All work in the office stops for a while today as a strange new world is explored. On closer inspection, it turns out to be ours after all — Google Earth has arrived. This isn't the first free planetary mapping system — NASA's World Wind has been around for a while — but it's thoroughly impressive. In short order, we find out how to pass links to each other, identify chunks of beautiful scenery, revisit favourite holidays and generally buzz around the globe like hypersonic honey bees looking for data nectar.
There are, of course, a million things to do next with a universal atlas. You'll already know the ideas about location-enabled commerce, the scare stories about tracking people around the place — hey, link this into the mobile phone networks and watch where everyone is, all the time! — and the intriguing possibilities of mapping the flow of telecoms, money, goods or what have you in real time onto the physical world.
Nothing we create as a culture is devoid of an interesting geographic back story, and here's where Google can take valuable advice from World Wind. World Wind is primarily a scientific creation, and is tied to various satellite systems that report on the condition of the environment. Is there a bigger or more important story? But the environmental changes are driven primarily by geopolitics, and geopolitics is driven by commerce. That tin of beans you bought at Tesco — where did it come from? How did the metal get there, who transported the beans from what farm? Now, you can dig around for a long time and come up with the data but you have to have the motivation to find out and the skills to interpret what you find.
The real battle lies in informing and motivating as many people as possible. It's no exaggeration to say that worldwide, even in the heartland of consumerist America, everyone knows that something untoward is happening and that they're part of it. Now, imagine the impact of being able to see the implications of everything you buy and do mapped directly onto the globe, that universal symbol of home. The oil burned in the lorries carrying the beans, the way the canning factory's water consumption is draining the river systems, the path back from your cooker to the power station to the oil pipeline to the desert in Saudi Arabia. Then overlay the historical and actual climate data, the facts and the predictions. People understand pictures.
Could there be a more powerful, immediate and personal way for people to understand the connections between what they do and what happens next? Nothing is more persuasive than a gripping metaphor, and with Google Earth and World Wind it will be possible to present the greatest metaphor on the planet. And could there be a more compelling open project on which to work?
World Wind is open source. Google Earth isn't. Sort it out, chaps. There's a lot riding on this.