Google Earth and spatial mis-perception: Day 2 of AAG

Although it is actually several days since day 2 of my AAG experience, I am only now getting around to blogging about the days events. While day 2 involved some of the same problems as Day 1, namely over crowded rooms and too many good presentations at the same time slot, there was one presentation which was quite notable involving Google Earth and its impact on spatial perceptions. More after the jump.

The best presentation of Day 2 for me was in session 3514 "Geography v2.0: Internet-based Virtual Globes". The session dealt completely with new internet based products from Google, ESRI, and Microsoft and for the most part seemed like a marketing program where different people talked about how great their products are. However, one major departure from this corporate lovefest was a presentation by Mark Graham, a Doctoral student from the University of Kentucky (go big Blue), entitled " The Soft-ware and Hard-ware of Digi-place: The Hybrid Spaces of Google Earth". The gist of the presentation was the methodology that Google uses to return results within Google Earth searches. In particular, is Google over representing commercial and chain companies when people search for terms such as "Pizza" and what in turn is the impact on spatial perceptions and spatial choices as a result of these search results. I talked with Mr. Graham after his presentation and we discussed the potential for Google to be creating a virtual "Red-lining" effect through their searches. The problem is two fold. First, Google searches are believed by most to be un-bias and absolutely accurate, which is why most people use Google. Importantly, this is not the case, with many results, especially those shown in the presentation, producing results that favored chain and large corporate entities in the results, even over the impact of nearness. Secondly, if these results are taken as un-bias results and people rely on these to make decisions about where to shop (one location over another) and live (one part of town over another), is Google having a major impact on spatial perceptions and in turn spatial decision making? In essence is Google getting into the Ecological Labeling business through their Google earth search results? While some may think that Google earth could have an impact on where to shop but not on where to live have never been relocated to cities they know little to nothing about. In the relocation process real estate agents give prospective homeowners several listings which can then be located on Google earth along with surrounding business, school, and other layers, all of which are important in making first round choices in which houses to look at further. If Google search results return bias results in favor of Chain and corporate interests people may be swayed toward one location over another. Although all of this is theoretical at this point, the potential impact is one that cannot be ignored. Alas this is the beauty of academic conferences such as AAG, where issues that would never be talked about in the sycophant mainstream media are proposed and discussed.

Interestingly Very Spatial has also noted that this panel was one of their favorites of the conference, although for very different reasons. Specifically, they focus on the other presentations that I gloss over as a "corporate lovefest". Thus, for a different view on this panel, and a much more in-depth discussion of the features of the different ESRI and Microsoft products, check out Very Spatial.