DE Transitions ( Jul - Oct, 2014 )

Government policy can have a prominent influence on the directions of science and research. The concept of Digital Earth itself was popularized in 1999 by a vice-president’s speech. An ISDE position paper, “Next Generation Digital Earth”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2012, stated “a top down initiative for a next generation digital earth” with “large scale public investment” seems unlikely, but top down policies still trigger developments in some pivotal areas in which Digital Earth has interests, for instance in Earth observation and Digital Earth data. A new framework for constructing a balanced portfolio of Earth observations and observing systems, derived from the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations by the White House [1], depicts a policy for the continuity of sustained Earth observation for public service, and Earth system research and investment for experimental observations. This plan also advocates support for developing “big data” initiatives and common support services that aim to improve the discoverability, accessibility, and usability of data for both the initial intended purpose and for repurposing the vast amounts of Earth observation data already available, with more being generated every day. Following this, two other policy initiatives are being rolled out aiming at empowering the resilience of agriculture and the food supply [2] and disaster response and recovery [3] with geospatial technology facilitated with Earth observation data. The Geoscience Datasets of Australia, in terms of airborne geophysics, hydrogeology, crustal elements, and topography, are becoming public online via web services, and OGC standards [4] under the country’s open data strategy.

    Earth observation datasets are getting bigger, more so than ever before. Within three months, newly launched Earth observation satellites Spot7 [5], Worldview 3 [6], and Sentinel 1A [7] will reveal new insights for us to better understand the Earth system and solve emerging challenges with centimeter-resolution data, long-term observation satellite constellations, and more developed interferogram data processing. At the same time, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite [8], exclusive for carbon-specific research areas, is able to help scientists study Earth system processes and offer climatologists a better understanding of the role oceans, soils, and forests play in the release and absorption of carbon dioxide [9][10][11]. Satellite-based [12] and map-based [13] historical dataset still have important functions and support research and policy making.

    Facilitated with Earth observation data and data processing technology, researchers have developed scientific approaches for applications in atmospheric, geological, and ecological research. A Fossil Fuel Data Assimilation System [14] was developed and used to quantify 15 years of CO2 emissions and estimate greenhouse gas emissions. Forest research is investigating the use of aerial photography, thermal imaging, and airborne laser mapping systems to improve the identification of forest diseases [15]. A new 3D elevation program is designed to respond to the growing need for high-quality elevation data in three-dimensional mapping [16].

    The increasingly prevalent practice of sharing research outputs online will require Digital Earth planners to think more about map services, interfaces, and standards as priorities for research and information dissemination. Various scenarios in a WWF online mapping platform, for example, evaluate oil spills in terms of mapping their spread, the potential impact on the water and shoreline, and interaction with sea ice, wildlife, and ecologically significant areas in the region [17]. Online 2D or 3D mapping systems, equipped with real-time computing and geospatial analysis functionalities [18], could be a possibility for shaping the features of Digital Earth in its next generation.


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[2] Geospatial Key Part of President’s Climate Data Initiative “Food Resilience” Effort

[3] White House: Tackling Data from Earth Observation Systems & Reviews Apps for Disaster Response

[4] Open access to Geoscience Australia’s data: More than 150 Web Services Available

[5] First Images from SPOT 7 Satellite within Three Days After Launch

[6] WorldView-3: First Images!

[7] Sentinel-1 – Earth's topography as a coloured pattern

[8] Five years after failed attempt, NASA launching another CO2-measuring satellite

[9] NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 Set to Join the A-Train

[10] How NASA's New Carbon Observatory Will Help Us Understand Alien Worlds

[11] NASA Launches Carbon Mission to Watch Earth Breathe

[12] The State of Rain

[13] History of America’s Maps in One App

[14] Study maps 15 years of carbon dioxide emissions on Earth

[15] Bluesky Tree Map Helps Identify Diseases in UK Trees

[16] USGS Establishes New 3D Elevation Programme

[17] WWF maps Arctic oil spill disasters

[18] What does real-time computing add to geospatial analysis and system performance?