Gov 2.0, News, Open Data

Google’s Got the Geo-Location Goods, Part I: Basics and Brand New Tools

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a two-day training entitled “Mapping Environmental Scenarios & Solutions with Google Technology” hosted by the Google Earth Outreach team. “Pleasure” might be something of an understatement — not only was the training very well executed by the capable and knowledgeable Earth Outreach crew, but the sheer volume of free tools and web services that they dropped on us was mindboggling. In the hopes of sharing the wealth, especially for those of us in the public sector who need all the free resources we can marshall, I’m writing this post to tell you about what I learned, in two parts. In this first post, I’ll cover the basics of the Google Maps & Earth services, as well as introduce you to some brand new tools: Fusion Tables, for managing and visualizing data, and Open Data Kit (ODK), for collecting and aggregating data. In Part II, I’ll show all the power users out there whay they can do with the Maps and Earth APIs, and finish up with some amazing odds and ends tucked away on the Google shelves.

Maps & Earth 

At this point, in April of 2011, I’m assuming most of you reading this are very aware of Google Maps and Google Earth. I won’t spend much time explaining them other than to say that both have revolutionized the geospatial world, in both two and three dimensions.

I, for one, would hard-pressed to imagine life without Google Maps. Yes, there are other mapping services available, but Google Maps has always seemed to me the cleanest and tightest. Or, to borrow a phrase from Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell of SNL, Google Maps is the best, true that, Double True! But what really makes Maps stand out from the crowd is the ease with which new maps can be created and shared. At SF Environment, we use an increasing number of Google Maps to share information with a geo-location component, such as this, this, and this.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Google has just launched Map Maker that lets users directly edit places in Google Maps, from buildings to businesses.

The general internet public is probably less familiar with Google Earth. With Earth, Google has created their own 3-D model of the globe, complete with rendered satellite imagery and even line models of parcels and buildings. The result is a truly immersive and very powerful tool for storytelling. I still remember being awed by Rebecca Moore’s 2006 “Logging Flyover” of the Santa Cruz Mountains that single-handedly changed public opinion about a dispute over logging rights at the time. Creating custom tours or “fly-overs” with text, links, embedded video and even audio narration does take some time but is remarkably simple. Check out a few great examples here and here.

Fusion Tables & ODK

One of the most exciting tools we covered at the training was Google’s new Fusion Tables which just may herald the dawn of web-based GIS. Born in Google Labs as an experiment in cloud data management, Fusion Tables is an attempt to combine data management and collaboration to enable “merging multiple data sources, discussion of the data, querying, visualization, and Web publishing.” Pretty cool stuff, and sorely needed.

At first glance, Fusion Tables looks like a beta version of Google Spreadsheets. The service is very new and still a little rough around the edges, but I don’t doubt that it will soon shine as do more mature Google offerings. Data can be entered directly or imported via a text file, but that’s where the similarity with Spreadsheets ends. Once your data is in, simply hit a button and you’ve got a map. Publishing to Maps is super easy, as is collaboration — all you or you collaborators need is a google account and you are good to go. If you have multiple data sources that reference the same entities, you can easily “fuse” those sources through creating “joins” without knowing how to write out SQL queries. Have a question for your collaborators about some of that fused data? Fusion Tables has built-in discussion tools.

Clearly Google is getting into the GIS game. If Fusion Tables wasn’t enough of an indicator, Google has even begun to post Fusion Tables of public data sets upon which you can build your own mapping project. My favorite? State and County boundary tables obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau and imported by the Fusion Tables team. Sweet! Google is offering an incredible service with Fusion Tables, and it looks like people are already adopting, as evidenced by some State of California data sets being stored as Fusion Tables.

What if  the data you want to visualize needs to be first be collected? Open Data Kit promises to integrate these geo-location tools directly into the fieldwork so often necessary to generate data. Open Data Kit is actually a project of the University of Washington’s Change Group that is supported by Google and hosted on Google Code. This set of free and open source tools allows developers to build data collection forms for Android mobile devices. You can take the term “developer” lightly here — in one of the breakout sessions during the Earth Outreach training, we built a data collection form in a matter of minutes. Once published, users can download the ODK Collect app, call up your form, and start logging data that is immediately aggregated on a server with ODK Aggregate, ready for extraction.

Pulling all of these tools together, one possible work flow for data collection and presentation could look like this:

collect with ODK Collect >> aggregate with ODK Aggregate >> extract to Fusion Tables >> publish to Google Maps/Earth

We ran a simple exercise cataloging and mapping plants using Android phones and, while there were a few bumps, it was clear that this is an amazing way to empower your team with a full set of geo-location tools, from data collection all the way through to visualization. After the workshop, my mind was reeling with the possibilities for deploying this suite of tools. Now, if I could only find the time…

Which brings us to the end of Part I of this Google love fest. Check back soon for a deeper dive into the possibilities of Google APIs, along with a few other exciting odds and ends.

Gov 2.0, News, Public Participation

Let’s Do It San Francisco – Next Steps

The Let’s Do It movement is inherently grassroots and requires a massive volunteer effort. Since I publicly floated the idea on Thursday, the response has been positive, with support from the director of the SF Neighborhood Empowerment Network, line-level SF city employees, Craig Newmark, and, very importantly, Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix (a Web, phone and mobile app that allows citizens to track and report blight and municipal infrastructure issues), just to name a few. Ben and his co-founders are going to be in town in mid-April, and it makes sense to have an initial volunteer team meeting at that time.

The volunteers who kicked of Let’s Do It in Estonia started with a team of 20 that grew to more than 600, with 40,000 taking part in the culminating day of action. My first goal is to have at least 20 of us at an initial meeting mid-month.

To clean graffiti, we’re looking at a couple big issues. Some of the worst of it is on state-owned and private property. That means getting permissions from the property owners to remove it. And we’ll need ladders, not just paint and paint supplies. I think the permission part is pretty easily dealt with as we create an opt-in for property owners, who will greatly benefit from this effort (they are legally responsible for removing graffiti on their property). We need muralists on board for hot spots, a trash transport plan, and, as we pick up steam, there may be opportunity to address other blight as well.

There already are commercial paint matching apps, and we’ll want to work to tie them into the mapping system as well as seek partnerships with paint companies that can provide mobile paint matching services for the day of action.

Alissa has pointed out that we can tap SF’s 311 system to identify outstanding complaints before the day of action (thinking about at September or October for the date).

I’ve created a Twitter account and hashtag for LetsDoItSF, and we should also agree on an open shared space for online collaboration: Google docs, Wave, GovLoop, here?


To get more insight on what we’re diving into, check out the Let’s Do it World action manual. What we are doing here will not only dramatically improve blight in San Francisco and show the power of collective civic action, it is also critical infrastructure building in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions.

The technologies for pulling this off have only advanced since 2008 and Estonia. Let’s do it!

~ Adriel Hampton