Digital Earth as an Operating System for a Troubled Planet

Symposium in June Offers opportunity and Inspiration

Dr. Timothy W. Foresman is President of the International Centre for Remote Sensing Education. He has been director of United Nations Environment Programme's Division of Early Warning and Assessment (Nairobi, Kenya) and national program manager for NASA's Digital Earth (Washington, D.C.). He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 1998, Prentice Hall. Dr. Foresman is currently the Director-General for the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth (

When this article reaches you, we will be only a few weeks away from the June 5 kick-off of the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth (ISDE5), hosted for the first time in the United States. Participants from around the world will be gathering on the U.C. Berkeley campus to gain a clear perspective regarding how technology and active community networks can make a meaningful impact towards improving life on our planet for as many living beings as possible.

Often, we find ourselves conversing within our various communities (whether environmental, peace, climate, water, fair trade, sustainable communities, indigenous peoples, green investments, etc.) and retreating towards the negative elements of our realities only to witness paralysis of progress and mental psychosis. A delightful tonic for all souls can be realized better by witnessing the debut of some remarkable initiatives and stellar actions by a variety of communities that are indeed taking hold of their destinies and effectively using technology in these dynamic and challenging times with Digital Earth (a term encompassing all online spinning virtual globes).

China has taken the lead with Digital Earth, which is perhaps not that surprising given the ambitious nature of their society today. Not only did they host the first Symposium in 1999 (held every other year), but they also founded the International Society for Digital Earth in Summer 2006 (see Figures 1-2). Many Chinese leaders will attend this gathering in June.

One key thread throughout the series of Digital Earth Symposia, which began in Beijing in 1999, has been to embrace the prowess of technology to provide an accurate and objective view of the Earth and its life support systems, a legacy of the Symposia's remote sensing origins.

Official Launch of International Society for Digital Earth

May 21, 2006 Beijing, China

Founding members are pictured
First Row Left to Right:

Chen Shupeng, Professor of Geoinformatics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China • David Rhind, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, The City University, London, U.K. • Tim Foresman, President of International Centre for Remote Sensing Education, U.S. • Lu Yongxiang, President of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China • Xu Guanhua, Minister of Ministry of Science and Technology, China • Werner Alpers, Institute of Oceanography, University of Hamburg, Germany • John van Genderen, Department of Earth Observation Science, ITC, Netherlands • Peter Woodgate, CEO, Cooperative Research Center for Spatial Information, Australia

Back Row Left to Right:

Guo Huadong, Professor, Institute for Remote Sensing Applications, China • Richard Simpson, University of Auckland, New Zealand • Hiromichi Fukui, Director Geoinformatics and Remote Sensing, Keio University, Japan • Fred Campbell, International Program Consultant, Canada • Marc D'Iorio, Director General, Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, Canada • Milan Konecny, Professor, Masaryk University, Czech Republic • Mario Hernandez, Chief Information Management & Remote Sensing Unit, UNESCO • Armin Gruen, Institute of Geodesy and Photogrammetry, Switzerland • Jean Sequeira, Remote Sensing Laboratory, University of Marseille, France • Chen Yuntai, Professor, Institute of Geophysics, State Seismological Bureau, China

Figure 1 The Chinese formed the International Society of Digital Earth in Summer 2006. Founding members are pictured, including author of this article, Dr. Tim Foresman (front row, 3rd from left).

The second thread is to capture the potential of the Earth observation technologies to enhance communications and exchange of intellectual and financial resources among the many types of communities that comprise the fabric of our societies.

These combinations of watch, think, communicate, and act are just beginning to become visible as viable constructs or mainstays in societal policies and politics. Coming from an eight-year international forum, this is worthy of attention.

