India censorship: More Vint Cerf quotes fact-checked

India’s Indo-Asian News Service has some more reporting on the censorship agreement that Google and the Indian government appear to be hammering out, with quotes from both Google evangelist Vint Cerf and India president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam that need correcting.

Kalam’s quote is older, but it is being repeated often enough to require another debunking:

During his visit to Bangalore in April 2006, Kalam also called for a new law to prevent foreign satellites from getting images of sensitive locations in India and make such attempts a cognisable offence.

‘Satellites fitted with high resolution cameras can take pictures of any object anywhere. Some nations have laws against snapping such pictures and their violations are punishable. We have to create our own laws,’ Kalam had said.

Wrong. Countries can and do make laws that regulate the acquisition of aerial imagery from within its airspace (as the Netherlands does), and they can even make laws that regulate their own national satellite operators (as the US does) but they cannot make laws that regulate the acquisition of imagery from satellites, in space. A country’s sovereignty does not extend into space, no matter how much Kalam would wish it, and despite the Indian government’s best efforts to start changing international law via the United Nations.

Now on to the bit where Vint gets quoted:

Though Google Earth has blacked out White House and Pentagon in Washington DC, the one-metre resolution maps have clear images of the Parliament building, Rashtrapati Bhavan and several sensitive air bases and seaports across the country.

The Pentagon and the White House are not blacked out. Aren’t reporters supposed to check this stuff? Google’s resolution of both places is far higher than what is available of New Delhi.

Admitting that the issue was sensitive, Google Vice-President Vinton G. Cerf said that different nations and governments have different perceptions and views about having access to such geographic information.

‘Though I do not have specific information about India, we have addressed the issue in some countries. For instance, in the US we have removed or replaced information on some US installations with less resolution and blanked out the top of White House,’ Cerf pointed out.

No you have not, Vint. You did the opposite. The top of the White House used to be camouflaged, as was the swimming pool, but the Google Earth team has been assiduous in getting a clear view, with the express goal of pre-empting the kind of criticism you are now lending credence to.

BTW, the censored US imagery used to be released that way into the public domain, but is no longer deemed a security threat. You could have pointed all that out. Indeed, I hope it is being pointed out in the negotiations, to make sure the Indian side knows it is being completely paranoid.

Similarly, in Germany and France it is illegal to profit from such images and materials. Security issues have to be addressed as per each nation’s requirements.

What? More weird reporting. Just ask Spot Image, a French company that is happy license its imagery to Google.

‘Concerns about specific information on sensitive locations or vital installations have to considered keeping in view the laws of the respective country,’ [Vint Cerf] added.

Another quote mangled by bad journalism, but still clear enough. Vint, please be clear on this: The Digital Globe imagery is out there for anyone to purchase or license, and no local Indian law will change that. If the Indian government is threatening Google’s Indian subsidiary with specific legal injunctions if it does not erase certain satellite imagery, then please do tell us, as it would most definitely be news.

[Update: Vint appears to have left a comment on an All Points Blog post covering the same story, where he falls in line with the Google Earth team’s stated policy of not altering the imagery it receives. This doesn’t change the fact that pandering to jingoisting Indian reporters is counterproductive.]

National Geographic tracks an elephant’s last days in Google Earth

Because life is short and words are cheap, I try not to duplicate content that Frank has already put up on Google Earth Blog, but sometimes something so good and worthwhile comes along that it deserves a special push.

National Geographic’s latest Google Earth effort qualifies in droves. Not only has the magazine written an excellent piece to highlight the illegal poaching of Chad’s elephants in the pursuit of ivory, it has also pulled out all the geospatial stops to bring the story alive on a map.

Here is the online version of the story, Ivory Wars, from the March issue.

Here is the page highlighting the Google Earth layer.

Here is the direct link to the KMZ file.

The file contains a wealth of geospatial information about and around Chad’s Zakouma National park — paths, roads, cultivated fields, animal sightings, photos, poacher camps… but the most poignant part is the time-stamped location readings of Annie the elephant, who carried a GPS collar for three months in 2006. We get to follow her and her herd around, but then on August 15 her path ends, as she’s been killed by poachers.


