The ethics of Google Earth: crossing thresholds from spatial data to landscape visualisation

J Environ Manage. 2009 May;90(6):2102-17. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2007.09.012. Epub 2008 Jul 3.


'Virtual globe' software systems such as Google Earth are growing rapidly in popularity as a way to visualise and share 3D environmental data. Scientists and environmental professionals, many of whom are new to 3D modeling and visual communications, are beginning routinely to use such techniques in their work. While the appeal of these techniques is evident, with unprecedented opportunities for public access to data and collaborative engagement over the web, are there nonetheless risks in their widespread usage when applied in areas of the public interest such as planning and policy-making? This paper argues that the Google Earth phenomenon, which features realistic imagery of places, cannot be dealt with only as a question of spatial data and geographic information science. The virtual globe type of visualisation crosses several key thresholds in communicating scientific and environmental information, taking it well beyond the realm of conventional spatial data and geographic information science, and engaging more complex dimensions of human perception and aesthetic preference. The realism, perspective views, and social meanings of the landscape visualisations embedded in virtual globes invoke not only cognition but also emotional and intuitive responses, with associated issues of uncertainty, credibility, and bias in interpreting the imagery. This paper considers the types of risks as well as benefits that may exist with participatory uses of virtual globes by experts and lay-people. It is illustrated with early examples from practice and relevant themes from the literature in landscape visualisation and related disciplines such as environmental psychology and landscape planning. Existing frameworks and principles for the appropriate use of environmental visualisation methods are applied to the special case of widely accessible, realistic 3D and 4D visualisation systems such as Google Earth, in the context of public awareness-building and agency decision-making on environmental issues. Relevant principles are suggested which lend themselves to much-needed evaluation of risks and benefits of virtual globe systems. Possible approaches for balancing these benefits and risks include codes of ethics, software design, and metadata templates.

Publication types

  • Editorial

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation / ethics*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Geographic Information Systems / ethics*
  • Geography*
  • Public Policy
  • Software