Google Earth is all about putting things in geographic context, aiding literacy and helping users in discovery. This capacity that started out with Keyhole technology has continuously evolved to include more data, and greater usability now with direct interface integration with Google Maps. From its early origins, the tool has also been applied to local activism and scientific discovery. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio recently interviewed Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager, Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine at Google about the origins of the outreach effort, and the ways that they are assisting scientists with tools as well as computing power.
S&S: What inspired you to go into computer science?
Moore: I was a math nerd as a kid. I loved the beauty of logic and problem-solving and proving math theorems. However, I realized, late in high school and early in college, that I did not want to spend my whole life in an ivory tower proving math theorems. I wanted to solve real-world problems. So, when I discovered computer science, it was really a perfect fit. It was just like heaven, you know—math plus engineering—so I was hooked and I never looked back.
S&S: When and how did you start working at Google? When and how did you start working on Google Earth?
Moore: Both of those happened at the same time. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a surprisingly rural area considering that we’re only 30 minutes away from Google. There are many land use issues here. I stumbled onto digital mapping technology and a friend turned me on to Keyhole—this was back in 2004, before Google had acquired Keyhole, which then became Google Earth—and I started applying Keyhole to making maps for my community. I organized the neighbors to create a community trail network. We created emergency response evacuation routes from the mountains—and some fun things, too. I became convinced that Keyhole was just groundbreaking, the way it put satellite imagery in your hands and it was a 3D terrain. When Google bought them, I thought this could really change the world because when it was Keyhole it was a professional product targeted to real estate developers and the military and it was $800 a seat. When Google bought them in October of 2004, I thought that if Google did the right thing with it, it could be an amazing, democratized tool for increasing geo literacy and putting Earth in everyone’s hands.
So, I started writing to Google and pointing out bugs in the software and debugging the bugs for them. They finally said, “Who are you, and what are you doing?” They invited me to come in and give a tech talk on how I was applying for my community what they were then deciding to call Google Earth. I compared it to Esri software and to open source in a map server and gave a technical discourse on features that could be added that I thought would make it really transformative. They said, “Do you want a job?” and I said, “Yes, I do!” So, I was hired directly to work on Google Earth. I was actually the first person Google hired to work on Google Earth after they acquired Keyhole. They’d just acquired Keyhole, they were still digesting the acquisition, but they decided to go ahead and hire me to join the team, and I was the technical lead for the Google Earth layers.