas, South American Trade (a collaboration with Eicher-GIS) and now Gulf Impact.

In this interview with Brian Timoney, I ask him about what it means to be a Google Earth developer, why he uses open-source tools, what the strengths and weaknesses are of server-side processing, and whether SketchUp has a role in GIS.

Ogle Earth: In a few sentences, what did you do before Google Earth came along?

Brian Timoney: I come from a GIS background working in the environmental, petroleum, and military contracting fields. The primary impetus for starting my own business, interstingly enough, was as much organizational as technological. Specifically, there was a disjunct between the sophistication of the tools being used at the analytical level and the static output (99.9% of the time a paper map) being used at the decision-making level.

Since the learning curve for GIS software has traditionally been forbiddingly steep, it wasn’t realistic to expect overworked managers to tackle those programs when they just wanted answers to some straightforward questions. So I was interested in building simple-to-use, but useful tools: we started building a Flash-based vector mapping engine when all of a sudden the Google technologies hit (GMaps and GE).

OE: You describe yourself as a full-time Google Earth developer. What

does that involve?

BT: The term “full-time Google Earth developer” is a bit of a misnomer in the software development sense since the customization of the interface itself is limited. However, in Google Earth we saw an interface that an average user both understands and enjoys using. So our task is to be able to fortify the great, visually engaging end-user experience with the ability to look at a variety of data that might be stored in a shapefile, Excel spreadsheet, or enterprise database. With, we’ve extended the functionality to include basic geoprocessing capabilities that are accessed over the web in a manner that the user isn’t too far out of their comfort zone.

OE: On your site you plug open-source tools like PostGIS and PHP. Why?

BT: At the risk of sounding like a money-grubbing consultant, the interest in open source doesn’t have a lot to do with idealism but more to do with the value proposition. Building on the Apache/PHP/PostGIS platform lets us get our services out to a vast audience in a cost-effective manner. But we emphasize to clients that if they’re in a .NET/Oracle world, great, we can help them; if they have no resources, no problem, we can build something very cost-effective that doesn’t include expensive licensing issues. In short, open-source to us isn’t about ‘free’, it’s about flexibility.

OE: Google Earth (free) doesn’t do Geospatial analysis, so you’ve moved that functionality server-side and send the results to Google Earth. What are the advantages/disadvantages of this approach to the ArcGIS Explorer client-side model?

BT: Having been generally satisfied with the ESRI products I’ve used over the years — starting with command-line ArcInfo — I think much of the Google Earth vs. ArcGIS debate is unfocussed. Those whose job is to collect/create/modify/analyze spatial data have a very different set of requirements than the (much larger) audience of end-users who need a simple, but powerful interface for visualizing and querying data. The fact that Google Earth has been such a hit with a general audience is not only a testament to its technological virtuosity but also to the not-so-user-friendly nature of the web mapping experience before Google/Keyhole.

No longer being an ArcGIS user and not having seen in person the new ArcExplorer, I can’t comment on how all of that technology (along with ArcServer) fits together. However, I’ll simply make the generic observation that with each bit of functionality one adds to an interface, the more complex it becomes for a user to navigate. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that GIS has traditionally favored increased functionality over user-friendliness.

Our approach to server-side geoprocessing is that if we can create easy-to-use tools that help the general user answer basic spatial questions while still keeping them in a comfortable interface environment then that has real value in an organization where, as you go up the food chain, managers and VPs have neither the time nor the interest in learning a lot of new software just to get the answers they want.

OE: Is SketchUp of use to you as a GIS developer?

BT: Having met the SketchUp guys at a couple of functions in Colorado, I’m happy for them that they were acquired for a nice chunk of change. The democratization of 3-D models seems to be well afoot, and I can’t imagine any city or county not having downloadable 3-D models of project proposals, etc. on their websites available for public review in, say, five years. Being more of a data guy, I’m interested in the possibilities of dynamically changing the appearance of 3-D models based on user-defined attributes such as “make every building red in city x that hasn’t been inspected for this or that code regulation in the last 3 years…” In short, visually encoding real landscapes in 3-D seems to me to hold all sorts of promise for anyone in the geospatial field.

OE: Thank you, Brian.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Brian Timoney, Google Earth developer”

  1. Thanks for the read, gentlemen!

    I am also a GIS Professional, making a similar career change into the world of webmapping and design. Google Earth seems to be the preferred medium for most existing and potential clients.

    I’ve often felt that GE is a GIS waiting to happen, and as long as GE supports network linkage and server-side development, we should have virtually no limit to our expectations!

  2. This is a great read. Thanks.

    I am a 3D-visualisation professional coming to the Geo design realm with no less great expectations.

    We in Holland seem to still be having two camps lurking at each others ‘market’ with sceptical attitudes: the GIS ‘serious group’ feels it may be isolated into expansive proprietary systems, and the ‘design and visualisation group’ which thrives on the dynamics and wide exposure given by Google Earth, GSU and open source, are only happy to jumpstart fastforward.

    When the former group feels some heat from the last, it tends to utter sharp critics on GE’s degree of professionality. They bring ample proof for this: lack of resolution here, lack of reliability for public sector use there, ground overlays being changed to older dates after a while (altering the information over time at Google’s discretion, inexact visualisation parameters, no negative altitudes for terrain, etc…

    All this dynamic flow of information can be seen as a liability for professional reserachers who need steady and complete, reliable data.

    In fact, at a one-day seminar on 3D topography (sponsored by Oracle Nederland need one say), the ducth GIS 3D topography community agreed to conclude that GE was not professional enough for them and was just a hype ‘showing the way’, rather than a serious tool to build upon. They all look at ArcGis with great expectation.

    Surprinsingly enough, research from TU-Delft (a.o on 3D real-time visualisation techniques) and also the public sector such as the influential Ministery of ‘Rijkswaterstaat’ take good account of GE technology and plan to rely heavily on it for serving a wide public audience.

    So as a design middle man I am happy to read that the GE client-side architecture will be offering some degree of fredom and reliability GIS people need for research, while growing as an interactive visualisation platform – we call this integration ‘Location based simulation’. I am happy this user centered design problem (perception of reliability and of integration) is being addressed by GE at an architectural level. Well, this client-side concept is not new of course. It is only a pre-requisite for helping professionals to do their daily work, at least as well as before.

    ArcGis 9.2 is coming here to bridge the gap as I understand, but who is competing whith whom is puzzling at times. Maybe a dynamic mind map would help to visualize this.

  3. I’m a wine writer. I’m negotiating a specialty book deal with Univ of CA Press which would provide some upfront cash to a project which would also have considerable downstream financial potential. I would very much like to meet a developer with GIS and 3D modeling experience in order to discuss map production. Note: illustration of elevation, gradient, and aspect will be more important than road location. Job can be either fee for service, or a business partnership with the right individual. In addition to wine expertise, I bring marketing assets and valuable data acquisition to the table.

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