An original point of view

Cartography, GIS

Digitizing administrative maps in Google Earth

Peterborough digitized in Google Earth

An example map digitized in Google Earth

The digitizing process is needed when we want to transform our map into the vector data. This process is aimed at tracing the map features, which later appear as coordinates in either point, line, or polygon format. Digitizing is essential in the case when our data cannot be instantly integrated with the other GIS data. Otherworldly it’s the conversion of raster data to the vector data. The digitization can be done with various GIS software, which is able to export our output to the vector file. The most common GIS platform used for the digitizing purpose is ArcGIS or QGIS. There you can do very detailed digitizing because these programs have a lot of options. I mean various objects, polygons, rivers, roads, etc, because of assorted ways of further customization of our digitized object. We are considering the manual digitizing here.

In this article, I would like to demonstrate to you how to digitize effectively the administrative units in Google Earth. I assume, that you don’t need as many details as you could get from these 2 GIS platforms mentioned above. If you are interested in only digitizing the boundary map or administrative region in order to prepare your data i.e. for interactive choropleth map, then this way should suit your purpose.

The primary attitudes of digitizing in Google Earth are:
– toolbar easy in use
– instant access to the detailed satellite imagery
– a simple way of editing the nodes and features
– you have a look on every single shape (polygon) you created
– an easy way to add the description (further data attribute table development)

The primary disadvantages of digitizing in Google Earth are:
– pan option not available when drawing the shape
– time-consuming node edition caused by lack of snapping vertex tool
– the shapes cannot be edited just when hovered, you must select one of them in the panel

Let’s consider the sources, from where we can get the raster data to Google Earth. Basically, the major format, relevant for displaying our map correctly in Google Earth is the GeoTiff format. Because the GeoTiff format is fully compliant with the TIFF 6.0 format, we will have these files with .tif extension. Anyway, this is the most desired file format for importing the raster data to Google Earth.
If we cannot get the GeoTiff file directly, the best way to get it will be the conversion from another raster format. When digitizing administrative regions we need these conversions from any raster image formats. Additionally, we can get our raster data from the raster PDF file (Pic. 1).

Conversion from raster image formats to Geotiff

Pic. 1 The most common raster image formats can be converted to GeoTiff .tif format. Additionally, we can convert the raster .pdf file too.

Besides the most common raster image formats visible in the aforementioned image there are many more of them available. The GeoTiff format can be produced also from the Digital Elevation Model file formats i.e. .dem, .srtm, or .hgt, but I won’t use them for the time being. The full list of raster image and GIS files can be found on this website. These 2 groups of files are mostly considered for the conversion to GeoTiff file as well as the other ones available here.

There are a few ways of the file conversion into GeoTiff format, from which I can list:
1. Instant conversion online – it’s available, but you must make sure, that the output meets your expectations. Often the output GeoTiff conversions come with low quality, which frankly can be still used for digitizing some lines or boundaries. Firstly I listed the “to GeoTiff” online converters for free, which are:

The first one provides a poor quality output, which can be used for digitizing some lines and boundaries only. The second one works for small-sized files only. There are by far all the “to Geotiff” free converters available. You can pick up the freemium ones from the list below:
MyGeodataCloud – the best freemium tool available on the web. The GeoTiff image quality is really good. Make sure, that you don’t exceed the monthly upload limit, which is 5MB only. It might restrict us with larger raster map files. Alternatively, you can try to do the conversion from the incognito tab. In this event, you can gain another monthly limit. On the other hand, you cannot convert more than 3 files per month. The tool is great, but the pricing not necessarily. – another tool, where you can convert your raster map into the GeoTiff file, but you can’t download it unless you purchase at least the “Start” plan.
Safe Software – the most expensive platform which offers at least the demo version once you sign in.

2. Saving (export) map as GeoTIFF (.tif) format – a good option for someone, who has a custom-fit GIS software. A good application is, for example, MapInfo or G-Raster. It’s good to know that many GIS packages can read the GeoTIFF format straight away.

