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November 18th, 2014
How soon until we see a seamless high-resolution digital Earth?

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a truly breakthrough mapping platform. We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the creation of Google Maps (Feb. 2005) and the corresponding commercialization of Google Earth (June 2005). The open source NASA World Wind is another mature, but open source, variety of online world viewer, and there are others. While there have been ongoing improvements to these online digital map environments, there haven’t been many awe inspiring advancements for some time.

Given the incredible amount of geospatial data that’s being collected now, it’s time for a major upgrade in how we navigate our digital realities. Our Earth observations are rapidly increasing, we’re collecting incredible amounts of 3D data, and we’re all capturing a great deal of data from our mobile phones. Collectively, with all these data sources, we could easily blow away the current online maps for both resolution and currency, but many bottlenecks still exist.

Bandwidth Bind

Computing has advanced rapidly over these past ten years. We now all have access to the kind of networked computing capacity that made Google Maps and Google Earth possible, except now we call it cloud computing. This capacity has actually crossed the point where it’s cheaper to purchase computing capacity from a provider than it would be to own and maintain the hardware yourself.

Access to a reliably high speed connection is certainly holding some of the advancement back. In the United States, we have slower broadband speeds and higher costs than just about any country. This lack of reliable and consistent high-speed connections makes it difficult to release the next level of digital mapping platform that unleashes a wealth of new data because the data will require significantly more bandwidth to deliver. Google Earth Engine is the perfect example as it provides a planetary-scale platform for satellite imagery exploration, but it’s in Beta with a select number of academics due to the massive computational power necessary to visualize, analyze and warehouse this data.

Open Value

The U.S. federal government is a massive geospatial data creator, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alone collecting 20 to 40 terabytes of data per day, but with only the resources to release a tenth of that. This agency has been a pioneer in opening up their data, and the documented value of this freely available data has spawned $30 billion of value from those that have commercialized value-added products. Now, this agency is looking to form a big data partnership with the private sector that would be supported by access fees.

One can certainly see that this next level of capacity will require a huge infrastructure investment that would certainly warrant a subscription model. With the exponential growth of the Internet and the ubiquity of mediocre information online, there is growing interest to pay for high-value content. This is playing out with media outlets such as the New York Times new subscription push, and people are responding positively where the investment clearly buys a better product. It does fly in the face of the underlying mantra of the Internet that “data wants to be free,” but so much is changing with the Internet that maybe that won’t hold.

Displaying What’s Collected

Google is in a unique position to greatly enhance the resolution of their own digital Earth platform with their acquisition of Earth observation satellite maker and information company Skybox. With the purchase of this company that plans to have a daily satellite imagery refresh of the world, they certainly gain the means for a more accurate and timely digital Earth product. This top-down view coupled with the street level data collection that they’ve been doing with their cars certainly makes them the data collection leader, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time until they unleash more of this information in a next-generation viewer.

The topic of what we might expect from a next-generation digital Earth is the most intriguing aspect of this question. It’s easy to break this down to higher resolution, more frequent updates and ability to explore across time, much in the same way that product advancements are all about better, faster, cheaper. Beyond that, we can certainly expect a more immersive experience with today’s technology and a more available analytical framework. If things do progress from free to fee, then there will be a far greater number of niche areas that drive competition.

The idea that there is a next-generation digital Earth underway isn’t at all far fetched. Certainly, we could be happy with ongoing and incremental advancements via today’s platforms, but that isn’t the way of the world. Today’s geospatial data deserves a more robust and immersive visualization platform, and it’s only a matter of time before one emerges on the market.

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