For over four years, Google’s geography products have become the most popular geographic information systems on the Earth (no, the earth). Google is now as much a platform of GIS for computers and users as ESRI, the number one GIS software maker.

To continue its corporate goal of organizing the world’s information, Google has made sure to also organize the world’s (and other realms) geographic information.

Google’s free tools and products manipulate, map, reproduce and analyze geographic information:

  • Maps – the simplest source of satellite imagery for the public, although Microsoft’s TerraServer was probably first
  • Street View
  • Transit – including travel directions for trips on Transit
  • Ocean
  • Earth desktop software – includes Moon, Mars, Sky
  • My Maps
  • Yellow pages-style business listings
  • Driving and Walking Directions – including automobile traffic overlay
  • Keyhole Markup Language (KML) – a file format based on XML that allows for the easy sharing and portability of data about locations. I wrote about it here.
  • Maps API – this allows developers to include maps in their own applications and websites as well as build features on top of maps

These applications now allow anyone in the world with an internet connection* and a computer to start thinking about the world and neighborhood in which they live in terms of space, distance, the environment, land use, and most important of all the relationships between real life places and these greater themes. But not only will these instruments influence the thinking of individuals and the groups to which they belong, but they will give people tools to create.

What have people created with Google’s GIS tools?

I created a map that shows the locations of open grated metal bridges on bikeways (featured in the bike map) in Chicago. This is important to bicyclists because open grated metal bridges can be hazardous to them, especially those with high centers of gravity or narrow tires on their bikes. Bicyclists will most often encounter these bridges on trips into and out of the Central Business District. This map will help bicyclists find routes that avoid these bridges. Precipitation exacerbates the danger, especially if it’s actively raining, or snow isn’t melting.

UPDATE 12-03-10: I was looking for information on an upcoming Chicago Cyclocross meet and I found a great example of using the tools Google has created for everyone. See a screenshot of the map below:

I’m posting this image to show how easy it is to create a map that tells a story. The story here is a guide on how to be a participant or spectator at the meet. It points out places where people can park, cannot park, and where the restrooms are in relation to parking or the race course. See the full map.

What have you created? Leave a comment below.

Evolution of Google’s GIS toolbox

I believe that Google will continue to expand its array of GIS-related applications, and also expand their existing ones. I would like to see them create new connections between the applications they’ve already created. For example:

  • Google can mimic the attribute table essential in desktop GIS software (like ESRI’s ArcGIS, qGIS, or GRASS) by integrating their Docs web application with My Maps. I want to save my information in a Google Docs spreadsheet (either inputted directly online or uploaded from my computer), then create a custom map and assign a location to each of the records in my spreadsheet. Then, using tools shared between Docs and My Maps, I can automate the creation of colored points and lines for the records based on categories or numbers in my spreadsheet, much like the classification and symbology tools of desktop GIS software. For example, on my “open grated metal bridges” custom map discussed above, I want to create a spreadsheet with a column that has a yes or no value to the question, “Is the bridge treated?” All records with “yes” will have green dots, and all “no” values will have blue dots.
  • The reverse situation could also be made possible by an integration between My Maps and Google Docs. Let’s say I’m a clerk at my church and I need to group the congregants into geographically close clusters for purposes of assigning community service work. I’ve inputted all of their addresses into My Maps and added a point for every house. There’re only 40 houses on the map and I can see see about 5 clusters (to keep it simple I won’t introduce arithmetic means of finding clusters). I use a selection lasso in My Maps and select the points in my first cluster. Using a new Classify function I label these points part of Cluster 1 and color them purple – I also assign Cluster 1 to work at the nearest park. I continue for the remaining four clusters, assigning each cluster to help clean a different park. Once I’ve completed grouping the houses, I tell My Maps to generate for me a spreadsheet that lists the names and phone numbers and clean up time for all the congregants. Now I can quickly call everyone in Cluster 1 and give them their community service assignment which is convenient to where they live.
  • Google should open up its many data layers. Google has many data layers in its table of contents: They recently added real estate data, but they also have the locations of transit stations and bus stops (including timetables and route information), the addresses and phone numbers of businesses (like the Yellow Pages), as well as terrain in some cases and bike trails in others. If the data in these layers were open, map users could perform some basic analysis like counting the number of check cashing businesses within 1 mile for a study of banking behavior in low-income neighborhoods. Or a map users could find the gain in elevation on a bike trail over 4 miles to determine their ride’s difficulty. Another map user could use the transit information to calculate the level of bus service in a neighborhood by counting the number of stops available and the number of buses scheduled.

I’ll have to figure out a way Google can extract revenue from these features if I want to convince Google to produce them, but sometimes the company builds products and features before it figures out how to make money.