3. Converting raster image file to GeoTIFF (.tif) format with GDAL – this way gives us the great opportunity to take full control on our raster map. I mean, that you can georeference the map in detail and take control of proper reprojecting.  The georeference can be done using ground control points.

4. Georeferencing raster images – the manual task, which is possible in major GIS platforms such as ArcGIS or QGIS. The user can pick up the characteristic points from his raster image and match them accordingly with its counterparts appearing on the map canvas. Next, after assign the proper coordinates and transformation, the process can be done. As a result, we gain the GeoTiff (.tif) map.

5. Download the GeoTiff file format from the Web – it’s possible for sure when we enter the free GIS data source. A lot of them cover these file formats worldwide.  One of the most detailed is the 250m True Marble global dataset or USGS National Geospatial Program, which is costless for the low-resolution version. Another option is searching for the GeoTiff files locally. Some platforms operating strictly within some areas sometimes have an option to download raster imagery, which might include the GeoTiff format also. A good example here is the or (Pic. 2). GeoTiff format download option

Pic. 2 The GeoTiff format download option from the CityOfLondon interactive Ordnance Survey map.

6. Creating the GeoTiff file manually (programmatically) – this is the solution, where we can render the GeoTiff file format from the existing XYZ map tiles by programming. The essence is to find a good way to download the existing map tiles from the web map tile server, next georeferencing it and saving as the GeoTiff file. The best programming language for it is Python. The user can also create the GeoTiff image with Python from scratch, but it’s not practical for our current purpose. Anyway, this is a good exercise to elaborate on in the future.

The last thing to mention is the alternative option to display your raster map on Google Earth. This is the image overlay option. This solution is poor because we have to stick manually our image bounds to the proper coordinates, which is not easy. I would advise you to stand with the GeoTiff file then.

Now I can assume, that you already have got your GeoTiff (.tif) map prepared and you can display it on Google Earth. If so, I can show you in the few steps how to digitize the boundary map in this OpenSource platform.

  1. First, we must import the GeoTiff file into Google Earth. We can do it mainly by the File -> Import… from where you must select the appropriate file extension, which is GeoTiff (.tif) as per in the image below: (Pic. 3).
    Import GeoTiff image to Google Earth

    Pic. 3 Import GeoTiff file to Google Earth.

    2. When you pick up the GeoTiff file, it is loaded instantly on your Google Earth map canvas with proper georeferences assigned (Pic. 4). Beside the raster map covering our area, we have the pop-up window with display options available.

    LoadGeoTiff image to Google Earth2

    Pic. 4 Loading GeoTiff raster map in Google Earth with display options available.

    Considering appliance some of these options (Pic. 5), we can take into account especially the transparency. Transparency of our file is the key feature if we want to get some data out to our future vector map. If the raster file is opaque we cannot see what is underneath. Even if it’s georeferenced correctly we still need to know how our boundaries look in the area.  If you found some small discrepancies in the GeoTiff location, you can rotate it a bit or simply move the corners of your image overlay. It’s possible when you hover any of the green lines visible.

    LoadGeoTiff image to Google Earth3

    Pic. 5 Useful options when loading your GeoTiff raster map into Google Earth.

    The helpful option for it can be the “Convert to LatLonQuad“, where you can edit the image location more deliberately (Pic. 6).

    Google Earth loading GeoTiff image LatLonQuad option

    Pic. 6 The “LatLonQuad” option in Google Earth, where the user can adjust the coordinates of every corner more deliberately.

    We are done by now. When you click OK, your raster map should appear on Google Earth’s map canvas. There might be an error with the transparency slider, which in turn won’t work properly. Our layer might remain fully opaque throughout all values between 1 and 100% and completely transparent when slider shows 0%. The reason behind it is the “Photorealistic atmosphere rendering” option, which must be switched off. If we do so, the slider works fine.

