GIS Tech News #10

10 Oct, 2005

Cadalyst GIS Tech NewsPlugging Into Google Earth

New, free technology brings GIS to the desktops of the masses

The launch of Google Earth sends an optimistic jolt through the GIS world (see Cadalyst’s September Tech Trends feature article, “Around the World in 80 Seconds”). The general prognosis is that this free terrain-exploration application, dubbed “the People’s GIS” by, will revolutionize how design programs interact with geospatial data. It’s a cause for celebration among hobbyists and specialists alike. Almost immediately, they began congregating online to discuss how to best use this emerging technology. In GIS bulletin boards and blogs, they sought and shared tips on how to export 3D shapes from their design programs into Google Earth.

Optimism Abounds
The excitement also spills into the AEC sector. Industry watchers have been touting 3D BIM (building information modeling) as the next big change in architecture. To some, Google Earth, with its easy interface for visualizing and interrogating construction sites in 3D, is a promising technology. At a relatively low cost, Google Earth gives building teams unprecedented ability to examine how their projects will fit into the suburban landscapes they are meant for.

Gary Lang, vice-president of engineering for Autodesk’s Infrastructure Solutions Division, observes, “When you have [an application that can provide] that many photographs taken at that many angles of the landscape from such a low altitude, you are able to do things that you would normally expect a GIS analysis package to do.”

For more, see “I Live in a Google World, but I Work in a Pre-Google One” by Tom Sweeney at AECbytes and “BIM + Global Database + Bandwidth = The Future, Today” by the New Zealand-born CAD manager Robin Capper at RobiNZ CAD Blog.

The free version of Google Earth is candy for the masses, but the search engine giant has bigger plans. Once there’s a groundswell, it expects to sell the paid versions -- Google Earth Plus ($20 a year), Google Earth Pro ($400 a year) and Google Earth Enterprise (price varies depending on configuration) -- to businesses and government institutions. You can bet Autodesk, ESRI and Intergraph -- the big three of the GIS scene -- are peering deep into the code of their own products to figure out how to plug into Google Earth. So far, I have not heard any official announcements from these companies. Meanwhile, several firms have already introduced applications to address this.

For Your Immediate Consideration
Several weeks after Google Earth’s launch, ARCHIBUS/FM, a provider of infrastructure and FM (facilities management) solutions, announced that its products now support Google Earth. The company anticipates its customers conducting sophisticated analyses, such as real estate portfolio examination and underground cableway maintenance, using ARCHIBUS/FM data in conjunction with Google Earth.

For instance, ARCHIBUS/FM users can store point locations of assets in the database and check them against Google Earth maps. This makes it easy to pinpoint the locations of critical items, such as buried cables or junction boxes that are not detectable in satellite images. In large-scale campus planning, users can similarly examine adjacencies between buildings, which are usually not evident in 2D maps. ARCHIBUS/FM offerings also support ESRI and Autodesk mapping products.

Spatial data interoperability is the specialty of Canada-based Safe Software. Its flagship product, FME (Feature Manipulation Engine), now lets users read and write Google Earth-compatible data in KML (Keyhole Markup Language). Many in the CAD world are familiar with SketchUp, an intuitive conceptualization tool from @Last Software. Even though the company is careful to point out SketchUp is not a CAD program, its ease of use and fun factor have made it a favorite drafting tool for architects and designers. Now, users of SketchUp 5 will be able to export SketchUp 3D models into Google Earth. The Google Earth Importer/Exporter module is available as a free download

Moving in Next Door to Autodesk
I wanted to put Google Earth to the test for myself. I have visited Autodesk’s headquarters in San Rafael, California, a number of times for press events. As I recall, there's an unoccupied piece of land across the street from its parking lot. So I decided to move into it, with a little help from Google Earth and SketchUp.

First, I navigated in Google Earth to the exact location of Autodesk headquarters. Then I added four place markers to stake out my territory nearby. Google Earth allows these coordinates to be saved as KML files. Then I launched SketchUp and installed the Google Earth Importer/Exporter. This allows me to import my Google Earth coordinates into SketchUp. The next step was to recreate in SketchUp a close approximation of my apartment. I made sure the dimensions of my model were well within the Google Earth coordinates, which appeared as four Xs (figure 1).

In SketchUp, I reconstruct my apartment building, carefully positioning it within the coordinates imported from Google Earth.

For good measure, I threw in a car to represent my downstairs neighbor’s Honda Civic. Once that was done, I saved the entire SketchUp model as a KMZ file, a format Google Earth can read. When I reopened the file in Google Earth, I found my little two-story apartment -- my neighbor’s car included -- sitting across the street from Autodesk’s parking lot (figure 2).

When I reopen the SketchUp model in Google Earth, it appears as a 3D model, sitting across the street from Autodesk headquarters.

With Google Earth colonizing everyone’s desktop, it could become the standard interface for querying geospatial data. Autodesk’s Lang predicts, “It’ll change some of the design processes, because people will now expect things to work that way.” I wonder how he feels about having me as a neighbor.

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. He explores innovative use of technology and its implications in GIS Tech Trends and in Cadalyst magazine?s PLM Strategies column. Reach him at

Cadalyst's full calendar of events is available at

ESRI User Group Meetings -- California
Various dates in October 2005
Various locations in California

GITA Online Convention and Exposition
October 1 - December 31, 2005
Presented by the Geospatial Information & Technology Association, free online event will offer sessions presented by featured speakers as well as an exposition of software, hardware and services.

2005 ARCHIBUS/FM Users' Conference-Europe
November 6-8, 2005
Sheraton Heathrow, London, United Kingdom
Conference will offer more than 20 technical and management-level sessions, executive presentations and previews of the latest products

GIS in Homeland Security: Interoperable Common Operational Picture
December 5-6, 2005
Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC
Conference includes special segments on the role of geographic information systems in homeland security response and recovery management.