The Google Earth Way
By Matteo Luccio

The Google Maps API, Google EarthPro, and Google Earth Enterprise have revolutionized the adoption and use of maps within the enterprise. Google added a fourth component to its suite of enterprise map offerings for business last fall now called Google Maps Engine (GME, formerly Google Earth Builder). GME is a cloud-based geospatial data management solution for imagery (satellite and aerial, called raster files) and computerized map files with lines (called vector files, in the lingo of geospatial technologies).

The ability to leverage geospatial data investments has a lot to do with the ability to easily share that data with others within the organization. That, in turn, has a lot to do with how and where that data is stored. Storage and sharing of imagery data in particular has been a long-standing challenge for many organizations that are large consumers of imagery data — such as governments, oil and gas companies, and research institutions. Much of this data is stored manually in filing cabinets and on bookshelves, and when needed is again searched for manually, unless an organization has invested in an appropriate data management system.

Editor’s Note:
For more background on Google Maps Engine (previously Google Earth Builder), you can read two previous articles by the same author at AdvantagesForBusinessSummer2011 and www.imagingnotes. com/GoogleEarthBuilderProductizingServerFarmsSpring2012.

FIGURE 1. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.
FIGURE 1. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.

While other geospatial data management systems are available that offer a variety of functionalities tied into workflows, such as DataDoors, GME is designed for businesses to work seamlessly with the Google mapping suite of products. GME “provides enterprise organizations with the tools they need to bring mapping into their day-to-day decision-making process,” says Dylan Lorimer, GME’s product manager. Google, he explains, wants to make it easy for organizations to build maps. “The mission of GME is to make the innovation we have built into our consumer products available to businesses.” For businesses looking for a basic geospatial data storage and publishing solution, GME offers an interesting option.

FIGURE 2. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.
FIGURE 2. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.

How GME Works

Like a company that buys a building much larger than it needs for its own operations and then leases some of this space, Google is licensing the mapping infrastructure that it developed internally to deliver its most popular consumer products, Google Earth and Google Maps, together with the power of its massive server farms. GME is a cloud-based platform that enables private companies and government agencies to store, manage, and process their geospatial data on Google’s server farms and display it through Google Earth, Google Maps, and applications on Android phones.

It enables users to view maps from desktop and mobile platforms, share them with individuals and groups, and visually analyze geospatial data without requiring extensive training in geographic information systems (GIS). However some degree of technical literacy is still required to use GME.

One of the data pipelines that is available at the push of a button, Lorimer explains, is massive image processing, whether of one image or thousands, gigabytes or petabytes. “As a user, you can get access to Google’s infrastructure of thousands of machines, with no set-up required. We will have customers that will have a tremendous amount of imagery. They will not need to provision any additional hard- ware; it will scale automatically.” However, it is not clear whether this will speed up image processing, compared to software and services that are already available.

For most users, GME will not replace a GIS any time soon, due to its limited ability to perform spatial analysis and geoprocessing. “Right now, we are not exposing any standard vector analytical operations beyond spatially constrained search,” says Lorimer. “We want to provide all the useful mechanisms you may need to access and make use of your data. The goal is to expose all of our infrastructure for
enterprise use.”

According to Google, GME supports spikes in user traffic — such as during a disaster response — and
significantly reduces IT costs, by automatically scaling as needed and updating software and servers. “Google’s cloud scales to handle different scenarios and lets organizations focus more on building maps and less on managing on-premise hardware,” says Larimer.

GME for Pseudo Dummies:
Technical Details of GME

→ Creating maps in GME only requires a  standard Web browser.
→ The platform can create maps compatible in 2D with Google Maps and in 3D with Google Earth.
→ Users upload the files via a catalog  interface, which allows them to enter layer names, attribution, tags, source, and other metadata.
→ Users can upload raw satellite imagery and perform masking, edge matching, some color balancing, and “feathering” of the tiles in order to create a seamless image map.
→ Users can create and manipulate map layers and style them dynamically to create thematic maps (however, not heat maps).
→ GME allows users to publish their data in three ways: directly to a Google Earth client, through Web Map Services (WMS), and in Google Earth and Google Maps API for developers to access.
→ To help ensure the quality of the data uploaded, the data catalog is access- controlled; Google then performs some limited quality control.
→ GME users can receive standard or premium support through the Google Enterprise program; they also have access to online documentation, contextual help, code snippets and examples, a user group, and two yearly user conferences.


Google does not want to be seen as a provider of imagery, but of the capability to manage it. Having invested massively in server farms, it wants more customers to put data onto its servers and pay to access them. Therefore, Google licenses GME to its customers as a platform for use with their own
mapping data.

Typically, large organizations that deploy GME have a direct relationship with providers, such as GeoEye or DigitalGlobe, and task them to procure the specific imagery they require to create their own globe. GME gives users complete control as to who is allowed to view the imagery that they upload to Google’s cloud. However, licensing Google Earth’s software is not the same as licensing all of Google’s imagery. Often people confuse the software that makes Google Earth’s globe available in a Web browser or on a desktop with the imagery it contains, but those are two separate products.

