Arik Hesseldahl

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Google Earth Builder Brings Cloud to Companies and Governments Who Make Big Maps

Google Maps is useful when you need to know the exact location of the restaurant you’re going to or when you need directions to someplace you don’t know well. Google Earth is fun and useful when you want to check out a place you want to visit on vacation, like, say, Key West.

But there’s also a big specialized industry around the handling of detailed digital mapping data in what are known as Geographic Information Systems. Governments collect and store aerial and satellite images of important places to keep track of how they change over time and to help manage those changes. Businesses in a range of industries use the data to scope out new factories or to plan logistics. Power companies use GIS technology to map their grids, and wireless companies use it to build detailed maps of their tower infrastructure.

There is, however, one big problem with GIS data: The files are huge. Once you start collecting data, you can easily end up with terabytes worth of information. Typically, those files end up trapped on big servers out of reach of people who could actively use the data.

Beyond that, you usually need a lot of computing power to process the images. Stitching a bunch of aerial images taken of a town or county into a single image requires a lot of computing time and access to expensive and specialized tools. Plus you need someone with the expertise to work with the data.

Today Google announced that it is opening up its cloud infrastructure to companies and governments so they can put those files to use and basically build their own internal Google Earth applications. It’s called Google Earth Builder, and the basic idea is that you can upload, process and store your geospatial data in the cloud, and then put it to use in the familiar Google Earth and Google Maps interface.

Once in Google’s cloud, the data can be accessed from any Web-connected device, but you can also secure it so that if it’s proprietary data, only those who need to see it will, though it’s still easy to publish to the Web as well. Google handles the processing, which is a computing-intensive task. For instance, stitching several aerial images together into a single cohesive image is a pretty daunting job, but it’s one that Google’s distributed systems can make short work of. Then there’s potential savings to be had from not having to buy servers to store and back up the data.

Dylan Lorimer, product manager for Google Earth, told me that in the six years or so since Google bought Keyhole–the satellite imagery company that became the basis for the product–the company has built a deep well of experience and infrastructure around working with the peculiarities of GIS data. “We can process all these different kinds of data, whether it’s satellite or aerial imagery, basemaps, 3-D models, terrain models, we can process it on a massive scale, and we do it every day,” he told me. Here’s an interesting stat: Google processed and published 20 million square kilometers (about 7.7 million square miles) worth of high-res imagery for use on Google Earth and Google Maps.

One company that has been testing the service is Australia’s Ergon Energy, which used it to manage some of its GIS data. Another customer is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a U.S. defense group whose mission is to “Know The Earth, and Show The Way.” It provides what it calls “geospatial intelligence” to the military in times of conflict, and to civilian government agencies in times of disaster, like the Midwest floods in 2008 or the West’s wildfires in 2007.

It’s also a fairly large industry, and it looks like Google has its eyes on using its cloud infrastructure to try to upend it a bit. One study by a firm called Daratech pegs the size of the U.S. market for GIS and geospatial software and services at $4.4 billion last year and on track to grow to $5 billion this year.

Google plans to release the service in more than 100 countries during the third quarter, and hasn’t specified anything in the way of pricing other than to call it “competitive with other GIS products.” Seems like Google will be saying more on this subject soon.