    GeoTiff map overlaid in Google Earth

    Pic. 7 Our small GeoTiff file overlaid in Google Earth. The map is partially transparent, as we switched off the experimental “Photorealistic atmosphere rendering” option in Google Earth’s tools.

    However, it’s not always so quick. Quite often you will have a bigger GeoTiff file, which cannot be manipulated in one piece by Google Earth tool. In this event, you will get the alert informing you about the supported maximum size exceedance (Pic. 8).

    Google Earth GeoTiff import maximum file exceedance

    Pic. 8 Google Earth alert informing you about the maximum file size exceedance and giving you some further options.

    The first option is “Create Super Overlay“, which requires choosing a new location (folder) where this overlay will be stored.
    When this overlay is generated, we have it stored as the multitude of .kmz files in our target folder chosen previously. All these files comprise of our final raster map visible on Google Earth from now (Pic. 9).

    Google Earth Super Overlay created by GeoTiff raster file

    Pic. 9 Our imported GeoTiff raster map as the “Super Overlay” in Google Earth now is built of a lot of .kmz files.

    The last step to mention here is obviously the transparency, which can be set in a different way, as we are dealing with .kmz files instead of raster image overlay.
    Just below the “Places” panel, we have got the horizontal slider, which we can use. Make sure, that your layer (the folder including all .kmz files) is selected (Pic. 10).

    Google Earth GeoTiff raster map as the Super Overlay

    Pic. 10 Our GeoTiff map appearing as the “Super Overlay” in Google Earth with the transparency level added in.

    The next option is the “Scale” layer to the maximum supported size. This choice results in our raster image quality deterioration (Pic. 11).

    Google Earth scale GeoTiff raster image

    Pic. 11 The difference in quality between loaded GeoTiff raster image as the .kmz “SuperOverlay” (1) and scaled to the maximum supported size (2).

    The last option available is “Crop”, which saves the original resolution of your GeoTiff image, but trims it down to the maximum supported size. You decide which part of your GeoTiff overlay will be visible on Google Earth (Pic. 12) by clicking the green pointer.

    Google Earth load geoTiff image, crop option

    Pic. 12 Deciding which part of our cropped GeoTiff image will be displayed on Google Earth by clicking the green pointer anywhere within the georeferenced raster boundary.

    The GeoTiff raster layer cropped down to the maximum supported size is visible on Google Earth right away (Pic. 13). At this stage, you have all the options described above (Pic. 5, 6). Time for georeferencing!

    3. Having the GeoTiff raster map issue sorted we can start digitizing the elements, which we need. In our case, there are all lines creating the boundaries both external and internal. We need them for further choropleth map.
    The best way for digitizing the borders, which are enclosed will be the “Polygon” selection from the main toolbar (Pic. 14).

    Google Earth boundary map digitizing

    Pic. 14 Selection the “Polygon” from the main toolbar.

    Next, we should have the pop-up properties window, similar to described above (Pic. 4), where we should take a look at the: “Name”, “Description” and “Style,Color” features (Pic. 15). These ones decide about our future polygon appearance along with its basic metadata.

    Digitizing boundaries in Google Earth

    Pic. 15 Digitizing boundaries in Google Earth, where every single area is closed with borders and can be treated as the polygon at once. The most important features have been red off.

    When you are happy with your description and color & style corrections, then you can digitize each polygon one by one (Pic. 16) making sure, that the nodes don’t overlap adjacent polygons significantly (Pic. 17). Otherwise, our result won’t look great.

    Digitizing boundaries in Google Earth2

    Pic. 16 The boundary map digitizing process in Google Earth.

    Digitizing boundaries in Google Earth3

    Pic. 17 The boundary map digitizing process in Google Earth – one polygon highlighted with all nodes.

    The last thing to mention here is the edition of nodes. If you see, that the boundaries are not correct, the alterations are needed. In order to create the additional node between tho already existing, we must click one of them making it active. Next, the new one will be created following the direction of the initial polygon drawing. In practice, it means, that if your second node has been created right from the first one, any new node will appear right from the currently active node later. On the other hand, when you are making the polygon towards left, the newly created node will emerge left from the presently active node. See the graphic explanation below (Pic. 18).

