Google Earth: Beirut, Haret Hreik quarter, before / after

Of all possible sources, News.com has posted a short blog entry called “Why isn’t Beirut burning in Google Earth?”. The answer of course is that Google Earth doesn’t update their image sources all that often. But as many responses have pointed out there are ways around this, using user-added image overlays and extra data from external sources.

Some examples: Ogle Earth offers a KMZ file overlaying an image from Digital Globe showing the Haret Hreik quarter of Beirut after the recent bombardments (link). This area is considered to be a Hezbollah stronghold, and has suffered heavy damage. One Google Earth community post provides a schematic overlay showing bomb targets (link), while another post provides geolocated information about bomb and missile strikes (link).

I’m not posting this to take a political position on the conflict, though I have concerns about humanitarian law and the Israeli use of disproportionate force). But it should remind readers that GIS applications are inherently political. Maps have always been weapons, although the innocuous geotagging of Flickr pictures makes it easy to forget this fact. When Art+Com developed Terravision in the mid-90s (predating Google Earth by 10 years), they were soon approached by the US Military with a view to use it for military applications. Art+Com turned them down.

So while this should serve as a sobering reminder of the traditional uses of geolocation, it simultaneously highlights a new possibility for user-generated geoinformation resources balancing out the mass media. One of the applications proposed by Art+Com in 1995 was the distributed sharing of environmental research data. A utopian view would be that Google Earth, MSN Virtual Earth etc. could make the power of geopolitical applications available to grassroots movements.