Creating a digital Earth

The vision looks something like this: Go into virtual orbit around Earth.

Zoom in on any part of the planet and grab a detailed view of a road system,

vegetation, weather, even an image of a single house or garden. Flick a

virtual wrist, and you can even know the political layout of the community,

all in 3-D.

That capability is what the Digital Earth program, a multi-agency effort

headed up by NASA, wants to deliver. Digital Earth, first announced by Vice

President Al Gore two years ago, sounds futuristic, but some elements of

this vision might soon appear as real products. Later this month, the U.S.

Geological Survey, one of the sponsors of the project, will hold a crucial

workshop to determine what an alpha version of Digital Earth might look


Digital Earth is expected to eventually encompass all the geological,

geographical and demographic information collected about Earth and its inhabitants.

That would enable scientists, teachers, policy-makers or anyone else to

develop detailed analyses of features and phenomena as small as one meter

in size.

But Digital Earth is more than just a mapping application. The program

has the potential to become a framework for an enormous range of information

that can be pinpointed to a single geographic point on Earth, including

cultural and scientific data. By layering this information over the geographic

framework, proponents say, Digital Earth could lead to a much broader understanding

of events that affect people around the world, from natural phenomena to

cultural and political issues.

More immediately, it's seen as the basis of projects such as the Global

Disaster Information Network. This initiative, launched by the White House

in April, would create an electronic system that would provide geological,

demographic, political and other information at any place a disaster occurs.

That way, federal, state and local officials will have quicker access to

more information to make better decisions about what services to provide.

On the commercial side, Digital Earth could revolutionize the markets of

travel and tourism, real estate, media, and sports and entertainment by

providing more geographic information.

"Digital Earth is far more than the next "killer app' on the Net — it

will become the next Internet," said David Lorenzini, director of geospatial

data for Skyline Software Systems Inc., a company in Waltham, Mass., that

provides Internet-based 3-D georeferenced information.

The Internet, according to Lorenzini, is defined by World Wide Web browsers,

which display 2-D information and are largely text-based. Digital Earth

could form the basis of the next Internet because it is a 3-D, visually

based "Web" format that will be browsable. This Internet form will be more

useful because studies have shown that information is more meaningful to

people when presented in a visual rather than text format.

Making Desktops Obsolete

Gore, announcing the project in January 1998 at the California Science

Center in Los Angeles, said a pressing problem facing the nation was how

to turn the huge amounts of geospatial data that had been collected via

satellites and other means — a volume that would only continue to expand — into information that people could use.

The answer Gore proposed was a mechanism for tying together data from

multiple, networked sources and making that integrated resource available

visually as a browsable, 3-D version of the planet. It would make use of

broadband Internet technology now under development and other emerging technologies.

This model of information management could make obsolete the current

"desktop" metaphor employed by existing PC operating systems. PCs depend

on a "files and folders" representation to find and manipulate information — an inherently hierarchical approach. The Digital Earth concept is non-

hierarchical: It contains all information in plain view, and finer-grained

elements of that information will be made available by "zooming in" on finer

and finer resolutions of areas of the planet.

"If we are successful," Gore said, "[Digital Earth] will have broad societal

and commercial benefits in areas such as education, decision-making for

a sustainable future, land-use planning, [and] agricultural and crisis management.

[It] could allow us to respond to man-made or natural disasters, or to collaborate

on the long-term environmental challenges we face."

More than 30 government agencies that either produce or use geospatial

data are involved in the initiative, including USGS, the National Oceanic

and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental

Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. NASA is the lead agency

for the project.

In the long run, Digital Earth will become important to government because

sharing geospatial data among agencies — currently a rare occurrence — will

become the norm, said Ivan DeLoatch, chief of the EPA's data acquisition

branch. This is particularly true because funding and other resources are

expected to become even more constrained, he said.

"The sharing of data is done only haphazardly, currently," DeLoatch

said. "We have some agreements with various agencies, but we want to develop

this [sharing] on an enterprise and organizational level so we can leverage

the resources we have. Standards, statutes and stovepipes are all barriers

to doing that now."

The critical element to sharing data is interoperability, said Alan

Gaines, senior science associate for spatial data and information at the

NSF. A wide range of data, software and systems has to work together. Government

and universities are working on many projects to solve some of the interoperability

problems, he said, "but each addresses only a small part of the whole, and

none can integrate with any of the others."

The Federal Geographic Data Committee, for example, is examining ways

to make it possible for systems to share different kinds of data, even though

that data is stored and presented in different and sometimes incompatible

formats. The Open GIS Consortium Inc., a nonprofit organization of public

and private groups in Wayland, Mass., is working on the software side to

integrate geospatial systems around the world.

The Web Mapping Testbed, of which the Open GIS Consortium is overseeing

development, will provide one of the underpinnings of Digital Earth. In

a demonstration last September, the testbed showed that it was possible

to automatically combine, via the Web, different map overlays of the same

geographic region. Previously, such a project required skilled technicians

working with sophisticated software on stand-alone systems.

