There is a new default layer in Google Earth, in the Featured Content folder, called Google Book Search. Turn it on and thousands of book icons suddenly populate the globe. These icons connect place names to their mention in books indexed by Google, providing yet another way to navigate information geospatially.
Does it work? Clearly yes, though in a rough-and-ready way. There is no doubt that in many places, linking different books by their mention of a specific place name creates wonderful serendipity, and this will keep us entertained for hours. But it is also a rather hit-or-miss affair: Some place names are unmistakable and unique — these will get accurate book references:
Esna, on the Nile.
But lots of other places (in Africa, for example) seem to attract Latin books or even Shakespearian English texts that have nothing to do with the place in question:
Argo, on the Nile
Elsewhere, shipping logs with ship names are mistakenly linked to place names, or similarly named places on the other side of the globe are referenced, or the link is due to mangled OCR-ing during scanning.
In other words, this layer suffers from the same difficulty that geo-parsers have when trying to turn newsfeeds into GeoRSS: Machines can’t (yet) extract sufficient context from a text to determine error-free when a word is a place name and when it isn’t — and if it is a place name, which place it refers to.
Is this a show stopper? Not at all. But there is one possible solution: Good old crowdsourcing. Why not have a little “wrong context” link in every book popup so that people can flag false positives? I know I would help along.
One more observation, though this is nothing that Google can do anything about: The books referenced are in the public domain, so they tend to be proceedings or annals or logs, or else older texts, often from the 19th century or earlier. This is interesting in its own right, but just don’t expect to find any references to Graham Greene novels. Another questions presents itself: How to deal with outdated names of places as mentioned in books? Sure, we all know Burma is Myanmar and Ceylon is Sri Lanka, but is there a time-line enabled register of all such places, and did Google use it? (Via Google Lat Long Blog)