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11
October
2017

Making Art From Google Maps

The Earth from Above

Making Art From Google Maps

Earlier today I looked up some location in Bangalore via Google Maps. One thing led to another and I ended up spending the entire morning exploring beautiful Earth via Google Maps. Most often we use Google Maps for locations and directions. We use it for intra-city navigation and occasionally for those weekend trips when we venture farther from our daily routines. Apart from these, it's interesting to note that Google Maps can be a useful tool to discover the beauty of our planet.

It's not that I'm somehow a pioneer in discovering the artistic merit in Google Maps. Postcards from Google Earth, Street View Stereographic, Jenny Odell's Satellite Collections, Florian Freier's Cached Landscapes, David Hanaurer's WorldWide Carpets and Shaun Utter's Random Google Maps are just some examples of artists getting inspired by Google Maps. In almost all of these examples, the focus has been on urban landscapes. The artists don't present Google Maps as they are. Being artists, they transform the images into something surreal; they assemble collages; they saturate the colours or accentuate the patterns. In the process, they leave their signature as artists in what they create. What I created today is different.

Satellite Art

I've curated today 24 images of the Earth from above. This was done by simply looking at the planet via Google Maps and zooming into whichever area of the landscape attracted my attention. I'm presenting these images without any processing. Presumably, these are images as seen and recorded by the satellites. I'm tempted to call this satellite art.

I claim that this is art even when I've not transformed the images in any way. Art is creation but it's also choice. From infinite possibilities, I made a choice. This choice defines my art. This choice is based on aesthetics of colour, pattern, balance, intrigue, scale... While there are some images in which the imprint of humans is clearly seen, most of the images I've selected reveal the raw beauty of nature.

Educational Value

You would notice that I've not tagged these images with either GPS coordinates or a descriptive location of the place. In my childhood days I recall playing games with cousins with a printed atlas. One person would choose an obscure place on a particular page, which usually meant that the place was marked in the smallest font. Others had to comb the page to find that place. In the 24 images I've presented, you could do the same thing. The challenge for you would be to find the exact spot on Google Maps! Arguably, some of the places are hard to locate.

Studying these images may be one way for students to get interested in geography. Colourful patches in an English countryside betray the cultivation of lavender and rapeseed. But there's more to these maps than just geography. Many of the patterns that recur at different scales can be related to fractals and the mathematical concept of self-similarity. A student of geology will try to explain how these patterns were formed. A curious student of chemistry will ask what contribute to the spectacular colours of Mt. Fuji or the Bahamas. Someone studying the growth of human settlements and their interconnections may do well to study the "starry" landscape of Punjab.

More importantly, most of these images create the feeling that Earth is a living entity, an organism if you will. We see mountain ridges reaching out for something. We see rivers meandering with purpose. Just as biological cells teaming up to create something bigger than the sum of parts, we see various features of a landscape working together and evolving. The past, present and future are miraculously described in every single image.

Tools for Artists

Saving the images from Google Maps is a trivial task. It's easy to turn off the labels so that images are presented for their intrinsic value. Sometimes images have a watermark with which Google asserts its copyright. It would have been nice to remove the overlays and tools at the corners. At least, the scale at the bottom is useful for the viewer. There's a wide range: from 200 m for Mt. Bromo to 20 km for Greenland. I modified the text on the search bar at the top left corner to document the location. When capturing large areas, it's sometimes possible that adjacent sections have been taken at different times and stitched together by Google Maps. This results in visible boundaries across which we can see a shift in colours or lighting conditions. I've allowed this in my selection process only if it made aesthetic sense to the overall image.

My first attempt was to make an MP4 video. I tried a few online tools that take a bunch of pictures and make a nice video out of them. Artists have the option of adding an audio track as well. The problem was that none of the free plans was satisfactory. Usually they added an ugly watermark. Sometimes they limited the size or number of images that one could upload. I also found a Python script but it didn't have the option to add a background audio file.

I then tried Natron, a node-based compositing software. I was able to learn the basics quickly thanks to some excellent tutorials. I was able to create a video but the problem was quality. MP4 format is inherently lossy and the fact that pixellated frames are created from still pictures did not satisfy me. Otherwise, I rather liked Natron for its compositing capability.

The easiest approach then was to open all the images as layers in GIMP software, which was then able to export them as an animated GIF. The images together add up to 18 MB. When combined as an animated GIF, the combined file was about 21 MB.

Thanks for reading this far. Now, go ahead and create your own satellite art of our beautiful planet.

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About the Author

Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With more than fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about tech blogging, training and supporting early stage Indian start-ups. He is a founder member of two non-profit community platforms: IEDF and Devopedia. In 2013, he published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.

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