Next-Generation Digital Earth Paper Published in PNAS

A paper entitled “Next-Generation Digital Earth” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) on 21 June 2012. The paper, meant to be an update of the Digital Earth vision given by Al Gore over ten years ago, reviews progress in Digital Earth scientific discovery, analyses current work, and forecasts future developments.

Since the Digital Earth concept was put forth in the 1990s, research on Digital Earth has been given great attention internationally. A series of international symposia and summits on Digital Earth were initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the International Society of Digital Earth, and two Digital Earth declarations in 1999 and 2009 were produced from the proceedings of these meetings. The first international journal focusing on scientific Digital Earth research was inaugurated as the International Journal of Digital Earth in 2008. In March 2011, the International Society for Digital Earth organized the Digital Earth Vision to 2020 working group, which included seventeen Digital Earth scientists from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the USA. The paper published in PNAS is a significant output from the working group and is a milestone in Digital Earth’s history.

The paper introduced many Digital Earth implementations such as Google Earth, NASA World Wind, and DEPS/CAS, positing that they have largely fulfilled the original Digital Earth vision from 1998. In more recent years, however, new developments in Internet, 3D, and Earth observation technologies have further accelerated the fulfilment of the Digital Earth concept and expanded the possibilities of what Digital Earth can be. For example, new research questions related to big data have brought Digital Earth into a new data-intensive era. Also, it has become clear that the next generation of Digital Earth will not be a single system but, rather, multiple connected infrastructures based on open access and participation across multiple technological platforms that will address the needs of different audiences. A more dynamic view has also been proposed of Digital Earth as a digital nervous system of the globe, actively informing about events happening on (or close to) the Earth’s surface by connecting to sensor networks and situation-aware systems. The paper also explored the significant organizational challenges faced in advancing Digital Earth. Any effort to develop a next-generation Digital Earth will require new governance models. In addition to the International Society for Digital Earth, many other organizations, including the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association (GSDI), the International Council for Science and its Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA, ICSU), the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, and many national agencies will address various aspects of the future Digital Earth. These organizations can play a helpful role in endorsing the concept of a next-generation Digital Earth and elaborating its vision. Along with the scientific community, they can also ensure that the next generation meets the highest standards of scientific rigor, especially careful and detailed documentation of uncertainty.

PNAS, the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences, is an important scientific journal that printed its first issue in 1915 and continues to publish highly cited research reports and other articles. The Digital Earth paper will contribute new thinking through PNAS and will lead new findings being discovered worldwide.

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