Google and the Geospatial Web: A smaller piece of a much, much larger pie.

Well, I’ve been back from Where 2.0 for awhile, and as usual blogging hasn’t been the highest priority, but there was one topic that I’ve been really wanting to write about.

And that is that Google seems to be legitimately moving in a more open direction with regards to geospatial. I’ve rarely been overtly critical of their lack of openness, but it’s always been a source of frustration for me. And as I got to know more people there I definitely realized that their lack of collaboration wasn’t the result of any malicious intent, it was simply a perceived lack of resources – they felt they didn’t have time to put effort in to standards and working with others. And I’ll be the first to admit that it takes more work to be open and collaborative.

But I do say ‘perceived’, because the thing I’ve found again and again doing the ‘open’ thing is that it’s an investment that pays off in the medium and long term. Working alone definitely allows you to move faster in the short term, but working with others leaves you much better off in the longer term.

With regards to Google’s geo portfolio, the way I’ve always termed it is they could have a huge piece of a small pie or a sizeable piece of a much, much bigger pie. What pie is it we’re talking about? What I’ve referred to as the Geospatial Web, though I’m trying to call it the geoweb, since that term seems to be taking off more. They are obviously the clear leader, with Google Earth and Maps, specifically KML and mashups – as those both allow more geospatial data to get out in the world. And they could just push KML and their platform and do quite well. But it would be a silo. It wouldn’t be like the web, it’d be a greatly expanded and easier to use Geography Network. Much, much better and bigger, but still a single platform. It could potentially even become a platform like Windows, truly dominant, but the point for me is it still wouldn’t be as big as it could be. It wouldn’t be the World Wide Web, where innovation comes from all over building something far bigger than any single company could possibly make on their own.

The bigger pie is the vision of a true Geospatial Web, that diverse individuals and organizations all contribute to, and where technical innovations come from all over. To achieve this there must be an underpinning of open standards, that others can contribute to. There must be an ecosystem of companies and services, business models and startups and dot-orgs. The ecosystem can be dominated by an entity, but can’t be entirely dependent on a single entity, as would be the case if Google defines the software and the format and the search engine. But if this open geoweb is nurtured and encouraged the right way we’ll get exponential growth. Citizens will start demanding that governments and organizations data put their data on, just like we’ve seen happen with eGovernment on the WWW. It will become a default, and people will look at you weird if you have geospatial data that’s not on it.

I think it’s not crazy to aim for the majority of all spatial information to be available on it. It will be a much bigger pie than one that Google owns, as more and more people will feel comfortable making their data available, since it’s a public resource instead of clearly benefiting a single company. And it also allows further innovations to come from the outside. Google has a ton of smart people, but they don’t have all the smart people in the world. They can afford to let innovation come from elsewhere (though I’m sure they’ll probably just buy up the best ones), because they’ll start to do what the company does best: search. There’s no reason to own a geoweb when you can own the way most people find information on The geoweb.

Of course, even with search Google could constrain it to their web, as they did when geo search came out – it was called KML Search and only could find KML. What they are going for now is much more ambitious, and indeed a bit more risky. And so I applaud them for it – they are putting a stake in the ground that says ‘our best ideas are not behind us’. They are going to be a leading force in a much bigger pie, and turn this open collaboration in to a really good long term investment.

Ok, I’ve gone on speculating about things, I probably should give a bit of evidence. I admit that it’s pretty subtle, but based on it and a few conversations my gut tells me that they are legitimately on the level. At least for now, that’s not to say that some corporate decision could move things in an opposite direction: such is the fate of a publicly traded company. But they seem to be trying to do some work that will be hard to undo.

First, KML Search is now referred to as ‘geo search’, and is crawling not just KML but also GeoRSS, with more formats likely coming soon. This is one of the most important pieces to me, and was the announcement that excited me much more than StreetView. It is admitting that it’s ok for people to use other formats, even though KML is super nice and easy to use. Yes, more formats may confuse my grandmother (one of the eloquent arguments used by Google folks in the past for why we should all just use KML), but more formats also means extending an olive branch that says you can work with others.

Second, Google is an active sponsor in OGC’s OWS-5. I had been a bit skeptical of their throwing KML over the fence to OGC. Yes, it’s nice the copyright is with OGC, but it’s kind of meaningless to me unless KML actually aligns with the other open standards. And OGC would likely try to do that, but then it remains a question if Google would actually support the new standard. Or if they’d have this covert control over it with the ability to exclude any decisions they didn’t like by just not including an implementation in Google Earth and Maps. But they are sponsoring OWS-5 which will fund several server and client implementations to flesh out a new KML spec that incorporates other OGC standards. The OWS testbeds are the best way to develop specs in the OGC, and putting real money up for this definitely indicates for me a commitment to making KML a true open standard, not just a rubber stamped pseudo-standard. The one piece that I’m not sure on is how much they’ll have engineers working with OWS-5 to try out the new spec ideas on Google Earth and Maps. If they have a couple people show up at the kickoff meeting who are set to work on it for the next few months I will be very happy.

Third, John Hanke’s speech at Where 2.0 was the first time I had heard the Google geo team really tell the world that they want to work with others. Some of it was subtle, but there was definitely a flavor of openness and collaboration that I’d not felt before. Previous speeches would always come back to the innovations they’re doing, how great KML is, ect. There was little acknowledgment of an outside world, which could come across as fairly arrogant – that not only are we doing things the best way, we haven’t even looked in to how anyone else might do since we must be doing things the best.

And finally, in private conversations many googlers have talked about a more open shift in the past 6-9 months. There were always a few voices for that, but it sounds like a tipping point has been reached and there is now a critical mass. The voices are heard and effort is being oriented in that direction. I think it’s an investment that will really pay off for Google, and though I’m going to continue to work to push them in to ever more open directions (maybe even to be able to talk to them about what they’ve got in the pipeline without signing an NDA? Ah, to dream ;), count me as a skeptic who is becoming more and more convinced that we’re going to build a true, open, collaborative geoweb.

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5 thoughts on “Google and the Geospatial Web: A smaller piece of a much, much larger pie.

  1. Chris, I like the direction that Google is pulling us in. KML spread quickly because it’s more like hypermedia than anything specified by the OGC. There’s real potential for a web with KML that was never possible using WxS.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I guess I’ve shared your skepticism regarding Google. It’s true that OGC has never ventured into the rendering side of the specification world, but they’ve purposely left rendering xml graphics to others such as w3c’s svg. If kml becomes a defacto xml graphics standard for mapping it only reinforces the foresight of OGC. Kml has some utility as a geographic xml graphic format with styling capability. So far though, it remains a one way street into Google. For it to be very useful to the rest of us I think it will need to be bidirectional with some form of implementation in the browser as well as Google Earth.

  3. Pingback: neogeo » Archive du blog » GeoWeb : Google Maps pour seule référence ?
  4. Pingback: Producing, not consuming, makes the GeoWeb go ’round. « Into The Pudding
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