Annie’s journey is exactly the kind of information Google Earth excels at visualizing, and this makes it the perfect complement to the National Geographic’s text and photos. The only way to really convey the spurts and stops of Annie’s wanderings is as an animation on a virtual globe; I think it is wonderful that a magazine like National Geographic has embraced such geospatial tools as an essential component of its storytelling.

This layer also illustrates some of the challenges of making complex data accessible using KML in Google Earth. For example, it’s not (yet) possible to set the defaults for the timeline navigation via KML element attributes, so I needed to experiment with the settings before Annie’s position data became truly compelling, and that’s not something a first-time user is likely to figure out right away. It would be nice to have more control over the end-user experience, should the user want it.

Did Vint Cerf just agree to censor Google Earth?

Wow. Did Google uber-evangelist Vint Cerf really just say this on a visit to India?

“our policy is when have an issue…arising from national authorities…we take it (imageries) away. We do understand that problem”.

That quote comes from a Press Trust of India article, which unhelpfully abridges the quote and mangles it somewhat, but if the original meaning hasn’t been changed then that amounts to the first official admission by Google that it has a policy of complying with government demands for censorship of its aerial imagery.

That just sucks in so many ways, especially as Vint himself knows all the arguments why such censorship is pointless, as he goes on to explain:

Cerf, co-designer with Robert Kahn of TCP/IP protocols and basic architecture of the Internet, however, sought to rubbish claims that imageries of Google Earth are leading to security concerns.

“Data that we are using is not ours. Typically, its available for free like NASA landsat. Anyone could have access to it. So, removing it from Google Earth does not necessarily solve the problems. Because imagery is there. It’s also commercially accessible”, he pointed out.

Cerf added: “If you want that information (about sensitive sites), particularly if someone deliberately wanted the security overhead in order to mount an attack…if they have a coherent capability to attack, probably they may also have the ability to purchase the information”.

In other words, the only people that are harmed by such censorship are citizens who might be able to use aerial imagery as checks and balances on governments, but don’t otherwise have the resources. As in Bahrain. Or India. Or China. Or Sudan. Or Zimbabwe. In other cases, censored imagery might prevent lives from being saved, as in the Netherlands. Or Pakistan.

The conclusion I’m drawn to: Google will comply to censorship demands in those places where governments can make business difficult for Google. So far it appears to have been the case with China, India, and the UK (via Basra in Iraq). South Korea is still trying.

And what’s up with this?

Google officials said sensitive locations as identified by the government could be blurred or camouflaged or distorted using some methods, including lowering of resolution.

I thought Google’s policy was not to blur or camouflage or distort, but merely to replace newer imagery with older? India’s press is not always reliable, but this sounds like an actual reported comment.

Here’s what I’d like to see Google give to its users to offset its complaisance to governments: Transparency regarding what it is censoring. That list of sensitive sites India has given Google? Part of the deal for Google agreeing to censor should be that the list be made public. Censoring is one thing — but not telling us what is being censored taints the credibility of the entire atlas.

And perhaps such transparency will mean that the Indian government thinks twice about its choices, because it knows they be held up to public scrutiny.

A public debate about what censorship — if any — is justified allows citizens to judge for themselves whether governments are crossing the line in their censoriousness. Without this transparency, we citizens don’t know how much we don’t know. Personally, I find such a situation unbearable.

Links: Biophony; Geo-WordPress; SDI?

  • Excellent: Bernie Krause’s biophony recordings, soundscapes of nature, look like they’ll be turned into a KML layer soon, reports O’reilly Radar. Until then, try Freesound, a site with georeferenced ambient sounds that comes with its own KML layer. Still one of my favorites. (More about the possibilities for navigating using sound for the sight impaired here.)
  • Barry Hunter is just fantastic: He develops a hack for WordPress (one of the most popular blogging content management tools out there) that lets you define coordinates for blog entries and then view these entries as a KML feed. He then makes it free for all to use. (Other KML plugins for CMSes: Blojsom for Mac, Drupal, and am I missing any?)
  • Apprently, GIS professionals have long been on the lookout for an SDI, which is a Spatial Data Infrastructure and not a Strategic Defense Initiative as I so innocently assumed. (Can you imagine what a Google Strategic Defense Initiative would look like, though? Probably like this:-)

    The conclusion seems to be that Google’s KML search is not an SDI — yet. Allan Doyle sees the glass half full, while James Fee tends towards the half empty view. The sticking point? Google Earth is only a free client for personal and educational use. You still can’t use it at work without paying for the pro version, which is very unlike a web browser. Allan and James have a point, and it is one I thought would have been cleared up by now.

