Digital Earth History
Digital Earth was the label given to a visionary concept, made popular in 1998 by former US vice president Al Gore, for describing a virtual representation of the Earth on the Internet that is spatially referenced and interconnected with the world’s digital knowledge archives. In a speech prepared for the California Science Center in Los Angeles on January 31, 1998 (www.digitalearth.gov), Mr. Gore articulated a digital future where a young girl could sit before a computer generated 3-dimensional spinning Earth and access information from around the planet with vast amounts of scientific, natural, and cultural information to describe, entertain, and understand the Earth and its human activities. This vision states that any citizen of the planet, linked through the Internet, should be able to access vast amounts of free information in this virtual world, however, a vast commercial marketplace of products and services was envisioned to co-exist.
Digital Earth continues to evolve along two distinct lines of organization constructs. One construct is through a growing and deliberate global partnership of NGOs, educators, business, and government leaders collaborating together with the goal of enable future generations unprecedented technical and educational facilities for exploring the Earth, better understanding its systems, and investigating impacts of human activities. This Digital Earth community has dedicated itself to building a global commons promoting down-to-Earth solutions based on cooperative use of standards, databases, and tools. Four international symposia (see International Symposium on Digital Earth Background) have been held around the world representing this community, with the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth scheduled to be held in San Francisco during June of 2007 (www.isde5.org). The second line of Digital Earth organizational manifestation is the business sector leaders, such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN offering handy “digital earth” applications to anyone interested in creating customized mapping applications; applications led by travel, real estate, tourism, and business location drivers. The recent Where2.0 (www.oreilly.com/where2.0) conference inaugurated in 2005 represents a prime example of the new commercial focus that caters specifically to the hackers and developers using map mash-ups and web-mapping applications linked to the large corporate web-based spatial search engines. Through daily weather forecasts, Google Maps, and nightly news coverage, citizens are rapidly becoming accustomed to the Digital Earth interface.
United States of America
Technology developments that support the current Digital Earth technological framework can be traced to U.S. computing advances derived from the Cold War competition, the space race, and commercial innovations. Therefore, many innovations can be tracked to corporations working for the Department of Defense, NASA, and the Silicon Valley. However, the philosophical foundations for Digital Earth can be more closely aligned with the increased awareness of global changes and the need to better understand the concepts of sustainability for the planet’s survival. These philosophical roots can be traced back to visionaries, such as Buckminster Fuller who suggested half a century ago that we need to create a GeoScope, analogous to a microscope to examine and improve our understanding of the planet Earth. He help orient a generation to look at “spaceship Earth” with the understanding and care appropriate for our only life-support system.
In 1999, NASA was selected to head the Interagency Digital Earth Working Group (IDEWG) due in part to its stellar reputation for technology innovations and in part for the agency’s focus on the study of planetary change. The new initiative was located in the NASA’s Office of Earth Sciences (Code YO). This titular focus was considered necessary to help align over 17 government agencies and keep sustainability and Earth oriented applications as a guiding principle for the Digital Earth enterprise. Components for development of 3-D Earth graphic-user-interfaces (GUIs) were placed into various technological sectors to stimulate cooperative development support; including education, museums, research and development. While initially limited to government personnel, industry and academia were early observers attending IDEWG workshops to discuss different topics such as, visualization, information fusion, standards and interoperability, advanced computational algorithms, digital libraries, museums, et cetera. In March of 2000, at a special meeting hosted by Oracle Corporation in Herndon, Virginia, industry representatives showcased for the IDEWG over a dozen enterprising technologies demonstrated the range of promising 3-D visualization prototypes. Within two years, these prototypes were captivating international audiences, including Kofi Annan and Colin Powell, in government, business, science, and mass media who began to purchase the early commercial geobrowsers. Just as the spectacular Apollo photography of Earthrise provided an inspiring Earth-centric image for new generations to appreciate the fragility of our biosphere, the 3-D Digital Earths began inspiring growing numbers of people to the possibility of better understanding and possibly saving our planet. Introduction of satellite data into commercially accessible spatial toolboxes significantly advanced the capacity to map, monitor, and manage our planet’s resources and provide a unifying perspective on the Digital Earth vision (Foresman, 1998).
