Digital Earth lives on

Private sector helps movement keep apace

Supporters of the Digital Earth movement say the plan to create a digital real-time representation of the planet is moving forward despite losing the influence of its leading proponent, former Vice President Al Gore.

What has been largely a government-led program is finding more advocates in the private sector. "It's slowly moving that way," said Jack Pellicci, a vice president of Oracle Corp. and the company's point man on Digital Earth. Industry sees the value of a wide world of spatially referenced data, Pellicci said.

"Location and spatially aware enterprises are the thing of the future," he said.

Pellicci intends to drive that message home in June when he speaks before an international conference on Digital Earth in Canada. "My message is going to be strong on commercialization, partnerships between industry, government and academia," he said.

Digital Earth is an ambitious concept to incorporate maps and data—everything from topographical and population maps to data about migration and weather patterns—into a seamless geospatial system accessible worldwide to citizens and scientists alike. Today, 17 federal agencies participate in the project.

Since the Digital Earth project was launched in 1998, bringing together a number of similar programs across the country and internationally, it has been driven in the United States mostly by federal agencies. NASA—the lead agency—the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others have each maintained small budgets for the program.

At NASA, Digital Earth program manager Thomas Taylor said the private sector's embrace of the project, and even its assumption of the lead role, is how the program is supposed to work.

"It's its own self-sustaining market that is evolving," Taylor said. "We are along for the ride, and it's our choice if we want to participate in it as part of a new market." NASA has budgeted about $3 million a year for Digital Earth activities, Taylor said. He's hopeful that the funding level will be maintained in the fiscal 2002 budget, but specifics have yet to be released. Paul Bryant, a physicist with FEMA and a representative to the Digital Earth project, said the program "is still a going concern as far as we know."

Congress, he said, has instructed the agency to develop hazard maps that will become part of the geospatial data making up Digital Earth.

"Gore did have a big interest" in Digital Earth, he said. "But so far there's been no slackening of the effort that I can tell."

Mark Reichardt, director of marketing and public-sector programs for the Open GIS Consortium, said he expects the Bush administration will like what it sees in Digital Earth.

"When I look at the Bush-Cheney campaign material, there are so many issues of concern that beg for spatial information to help with the decision-making process," he said.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that regardless of brand name, the excitement of spatial information is there—people understand it," he said. "Digital Earth is helping to move spatial information from the experts into the hands of everyday decision makers—business people and citizens."

Pellicci said there was concern regarding what a Gore loss in November would mean for the program. But in retrospect there was little cause for concern, he said.

"Over the last year and a half, Gore paid no attention to it anyway—he was busy running for office," Pellicci said. "But it's embedded in NASA, and the rest of the world is involved now."

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