Big ideas, small steps

The federal government has rarely shied from trying to construct grandiose information systems that test the limits of technology. Indeed, agency missions, most of which border on overwhelming, feed the urge to go big.

From that context comes Digital Earth. A multiagency team headed by NASA will try to tap into enormous amounts of geospatial data — including information that you would not typically think of as lending itself to maps — so that agencies, individuals, businesses and researchers can seamlessly combine data that has previously been incompatible.

The creators of this latest gargantuan federal information technology program plan to go public this month with requests for information.

Digital Earth supporters believe the program has the potential to become the next Internet — replacing the current text-based format with one that is mostly based on 3-D images. Others believe Digital Earth could make the desktop computer a thing of the past.

First, however, Digital Earth must show smaller successes. Just as a company develops a product incrementally — version 1.0, 1.1 and so on — the Digital Earth group plans to release portions of the project as they are developed. That's a good way to keep interest in the program.

Digital Earth also must tap the private sector for commercial ideas if the team hopes to make the project a reality. A comment in this week's cover story notes that the project's success is directly linked to the commercial sector's involvement. That's a realistic view and shows that NASA understands the project's scope.

Like many government IT programs, Digital Earth is an effort to make life better by bringing information to people who can use it to gain "eureka" insights. It would be a shame if the project collapses under its own weight. But so far, the Digital Earth team seems to understand what's needed for success.

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