First(ish) Google Earth Engine Attempt

Last October (2018) I was speaking with a Google Earth Engineer. We were discussing an array of Geo technologies used in the classroom from ESRI’s ArcGIS to QGIS to My Maps and Google Earth. Somehow, we got on the topic of Google Earth Engine and the engineer suggested that there were enough demos out in the wild that I should be able to hack something together. Therefore, during the winter break I put together my first Google Earth Engine app.

What is Google Earth Engine?

First, and most confusing, is that Google Earth Engine is not Google Earth. Most educator’s experience with an Earth Engine app is Google’s TimelapseTimelapse is super cool! Think of it like this: Imagine you took a selfie of yourself every day for a year. Then have a machine, or a lot of machines in my case, analyze each pixel in every image for the best and clearest pixel for that location. Then create a mosaic of with the best pixels of you.  No sleepy eyes, weird smiles, bad hair, scrunched up face etc. This is what Google Timelapse does for the earth. A picture-perfect world with no clouds, haze, smoke, shadows etc. The cool thing is that Google has compiled this, plus more, datasets and allows users to create apps using varying sensors.

Embedded Google Timelapse Shenzhen, Guangdong, China

The ‘Experimental’ product One of the datasets Google has made available via Earth Engine is TerraClimate, a monlthly climate database for terrestrial surfaces. . The temporal range of this dataset is from January 1958 to ‘Present’. That is 60 years of climate data! While there are several data series (bands) in this dataset to map, I chose to map monthly mean max temperature and precipitation accumulation. Like, the project got a bit out of hand.

First curiosity – How do you work this thing?

I can’t even pretend to tell you how the backend of this thing works. However, if you know a bit of JavaScript, the front end is not terrible.  It was also very helpful to have some experience with the Google Maps API. After signing up for an Earth Engine account, users create using the built-in code editor. The editor is simple enough. Left panel options include user scripts/example scripts, documentation, and assets. Center panel is the code editor. Right panel is the ‘console log’ panel. From there you load a dataset and create. Please note…the video below is an overview and not a tutorial.

Second curiosity – Can there be a way to easily flip through 60 years of maps?

Short answer, yes…add a dropdown menu option.

Use dropdown to select a year from 1958 to 2018

Third curiosity – Can I add legends?


Legends boxed in red

Fourth curiosity – Need an opacity slider…wonder if there is one built in because the Maps API can do it?

Sure is.

Opacity slider example video

Fifth curiosity – Wouldn’t it be cool to add a line graph for monthly temperature and bar graph for precipitation for almost any land surface on Earth?

Hell Yes! Plus watch these!

Looking at charts and getting data (**No need to calculate scale anymore*)

Part I: Using charts within Earth Engine Application

A little math and spreadsheet lesson (*No need to calculate scale anymore*)

Part II: Unit Conversions

Sixth curiosity – It would be cool to compare strong El Nino and La Nina precipitation patterns. Therefore, they needed to be labeled in the dropdown menu.

Seventh curiosity – Now that I see these El Nino/La Nina patterns, there should be some elevation data too. Check….Thankfully, Earth Engine also has DEM data from the USGS.

Elevation layer with marker on Himalayas

Lastly, how to share? Earth Engine has a built in create/share app function. It uses Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Thankfully I use GCP for, so setup was easy.

It took a couple, maybe four, days to learn and create. As I always say, I code like a five-year-old, but here is 60 years of monthly temperature and precipitation data. Plus elevation.

Challenges | Issues

1. Mashing together the Google Maps API with Google Charts is not easy. I wish I had more experience. For example, the temperature’s scale is 0.1 so the viewer must move the decimal over. Would prefer to calculate the math within the chart api. I am sure there is a way. I just don’t know it…yet. Figured it out!

2. When app is in an Iframe of a page the ‘greedy’ mouse wheel zoom breaks. Therefore, users have to hold ‘ctrl’ wheel scroll to zoom in and out.

3. The exported app is not smarty phone friendly.

4. Lastly, My grandfather used to always say how he, “was one stripped screw from be a mechanic.” My version is that I am one out of scope var from being a web designer. I ended up coding everything in notepad++ and copy/pasting into the code editor. Let’s just say my eyes are wiser than they used to be?

