Australia government limited Google’s bushfire map

Australia government limited Google’s bushfire map

12 February 2009

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Australia — The refusal of the government in Victoria, Australia, to provide data for Google’s bushfire map mashup limited its scope and highlighted glaring problems with Crown copyright provisions, the search giant’s top Australian engineer said yesterday.

With over 1 million page views since Sunday, theGoogle Map overlay showing Victoria’s bushfires has been invaluable for tracking the extent of the disaster.

Google Australia engineering director Alan Noble told the Broadband and Beyond conference in Melbourne yesterday that he became involved with the bushfire mapping effort after Google engineers woke in shock Sunday morning to read about the horrific fires unfolding east of Melbourne, which have claimed nearly 200 lives.

Noticing the Commonwealth Fire Authority (CFA) Web site was already struggling to keep up with demand for its online list of bushfire updates, Noble’s team had the idea of overlaying the data onto Google Maps to produce a real-time map of the fires’ locations, and intensities. The CFA, which manages fires on private lands and has therefore remained at the front line of the devastating fires, consented–and within four hours, the new map was live.

The search giant’s search for data to plot fires on public lands–which are managed by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment–produced an entirely different result. With no public feed of the fires’ location and an explicit denial of permission to access its own internal data, the engineers were ultimately unable to plot that data on the map as well.

The culprit, according to Noble: legally established Crown copyright provisions, which assign copyright over all government-produced information to the government and prevent its use without explicit consent. Crown copyright is well established in Commonwealth law, but runs contrary to data protection provisions in countries like the US, where data produced by government agencies is held to be in the public domain.

Noble said the engineers’ experience this week was an example of why Commonwealth data protection provisions must be relaxed to promote open access to publicly relevant information. “It’s ironic that I can download detailed NASA satellite imagery (of Australia) more readily than I can get satellite imagery from the Australian government,” he told the conference.

The bushfire situation wasn’t the first time Google has crossed swords with Crown copyright. The company had similar problems recently when it asked the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging for access to the data in theNational Public Toilet Map, which it sought to offer as an overlay to Google Maps.

However, Google Loo was not to be: citing protection of the data under Crown copyright, the government refused to provide that information. Google’s fight to open up government information sources follows on from earlier advice, in reviews like theCopyright Law Review Committee’s 2005 inquiry, that government-produced data be made more freely available.

Ina formal submission (PDF) to the Victorian Government last year, Google Australia argued that “there are considerable benefits that would flow to the Victorian Government and the wider Victorian community from the unfettered availability of publicly funded, non-confidential government information…By making public sector information available to all organizations on the same terms, there would be an equal playing field for the creation of innovative products.”

Many private enterprises have been similarly reluctant to provide information: therecently launched Google PowerMeter initiative, for example, is all about surfacing relevant usage information to drive smarter energy usage. “We’ve been very disappointed with the amount of information utilities generally provide to customers,” Noble explained. “Where people can efficiently and easily monitor their power consumption, just having visibility into their usage is enough to cut power usage by as much as 15 per cent.”

The need for open data has become even more pressing with the rise of geospatial mapping, Noble said. Google Maps has become an immensely popular way of representing geographically-linked data in everything from scientific endeavor to real estate. With the platform’s application programming interfaces open to all developers, Noble said the company’s goal is to let any developer add mapping capabilities to represent information in new ways.

Fully 60 per cent of the hits to Google Maps, he revealed, come through the APIs–indicating that they were from third-party sites. “When you open up all this information,” Noble said, “it fuels innovation in ways we can’t predict. APIs allow developers to build new products from existing components very, very quickly.” Sites like Google Maps Mania track interesting uses of Google Maps to display specific data sets.

Noble sees the widespread availability of APIs as one of two critical engines for growth in online applications. The other, gadgets, “are doing for applications what RSS is doing for content,” he said, by allowing Web sites to integrate fully-featured capabilities from other sites and create “third-party mashups” that combine best-of-breed functionality in new ways.

“We’re seeing billions and billions of page views every week,” he explained. “No one company could achieve that kind of scale. And the thing that makes this possible is the openness and innovation that open APIs and open data sets enable.”

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