A French alternative to Google Earth was unveiled last Friday, to much pomp and circumstance. The site, codeveloped by the National Geographic Institute and the Office of Geological and Mineral Research (both being arms of the French government), hosts 3,700 maps and 400,000 high-resolution satellite images of French territories worldwide.
Boasting the ability to show details as small as a trashcan, the Geoportail content is presented in higher resolution than Google Earth, and the French tool also includes geological data whereas Google’s does not. The images are scheduled to be refreshed every five years, and it cost €6 million to develop. The projected costs for keeping the site up to date has not been disclosed.
As impressive as it all sounds, it’s hard to check the site out for yourself as of this writing. Geoportale was designed to handle about one million hits per day, but the site got slammed with over ten million hits over the weekend. Those numbers don’t work out very well, and the Geoportale frontpage currently sports the following message (but in French; thanks for the translation, Ken!):
An unbelievable number of you have tried to connect to Geoportail, a portal of the territories, since it was put online. We have registered many million connections in only a few hours. On account of this success, the site is currently overwhelmed.
Our team is making every effort to restore access and ensure adequate performance, and thank you for your interest in this innovative interdepartmental site.
In other words, they’re working on it, and trying to add additional capacity to handle the unexpectedly high traffic load. According to The Independent, only one in five of those who did manage to use the site before the crash could do so for more than a few seconds.
While we’ll have to wait a bit before judging the site on its own merits, the French government is pinning high hopes on its success—making the egg on their faces a bit more noticeable. President Jacques Chirac presided over the official unveiling of the new site, and he wasn’t shy about talking up its importance:
Jacques Chirac called the move significant as it “places France at the forefront of new technologies.”
“With Galileo (the European Union satellite navigation system), with the mobile telephone, services linked to global positioning will develop a lot. It is also about democracy because our citizens have the right to know all the facts about the environment.”
“It is also a case of economics. With Geoportail, France is the first European country to set up a common access portal for public geographical information.”
Geoportale does seem to fit well with other recent French initiatives such as the 100,000 TV and radio shows available online through the French National Audiovisual Institute and the 80,000 digitized books and newspaper clippings offered up by French National Library database Gallica. There is also a pan-European search engine in the works, tentatively dubbed Quaero, in a joint project between the French and German governments, and Geoportail is said to be just the first of many national mapping tools planned across Europe. If the French are trying to tell us that America can lay off its cultural imperialism now, they’re certainly doing it with a certain je ne sais quoi.