An Inclusive Earth

As teachers, we are always looking for ways to include all our diverse students into learning experiences. I cannot imagine my own children going to school not knowing the primary language of that culture; sitting there fighting to understand a concept through the media of strange sound symbols. (London #$%%&*!* is %#$%$#R^% down  %#$%$#R^%  down %#$%$#R^% down). My wife and I, like all teachers, work hard to bring a similar learning experience to all our deserving students. On occasion I’ll get a ping from a company telling us an order of a novel, written in a different language, will be delivered in the next day.

All that stated, Google Earth for Web is one resource you can use to include more of your students. Warning…this is a hack. Meaning that this works as of today, but who knows how long in the future.

Google Earth for the Web has been translated into many languages. In addition, some of Google’s Voyager stories have been translated into several languages. In general, Google identifies language settings on the user’s machine to feed that Google Earth language version. However, there is a url hack to open other language versions of Google Earth. Again, this works as of the day of this post, but not sure about the future. Anyways, the below urls will take you to that language version of Google Earth. The table also identifies which language version has some, not all, translated Voyager content. Even if Voyager content is not translated, exploring within Earth will have many translated points of interests (POIs). Below the table are a couple of videos showing how you might use this in the classroom.

Video using Voyager stories across languages

Video using Google Earth to explore across languages

Authoritative Bias of Maps

In today’s context it is bit of a challenge writing a post about the authoritative bias of maps. After all, how can maps be both accurate and tendentious. Kuby, Harner, and Gober’s book Human Geography in Action (Amazon Link: this authoritative bias to five critical decisions cartographer must make in creating and conveying visual information: maps projections, simplification, map scale, aggregation, and type of map.[1] Below are a couple of ways Google’s Geo tools can be used to demonstrate these choices.

1. Maps Projection

As discussed in a previous post (link), Google Maps, Google’s Maps API, and Google’s My Maps uses a Mercator projection. Projections are chosen for a purpose; in this case probably navigation. The easiest way to demonstrate the impact of this choice simply draw the ring around Greenland in My Maps, or, and drag the polygon to the equator. I normally show this in class then give the student 20 – 30 mins to draw and drag polygons. Students tend to want to know the size of Russia and like to drag the continent of Africa north towards the pole. Being from Texas, I often ask students to grab Alaska and bring it south over the continental US for a bit of humbling.

Map Projection

Map Projection My Maps

Map Projection Cool Site

2. Simplification

Kuby et al. like to use subway maps to demonstrate the idea of simplification and its benefit to the user. Below are London’s transit tubes on Google Maps and the other is London’s transit tube map. Explore and follow routes through London by zooming in/out and dragging the two maps below. Imagine if you where actually in London. Which map is more useful if you need to use this transit system? Which map is more accurate?

(Sorry, Google’s API only shows tube transit lines from this zoom level and closer)

Source: Google Maps API Transit

Use the slider at the bottom of this map to help compare.

Source: Transport for London

Simplification Google Earth


3. Map Scale

The zoom level of a map corresponds with the detail of a map.  Large scale map views a smaller area with more detail. Small scale maps view a large area with less detail. Which maps below gives you more detail of Texas’ Capitol?

Map Scale Google Earth

Map Scale

4. Aggregation

Aggregation is the size of geographic units in visualized in the map. The video below shows how level of aggregation tells a different story for Pennsylvania’s 2016 election. The end of the story is the same but rescaling the data tells a richer story.

Aggregation (State Result vs. County Results) Google Earth

Aggregation (State Result vs. County Results)

5. Type of Map

Be it reference or thematic maps, cartographers still must make decisions on what to show, omit, or emphases.

Reference maps: See what Google Maps can do depending on your search location setting. If you do this make sure you set your location setting back.

