The Open Marriage of CAD, Shapefiles, and Google Earth

A Brief Lesson in Data Sharing

Andy Priest, GISP

In the mid-1990s I was hired as a GIS technician for an oil and gas industry data vendor. With an embellished resume and no formal training, I learned my new craft in the style of the time: on an ARC/INFO workstation running command-line UNIX.

It was a fast-paced production environment. After a year on a job that required little more than memorizing a dozen UNIX commands, I sank into a routine. I was still in my early 20s and making a decent salary, but lacked any sense of inspiration for my new profession. Fortunately, my career in GIS became my passion thanks to a new piece of software: ArcView.

ArcView 3.2 had a simple graphical user interface (GUI), but that GUI changed everything for me. Tools became tactile and processes became solvable puzzles. Command-line ARC/INFO workstations became obsolete by the end of the 1990s. Today with smart phones, GPS units, and open source mapping software, access to spatial data has never been easier. Since my time on the data assembly line I’ve had a rewarding 15-year career as a GIS specialist with a global civil engineering firm. 

CAD drawing, where it all begins

CAD drawing, where it all begins

My niche is making complex data easily accessible to the entire project team by adapting to changing geospatial technology. Every bridge designer, traffic engineer, and wetland scientist in my office loves to see their projects in Google Earth, but the project data comes from a variety of geospatial sources. I’ve become an integral part of the team by developing a way to share their data across platforms.

In engineering, designs typical start in CAD, so I’ve taught myself just enough AutoCAD and MicroStation to be dangerous. The process of migrating CAD into ArcGIS is well documented; however, the best way to take the next step of importing into Google Earth is not so clear. I explored three options for this workflow: ESRI ArcGIS Toolbox, Google Earth Pro, and a third-party software developer.

The ArcGIS Toolbox would appear to be the obvious choice. Toolbox has a suite of conversion tools that in theory can handle the task. However, performing the process presents a dizzying array of input options and environments. My tests with the “To KML Conversion Tool” and “Data Interoperability Tools” exported little more than cryptic error reports. 

Not much luck with the ArcGIS Toolbox

Not much luck with the ArcGIS Toolbox

The second option I explored was Google Earth Pro. Until very recently this software would set you back $399 per year. However, today a “GEPFREE” request from a valid email account will secure a free license key. The Pro version imports a variety of GIS file formats. However, ESRI users are limited to importing shapefile features. Perhaps you’ve heard that shapefiles are a thing of the past? Well, they’re not dead yet. For this workflow the shapefile is still your best bet. Once shapefiles are successfully imported into Google Earth Pro all custom symbolization and file management is then performed through Google Earth’s “My Places,” which can be a bit unwieldy. 

Google Earth Pro screenshot

Google Earth Pro screenshot

Shape2Earth success

Shape2Earth success

After much trial and error I found my preferred method for converting GIS data into Google Earth was through a third-party software developer. The Internet search “ESRI GIS to Google Earth conversion” results in many hits. By no means is this an endorsement, but I’ve had the best results with “The Shape2Earth Engine” (http://shape2earthengine.com). Like Google Earth Pro, Shape2Earth will only import ESRI’s native shapefile format, but the price is right. It’s free!

In conclusion, I’ve become the “go-to guy” in my office for converting CAD data into Google Earth. In the engineering industry it’s my simple but effective way of adding value to the team.  

Andy Priest can be reached at andypriest@gmail.com

Spring 2016 Volume 9 Issue 1