Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Google Earth and Science

Google Earth and its cousin, Google Maps, are really useful. I don't think I've used a street directory or road map since I learned how convenient it was to just google it. Aside from just being a tool for finding out how to get from point A to point B, or for businesses to promote themselves, it's also a great tool for crowdsourcing, as memorably happened after the Haiti earthquake two years ago.

It's really useful for scientists too. I'm sure many of us have used Google Maps to check out field sites before going there, and also afterwards to plot localities and routes. The terms "virtual globe" or "Digital Earth" refers generally to such tools, which represent geographical features in digital form. A recent paper in PNAS looks at how current virtual globe tools have been used to help science and make it accessible to the public, and what the prospects are for the future.

One way to get more out of Google Maps is to use KML, a standard markup language for displaying geographical data in virtual globe software (tutorial). If you already use the "My Maps" feature, you can download your maps as KML to share with others. Alternatively, if you want to plot known coordinates and annotate them, you can mark up your data as KML and import into Google Earth to visualize it. 

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