    New node input in the Google Earth polygon

    Pic. 18 The basic mechanism of new node input into an existing polygon in Google Earth.

    Right-click on the node removes it. The map dragging option doesn’t work during the digitizing, so if your object extends beyond your current view please use Zoom-in and Zoom-out option instead (by mouse scroll).

    4. If you are done, then you can take down the GeoTiff layers, revealing your complete job situated on the Google Earth satellite canvas (Pic. 19).

    Google Earth digitizing Peterborough

    Pic. 19 Example of boundary map digitized in Google Earth. All polygons are included in one folder.

    All your polygons are included in one folder, which can be further saved as the .kml file.

    5. The .kml file can be saved by right-clicking on our folder and selection of the proper extension (Pic. 20). We can save it also as a .kmz, but it won’t be as versatile as .kml is and finally it might not be opened in other platforms (i.e. interactive map builders) or being transferred to another format.

    Google Earth digitizing Peterborough2

    Pic. 20 Saving our digitized boundary map in Google Earth as the .kml file.

    6. Now our job is ready. We can open it i.e. in some interactive map builders like Google MyMaps, or convert it to .geojson format in order to produce the choropleth map in Leaflet.
    Peterborough Google MyMaps

    Peterborough Google MyMaps2

    Pic. 21, 22 The effect of boundary map digitizing in Google Earth visible in the Google MyMaps interactive map builder.

    Peterborough in

    Pic. 23 The boundary map digitized in Google Earth and displayed as the .geojson file (


This is the simplest method of raster data digitizing, but not necessarily the quickest. However, the bright side of this method is full control of the styles and colors of your polygon, whilst the MMQGIS plugin doesn’t return all these features correctly. In any other line of work, digitizing the administrative map in QGIS seems to be quicker and more convenient, at least due to the pan option available in the meantime when drawing your shape. The node correction also is quicker there.
Nevertheless of the time, which we must spend digitizing our map on Google Earth, this method remains very good for someone, who starts its own adventure with GIS.

Again, having this boundary map digitized we can use it to build the choropleth map in a different GIS platform or interactive maps like Leaflet opensource software. Knowing any way of digitizing leads you to better understanding the whole process of virtual map preparation from scratch.

Mariusz Krukar


  1. Polygon digitizing in Google Earth
  2. Georeferencing and digitizing scanned maps or aerial images in Google Earth
  3. Digitization in Google Earth
  4. Digitizing High-Resolution Coastlines in Google Earth
  5. Digitization in QGIS – Exploring tools for Digitizing
  6. Digitizing tablet
  8. MyGeodata Converter – list of the Raster Formats Conversions
  9. Write the GeoTiff file
  10. Generate merged GeoTIFF imagery from web maps (xyz tile servers) with Python
  12. MapInfo – export to GeoTiff format
  14. Creating_a_multi-band_GeoTIFF
  15. Example – Convert dataset to raster (GeoTiff)
  18. Programmatically Creating a GeoTiff Image
  19. MAPC2MAPC – digital maps manipulation program
  23. HDF-EOS to GeoTiff conversion tool
  24. Tif,_tiff,_geotiff – Manifold Viewer
  29. Geoserver – GeoTiff data store
  30. How to georeference map in ArcGIS
  31. Georeferencing maps in QGIS
  33. View GeoTiff with Google Earth Pro
  34. Open GIS Shapefile Map Layers and GeoTIFF Images of the World by Country
  36. Globalsolaratlas: GeoTiff maps download by region or country
  37. Use images as Google Earth overlays


  1. Does the data extracted by digitizing in Google Earth be directly used in ArcGIS program for further analysis?
  11. JPEG to geotiff
  15. How to add overlay without mercator projection?
  16. GEPro image overlay transparency slider not working
  17. How do I change the opacity of a KMZ file?


Image file formats







Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

%d bloggers like this: