Graphical tools have always benefited urban planning and helped it bring closer to the masses. A picture is worth a thousand words – cannot be more relevant when used for planning purposes. Explain the various zoning codes and restrictions in verbose language and legalese, you will only get blank stares from a bored audience; pop in a colorful map, people suddenly wake up and begin to show interest; project a animator on a large screen, they might even begin to cheer you.
Google Earth is somewhat like the last scenario except it can reside on desktops in every home and gratefully, it is free. Devised and released initially as game for virtual reality hobbyists who enjoyed the fly-overs and zooming into the globe to take a look at their homes from above. Google Earth even worried people when the Indian government cited security concerns over the vast availability of satellite data to the general public. But eventually benefits of Google Earth have begun to surface (no pun intended). Google Earth was especially useful in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that allowed relief workers to get a better understanding of the flooded areas and accordingly organize help. More recently, two Google Earth hobbyists helped Surat’s municipal corporation to identify flooded areas and rescue hundreds of people.
In the research field, Geographic Information Sytems (GIS) has always held sway in bridging the gap between planning and graphical interface. But often, GIS has seemed too complex for researchers and have kept the potential of GIS largely untapped. Google Earth just might be the testing ground before people move over to GIS for more detailed analysis. In fact ESRI, the leading GIS software provider is now developing a revised version of its ArcGIS program including a virtual globe that would be accessible through the Internet. Other scientific pursuits taking advantage of Google Earth involve study of spread of diseases like bird flu, demographic information including crime statistics, geological studies, environmental studies that involve tracking animals over a large area.
Google Earth may not seem much at the first glance but the open ended nature of the software lets those who dabble in it to discover hidden gems and devise their own adaptations for scientific pursuit.[source: The Mapping Revolution]