From fall of 1998 until fall of 2000, NASA led the Digital Earth initiative in cooperation with its sister government agencies, including the Federal Geospatial Data Committee (FGDC). Attention to consensus development of standards, protocols and tools through cooperative test-bed initiatives was the primary process for advancement of this initiative within the government community. When Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, Digital Earth as a programmatic moniker was consider a political liability to the incoming administration and was immediately relegated to a minority status within the FGDC and used primarily to define 3-D visualization reference models (Digital Earth Reference Model). This status continues today, with a few exceptions, within the Bush administration.
With the Chinese government’s full backing and inauguration of the 1st International Symposium on Digital Earth in 1999 (see International Symposium on Digital Earth Background) the international community warmly supported a dialog for implementing the Digital Earth vision as articulated by Mr. Gore. In 2000, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) advanced the Digital Earth to enhance decision-makers access to information for the likes of Secretary-General Koffi Annan and the Untied Nations Security Council. UNEP promoted use of Web-based geospatial technologies with the ability to access the world’s environmental information, in association with economic and social policy issues. The design of UNEP’s data and information resources reorganization was initiated in 2001, based on the GSDI/DE architecture for a network of distributed and interoperable databases creating a framework of linked servers. The design concept was based upon using a growing network of internet mapping software and database content with advanced capabilities to link GIS tools and applications. UNEP.Net, launched in February 2001, provided UN staff with an unparalleled facility for accessing authoritative environmental data resources and a visible example to others in the UN community. However, a universal user interface for UNEP.net, suitable for members of Security Council, that is non-scientists, did not exist. UNEP began actively testing prototypes for a UNEP.Net geobrowser beginning in mid-2001 with a showcase for the African community displayed at the 5th African GIS Conference in Nairobi, Kenya November 2001. Keyhole Technology, Inc. (later purchased in 2004 by Google for Google Maps) was contracted to develop and demonstrate the first full globe 3-D interactive Digital Earth using web-stream data from distributed database located on servers around the planet. A concerted effort within the UN community (via the UN Geographic Information Working Group) followed immediately, including purchase of early Keyhole systems by 2002. UNEP provided further public demonstrations for this early Digital Earth system at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in September, 2002 at Johannesburg, South Africa. In seeking an engineering approach to system-wide development of the Digital Earth model, recommendations were made at the 3rd UNGIWG Meeting, June 2002, Washington, D.C. for creating a document on the Functional User Requirements for geobrowsers. This proposal was communicated to the ISDE Secretariat in Beijing and the organizing committee for the 3rd International Symposium on Digital Earth and agreement was reached by the Chinese Academy of Sciences sponsored Secretariat to host the first of the two Digital Earth geobrowser meetings.
China had fostered an explosion of Chinese Digital Earth projects and initiatives originating from its 1999 ISDE inaugural meeting. Literally, hundreds of digital earth cities had been created by the national, provincial, and municipal governments and universities in a Digital Earth space race. In China, Digital Earth became a metaphor for modernization and automation with computers leading to the incorporated of Digital Earth into the five-year modernization plan (836 program). Originating from China’s satellite remote sensing community, their Digital Earth prowess spread to a range of applications including flood predictions, dust cloud modeling, environmental assessments, and city planning. Chinese leaders at the highest levels of government have highlighted their technology as exemplified by their leveraging the Digital Olympics when successfully competing to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Reliance on visualization for the Digital Olympics was accompanied by the powerful and detailed computational modeling for all aspects of the planning, including security, health, and logistics. China has been omnipresent at all international Digital Earth conferences and has recently founded the International Society for Digital Earth, one of the first NGOs created by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Japan, led by Keio University and JAXA, has also played a prominent international role in Digital Earth helping to create the Digital Asia Network with a secretariat located in Bangkok to promote regional cooperation and initiatives. The high-tech environment for Japanese society has been a powerful enabler for an impressive array of innovative advances using Digital Earth technology. Citizens in the Gifu Prefecture are uploading information directly into community-scale Digital Earth programs up-linked from their camera-cell phones on topics ranging from first sightings of fire-flies in spring to location of blocked handicap access ramps. Applications of the Japanese Digital Earth initiatives range from the use of the world’s largest super-computer for modeling climate change to citizen-participatory risk assessment in planning for the permanent disposal of radioactive nuclear waste.
Other nations have been aggressively proposing to host the bi-annual ISDE conferences as a reflection of the nation’s interest in Digital Earth. Recently, an Israeli author published the novel Global Dawn (http://www.webhaven.co.il/globaldawn.html) that provides an overview of the early initiatives to create a Digital Earth community in Israel for the Middle East countries.
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Did you know that the International Society for Digital Earth is a global partnership composed of NGOs, educators, business, and government leaders?