The Digital Age How Google Maps Can Save -- and Disrupt -- Lives

The Google applications Maps, Earth and Street View are as controversial as they are popular. They have helped to protect lives in the devastating fires in Australia. But they can also be exploited for political ends.

Fires are burning in Weerite, Murmungee and Murrindindi. But how serious is it? Is it safe to drive through Baynton? Can you get back to Woodside? Is the situation in Bunzip State Park under control?

In recent days, an estimated 166 people fell victim to bushfires in southern Australia. Emergency response agencies were stretched far beyond their means. When it comes to catastrophes throwing large stretches of territory into chaos, one of the most important things is to have effective methods of pooling and disseminating up-to-date information. That also helps to keep the public informed and to make sure that their queries don't flood the communications infrastructure.

It's a role that was once played by radio and, later, by television. Both are fast forms of communication, but both have their weaknesses, including the fact that they only offer a limited amount of detail, and they don't allow you to go back to something that was just said or shown. If you miss something in a report, you have to wait for it to be repeated -- with potentially fatal consequences.

The Internet is also a lightning-quick medium, but it has its shortcomings as well. It needs an elaborate reception device and a functioning infrastructure. If both are available, it can't be beat. Last weekend, a number of programmers from Google Australia made that clear when they set up a mashup on Google Maps that allowed people to enter up-to-date information on the fire situation. They gave the flash survey map  detailing fire information a unique Web address and opened it for public access and input. The Australian Broadcasting Corportation (ABC), the country's national public broadcaster, put the map on its own Web site.

Since then, people have been able to use this visual interface to learn the current status of efforts to fight the fires and get information about dangerous situations -- whether it's something they just want to know or something that might save their lives.

And they can get this information even if they live in remote towns, such as Redesdale, Victoria, population 307. Until now, the biggest news to come out of this tiny hamlet was the opening of a new post office in 1865. But, now, the grasslands surrounding Redesdale are burning. On Monday morning (German time), people entered information on the survey map that communicated that even though the fire was not under control, it was only small, as well as that no fire trucks had reached the area. For people without this information, it would have been a very bad idea to drive to Redesdale.

Crucial Information at a Glance

For people affected by such emergencies, information like this is absolutely crucial. There is no other medium that can convey that information in a more up-to-date or detailed manner. Google Maps can zoom into the smallest corner. On Monday morning, information was entered indicating that there were three fires in the small town of Christmas Hills (pop. 566) about 45 kilometers (28 miles) outside of Melbourne. One of them, which was reportedly right in the middle of town, turned out to be a false alarm and was subsequently turned green on Google Maps, indicating that it was safe. Other reports said that a small grassland fire was under control and that a fire truck was on site. Another reported that the area surrounding Wallace Road on the community's northern edge should be avoided because there was a grassland fire and that the only available fire truck was still busy a few kilometers to the northwest on Buttermans Track.

As an alternative, all of this information could have been gathered in list form from the Web site of the Country Fire Authority (CFA),  the volunteer fire force of the state of Victoria, since that's where the Google map gets its information from. But, in comparison, the Google map makes the information much more accessible and much easier to understand at a glance.

The fact is that most people prefer visual information, and searching through a list of information requires a lot more effort. Likewise, doing so can often lead people to overlook facts that might not be directly affecting them at the moment, but might do so very soon. Maps, on the other hand, allow people to not only get information about the area they are interested in, but also to appreciate what its happening in the surrounding areas. Reading a list, some people might just search for information about where they are and relax if there's no emergency there at the moment. But if you look at a map, you can't help but notice that catastrophe is next door.

This is also not the first time that Google Maps has been used to help out in times of catastrophe. Since 2005, the Central Florida Hurricane Center has used Google Maps to track the paths of approaching storms. The abstract depiction is much more effective than a weather map, for example, at making it clear where the storm will do the most damage and which direction it is currently headed in. In principle, any type of geographical information imaginable can be entered into a Google map.

Unexpected Side Effects

But not everything that can be done with the Google Maps programming interface is as straightforward as this. It can also be used, for example, by fans who want to designate where their favorite stars died (e.g., that of AC/DC singer Bon Scott , who died on Feb. 19, 1980 in a parked car on a street in London). You can pay certain companies to gather genealogical data  and put it in a mashup for you. Some online services will even use the maps to give advice on the where you can buy the cheapest gas in the United States.

All of that is charming, often useful and more or less harmless. But the same cannot always be said when it comes to how Google Maps can be used for political purposes. Take, for example, the tantalizing use that the application has been put to in providing a visualization of voter preferences in the most recent US election primaries . Here, the mapping tool can be used as both a tool and a weapon -- in the same way that a fork can be used to eat with or to stab someone in the eye.

For example, the tool has led to professional and personal threats to people who have donated money to support an initiative against gay marriage in California. In the case of a university professor recently anonymously quoted by the New York Times, letters were reportedly sent to the man's superiors complaining about his donations.

Unnamed individuals had set up a Web site that allowed people to see on a Google map the name, address, donation amount and employer of people who donated money to fight gay marriage. Doing so is possible because a law in force in California since 1974 requires the publication of information about donation of $100 (€78) or more. The original aim of the law was to prevent corruption and, at the time, no one could have predicted such things as the World Wide Web and Google Maps. But now complicated statistical and demographic information can be assembled and accessed with the click of a mouse .

For years, there have been tracking services in the United States that use Google Maps to show where people who have been convicted of and served prison time for sexual offenses  live. In many states, such people must register themselves and allow their personal information to be published locally. And Google Maps makes this information accessible to the world.

One current Google Map mashup shows just how dangerous they can be. The map depicts data assembled from the Israeli government about Israeli outposts and settlements in the West Bank. The map is extraordinarily detailed, containing information about numbers of inhabitants, the structures of buildings as well as which structures were erected without permits. Only time will tell if such tools will be used in the planning phases of targeted attacks.

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