Towards A 'Digital Earth'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during an opening event at the CeBIT computer fair on March 8, 2006, in Hanover. The opening-day buzz was owned by Microsoft, which revealed its Project Origami to be an ultra compact personal computer with full PC capabilities. Click next for more new products. Or, click below for Larry Magid's special report.
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In a modest conference room at the USGS (United States Geological Survey) in Reston, Virginia, several dozen scientists, photo interpreters, geographers, astronomers, and "data junkies" recently gathered to chart out one of the most exciting initiatives of the Digital Age. In an astonishing cooperative effort, government agencies, organizations, and corporations have banded together to explore and ultimately create a vast and searchable repository of imagery and data illustrating what they call the 'Digital Earth.' They ambitiously intend to create a living 'virtual representation of our planet that enables a person to explore and interact with the vast amounts of natural and cultural information gathered about the Earth.'

Imagine a place on the Web where anyone can obtain visually clear and geographically accurate answers using near-infinite layers of the most current data overlaid upon the Earth: from weather patterns to water pipes; mosquitoes to manpower; famines to farm-use; crime stats to seismic changes, etc., etc. Should this Digital Earth initiative succeed (and few technical obstacles ultimately prevent it) the public will possess extraordinarily powerful and precise new tools.

Naturally, broadcasters are excited about this Digital Earth. For decades, broadcast journalists have coarsely provided this range of information to viewers. As the Digital Earth emerges, broadcast and webcast journalists will have vast sources of new and current information to better inform the public.

The architects of this Digital Earth can also learn something from the journalists. We should logically become core participants in the process of forming this astonishing initiative. For example, in the past half-century, broadcasters working closely with government weather forecasters provided hurricane alerts that have saved literally hundreds of thousands of lives. Now the power of the Internet to unlock even more potentially powerful (even life-saving) data "living" on a Digital Earth will result in an explosion of revelations in the public interest. Digital Earth's partners would be wise to avail themselves of the experience broadcasters have had in presenting geographically referenced information in clear and compelling ways.

Likewise, a close working relationship with the Digital Earth partners can be extraordinarily useful in improving journalism. Journalists have had almost no expertise interpreting the high-resolution satellite imagery that was, until recently, largely restricted to the intelligence agencies. This Digital Earth initiative must integrate experienced interpreters to provide context to the content. Clearly that's not a simple task as even the National Imaging and Mapping Agency's excellent photo interpreters don't presume to be corrct all the time. As technology democratizes imagery, journalists need to access to trained imagery interpreters.

Journalists are also concerned that poorly drafted rules threaten access to new U.S. commercial satellite imagery. By retaining broad "shutter control" over these cameras in space, the Executive Branch ignores the public's First Amendment rights by denying access to imagery critical to decision-making. These efforts at censorship are inconsistent with the rapid pace satellite technologies are advancing around the world. Imposing shutter control on U.S. commercial satellites could possibly insure foreign domination of the commercial satellite industry. Builders of the Digital Earth should view "shutter control" with alarm.

As part of the Digital Earth initiative, declassified government imagery and warehoused data should be available to the public. For example, that applies to high-resolution digital elevation data. Scientists tell us that such digital elevation data sets are critical to better understanding the forces of nature (like modeling how a hurricane's deadly storm surge will hit land.) We should be excited about NASA's upcoming Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and insist such potentially life-saving data be released at the best resolution in a timely manner.

Critical to the success of the Digital Earth is the ability to overlay significant statistics and infrastructure data collected by states and localities. For thirty years, governments at all levels have been collecting significant spatial data to plan cities, build roads, monitor environmental issues, etc. All too often, journalists struggle to pry such data loose (and data like crime statistics and public expenditures, for example) from these reluctant and easily embarrassed sources. Some localities arrogantly believe it ethical to charge the public twice for such data: first, using taxpayers' funds to collect it, and second, charging the same taxpayers who ask to receive it. This is clearly antithetical to the powerful openness envisioned by the Digital Earth. Every governmental data source has a unique Freedom of Information law with its own procedures and exceptions and pricing policies. Digital Earth is poised to radically simplify approaches to obtain federal, state, and local data.

Powerful computer technology that allows us to illustrate urban environments in 3D rapidly enhances what this Digital Earth may look like. Across the country, many companies are now "building" the same key cities over and over while smaller cities are ignored. Architects of the Digital Earth should consider this powerful visualization technology, agree on uniform standards, and rationalize the process of how these 3D cities are built so they become efficiently integrated into the system.

Lastly, we've seen how easily data can be manipulated to distort the truth. We implore that as this initiativ moves forward, technologies --- like watermarking, encryption, time/location stamping --- that can be used to insure data authenticity and accuracy be researched and integrated.

Below, I've listed a smattering of websites that give us a taste of how data collected about the Earth, referenced and displayed geographically, can help save lives or provide mankind with the raw materials to make critical choices. Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI, says that "knowing where things are and why is essential to rational decision making."

The Digital Earth initiative is a glowing testament to the broadly shared view that transparency is critical and that mankind will be ennobled by the free flow of vital information. The Digital Earth will provide the powerful mirror humanity will use to observe itself. Journalists will be helpful to insure this view will not be obscured by shortsighted policies. But the collective genius behind the vision of the Digital Earth militates that all will contribute to what inevitably will become one of mankindÂ's living treasures.

by Daniel Dubno