    Meanwhile, Sean Gillies moots one way in which WMS services could announce themselves in Google Earth — via KML file, duly indexed.

  • Tobedetermined‘s Alexander van Dijk actually read to the very end of the web page by those MIT researchers on China’s missile technology, and notes that they’ve built an application that will calculate optimal trajectories for anti-satellite missiles and automatically produce the output as KML. This brings the notion of directions in Google Earth to a whole new level… :-)
  • Google Earth Blog has the details on the latest default layer refresh in Google Earth. Main attraction: The number of Panoramio photos listed quintuples to 400,000.
  • Be careful when travelling with your 3DConnexion SpaceNavigator. It looks just like a detonator to airline security personnel who aren’t yet on the cutting edge of technology…
  • More 2D online mapping goodness. Check out the revamp of Sweden’s Eniro maps. A candidate for the nicest interface yet, but also: Click on “GPS coordinater” and “Vägkameror” for some very useful functionality…

Q&A with Google Earth CTO Michael Jones: Place search

The addition of view-based KML search in Google Earth a few days ago (and soon Maps) was typically understated, though the implications for our online search habits are huge. I sent Google Earth CTO Michael Jones some questions about the thinking behind Google’s place-search technology, and he was happy to answer them:

  1. Ogle Earth: What makes Google Search so good is that the most relevant hits crowd at the top of the results. Do you apply a ranking algorithm to KML files?

    Michael Jones: Yes, the basis of place searching (Earth Search) is a textual, spatial, and contextual ranking of results with the intent that the first set of results returned contain the information that a user is searching for. Ranking in this context is different from that in former efforts. Unlike web searching, cross-links and popularity estimates may not be the key notion; unlike local searching, the professional and casual reviews are not so helpful; and, unique to exploratory Earth browsing, where you look is a big part of understanding what you are looking for–a search for ‘railroad’ when all of France is in view clearly asks a different question from the same text when the user’s view is zoomed to show part of the viaduct in Morlaix.

    One aspect of our web-of-places ranking technique leverages ideas from Google Local Search. Other components are unique to the place-ranking systems we developed to select the GeoWeb layer’s “Golden I” placemarks from the much larger set of Google Earth Community placemarks. Finally, like cherished recipes, there are a few secret ingredients as well.

  2. OE: In the absence of a lot of direct links to KML files, do you use the pagerank of the enclosing URL as a proxy? Do you measure clicks on search results inside Google Earth for feedback?

    MJ: The Google pagerank value is a proven indicator of search relevance. Using this value (and related values) is an important component of our placerank system. However, the search contexts are so different that the choice of which KML file to show is really a new search result optimization question.

    For example, government GIS data — such as tax values for each property in a country — may make their way to searchability. When they do, your search for the tax records for your house may well be the ONLY Earth-search for that particular record ever performed. In this case, it would be true that the “popularity” of that particular KML is zero before you ask for it and only slightly better afterwards, but still it is the absolute authority on the query in question. Even though others would have also trusted their own tax searches, none of them would be likely to have searched for the same item as you and overall, probably only a small percentage of the possible results at a tax site would be searched. Having this site and these results automatically acquire great prominence is an example of the unique aspects of ranking for Earth-based visual searching.

  3. OE: What if people start wrapping spam inside KML? What if people start using KML files to cybersquat on the competition — literally? :-)

    MJ: First, remember that it is not the goal to prevent spam and worthless content. The lesson of Larry & Sergey’s work in web search is not that Google prevented bad web pages, but that users are consistently shown good pages with relevant content in the first page of search results. The same is true of other filters. Bookstores don’t prevent bad books from being written but they do specialize in having good books in stock. Likewise, we’re primarily concerned about delivering high quality Earth-search results irrespective of the existence of low quality results in terms of ranking or spam content.

    Despite that, spam-like content will happen and since it may get through our defenses, we must work to fight it. The evolution of content in email and web of pages will be replayed here in the web of places. It is logical that remedy’s for these problems in the web of pages will help us fight the good fight in this new context.

