Goodchild Frames the Future of Digital Earth

Dr. Michael Goodchild gave the keynote address this morning at URISA’s 50th annual conference in Portland. With the topic of the future of Digital Earth, Goodchild started by looking back at Al Gore’s speech of Jan. 31, 1998, which first presented the term. That visionary speech about a virtual reality where we can go to a museum and zoom down to layers of information, going forward and back in time was very compelling, a full seven years before Google Earth was launched. It’s useful to go back to that point as it framed the future of what we do, and provides a meaningful check of where we are as an industry.

From that speech in 1999 there was an Interagency Digital Earth Working Group - that spun off digital earth prototypes, including Keyhole that became Google Earth. The elections of 2000 got in the way of this development as everything dealing with Al Gore was abandoned by the incoming administration. In 2005, Google released the Google Earth client and made digital earth very relevant.

In getting to the digital earth vision, we started out with a client/server architecture with computing that could not scale to handle the massive amounts of data needed to serve this information to millions of users. With Google’s scheme, tiling took over, making it possible to serve large amounts of information at different resolutions. We have taken large leaps due to the ubiquity of fast Internet access, and fast computing power, so that nearly a billion people now access these global maps.

What we have today is quite impressive, but it’s not quite complete. If you sketch a triangle in Google Earth, using the tiling mechanism of Google and its Web Mercator projection, what you get is a representation that still looks at the Earth as flat. Further, the scales represented on computer screens aren’t possibly accurate because they don’t take into account the size of our screens. Additionally, many map measurements provide levels of accuracy in terms of Lat/Long to absurd levels that resolve to thousands of a meter, which is not true and absurd for things like directions. We are far from perfect, and even on the technical level, there is a far way to go.

Research is underway developing a true spheroid grid above and below the surface, and breakthroughs are possible getting to that next level. If we had access to the grid, as they do with NASA Worldwind, we can simulate and model science and predictions collaboratively across disciplines. At present, we also lack access to the base data of many of these mapping platforms, to share and improve the data.

Goodchild spoke to Congress in 1998 to further promote Gore’s Digital Earth idea. In the presentation, Goodchild discussed that by 2005 it would be possible to access all the relevant information about a location. While GIS is said to be an integrative technology, we are still very bad about compiling this data vertically.

The Digital Earth is a multi-purpose application, with use for research, education and multiple stakeholders, including planning and real estate development, but the technology began without a purpose defined. Gore spoke of a magic carpet ride as the use for the Digital Earth. It’s also seen as a publication platform to search for anomalies and similarities. It should also be a source of data, for unveiling details of the Earth.

Goodchild suggests that the future should be a virtual globe that simulates social and environmental processes to show what locations might look like into the future. The accessible packaging, that a child of 10 might use, is an amazing creation. Looking forward and backward at what the Earth looked like, and how it might evolve, is still a compelling vision.

The backward look is somewhat problematic in the digital era, as at present, we don’t have any technology of preserving digital data, and it’s creating a problem because we have no way of archiving what we’ve created. Going back to the 1960s is far less an issue as paper maps exist.

Our success has been the engagement of citizens, and accessibility to technology. With Google Earth, it made the consumer both consumer and creator of geographic information. Google Earth is the realization of ‘GIS as media,’ presenting the results of global geographic science.

This new neogeography has become an alternative means of producing and presenting geographic information. It forces us to ask the question of what happens when we make it possible for anyone to make a map of anything. Today they can do this at no cost, and its interesting to note what kinds of maps people make.

Looking at Google Maps, there are many dashed lines where territory is disputed. However, if you access the same map in India or China, you get re-routed to the official State map with solid borders. This shows that geographic information is very much a social construction, not a hard and scientific construct.

In the post-modernist view, when we talk to individuals, what people think of important to map is very different. Researchers speaking to aborigines in Australia identified features of geology and geography with their native names that indicate how they relate to the world around them, but those features don’t relate to what any Australian agency maps.

Geographic naming consortium has defined place names as a thing, which doesn’t translate well to other parts of the world. For instance, there is a category of Asian Grocery Store that makes great sense in suburban California, but absolutely no sense in Beijing. Goodchild says there’s no value to a global mapping system as it will force a viewpoint on different parts of the world. We need to map down to the local, not up to the global.

We need to think of a place-based GIS that is not linked by space. The creation is by name and not coordinates. Where we can do a schematic sketch with no planimetric control, because humans think about and reason with place rather than coordinates -- ‘platial’ rather than planimetric. The schematic is useful, because everyone can use it and make sense of it. Research challenges around this involve a computing system that can create schematic information form planimetric maps.

Goodchild ackowledged that a next-generation Digital Earth is being thought about by many people. The Vespucci Initiative for the Advancement of Geographic Information Science had a meeting in 2008 to update the vision of the Gore speech, with an eight-point vision [PDF]. The future vision was also tackled by the International Society for a Digital Earth. Goodchild himself framed the future in a paper published this summer for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, 'Next-generation Digital Earth,' and many of the points presented there are reflected in this speech.

Goodchild asserts that information about the planet should be considered a basic human right. We are all invested in the future of the planet, because it’s the only one we will ever have. Digital Earth facilitates access like never before, and offers effective communication between science and the citizen. To achieve its full potential, it should place further emphasis on predication and how the planet works.

This field has grown exponentially with huge number of people invested in it, and we are advancing technolgy at an accelerating rate. Gore talked about a virtual reality, with an escapist view to explore the world. Increasingly, we’re seeing GIS to augment reality, accessing information about where your standing with a mobile device of what’s around the corner, or under the street. We’re heading to a place where digital technology becomes invisible where physical and virtual realities are integrated. We’re heading to a place where geospatial technology is ubiquitous but also out of our control, which is both exciting and empowering, and very frightening.