The standard line for dreams of upcoming technology that hasn’t yet materialized has become, “Where’s My Jetpack?” The fondness we have for projecting technology’s promise into tomorrow has left many dreams yet to be fulfilled. Where are our robotic assistants and hassle-free travel, not to mention our increased leisure time?
This wishful thinking hasn’t escaped the geospatial technology industry, where so much of the work involves an assessment of our planet’s existing state so that we may project our plans of development and policy into the future. We like to pin the hopes and dreams of tomorrow onto the people or organizations that shared their vision. There have been a number of noteworthy visions from visionaries in the geospatial realm, and below are a few that stand out.
Al Gore launched a vision for Digital Earth within his 1992 book Earth in Balance, updating it in a rousing speech in January 1998 at the California Science Center with a call for a “multi?resolution, three?dimensional representation of the planet, into which we can embed vast quantities of geo?referenced data.” The vision includes the ability to zoom through layers of data at multiple scales at higher and higher resolution, with 3D data represented, and with multiple data types presented.
Although references to various interface technologies such as head-mounted displays, data gloves, and voice recognition seem somehow quaint, much of the navigation functionality of the ‘magic carpet ride’ has become a reality with the likes of Google Earth and other globes. Some elements that are missing are the ability to go back and forth through time to re-live history. Particularly daunting is the thought that we could go back through geological epochs to experience the evolution of the planet, and to explore the Earth as it appeared to dinosaurs.
While much of what is presented still seems technologically doable, the effort to collect and organize such vast volumes of geo-referenced data has proven slow going, with barriers still in sharing between disciplines and institutions. A particularly poignant element of the vision deals with the use of this digital earth for research by scientists to clearly understand complex interactions between man and environment. Gore continues to lead the charge in this area, and that vision specifically takes on heightened urgency with each passing year.
Nancy Tosta is one of the leading pioneers for a vision of National Spatial Data Infrastructure, as the first staff director of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (1992-1994). She lead the drafting of the 1994 Presidential Executive Order 12906 that outlined the components of the NSDI as a combination of partnerships, standards, key framework data, and data clearinghouses. Rather than an end goal, she realized that the effort would have to be ongoing and flexible, yet rooted in community needs at all scales and mandates.
While the efforts have succeeded in establishing data standards across federal agencies, the access to data as well as data redundancy issues between agencies continue to be a burden. The complexity of getting such a wide array of organization to play nicely and to share is a major source of frustration for long-term industry veterans. The fits and starts of funding and mandates for greater efficiency hold promise in a cyclical fashion while bureaucracy and political wrangling tend to puncture the optimism and progress.
While in the United States we wrangle back and forth over scope, approach, and target projects (such as Imagery for the Nation), in Europe the mandated multi-year INSPIRE initiative is underway and making progress. A new role of Geographic Information Officer has taken root at many federal agencies in the United States and there is a new mechanism for industry involvement, with such collaboration in place progress may occur that can withstand politicization and budget cycles.
Sensors and Systems
Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri has been a guiding light for geospatial technology advancement for some time. His ability to articulate a vision, as well as guide considerable resources toward developing solutions, has been an unwavering force for innovation that stands outside the Wall Street pull of competing public companies.
One of Jack’s foundational visions is that GIS technology will evolve into “a nervous system for our planet where we measure and encapsulate knowledge, share it, and respond to issues that people care about and that need to be attended to around the world.” The vision holds a central role for GIS as a framework for communicating evolving scenarios, aiding decision support, and enabling geographic science.
While not explicitly articulated as a systems and sensors approach when first articulated at the 2001 Esri User Conference, there has been a recent rise of real-time input from sensors with a central processing and visualization system. This new paradigm of smarter planet systems is manifest in such things as adaptive transportation, responsive utilities, and timely and efficient crisis response. The addition of sensors to systems may just serve to accelerate the vision, with human input aided and filtered through constant and consistent monitoring.
While these are just a few of the standout far-forward visions that have laid the groundwork for geospatial advancement, they speak of optimism and possibility that are within our grasp. Despite our many foibles, these well-articulated visions live on. If you’re frustrated about progress or have a jetpack vision of your own, let’s get out there and raise our voices to demand more support and faster innovation.