"We are pleased that the Digital Earth initiative has embraced the idea

of standards as wholeheartedly as it has," said Lance McKee, vice president

of corporate communications for the Open GIS Consortium. "It didn't seem

to be that way at first, as it looked to be going with multiple, separate

projects. But we perceive both the Open GIS and Digital Earth approaches

to be based on interoperability, which means they need to be built on a

foundation of standards."

Selling Government

Still, despite the vast potential of the project, agencies are expressing

varying levels of interest in Digital Earth. Although some government agencies,

such as the EPA, are enthusiastic, others that stand to benefit are less


Charles Challstrom, director of the National Geodetic Survey at NOAA,

acknowledged that people at his organization are skeptical. Before trying

something as ambitious as Digital Earth, he said he believes the government

needs to focus on developing standards and procedures for exchanging information

among geographic, mapping and imagery programs spread throughout federal


Others outside of government are taking a longer-term view. Michael

Goodchild, chairman of the geography department at the University of California,

Santa Barbara, said Digital Earth is a vision of what might be 20 years

from now. Nevertheless, he said it's capable of motivating a large number

of people to work together toward a common goal that might show results


"If Digital Earth is to be a repository of everything that's known about

the Earth, then it must be capable of storing and handling models, or digital

representations, of Earth processes," he said. "We are working hard on the

problem of storing and accessing models, and that work is likely to produce

some exciting results in the next year or so."

This is of more importance to the research community, he acknowledged.

The first thing the public may see as a result of Digital Earth, he said,

is a better system for access to geo- spatial data, through the evolution

of projects such as the National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse, the Global

Spatial Data Infrastructure, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.'s

Geography Network and other private-sector initiatives.

Indeed, Digital Earth could become the primary way of accessing information

about the planet, said Skyline Software's Lorenzini.

"As various Digital Earth initiatives grow and open access to rich,

local content as well as to global information sources, Digital Earth will

become more useful than any GIS or data network," he said. "Digital Earth

will evolve into a real-time, collective, visual, spatial decision-support

system. [It will become] the best tool for addressing ill-structured geo-related

queries and for promoting informed, collaborative decision-making among

nontechnical audiences."

Other companies are also putting a lot of hope into the eventual success

of Digital Earth. Walnut Creek, Calif.-based GlobeXplorer Inc. describes

itself as an aggregator of other companies' geospatial content, which it

sells on demand and in real time to users via the Web, including to other

dot-coms. The company has tried to map as much of its content as it can

to standards and frameworks expected to be used by Digital Earth, said GlobeXplorer

chief operating officer Michael Fisher.

Commercial-side enthusiasm could be the key to Digital Earth's future. The

initiative is moving "at a reasonable pace," said Thomas Taylor, program

manager for Digital Earth at NASA. "The real measure of its progress...will

be the extent of the interest shown by the private sector. [Companies] are

already looking at developing products that fall within the concept of Digital

Earth. If the initiative is to succeed, it's the commercial sector that

will have to drive it."

Patience Needed

That realization should be raising red flags for the government, according

to Jack Pellicci, vice president of global service industry development

for Oracle Corp., which recently hosted a Digital Earth "community meeting"

at its Reston, Va., facility.

There is a lot of "genuine goodness" associated with Digital Earth, he said,

but the reality is that, if government wants industry to participate, "they

need to provide the incentives and make business opportunities available."

"There are a lot of resources out there, but they need to be focused,"

he added. "Maybe pulling it together to focus on such things as e-government

will provide that focus. Right now, when I talk about Digital Earth to our

sales force, their eyes glaze over. E-government is not something you need

radically new ideas or technology for. What you need is implementation."

The fear is that developing Digital Earth will drag on for too long. "It

won't mean very much unless they speed things up and get some practical

applications out there in the near future," Pellicci said.

Other things, outside the control of government, could put a drag on

the evolution of Digital Earth. Even though open standards approaches are

starting to gel, that might not mean much if long-promised, affordable broadband

connections take much longer to reach the general public, according to some


Nevertheless, people are weighing those near-term concerns with the

long-term potential of Digital Earth, and coming down on the side of patience.

"We are also concerned about the process going from the talking phase to

one of real implementation," said Dan Dubno, an Emmy award-winning producer

for CBS, who helps in preparing disaster-related information for CBS broadcasts.

"But brilliant ideas take time, and Digital Earth is brilliant. It's also

essential and inevitable. It's just a question of how soon the government

and the politicians can get their house in order about this."

Lorenzini also said it will be slow-going. But he expects that the program

will pick up speed as organizations see how their data "can be visualized

and understood by the masses of Net-connected, nontechnical audiences. It's

visual data mining for the video-game-playing generation."

—Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. Paula Shaki Trimble

contributed to this article.


Sidebar: "Digital Earth: A political sphere" [Federal Computer Week, July 17, 2000]

Sidebar: "Bumps along the road" [Federal Computer Week, July 17, 2000]

Digital Earth Web site

BY Brian Robinson
July 17, 2000

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