Thursday, 29 December 2016

About that grand plan of 2016 ...

Not all plans go as intended. In my case, it was my grand plan for this year.

If you thought this was the mapguide-react-layout project, then I'm afraid you were mistaken. It was actually something else entirely (I did stress in that post that the project won't be MapGuide-specific). However, due to external circumstances, this plan never and probably will not materialize because I no longer see the need for it.

So since I don't see this grand plan going ahead in the near future, I might as well talk about what it was going to be. Basically, I was wanting to make a Cesium-based replacement for the Google Earth desktop application, using the stack of:

Why did I want to build this application (which strangely sounds like some chemistry/physics experiment, what's with these projects co-opting their terminology?). I wanted a replacement for Google Earth. 

Google Earth was good for only one thing: Visualizing KML files referenced against good quality satellite imagery.

It was absolutely horrible in all other aspects:
  • I can't mash KML together other geospatial data sources (SHP files, GeoJSON, etc)
  • KML is a horrible data interchange format not helped by the fact that Google Earth can't import/export to-and-from different geospatial data formats out of the box! You need a 10+ step data transformation pipeline involving OGR, QGIS and friends to get spatial data in and out of KML. OGR having 2 KML drivers adds an extra layer of confusion to the mix with one guaranteeing to trash any semblance of intelligence by outputting dumb KML geometry.
  • Creating KML files is a chore because of GE's cumbersome drawing tools
  • Modifying KML files is an even greater chore because GE lacks basic GIS-y tools like buffering, split, etc.
Going all in on QGIS wasn't desirable either because while it had the kitchen sink of GIS tools and functionality and rich support for countless geospatial data formats, it lacked the rich satellite imagery that GE provided and I've had a mixed experience with the various plugins available for QGIS that allowed me to drop-in OSM/Bing/GoogleMaps for real-world context when creating/editing features.

My hypothetical application was intended to be the sweet spot in between GE and QGIS and would've addressed most of these pain points with Cesium/OpenLayers doing most of the heavy lifting (Cesium has strong KML visualization capabilities and OpenLayers is the swiss army knife supporting many vector data sources and has rich editing capabilities) and having it all housed within an Electron host for a desktop experience.

But as I said, due to external circumstances, this idea has been mostly abandoned now. Those circumstances being mainly: I've found something that already addresses most of my pain points with Google Earth.

It's called Despite its deceptive name^ it solved most of my grievances with Google Earth:
  • I can bring in KML files and can easily visualize its geographic form
  • It provides serviceable tools for easily editing these geographic features. Creating new features is similarly dead simple. As these loaded features are now GeoJSON I can also easily hand-edit the GeoJSON itself if required.
  • Once done, I can export the data back out as KML
  • The provided mapbox vector/satellite layers provide a decent backdrop for geographic reference when drawing new features or editing existing ones.
So here's something that did 80-90% of what I needed from Google Earth without any of the pain and hassle of using Google Earth itself. The remaining percentages can be easily filled out with QGIS for editing beyond simple tracing of polygons and using GeoJSON or SHP as the interchange format (instead of KML) when I need to sling data between and QGIS. The only time I needed to touch KML was when I am importing it into or exporting it out. As a result, there was no longer such a need for this hypothetical replacement for Google Earth. I had what I wanted.

Now having said that, this wasn't ultimately all for nothing. I did get some fruits from this aborted plan. The mapguide-react-layout project is one (it uses most of the same technologies that I had originally intended to use for this Google Earth replacement). Another project (which I'll reveal in due course) was also born from the initial exploration phase of this idea.

But hey, if you think we could use an Electron/Cesium-based replacement for the Google Earth desktop application, by all means feel free to take this idea and run with it.

^ Seriously, I had known about the existence of this site for ages, but because of the name of the site I always assumed it only dealt in GeoJSON and glossed over the fact that I could import in KML and export back out as KML. This was the game-changing feature for me where one of my job workflows was having to produce KML files for certain geographic areas and the discovery of this feature made me scrap this grand plan. May I suggest a different name? Like ... GeoFiddle? That's what they call all online data playgrounds.


stereo said...

Hey Jackie,

Great blog. Am curious if you have used ArcGIS Earth?
If you have, what were your thoughts?
A lot of GIS folks consider this the standard Google Earth replacement; would you say you also fall into that category or is your go to despite this free offering?


Jackie Ng said...

I haven't looked at ArcGIS Earth. I like my free tools and tend to skip over anything that starts with "Arc" :)

I see that it's free though, might give it a try.