Virtual Globes: Rapid Reporting for Rapid Response
Alan Glennon, UCSB Geography, 9 August 2006

27 April 07: Hello and welcome! This demo works, but since it has no error handling, it's easy to break. If it's not working, try back later or grab the code and get it working yourself. ~Alan

After watching Larry Brilliant's TED talk, I started thinking that we should be able to update global spatial databases much quicker-- and empower more people to contribute observations. For example, if a doctor diagnoses a virulent disease, the report should go out immediately, not hours later.

A few needs:

  • Rapid data dissemination for epidemiological analysis
  • Real-time damage reports from ongoing disasters
  • Citizen reporting of human rights violations
  • In-the-field spatial decision support
  • Spatial data collaboration

Rapid Reporting Image

As a start on these issues, I assembled several existing internet tools and a few lines of code to create a prototype system that allows users to send an email (or SMS text message) to update a Google Earth database. It works with Google Maps too. Though email and text messaging are far from all-empowering, it's a start.

How it works:

1) Data are stored on a weblog (at
2) The weblog can be updated via an email or SMS. Free SMS-to-email or SMS-to-blog services are available online.
3) The weblog creates a feed whenever it's updated.
4) On the hosting side, a php script periodically parses and converts the latest feed into KML. In this prototype script, the parser is looking for "..." as a delimiter. The format is: "...Placename...Description..."


Step One: Start Google Earth. To contribute data, you just need the ability to send email. Google Earth and Google Maps are ways to see the results as a map. To contribute data only, you do not need to start Google Earth or load the KML, just skip to Step 3.

Step Two: Open this Google Earth KMZ file (click here).

Step Three: You can add a placemark to the map by sending an email to: ucsbguest(dot)auto(at)blogger(dot)com. The email must be in the following format:


A few examples:

...75075...This is a suburb of Dallas, Texas. ...

...704 Bolton Walk, Goleta, California...An apartment near the University of California, Santa Barbara...

...-50.00233,-10.12323...Somewhere in the middle of Brazil...

Try to minimize the extra junk in your email. The only parts that will be included are the things between the dots. Once the email is received, it will create a placemark from your email. The Network Link refreshes every 30 seconds. By the way, the geocoding itself is handled by Google. Their geocoder does not work very well for UK, Japan, and China addresses.

Sending an email

Google Earth with the new placemark.

Step Four: The data are stored at: and you can also check the latest map using Google Maps at:

Google Earth with the new placemark.

Step Five: When you are done experimenting with it, please remove or deselect the network link (to reduce the load on my internet host). Just go to the "Places" Sidebar, and right-click the link. It will give you the option to delete.

Ongoing work:

  • Priority one: error handling
  • Extract and include more date from the feed (like author, date, and time)
  • Create a way to allow contributors to modify their data (and customize the way the data is presented in the KML)
  • Remove the need for the "..." delimiters, either by replacing with an existing standard or allowing natural language
  • Data should be held in a more formal database (allow users to modify data, make the database easier to manage, analyze, and archive, reduce computational burden)
  • Ponder: What questions/functions exist that could do the most good with this type of citizen reporting?

Google Earth, Google Maps, and Blogger are trademarks of Google.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Stefan Karpinski and Jason Wither of UCSB. Inspired by Larry Brilliant's INSTEDD.

Some materials presented are based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0416208. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation

Contact: Alan Glennon, glennon(at)gmail(dot)com
last update: 9 August 2006