In 1968, visionary and engineering genius Buckminster Fuller submitted his thesis for an “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” He recognized the increasing stresses of overpopulation on life-sustaining resources and the need to understand better and to manage the life-cycle processes related to the international commerce and commodities. He suggested the GeoScope, forerunner of our satellite systems and virtual globe geobrowsers, as a way to maintain a constant awareness of the planet's conditions. He further recognized that we would need the application of vast networks of computers to provide us with the cybernetic framework for addressing our greatest challenges ahead. His extensive writings remain valuable today as we attempt to get our collective minds around the multiple systems that operate on “Spaceship Earth.”

Digital Earth, as an articulated vision, is credited to former Vice President Al Gore in a 1998 speech ( Gore's elegant vision portrayed a future where a young girl would sit before a three-dimensional virtual globe and access all forms of information about art, science, history, literature, and more, in a compelling and entertaining manner. Information would be derived from digital libraries, government agencies, commercial and non-profit organizations, and other data networks connected through means of interoperability over the web.

We have witnessed the sparkling birth of the Digital Earth vision with the debut of Google Earth, the ramping up of Microsoft's Virtual Earth, NASA's World Wind, SkylineGlobe, GeoFusion, and a host of other promising 3D geobrowsers coming of age on the web. Figure 3 shows one of the first, from Keyhole, Inc. (which is now Google Earth) as demonstrated to the United Nations Environment Programme in 2001. Digital Earth appears, therefore, to be arriving, whether by design or serendipitous actions, as we are crossing the threshold of the 21st century.

A legitimate question can be raised as to the value of any conference, meeting, or workshop when the market forces and world events increase in momentum and complexity.

Figure 2 Dr. Tim Foresman with Richard Simpson on New Zealand and Chen Shupeng, Chinese "Father of GIS."

Perhaps it may be said that what the growing number of those in the Digital Earth community are doing is putting a face on the real applications for our future technology and its uses, in full harmony with the original vision. “Bringing Digital Earth Down to Earth” is the central theme of the 5th Digital Earth gathering and will serve to keep our collective focus grounded to real issues for real people. And so it only seems fitting that the ISDE5 will be launched on World Environment Day amid salutations by its host country, Norway.

Joining us will be these accomplished visionaries and others:

Apollo Astronaut Ed Mitchell will begin the conference with his unique perspective, gained from his moon walk and its impact on his life's work.

Ambassador John McDonald will share his views from his days as the U.S. initiator of the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment (called the 1972 Stockholm Conference, from which the United Nations Environment Programme was founded in 1973) and his subsequent work in water and peace throughout the world.

Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, will address the motives for his technology push to improve humankind's conditions.

An excellent cast will follow, representing global and national leaders in deep philosophy, community networks, technology, Earth observation systems, and effective strategies for sustainability to bring more solutions to the collective table for consideration.
Figure 3 Keyhole, Inc., predecessor of Google Earth, presented this early ‘earthviewer' demonstration in 2001 at the 5th African GIS conference in Nairobi, Kenya, symbolizing the birth of Digital Earth to an international community. Photo courtesy of the author.
Bold suggestions will be offered for follow-on initiatives towards a Digital Earth Exchange (or “Digital Commons”) and community empowerment through activism and collaboration with the leading virtual globes. Finally, grassroots, youth, and sustainability communities (Planetwork, Bioneers, and others) will address how to harness the best initiatives for directed actions resulting from this conference.

A principal component needed for the Digital Earth vision and Buckminster Fuller's concept of an Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is an operating system. An Earth Operating System (EOS) is a collective concept for enabling all citizens of the planet to become more aware of their current conditions and to participate in improving these conditions while coping with vagaries of global change impacts. An EOS represents the next phase in providing everyone with an objective view of the planetary current events and in holding people and nations responsible for collective behaviors impacting the welfare of others.

Digital Earth technology can provide a ‘glass house' view of the planet, but we need an EOS to effectively encourage the full exchange of talent and resources necessary to meet the demands of our future. Fortunately, many of the people and organizations that can move us along on this common journey will be gathering in June on the Berkeley campus to help us understand the next pragmatic steps needed for humankind's survival.

Register now to attend the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth (

Note A summary of the 2006 Digital Earth Conference on Sustainability in New Zealand appears here.

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