Who Benefits

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of GME will be governments (federal, state, and local) and private companies who consume large volumes of imagery to support mission-critical operations. These organizations will save considerably on storing the massive amounts of aerial and satellite imagery that they are acquiring, by replacing on-premise servers with Google’s cloud.

FIGURE 3. The Wallow Fire in Arizona in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.
FIGURE 3. The Wallow Fire in Arizona in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer

In addition, it will allow them to push their data to this platform while keeping it publicly open, rather than waiting for Google to update its data. GME will also give governments and companies access to the massive amount of data Google has already collected for Google Maps and Google Earth (including 3D images of landscapes), let them combine it with their own data, and allow them to publish it in an interface now familiar to millions of people.

From a total cost-of-ownership perspective, a cloud offering like GME reduces overall IT costs, but it also saves on training costs as specialists in GIS or imagery analysis are not required to use the application. However, it is important to note that GME’s limited analytical capabilities do not make it a substitute for GIS for any organization that requires complex geographical analysis, its pricing will not make it affordable for small businesses, and it requires some understanding of geospatial data.

FIGURE 4. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.
FIGURE 4. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.

Implementing GEB

National Interagency Fire Center The U.S. Forest Service’s National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) was looking for a better solution for mapping res and cooperating with other first responder organizations. NIFC rst became aware of GME in the Spring of 2011 and began testing it and examining its capa- bilities in the Summer of 2011, according to Sean Triplett, with the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management Unit. NIFC is currently using Google Fusion to publish its “ re globe,” which is a Google Earth globe specific to fire aviation support. It is testing and evaluating whether GME will enable it to provide direct feeds or load other layers from the platform into the enterprise client and then share them with a broader audience.

The NIFC has already used GME in a couple of res, says Triplett. “We are very happy with what it was able to do at that point.” Before they propose using it to collaborate with other agencies, however, they want to use it more internally. “We are still in that testing, capability-looking phase. There are some concerns that we have about some of the capacity to manage and display vector-type datasets and some of the symbology and other such things.

Right now, in working with our contractors, we’ve come to the determination that the Google Fusion server enterprise client is still a more powerful tool than GME to handle large vector data.”

NIFC has signed a trusted partnership with Google to test the GME application and has a con- tractor on staff that works several contracts with Google, Triplett explains. “It took a little bit of getting used to. We are still confused about a few things in terms of the work ow process for getting data in there, symbolizing it, publishing it as a layer, and using it. We rely heavily on the expertise of our contract support to help us understand that process.”

Willbros Engineering

Willbros Engineering is a professional services company that provides project management, engineering, material procurement, maintenance, and life-cycle extension services to the global oil and gas industries, both upstream and downstream, and to the utility transmission and distribution industry. The company works exten- sively with all the major commercial geospatial software vendors — Esri, Autodesk, Intergraph, and Bentley — to develop industry-specific geospatial applications, according
to Ed Wiegele, the company’s president.


“There are certain things that [these] technologies can do very well and will continue to do very well,” says Wiegele. However, Willbros was also looking for a platform that would enable it to put its data “in everybody’s hands” without requiring training. “I am not looking at GME as a replacement [for other platforms], but to augment our ability to distribute information across a large group of people using the [mobile] infrastructure that is in place,” such as the 3G and 4G cell phone networks.

“The utilities have unique challenges that they have to overcome to be able to use the core geospatial technologies that are available within any of those platforms,” he says. “I’ve been personally involved in this business since 1993, speci cally for the pipeline industry. As we were working with our customers and their data, we understood some of the difficulties they had in accessing and analyzing information, interacting with agencies and folks outside of their own company, and integrating publicly available data. The GME platform, along with the cloud, presented a unique opportunity for us to be able to leverage what we know about things into a platform that is more user-friendly for the average user.”

GME, he acknowledges, is not as mature as some of the other platforms. However, he points out, “it is built with the consumer in mind,” and therefore is easy to understand and familiar. It is “a platform that takes complex information and simpli es it so that it can be readily used by many, many different people — not just your GIS experts.”

As for GME’s limited capabilities, he expects the platform to improve signi cantly over time. “I believe that any issues around the GME platform will get resolved [and] I see three core advantages [to GME]: it’s faster to get implemented; it’s cheaper to operate; and it simplifies the infrastructure required to have these systems in place in an organization.”

FIGURE 5. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.
FIGURE 5. The Las Conchas fire in New Mexico in 2011. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Kari Greer, Photographer.

The Future

Will Google further productize its server farms? “With GME, we are absolutely committed to exposing the entire geospatial infrastructure that we used to build our consumer Google Earth and Google Maps, where it makes sense,” says Lorimer. “We process all kinds of data — imagery, vector data, 3D models from LiDAR, terrain models, and so forth. I think you’ll see that, as customers request it and it makes business sense, we’ll certainly expose more and more of that functionality within GME.”

astrick Matteo Luccio
Writer Pale Blue Dot LLC
Portland, Ore