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
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