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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Searchability of Everything: Google Earth and KML

Some sympathy here for Tim O'Reilly's comment on this post about Google Earth and the new capabilities being unleashed for developers. "People should be jumping up and down about this!"

I'm guessing the people who usually jump up and down don't understand it, and the people who will be working with it aren't given to jumping up and down.

For those who work with this type of thing, Google's tutorial intro to KML. I don't even know what the "K" stands for, so consider me as falling on the "jumpers up and down" side of the divide...

That said, I grasp the basic outlines of the possibilities this unleashes, and as I had been expecting, a lot of the granular interactions among users and businesses will be very inexpensive. The Google Earth CTO uses the example of "fire plugs". Somewhere, I think in my Winning Results book, I thought of the example of gas stations with diesel or biofuel. Let's say you're cruising around in your car. You do a quick structured search for "biofuel" and "gas stations" (hopefully voice activated so you don't crash). Now you don't have to go cruising around fruitlessly.

Leaving aside for now the overabundance of specific product and store feature listings this might unleash, there are a lot of public-spirited mashup-planet type improvements we'll see that are not going to be proprietary to any given entrepreneur. Web 1.0's model might think (as I certainly have!), let's start a website where people share stuff like where are the cheapest parking places in town, or the common speed traps. What a great mashup! But starting a proprietary website might not be how this shakes out. On the wikinomics model of things, people just contribute to the buildout of mapping stuff like this, and eventually, you have a reliable guide to where all the public restrooms are in a large city... courtesy of Google Earth, and the people who use it; but presumably also someone who builds a layer that makes it possible for users to easily input such data. (Of course, it goes without saying that GPS-enabled cameras will add more geo-targeted objects to the collective dataset.) It's hard for me to figure out exactly where the value/profit builds up disproportionately in all these scenarios... all I can envision is its immense usefulness.

As to the business owner who violates the implicit pact of truthfulness, just imagine the firestorm of user complaints if someone ran out of gas because some gas station misreported their offerings.

If owners of businesses with particular attributes (like biofuel) go through the effort of integrating with Google Earth, it might well start out as free advertising.

It also leads to potential spam, doesn't it? (Yes, but in a much different sense; and physical business locations are scarcer and more verifiable than websites and pages, so while there might be loopholes for spammer types in the early going, they're not mile-wide holes.)

Bill Gates recently offered his bold prediction that the world will be a lot better in a decade. The technological optimism must however be tempered by a recognition that I still have to look at Viagra ads, and Nigerian bank scams, on a daily basis. If we can map, label, and sort "everything," surely we'll also have to expect & demand massive attention to the usual user-unfriendly incursions in adversarial information retrieval. I expect that effort will be shared, too -- among the wikinomics-enabled community who build the database, but also a disproportionate investment from the Googles of the world who seem to benefit from the disproportionate buildup of value akin to a snowdrift in a perfect technological snowstorm.

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