Saturday, November 05, 2005

This Friday I was passing by my manager’s desk and saw him doing something interesting for the first time instead of talking crap and doing mundane managerial job and what’s that its Googling map.

Yes, now Google is officially the eye in the sky, looking at you. While the entire world is excited about it, including our President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, wondering what ramifications this piece of software will have. After reinventing Web search and then coming up with a tool to search your own computer, it is now time to find places — and probably at a later date find people — on our planet that now suddenly seems very small. This not about keying in your search word on a web page and getting results in text; Google has gone a step further, you can now actually see places — right down to your local neighbourhood with all those cars and buses — thanks to images from satellites orbiting high above the earth.

Before you scoff at the big fuss that space images have been available for years — wait. All the world's big powers (including India, even though we don't publicly acknowledge it) have had their imaging satellites. Later, a company called Space Imaging used its Ikonos satellites to provide commercial space images. But in both these cases, you had to have either "access" or pay money to get a peek at the images, and Space Imaging was legally bound by the U.S. Government to not photograph and sell images of "sensitive locations" (they were not allowed to sell images of Iraq, for example). This I personally feel is the flip side about the mis-use of a powerful tool from the Google bank.

But now Google has broken all barriers by offering almost metre-resolution images of any patch of land on the surface of the earth either for free or for a marginal fee. Dams, nuclear power stations, military bases, houses, natural wonders... you name it and you are flying right over it. It is rather like that magic crystal ball right out of fairytales. As soon as you key in your search, the place pops up as a yellow light in the 3-D globe in the software, and once you click on the light you are there in a flash. So much for air travel.

Initially the tool was meant to find addresses around the world, like say for tourists to find a café in Paris or a gold souk in Dubai. Now you don't just find ‘X’ cross,’Y’ Main Street in Bangalore, if you look closely enough you'll home in on the famous Electronic City Road. This is precisely the factor that is worrying heads of states around the world. All their secrets are open to inspection by someone like good old OBL sitting with his laptop and satellite phone in a cosy cave and they can't do diddly about it. The software cannot be blocked because the way it is designed and the sheer number of people using it will overpower traditional Internet filters. So the hurculean task for the techies in the Google world is to stop the mis-use of this and make sure that the world makes the best use out of it.

And it is not just the curious and devious who are using this software. I know someone personally who is a structural engineer, and uses it academically to analyse buildings and town plans of cities abroad. "I really like the feature which allows one to see 3-D models of the buildings and the over-the-city view gives you a good idea of the plan. It would be nice if even Indian cities had the road names and building names. It is a great tool to study town planning and for anybody visiting a new place you can actually scout the areas carefully before you get there," he says. This will add a new dimension to study Civil Engineering or Architecture Engineering

But it is not that Google Earth comes without its catch. Time is not far when it would be possible for someone to remain anonymous anymore. "We are already using things like credit cards which leave an electronic trail. Then, of course, you have the Internet and most of us now leave our imprints online with our blogs and emails. So we can be tracked now if the need arises. But it is scary to think that with advances in technology you can actually spot people on the surface of the planet based on their personal data you have. I guess you can't disappear from or disown society anymore!" .

How do I use Google Earth when Bangalore and Mumbai are hit by heavy torrential rain hampering life in all forms starting from business to daily activities.
If your home was flooded during the recent rains in the city and don't know why, try Google Earth. The software brutally exposes the lack of town planning concepts in India. Take Bangalore for example. Everyone talks about lakes being encroached and proof of that is dwellings built almost in the middle of lake beds and in some cases even kutcha roads passing through lakes (and you can see vehicles on these roads). The software also shows topographical features in depressing detail especially valleys, wetlands and floodplains that have been built upon. That’s lovely.


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