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20 years of spatial innovation gives rise to Digital Earth 2.0

By Anthony Wallace on 11 October, 2016 in 3D & BIM, Company & Industry, GIS & Data, Surveying

In 1998, then vice-president of the United States Al Gore called on the need for a ‘Digital Earth’ – a virtual representation of the Earth that is georeferenced and connected to the world’s digital knowledge archives.

Fast forward almost 20 years to 2016, and advancement in spatial technologies have boldly advanced upon that definition. In recent decades the concept has evolved thanks to the development and adoption of technologies such as earth observation, geo-information systems, global positioning systems, communication networks, sensor webs, electromagnetic identifiers, virtual reality and grid computation.

Dr Zaffar Sadiq Mohamed-Ghouse, chair of the upcoming International Society for Digital Earth’s ISDE10 Symposium and Locate17, sees that Digital Earth is a global strategic contributor to scientific and technological developments. Moving ahead, he also believes it to be a catalyst in finding solutions to the world’s biggest international scientific, environmental and societal issues.

Digital Earth… a catalyst in finding solutions to international scientific, environmental and societal issues.”

Dr Zaffar Sadiq Mohamed-Ghouse

“Everyday life will be immersed in the internet of things,” Dr Mohamed-Ghouse says of the future. “From driverless vehicles to wearable devices, immersive reality and semantically web-enabled ‘thinking’ systems, new technology will anticipate our needs.”

According to Dr Mohamed-Ghouse, Digital Earth’s role in this digital future will be fundamental to overcoming our biggest environmental and societal challenges.

“Digital Earth should play a strategic and sustainable role in addressing such challenges to human society as natural resource depletion, food and water insecurity, energy shortages, environmental degradation, natural disasters response, population explosion, and, in particular, global climate change,” he says.

One of the most relatable example of Digital Earth can be found in Google Earth. It’s ability to compile multiple datasets anywhere on Earth, allows almost anybody to analyse complex geographic data at whatever scale they choose.

However, it is Australia’s role in digital earth that is Dr Mohamed-Ghouse’s focus as a director at the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI). Closer to home, Digital Earth is realised by the NSW Globe, QLD Globe and Locate WA, which are leading the way interstate by compiling datasets as diverse as property values, shipwrecks and Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander boundaries. At federal level, the National Map brings together much of this data alongside additional continent-wide datasets.

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“Applying Digital Earth Technologies such as this will allow Australia to innovate and respond to challenges including food, water and energy security, disaster management and natural resource management,” said Dr Mohamed-Ghouse.

“Australia has strong research and industry sectors and a growing awareness by government, business and community of the use of the power of location underpinned by the Digital Earth information infrastructures for better decision making.”

Digital Earth will be a major focusses of next year’s ISDE symposium, this time held alongside Australia’s peak spatial conference, Locate 2017, between 3-6 April 2017 in Sydney at the newly reopened International Conference Centre.

Being an international forum, Dr Mohamed-Ghouse anticipates that some of the world’s strongest advancements in Digital Earth will come to a head in Sydney in 2017. While Australian-led research has lots to offer, Dr Mohamed-Ghouse also sheds light on some of our world-leading neighbours that are expected to participate.

National Map depicting known shipwreck locations, based on Locate WA data.

“Singapore has a national strategy for moving to the 3D and virtual world, and China is strongly committed to Digital Earth at the government level,” he said. “USA, Europe and Canada, Japan, India and China and several other countries are developing advanced earth observations systems which are being coordinated by the Committee of Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), which is currently being chaired by Australia.

Australia, he notes, is doing considering well when it comes to Digital Earth, thanks to a commitment to open data and because of the federal and state online Spatial Data Infrastructure and more recently the globes being implemented by state government agencies.

However Dr Mohamed-Ghouse also notes that Australia needs to continue to embrace a digital economy with a strong knowledge base of scientists and geo-professionals to invent and apply the next generation of technologies.

“Australia really needs to have a strong indigenous capability so that we can be industry creators, not followers,” he said.

“We want to be price setters not price takers.”