Project Manager, Google Earth

Chikai Ohazama has watched the software program he helped design become a worldwide phenomenon that made high-resolution satellite imagery available to the average person. He helped bring Google Earth to life as a founding engineer at Keyhole Corp., which Google purchased in 2004. Now as Google’s project manager for Google Earth, Ohazama’s job is to evolve the product.

Given the competitive nature of the business he is close-lipped on some of issues regarding the company’s future. He declined, for example, to say whether his business unit, which includes Google Earth, Google Local and Google Maps, is profitable, how much it invests in its archives or whether the company will continue to acquire new companies, as it did in March when it purchased @Last Software, the maker of the 3-D software SketchUp or follow in the acquisition footsteps of competitor Microsoft Virtual Earth, which in May bought the remote sensing engineering services company Vexcel Corp.

What he will talk about is the product and how the company intends to make Google Earth even more 3-D , concentrating on getting images of locations not only from above, but also from ground level. Google Earth also plans to rely extensively on its user community, to come up with unique overlays or customized uses for its products.

Ohazama discussed these and other issues recently with Space News staff writer Missy Frederick .

How far are you now in terms of world coverage? What are you projecting to achieve?

Right now, we have sub-meter coverage of about 20 percent of the land surface of the Earth, which accounts for about a third of the world’s population. We have the entire Earth covered in terms of Landsat data. I can’t say anything very much about what we’ll have in the future, but we’re working to be the biggest and highest-quality database in terms of resolution and currency of coverage.

How updated does Google Earth plan to be in terms of its imagery currency? Right now much of the imagery seems to be around two-years old.

I guess the average will probably stay around that, or perhaps a bit older, though we will do our best to keep things current.

How do you see this product changing and expanding?

From a bigger perspective, we want to capture all different dimensions of imagery. With our purchase of Sketch Up, you are going to see 3-D models featured even more. We’re also stressing featured content, such as the overlays we’ve developed with the United Nation s Environment Programme and the Discovery Channel. Not only will our base layer of the world exist, but also content that is put on top of it to add variety and diversity.

What are your plans for acquiring data and new content? Are more mergers in your future?

There are two ways of doing this. We can acquire data through commercial sources, but the community effort is also very big. There are companies with warehouses of data who are contributing data for free — this is particularly relevant for the 3-D data that we’re acquiring.

The best data source for us right now is third-party efforts — we might be annotating our coverage of San Francisco, and someone will submit photography of a great bar downtown. This will probably continue for awhile. We think very much in the global perspective of the entire Earth.

What is the relationship between Google Earth and Google Maps, and how is it evolving?

They address different segments of the population in terms of usage platforms. Everybody has a Web browser, and this is a much more accessible way to get access to imagery technology. But there are interesting match-ups that are going on — you see all sorts of housing maps that use Google Maps as a springboard to display their content, for example.

Do you have any plans for additional featured content in terms of overlays?

We’re planning on making featured content something that always gets refreshed on a regular basis. We’re getting contributions all the time from different people — one community produced a layer that displays all the lighthouses that exist in New Zealand and their locations.

What is the business model? How do make
money? Is your revenue going to be primarily advertising driven or based on
customized products for business customers?

We have forays into both right now. We have an enterprise product that allows our data set to be put to use in particular corporate environments. And we’re playing around with advertising to see how best we can do that with the Google Earth algorithms. We want to provide advertising in a local or geographic way that is still tasteful, and provides the maximum benefit to the end user, instead of something that’s just looked at. We’ve also done a little bit with pop-up advertising with Google Maps, and you’ll see different things coming in that sense.

From the enterprise side of things, we have a fair number of clients. I can’t say how many, but it is a large number, some of which we acquired through Keyhole, but it’s grown a lot. A lot of our customized products tend to be things like government agencies or real estate firms – people who want their people to be able to have access to this kind of information from any laptop, or have the tools to upload it to any desktop.

Have you been working with the U.S. government and do you have any plans to do so more in the future?

We have a close relationship with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the government. We definitely have taken our technology and tried to figure out how it can be applied within that environment. Right now our relationship mostly consists of listening to them when we develop new stuff to make sure that we’re addressing their needs and including the features that they’re asking for. I think our relationship will continue to grow from there.

Would Google Earth ever consider building its own satellite or acquiring a satellite imagery provider? How do you see your relationship with imagery providers continuing?

Right now, what we’re doing has been very successful. We’ve had a great relationship with Digital Globe, and with others, such as small towns who contribute imagery to our data base. Everybody wants to make sure they contribute, and I think that aspect will help us grow to have the best data set possible.

As for building a satellite or acquiring a provider, we’ll see what makes sense technologically and financially and whether we’d want to pursue those elements. But we’re open to new ideas at any time, and as time goes on, we’ll see what happens.

You recently started a Google Enterprise Program that’s designed to bring together developers, vendors, etc. in order to develop value-added services for Google products. What does Google bring to the table in this kind of partnership?

Most of what we bring to these people are accessibility. We’re taking technology that’s very hard to understand and making it so anybody can load it up and make use of it. At a recent remote sensing conference, everyone was coming up to me and telling me how their seven-year old uses Google Earth. The fact that people as young as that can actually use [geographic information systems] GIS technology is one of our high leverage points, and other vendors can use that in order to customize to their particular needs.