Mobile GIS & Location Based Services
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Is Google Maps GIS Lite?
May 11th, 2012 by Rory Biggadike
In the past we have leaned on the likes of ESRI’s ArcGIS Server (and their various web mapping APIs) as well as some of the more advanced open-source options like GeoServer, OpenLayers, OpenScales, etc. But things are changing. Attend any GIS focused conference and you will notice two things. First, that ESRI now talk about “non GIS users”, and not just in passing; all the time. And second that Google are usually there in one form or other. After chatting with one senior Google geo person we decided to look at their offering in greater depth.
Google are considered by many professionals to be on the lighter side of geospatial. Their flagship products like Google Maps and Google Earth shook up the geospatial world in the mid 2000′s. Recently Google has been working hard to expand and deepen their roots into the geospatial world, particularly on the mobile side.
Rory (me) went out and did his own Google geo investigation.
Google Maps Geospatial Scope
Google API Buffet
Google GIS lite – Static, Standard, Styled, and Custom Maps
Additionally, while Google uses the webmap-standard Mercator projection (EPSG 3857) for all of its maps, you are allowed to implement your own custom projections as well. Needless to say, Google Maps has worked hard to provide options beyond the basic streetmap.
Google Geospatial – Capabilities and Functionality
When you think of Google Maps, you think of fast basemaps, streetviews, routing, kml’s, etc… Very GIS-lite kinda stuff, but can it do more? Google Maps doesn’t try to be a full GIS, but to paraphrase them…many of their solutions come pretty close.
Aside from fusion table layers there are Overlay objects that can represent spatial data in the form of markers(points), polylines, circles, rectangles, or polygons. Any overlay can be made editable and combined with the Drawing library for allowing users to edit the overlay object. This editing is done on the client-side (basically as a graphics layer) and once the application is loaded, does not need to be online to edit. Thus offline editing could be possible using Google Maps, however the syncing of those edits back to a server appears to be lacking right now. Enter ODK (Open Data Kit), created by University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering. The Google Earth Outreach team seems to be currently recommending the use of ODK for offline field data collection. ODK currently works only on android devices (or simulated on a PC) and seems to be geared towards field data to replace paper forms rather than more complex GIS operations such as heads-up digitizing in the field. Although it should be noted that the obvious potential for combing the ODK system with overlays or fusion table layers is certainly something to be excited about and we’ll be looking into further. Additionally, the data collection part of ODK is a native android application and thus has the ability to tap into the hardware sensors of the device to collect location via the GPS chip, images or videos via the camera, and audio via the microphone. The real power of ODK though is the ability to collect data offline and then sync it to a server later on when the user has a connection again. The Google Earth team outlines a process by which to do this and eventually import the data collected into a fusion table for viewing as a layer on Google Maps. It’d be nice to see this process more streamlined and built into the abilities of the Maps API since offline editing requests are continuing to explode in the mobile geospatial realm, but at least there is a solution available, even if it’s not ideal.
Last to explore is the capabilities of hosting your own spatial data on a GIS server (or equivalent) for disseminating out to webmaps and mobile applications. Currently ESRI’s ArcGIS Server and the open-source GeoServer lead the pack here. Google’s answer to this is their new Earth Builder product. Google Earth Builder is designed to let users publish geospatial data into Google’s secure cloud. Google Earth Builder supports ESRI JP2, MrSID, GeoTiff, JPEG file formats for raster and ESRI Shapefiles, MapInfo Tabfiles, CSV, KML, KMZ for vector. Once published, the data can be accessed via the Maps or Earth APIs and viewed on webmaps, desktop apps, or android apps. Sharing and access control relies on Google Accounts and OAuth2. According to their site, “Google Earth Builder pricing is based on the amount of storage quota and pageviews for the account”, but no rates were listed.
Google Mobile Location Solutions – Licensing and Limitations
Google Maps data, APIs, and services have licensing and usage constraints. The Maps API is free to use as long as your site or application is free and publicly accessible. If usage of the Maps API by a for-profit site or application consistently exceeds the free daily usage limits, you’ll need to purchase additional map loads or purchase a Google Maps API for Business license. For-profit sites are permitted to generate up to 25,000 map loads per day for free, other services’ limits vary.
The time they certainly are a changing. If you’ve hitched yourselves to ESRI, some exciting things are in the works with ArcGIS online. But the real action in the geospatial world is mobile and no one company solution will prevail. Many location based API’s have now been released, more are planned. Spatial problems we could not solve before, now have potential solutions. A wider, deeper approach is required. Google kicked the old GIS world in the pants in 2005. They have plenty of expertise and money on their side to do it again.
As a company we look widely for the best solutions, and Google is part of that solution mix.
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