Down To Earth

Published Date
01 - Oct - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Oct - 2006
Down To Earth
Google Earth has never been far from controversy. Concerns of national security and breach of privacy have kept Google Earth in the limelight.

But it is easy to look at the dark side of technology, forgetting what it was intended for. Those who have felt the need for those terabytes of data from satellite imagery, aerial photography and GIS have made it a part of their business arsenal.

Google Earth comes in four versions (see box The Flavours Of Google Earth), each meant for a different kind of user. We will not talk about the Basic and Plus versions here-they are only meant for personal use, and are not intended for businesses.

Earthly Professions
Google Earth Pro is being used in many businesses in the United States-insurance agencies, real estate developers and agents, NGOs and government organisations, the media, and asset tracking and security systems, among others. In each of these segments, Google Earth has helped businesses save millions of dollars, reduce their downtime, and increase efficiency.

Insurance companies are using software from companies such as Farallon Geographics, who use Google Earth to identify lands prone to earthquakes and flooding in areas in California. The identified hazard areas are then superimposed onto Google Earth. The data  is so accurate that insurance companies are now able to tell if a building in an area is sitting on a fault line, and accordingly fix the premiums.

Car insurance companies such as GE Financial Insurance, Mercury Insu ance, and Amica Insurance are now using Ensera's automated process for accident claims and repairs. Ensera is a technology company that develops automation processes for the automotive claims industry. Amica Insurance has fitted their claim agents' cars with digital cameras and laptops, which have software that uses Google earth with GPS tracking and mapping.

Real estate developers are a major target audience for Google Earth. In India, they, like their US counterparts such as Point2 and Earth Point ( have started to use Google Earth. Real estate developers such as the Prestige Group and Goel Ganga Group, both based in Pune, have been using Google Earth in their businesses to show their clients plots they have for sale, or lock in on plots-through images-that their clients have to sell.

With the use of Google SketchUp, Real estate developers can make wireframes of their plans or create 3D buildings to place on Google Earth, allowing their clients to see how the plot is going to be developed.  Roads, footpaths and fountains can be superimposed onto Google Earth. Rooms, windows, stairs, and balconies can be designed for the building, and the entire building can be built and modifications to the design done in hours.

Thousands of Realty Agents in the US, such as Just Real Estate Listings ( and For Sale By Owner ( have created Web sites with Google Earth images woven in, so that clients don't even have to come to a real estate agent's office to buy a house!

We didn't come across any Indian real estate developers using this on their Web site, but it will not be long before they do.
NGOs such as Abbott Laboratories and UNICEF are using Google Earth to identify disaster prone areas, and for disaster management services to identify their coverage and reach. It helps them strategise rescue and relief efforts in the event of natural calamities, co-ordinating with other NGOs to avoid duplicating the relief effort. NGOs in the US are using Google Earth to map out areas where bird flu outbreaks have taken place. They claim that with its help, they have been able to contain and sanitise areas where outbreaks were reported.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Google added a Katrina filter to Google Maps to show flood damage, which helped rescue and relief operations. Google Earth is said to have used over 100 map overlays in 24 hours of the hurricane to show the damage Katrina left behind.  The reach and effectiveness of an NGO program can have a tremendous impact at the ground level when a tool such as Google Earth is effectively implemented.

Google Earth is now helping NGOs find alternative routes for traffic management at peak hours, saving commuting time and increasing business productivity.

Media houses such as BBC and CNN are using Google Earth to direct TV crews to the spot where the news is unfolding. CNN and The New York Times used Google Earth extensively to show places in Iraq when the war was going on and to explain what was happening-this gave viewers a better understanding of the story. Google Earth also showed media houses the topography of regions they otherwise could not access by air or road.

Google Earth is also used by security agencies  like US Coastguard and US Army to plan and analyse the security of buildings, VIPs' movements, and the security of institutions. The maps have been helpful both to strategise and remove weak spots from a security cordon.

Media persons or media crew members don't need to know each and every corner of a city to reach a location where news is breaking

Reaping The Benefits
Insurance companies have now reduced the number of staff visits to make surveys of buildings or land in the US if they have previous records of the building and if Google Earth images are continuously updated there. In the US, Google Earth images are frequently updated, except for sites of security installations.  In most cases where previous records are available, the process of calculating the premium can now be done in couple of hours.

Car insurance agencies are saving time by using GPS systems on Google Earth-they can send an agent who is closest to the accident spot, who then points the insurer to the nearest authorised service centre where the claim can be filed. Amica Insurance claims to have reduced the turnaround for a claim from eight days to one!
Media persons or media crew members don't need to know each and every corner of a city to reach a location where news is breaking. This is a good thing, since catching news as it unfolds is a huge advantage.

Rajesh Choudhary, real estate developer at Prestige Group, Pune, says, "We have a new type of customer thanks to this technology. We send our overseas clients images of plots taken from Google Earth, according to the dimensions or preferred location of our clients. After finalising the plot and the price, the client flies down only to sign the final documents. In addition, for customers who are new to the city or locality, it is much easier to make a decision with pin-ups of the locations of railway stations, parks, water bodies, shopping malls, entertainment centres, and so on."

Real-time tracking of their fleet allows transporters to reduce downtimes, manage fleet efficiently, and meet deadlines. If a transporter's truck takes a deviation or wrong path, it can be found in real-time and be corrected before it's too late. A truck can be found even if it is stationary. All this can save thousands of rupees.

Indian Cultivation
Google Earth's low popularity in India is because computer penetration in the SoHo and small business sector is comparatively low, and broadband penetration even lower. Also, the initial cost of Rs 18,400 per year for Google Earth Pro is too much for a SoHo user. But once users understand and maximise its use as a major tool for business, it's just a matter of time before businesses in India, like their counterparts in the US, start using it.

The Flavours Of Google Earth
Google Earth
This basic version is free for download. You can zoom in on any location on earth; the data is constantly being updated, and more and more areas are being covered in more detail. One can use it for entertainment as well as educational purposes. The best part is, it's free!

Google Earth Plus
This is much like the basic version, and is for personal use. The premium features include tracking through GPS waypoints and high- resolution printouts.

Google Earth Pro
This version is for business use, and includes the ability to add polygons of structures on Google Earth images. Additional add-ons include a movie maker, premium printing, and a GIS (Geographical Information Systems) importer.

Google Earth Enterprise
Google Earth Enterprise allows the merging of enterprise data with ASP-based Google Earth data, and publishing this data throughout an organisation. It also has additional tools such as vectors and moving objects fused with Google maps.

Choudhary adds, "I got my return on investment with my first customer itself. Added to this are the tremendous savings for our company, both in time and money-our agent doesn't have to take the customer to the plot, because the customer already knows it. This saves manpower and travelling time. Hiring surveyors and their men, too, is eliminated, as land can be measured to the last centimetre using Google Earth."
Harvesting It All
Google Earth is a promising and powerful tool, and we will know its usefulness once we start imbibing it in our businesses.  Other potential businesses where Google Earth would be used extensively include locating and tapping wind energy, planning agricultural land, and designating relief centres. With the advent of cheaper computers and increasing broadband penetration, we should see Google Earth being a very useful tool in many more businesses.

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