The price of free is currency

Simon sent me a link to an article on the BBC website about the vintage of aerial imagery in Google Earth for Liverpool.

Regeneration bosses in Liverpool have complained that the internet giant Google is ignoring the regeneration changes going on in northern cities.

Liverpool Vision has complained that developments, such as the 42-acre Paradise Project, are not visible on aerial view website Google Earth.

The site shows London landmarks such as the new Wembley and Arsenal FC stadia.

Jenny Douglas, planning director of Liverpool Vision, said: “The current Google Earth images show roofing work still under way at Lime Street train station.

“This work took place between 2000 and 2001, which means the Google Earth images are at least five years old.

“The city centre has changed dramatically since then. It is important that the millions of people using Google Earth have access to the latest images showing the city’s transformation.”

The spokeswoman for Google Earth said images are updated as quickly as possible.

Well this is a real beauty – loads of observations.

First of all as an Arsenal fan I can fully understand why the enlightened folk at Google are keener to show the magnificent new Emirates stadium (even if no one knows exactly where the Emirates themselves are) than Liverpool Lime Street station. Nice of a Liverpool fan to send me the link really, I would have thought it was one to keep quiet about.

But more seriously this article illustrates some interesting, albeit misguided opinions about the role of the GYM (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) in delivering “free” mapping. Let me drift a bit to explain my understanding of the business model of the aerial imagery providers as I understand it (if any of the UK players read this no doubt they will correct any errors for which I apologise in advance). To produce aerial imagery these guys hire or buy specialist planes and photo kit and then weather allowing (which is a big problem in the UK, clouds mess up aerial photos) they fly over a target area capturing thousands of photos which are then orthorectified (long word which I think means fitting photos to BNG and adjusting for curvature of earth and lenses) and delivered to clients like local authorities in digital format. Now there are two business models for this quite expensive activity – either a client sponsors the activity to gain up to date imagery or the company takes the risk and hopes to sell the imagery to one or more buyers who are interested in that specific area – often it is a combination of the two. Bottom line is likely to be that unless lots of organisations need to purchase very up to date aerial imagery then a re-flying cycle of 5 years will be quite common. GYM have been buying a lot of digital map and aerial imagery recently – however they are not that bothered about the issue of currency, price relative to number of viewers and links to paid advertising are likely to be bigger factors, these guys are not charities.

So back to the article – why should Liverpool or any other city council expect Google to provide the most up to date aerial imagery to promote their city? Isn’t that what they should be investing in? In the US many municipal authorities pay to have aerial imagery captured by commercial companies and then give it to Google to host in the GE platform to provide greater access to their citizens and potential visitors. Realistically GYM provide some engaging applications based around street level mapping and imagery they do not and should not be expected to provide a sustainable alternative to a local authorities own GI presence on the web.

I wonder whether the people at Liverpool Vision have discussed this with the super GI team within their own council? I guess not.