Thematic Maps: Here is a simple change in shading created to complicate the spatial distributions of Pennsylvania’s 2016 election votes. (Initial Blog Post Here)

Shading Thematic Maps Google Earth

Shading Thematic Maps

KML Files (Add to your drive or download): 

Kuby, Harner, and Gober’s book Human Geography in Action (Amazon Link: is much richer than this simple post.  I highly recommend this text for anyone, or class, that wants to deepen their knowledge of geography. The intent of this post is to show the purposeful inaccuracy of maps and the importance of these inaccuracies. While maps, and many other forms of information, can be misleading, it is not always for nefarious reasons.  At some point, the read/user has assess the value and limitations of their sources. The primary purpose of a map is often to transfer information more efficiently than a textual source.  After all, as Harm De Blij wrote, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a million.” Try it yourself…describe the boundaries of all the countries in the world. Don’t forget the disputed ones. The choices made by cartographers give maps both value and limitations.

[1] Kuby, Michael, John Harner, and Patricia Gober. Human Geography in Action. 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

Voting Data Sources:
Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access: (Download County Boundaries – Almost every state has this…Census also has state counties

Pennsylvania Department of State: (Election Data)

Inner Earth Processes with Google Earth and


One of the geography courses I am fortunate to teach uses a blended physical and human geography framework. The first several weeks of the year, the course entails why geography is important along with physical Earth observations and understandings. The first physical Earth lessons deal with landforms and the inner Earth/ outer Earth processes that form them. This June I converted many of the files from to kml/Google Earth. Below are the maps sets used in class to visualize these Earth processes…+ a bonus Google Earth/kml file to help teach and/or review plate tectonics.

The pedagogical formula follows the working definition of geography taught to me from Brock Brown PhD.

“Geography is a perspective…the geographical perspective provides a broadly applicable interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything distributed across Earth’s space.”

  1. Starting questions: what, when, where?
  2. Followed with: how and why?
  3. Lastly: what if, what next, what about me, what about others, what should we do?


Google Earth File (Add to your drive):

Start with an observation: Physical Map Set (Natural Earth, NOAA Physical, NOAA Digital Elevation Model, Topographic NASA, World Topo-Bathy NASA) Video

Google Earth Video

Follow up with understanding the process(es) that are responsible for the spatial observation. (Bonus Google Earth file: ) Website overview Plate Tectonics Google Earth file:  

Google Earth Video

Lastly, how as this impacted people in the past? How about the impact on people today…tomorrow ? (prediction) Video (Ctrl+click to enable two layers)

Google Earth Video


End of Tour Creator – August 2018

This summer, probably August, I will be turning off my tour creator for Google Earth web page. There are several reasons, but mainly Google’s Tour Builder can do almost everything I want, and its creations can be opened directly into Google Earth for Chrome. The only thing left for the Google Earth team to do is put these creation tools in Google Earth. A teacher can dream.

How to open Google Tour Builder file in Google Earth for Chrome

Extended Explanation
The image at the top of this post was my brainstorm for the tour creator. It was sketched out at the Macaroni Grill in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It came about because some colleagues saw I was able to create voyager like stories and they told me they wanted an easy way to create these stories for this “new” Google Earth. I also thought students would enjoy creating these stories and understood that Google Earth for Chrome/Mobile would not launch with creation tools. I initially helped a friend develop a Google Sheets creator; where students could input latitude, longitudes, elevations, tilts, and heading. Then students could input images and descriptions. As that project was coming to an end I spent a week developing the Maps API version that thousands of students (I assume they were students; don’t keep track of that stuff) have accessed. Basically, creating the big paper above. I felt it would be easier for students to have spatial context when selecting their location and didn’t want them going from one site to another to put in location data. Anyways, I had intentions to continue this project, but in September 2017(?) Google launched their Open in Google Earth link from their Tour Builder. From Tour Builder students can insert images, YouTubes, numerous icons, save, etc. It would have taken a month for me to get all this done, and that would be without my day job. I didn’t, and still don’t, have a magic crystal ball, but it was not too difficult to read this future. I feel it would be better for teachers and students to use Google’s Tour Builder for classroom instruction. Students can just do more.

All that stated, it was a fun little project and I have many more. I still maintain my site,, and have been developing numerous Google Earth for Chrome/Mobile (kml) files for a variety of classrooms. Thanks to everyone who continues to use and support anything created from from this little house in Austin.

Classroom Google Earth Examples
I’m Australian Too (Grades 1 – 3) – Click here for Google Earth file

Plate Tectonics (Grades 5 – 9) – Click here for Google Earth file