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Guardian angels and virtual worlds – a brave new Digital Earth


IES scientist and Head of Unit A. Annoni is co-author of an article entitled ‘Advancing digital earth: beyond the next generation’ that has been published online in the International Journal of Digital Earth. The article examines a number of recent technological and semantic developments, including those in health sensors (such as wearable technology), and systems frameworks (functioning models of the real world), and how these can contribute to the advanced Digital Earth concept. It discusses the social and ethical implications of advanced Digital Earth, and proposes a suite of principles to guide the future development of Digital Earth.

The term ‘Digital Earth’ was coined by Al Gore in 1998 to describe a vision of a digital future where everyone in the world could interact with a 3D virtual globe in order to access and share huge amounts of global scientific and cultural information. Significant progress that has been made towards fulfilling this vision (e.g. through Google Earth, Youtube, Wikipedia, etc.), but the truly global, collaborative linking of systems that Digital Earth requires has yet to happen.

The sensor web, whereby sensors on objects in our environments take stock of their surrounding s and communicated their conditions, is expected to play a big part in Digital Earth. The article presents some wearable technologies which are based on smart sensors that can be incorporated into people’s clothing in order to monitor and react to bodily functions. They include the “Guardian Angels for a smarter life” project, which aims to develop self-sustaining, non-intrusive, wearable sensing and communication devices that can help monitor health, local conditions and even emotions. The Virtual Australia and New Zealand (VANZ) and the EU’s ambitious FuturICT initiatives are presented as examples of systems frameworks (digital replicas of complex systems). The VANZ initiative will model real world situations and solutions in 4D (including the time dimension) using complementary simulation, logistics, gaming and visualisation technologies, in order to support decision making in large-scale projects such as the expansion of the Port of Melbourne.

The authors argue that Digital Earth needs to integrate technological, socio-economic and environmental considerations. They describe a future ubiquitous wireless, evolving and self-sustaining network made up of billions of uniquely identified sentient nodes that will conduct scientific research, and communicate information in real time. This network would facilitate education, innovation and interaction, challenge governments’ supremacy for ‘authoritative’ information, and could completely change our society from a production-based economy to one based on education and information. Thanks to the accessibility of new Internet technologies, the billions of people on the planet would be part of and help shape this network. The divide between scientists and the general public will gradually be eroded through citizen science, whereby the public will participate in scientific research. The authors argue that such citizen engagement is essential, but that the communication of Digital Earth should be dynamically adapted to different audiences to avoid misinterpretation.

The article calls for further investigation into the ethical issues concerning the influence that Digital Earth could have in shaping people’s opinions and decisions. In order to avoid the potential for misinformation and abuse of personal data, the authors call for the development of a Digital Earth code of ethics (DEethics) that ensures privacy, security and confidentiality in a world where everybody can be connected to everybody else and everything at all times.

The authors argue that Digital Earth should be totally accessible, developed for the benefit of mankind as a whole, and be constantly available. They suggest that it should be seen as a social and quantitative science backed up by an ‘ontology and epistemology of Digital Earth 2020’ (DE 2020). They foresee great benefits to society of a Digital Earth based on ethical principles, but also that this future society and Digital Earth will be interdependent and inseparable.


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