Katrina & Google Earth = Sense of Scope

I’ve been a fan of Google Earth (formerly Keyhole) since it came out… it feeds my voracious love of maps, satellite photography, 3D and GPS information like a drug.

Combine this software with the resources of Google, thousands of networked enthusiasts and professionals and you’ve got resources that likely dwarf the capabilities of photo intelligence agencies of only a few years ago. Spinning the globe around like a marble in your fingers and almost instantly seeing what can be very up-to-date, detailed imagery is positively intoxicating.

After a couple of days of trying to take in the scope of the Katrina disaster, especially in New Orleans, I finally sat down to look at the city in detail. I wanted to better orient myself and get a clearer understanding of the spatial relationships between the locations of buildings, levees, etc., that were constantly being discussed in the media.

The first few moments of looking at New Orleans, even just the pre-flood, high-res photos, hit me like a brick. You can see it on TV and read about it on the web, but until you are looking at photos where you have a sense of control and scale over what you see, you simply cannot absorb the sheer size of the disaster we’re witnessing.


Obviously, even this marginally more detailed view of things doesn’t give anyone a real sense of the horrors… I’d never wish to suggest that or say that I can truly relate with the emotions of a rescue worker or, quite obviously, a victim of the disaster. You can, however, get a much better sense of the overall scale of the task in terms of geographic size and complexity and the impact is positively stunning.

Part of what makes this possible is the fact that you can spend time looking at places in the world with which you are already familiar. Look at your own city or town or a place that you know intimately… possibly even the roof of your own house or office. It’s fun to see it with satellite or other aerial imagery. It’s also a way to start to associate a real-world, personal sense of scale and spatial relationships with the software itself. Moving the mouse to rotate a view of a given area becomes a virtual form of walking or flying and you start to feel more “there” after a bit.

Much work from the Google Earth community, Google employees and countless other volunteers has led to up-to-date imagery post-hurricane being made available for overlay on top of the entire Gulf Coast. Over 4,000 new images (only a couple of days old) are already tightly mapped into place complete with dates, times and links to news information or other bits of helpful trivia.

Also, people are mapping traditional ground photos (albeit with a warped and somewhat unreaslitic perspective) onto the normal overhead scenes. It sounds odd, but it locks a photo that is otherwise disjointed for those unfamiliar with New Orleans into the larger landscape and gives you a contextual location. This leads to not only seeing where a given scene exists, but aids in understanding just how vast the repetition of similar destruction is throughout the larger area.

Mapping in photos also drives home how the subject of a given photo (say, a levee break) relates to its effects on the surrounding area. I’ve seen photos of rescue work placed accurately within the map, makeshift boat landings on bridges, helicopter locations and the spot where prisoners from area jails were held on a highway overpass. In the last two days I’ve pinpointed actual fires raging in buildings and gained a sense of the local areas that they threaten (as well as clear evidence of why they are hard to put out).

The NY Times had an article yesterday that covered another aspect of it’s value in this crisis: map-based volunteer work. It highlights the beneficial uses of the technology in helping people in shelters or other locations get at least general information about the condition of their home or neighborhood (or that of a loved one). It’s a rather powerful example of the intersection of technology and society in the midst of adversity and I encourage everyone to read it:

For Victims, News About Home Can Come From Strangers Online

Google has also been mapping much of the same imagery from the stand-alone application I’m discussing here (Google Earth) into their web-based Google Maps. For a look, click here (centered on the Superdome).

If you opt to get into using Google Earth, much of the imagery I’m referring to is available here and here

I hope you give it a try. By the way, those nifty 3D, rotating fly-overs of places around the world (from Iraq to New Orleans) you’re seeing on CNN, ABC and other networks is being done with this very software.

One Response to “Katrina & Google Earth = Sense of Scope”

  1. bob says:

    Hi Aaron thank you for showing your very informative and interesting site. I enjoy your take on the google earth program. I will download it. I currently use a similar program called NASA world wind. http://worldwind.arc.nasa.gov/ You might find it interesting if you haven’t seen it. Its a gnu free source program, in development all the time.
    I am going to add your blog to our link list. I think our readers would enjoy what you have to offer. And thanks Aaron for the insightful comments and complements you have left on our posts.