From its inception, Google Earth has been an amazing application. For the average computer user, the application was thought of at first as little more than a cool toy, with interesting ways to see things but not very useful ones. Then, features were added to get directions. Google Maps were much better for directions though because it could alter your route with turn-by-turn directions. Google then went out of this world and added in the ability to view sky maps, imagery of the Moon and of Mars. In my house, we use Google Earth all the time. My five-year-old daughter loves using Google earth on my wife’s iPad 2 to see our apartment building, houses of all her relatives, and different parks that she likes. She thinks its really fun that the pictures of our apt building show my wife’s old car and not our new minivan. Even though it can occupy my daughter for a while, it’s still a toy application for the average user. However, there are people using Google Earth as a real tool to achieve impressive feats.
Becoming much more common with the use of Google Earth is arm-chair archaeology. Scott Madry, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, has been using the application to find sites to explore in France. Madry’s online explorations began when he read about an Italian man who stumbled across an ancient Roman villa while using Google Earth to look at his own house. “I hadn’t thought of Google Earth as a serious scientific tool before [reading the story],” Madry told the National Geographic. Madry was shocked at the results he could get using this consumer application and found more sites to search in his first day using Google Earth than in 25 years of surveying using traditional techniques. Saudi Arabia has strict rules and laws regarding archaeological work and aerial photography, but they can’t regulate satellite imagery. An Australian archaeologist used Google Earth to identify over 2,000 ancient tombs near Jeddah. Finding them on the ground though proved to be much harder than in Google Earth.
Probably the most profound use I have heard of for Google Earth was an Indian-born man living in Australia who found his birth family using Google Earth. An article from the BBC has the story of a man who got lost as a five-year-old boy and ended up in an orphanage. Saroo got on a 14-hour train ride thinking his older brother was on the train, but ended up in Calcutta, living on the streets until he was taken in by an orphanage. He was then adopted by an Australian couple and moved to Tasmania. Saraoo said, “I accepted that I was lost and that I could not find my way back home, so I thought it was great that I was going to Australia.” As the boy got older, he wanted to find his biological family. He was illiterate growing up and didn’t even know the name of the town he came from. But he had his memories of his town and the surrounding terrain and features so he started to look for his past using Google Earth. What Saroo did know is that he was on a train to Calcutta for 14 hours and using the speed of Indian trains, he discovered his search radius of 1200 kilometers (745 miles). Miraculously, Saroo found his hometown, Khandwa, partially by identifying a waterfall he used to play near. After extensive searching in his hometown, the lost boy who was now a man, was reunited with his mother, 25 years later.
In my mind, that makes Google Earth more than just a toy.
[Image courtesy of BBC News]