Google Earth and News: Make Your Own Street Views (and More)

A render of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado...
The Flatirons of Boulder, CO, as rendered by Google Earth. (Image via Wikipedia)

Recently Frank Taylor blogged about a cool Google Earth trick that could be an intriguing visual online news tool: homemade street views.

The example he cites is from Taiwan, where developer Steven Ho lives. Taylor wrote:

“[Ho] has been waiting for signs Google would bring Street View to Taiwan, but finally couldn’t wait any longer. So, he spent a few days making his own Street View panoramas for National Taiwan University campus. It turns out March is the month when the Indian azalea bloom, so he decided to take his street view photos along the famous Royal Palm boulevard. Steven took the time to not only take 150 panoramas, but also process his KML [Keyhole markup language, which is to Google Earth what HTML is to Web browsers] so it looks and acts just like Google Earth’s Street View imagery. He also added in some 3D buildings for the campus and the palm trees.”

The result is impressive. If you have Google Earth installed (and I recommend upgrading to Google Earth 5.0, which was released in February), then download Ho’s Taiwan street view and open that file in Google Earth. After it zooms in on Taiwan, click on any of the camera icons to start your visual wandering of the campus.

If you don’t have Google Earth, here’s a video screencast of what the experience looks like:

This made me think: What if a news organization offered this kind of immersive experience related to a news story or ongoing topic?…

Google obviously can’t update its street view imagery too often — and even Google’s eyes can’t be everywhere (as the Taiwan project demonstrates). So what if news orgs, journalists, or bloggers rolled their own Google Earth street views to:

  • Show the effects of a disaster such as a flood, hurricane, earthquake, or tornado. Or (on the bright side) the effects of a redevelopment project or environmental cleanup.
  • Offer unique insight into the local environment: Culture, architecture, economy, etc.
  • Walkthrough wayback machine. Overlay original current imagery with historic imagery from Google Earth (or elsewhere) to create a sense of transition from past to present.

It used to be that creating a Google Earth KML layer required a bit of a learning curve. Google’s Panoramio service makes that a bit easier — at least for very basic projects — by allowing you to upload photos and automating the KML generation process. You can also use Panoramio to enable photo browsing via Google Maps street view.

While many Google Earth developers are creating map layers related to current events (like the Fargo flood), there don’t as yet appear to be many mainstream news media projects involving Google Earth (aside from the New York Times and National Geographic).

Google, not surprisingly, generates a Google Earth map layer for Google News — which is a fascinating way to discover current news based on geography. To activate, go to the “layers” menu in the Google Earth sidebar, and expand the “gallery” to view the “Google News” layer.

Seems to me that Google Earth is a field ripe with engaging journalistic opportunity — especially considering the popular Google Earth iPhone application.

There’s a very active Google Earth community where you can find ideas and help. And the Ogle Earth blog by Stefan Greens is a great resource that “documents how Google Earth and other neogeographical tools are affecting geopolitics.” (Read: News value)

(NOTE: I originally published this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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