Thanks, Michael.

Links: Australia gets roads, KML search details

  • Last week Australia got directions in Google Earth, and just now it got roads too. The alignment between road data and imagery looks good in Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In Melbourne, not so much. Thanks to the ever-vigilant Michael Smalley and Neil Grech for the heads up.



  • I was curious as to how KML search results might be ranked, and sent Google Earth CTO Michael Jones some questions. I see that Directions Magazine beat me to the punch:-). A good read in anticipation of a forthcoming post here on Ogle Earth. Also read Avi Bar-Ze’ev, who riffs on the metaversal implications of geospatial search.
  • What is Google Earth? It’s a stand-alone application, but it can’t live without the web. InformationWeek looks at the growing field of software-as-a-service, with functionality delivered via the web to a stand-alone client, as opposed to the browser. One danger: That we’re entering another era of platform incompatibility. The solution: Making multiplatform versions of the client, as Google Earth and iTunes do. A real no-no: Using the browser to deliver functionality, as Microsoft Virtual Earth does, but still not making it interoperable with multiple platforms.
  • Mikko at Finnish PC Security company F-Secure writes that they use Google Earth to visualize network attacks. Great anecdote follows. It turns out that the Pentagon is prepared to stop a cyber attack by bombing the source. Literally.

Links: Google buys Adscape; details on 3D Shanghai

It feels good, catching up on geobrowser news after a hectic workweek:

  • The WSJ had it right: Google is buying in-world advertising firm Adscape, for $23 million, reports Red Herring, citing “people familiar with the matter”. If you believe some of the people Red Herring talked to, it’s mainly for the patents.
  • Following up from the story in Shanghai Daily earlier this week about the Chinese 3D view of Shanghai slated for 2010, a far more nuanced and informative article on China View. For example, quoth the dev team leader Shu Rong: “We’d like to co-operate with Google Earth or other international companies, and put this technology in use.” Excellent idea.
  • New Google Earth help resources, in the form of monitored Google Groups. These replace several Google Earth Community forums. (The KML and data discussion forums stay put in the GEC.) (Via Google Earth Blog)
  • NASA World Wind 1.4 is out for the PC. Here’s what’s new since 1.3. This is a belated mention in anticipation of more time to give that virtual globe a proper whirl and a thorough review.
  • What’s the difference between neogeographers and naïve geographers? Mapping Hacks‘s Schuyler Earle explains the former concept at FOSSG4 in this video, while Richard Treves — who made the Kokae Google Earth tutorial screencasts — explains the latter concept in this writeup of his speech to the Society of Cartographers last September. In short, writes Richard, “the difference is that naive geographers are everyone, neo-geographers […] are web designers and developers without much GIS knowledge.”
  • If you have a great KML layer, building or network link you made just lying around, why not enter it in the International Digital Earth 3D Visualization Challenge? The deadline is April 1, and the finalists get an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco to attend ISDE5 on June 5-9.
  • Twingly is a newly launched (Swedish) blog ping service, but with a global geospatial twist. Check out the screensaver that is a virtual globe (PC only), showing off where the latest blog posts originated. It’s a very neat visualization.
  • user jlawhead‘s comment on this forum thread is very funny: “I sleep better at night knowing 15-year-old nerds are monitoring Google Earth forums for terrorists.”
  • Pro tool Photomodeler is up to version 6, and with it comes the ability to export to KML. Here are the details and some examples. (It costs $1,000)
  • is Dave Bouwman‘s new aggregator for blogs by ESRI users and developers.
  • In the aftermath of the BBC article earlier this week on the usefulness of Google Earth for survival in Baghdad, the Daily Telegraph ran an article yesterday pinpointing precisely how Iraqis are using the application. I wonder if this is meant to be atonement for the hysterics the paper engaged in when it reported on the use of public domain imagery by local insurgents in Basra last month — overall, this article is somewhat more balanced than its previous attempt.
  • A new tutorial for making videos in Google Earth Pro, by the Google Earth team’s John Gardiner.
  • On this page, a treasure trove of South Africa-themed KML files (scroll down).

Notes on the political, social and scientific impact of networked digital maps and geospatial imagery, with a special focus on Google Earth.