Creating a digital Earth
- By Brian Robinson
- Jul 17, 2000
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
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."
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
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."
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.