Google Earth + Camera Balloons = Awesome DIY Aerials

    April 17, 2012

Google Maps announced a fascinating addition to the Google Earth collection of imagery today, saying that it has partnered up with the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science to begin including user-captured aerial views of various parts of earth.

PLOTS is a community-driven project aimed at developing open-source tools that people can use for exploring their environment. The organization promotes “Do-It-Yourself” techniques in order to enable anybody with a little bit of money and a lot of curiosity to create their own high-quality documentation of the world around them. According to the Lat Long Blog, PLOTS provides an open-source balloon-powered mapping kit that can turn anybody into a world-class canvaser of Earth.

To view the imagery imported from PLOTS, Google Earth users need only download the KML file (you can download it directly from the link provided in the Lat Long Post announcing the feature) and enable the function that allows you to see historical imagery (you’ll be prompted if you download the KML file). Once you have the file open, you’ll see these white, circular icons that appear to be of a pair of black galoshes. Simply click on one and a window will pop open. You’ll see a link that says “fly to this image” and, after clicking through, Google Earth will automatically direct you to the place and time that the PLOTS image was captured.

Here’s an example that was captured above MIT. The balloon image was captured for the Public Laboratory on June 6, 2011. Compared to the default Google Earth imagery, it’s interesting to see how someone found this particular patch of land during one extremely brief moment in time.

In the standard rendering from Google Earth below, you can see the difference in how this single block has changed in the past year, most notable that there’s some construction going on in the northwest area of the block.

As this is an open source project, that means that anyone can add images to the Public Laboratory’s collection of images. The opportunity for anybody balloon- and tech-savvy enough to add to it opens up endless potential for what can be archived. For example, to see this in action look no further than an image that was taken on November 2, 2011, during the Occupy Oakland protests. It’s amazing that not only can you see the masses of people literally taking to the streets but also the encampment of tents out in front of Oakland City Hall. You can see so much detail that you can even spy the drum circle (or at least that looks like a drum circle to me) that was a mainstay at every Occupy location.

I have to imagine that PLOTS with went Google Earth to partner on such a project purely because Google’s software is at the top of its class. OpenStreetMap, itself an open-source project, would seem like a more natural partner to PLOTS and while that site is quick becoming a favorite among Google Maps naysayers, it’s probably not capable of integrating PLOTS’ imagery. Yet.

If anybody’s contributed to PLOTS and wants to share some of your handiwork, feel free to let us know in the comments.