Thursday, July 10, 2008

How Twitter and Google Earth Saved the 4th of July

When I say “saved 4th of July”, I really mean, “saved me from disappointing my children.” Which, as any parent would readily understand, means exactly the same thing.

We live in a new development in San Ramon (Windemere), and we didn’t move in until late July last year. Since my daughter needs to be in bed by 7 or so, having the whole family out to see the fireworks around 9:30 wasn’t really an option. I knew San Ramon had a pretty big fireworks show, but I had no idea whether we’d be able to see the fireworks from our house. As the bird flies, they’d be just 4 miles away or so… but between us and the launch site were at least two ridges.

It occurred to me that Google Earth might be able to solve this dilemma. I got the location of the fireworks (Bollinger and Alcosta), and navigated there in Google Earth. Just one problem: how tall do fireworks detonate?

I tried a couple Google searches, but the obvious attempts resulted in lots of fireworks regulations for home use, ads for fireworks, etc… not what I was looking for. So I asked my Twitter followers. Within a few minutes, I had replies from Sean, Julio and John. (John’s clearly a better Google searcher than I am. Please don’t tell anyone at work.) I love Twitter.

So, back to Google Earth. I added a polygon with an elevation of 300m at that location:

End result was a nice tall rectangle right at that spot:

For the last step, I needed to go to my house in Google Earth, enable terrain mode, and then look in the direction of the fireworks to see if I could see the polygon:

Sure enough, it looked like I’d be able to see the fireworks! (For those wondering: the satellite images of our new development are a couple years old.) Sure, they were a couple miles away, and maybe one out of four blasts happened behind the ridgeline… but the bottom line was that the boys got to see their fireworks, and Becca got to sleep (saving us all from 5th of July “fireworks” during the day).

Yep, I’m a nerd.


  1. That is an amazingly nerdy use of your time! (yet fascinating) But I've gotta hand it to you on being creative and resourceful. What good is technology if you can't (or don't know how) to use it?

    super savvy Rick, and .... Thanks for the story, especially the ending where you saved the day for the kidos!

  2. Yo Rick. While the technological wizardry that you used is quite cool and impressive, several ELCA Communicators and I pondered the following question while we were in Chicago:

    Why didn't you just ask one of your neighbors if they could see the fireworks from your neighborhood? Is your neighborhood so new that nobody next door was there the last 4th of July? :-)

    Some of us were curious, and I would have asked you in person, but I didn't catch you before you left. A reply when you have time would be great. Thanks!

  3. Justin - Yes, the neighborhood is that new. We were the first to move in in late July, 2007 - our section of the subdivision is the only one at our elevation (everyone in the more established homes are at least 100-200 feet lower, and closer to the ridge lines), and none of the homes in our area were occupied prior to 8/1 of last year.


  4. Very good. I was hoping you weren't boycotting your neighbors. :-)