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eNewsletter September 2007

Join NOAA to Celebrate 200 Years!

On October 9th, NOAA will mark 200 years of science, service and stewardship to the nation, which started with Thomas Jefferson’s establishment of the Coast Survey in 1807. A gala dinner will be held in Washington, D.C. at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.  To purchase tickets, please contact Joy Williams at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation at 301-608-3040, ext. 2, or at this email: joy (at) nmsfocean.org.

WorldView-1 Launch 

Launch Half-meter Pan Imagery Coming Mid-October

by Rod Franklin

Note: For the full story, see the Fall issue of Imaging Notes.

The Sept. 18 launch of DigitalGlobe's next-generation WorldView-1 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base rocketed the Colorado company's status as a world leader in the capture of high resolution Earth imagery to a new height. The deployment was the first of two launches that have been planned a year apart as part of a campaign to maintain simultaneously three high resolution DigitalGlobe imaging birds in Low Earth Orbit.

Equipped with ITT Corporation's half-meter resolution panchromatic sensors, WorldView-1 will be capable of collecting up to 750,000 square kilometers of images per day, with a revisit time of 1.7 days. The bulk of its capacity has been reserved by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for use in its NextView national security program, but most of these detailed images also will be available commercially from the DigitalGlobe ImageLibrary.

WorldView-1, with the beauty of a pristine launch, is the second commercial bird to enter orbit on a Boeing Delta II rocket under the auspices of the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation of Broomfield, Colorado, it blasted toward the ionosphere at 11:35 a.m. PDT on Sept. 18 in an orange explosion of liquid oxygen, carrying its payload of 2,500 kilograms. There were no adverse events.

The craft reached Mach 1 and jettisoned the first of its solid propellants, and then its airlift solids. At 4:20 minutes, its main engines cut off, and following second-stage separation, its protective faring separated and sloughed off. It jettisoned more solid motors under normal disturbance. At 50 nautical miles it approached 8,200 miles per hour. Its main engine cutoff at the ionosphere exploded in a starburst, followed by another explosion with the second stage ignition and additional propellant jettisoning. After several minutes, WorldView-1 had reached a speed in excess of 13,000 miles per hour as it approached its rendezvous with a targeted 496-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

Though American and European vendors appear to jockey tirelessly for market position, a point of diminishing return for image resolution does exist from technical and legal perspectives. Both panchromatic and multispectral imagery have secure places reserved in the scheme of national security objectives, and according to Chuck Herring, DigitalGlobe's Director of Corporate Communications, the half-meter benchmark is as close as any modern sensor needs to see, as a practical consideration.

“The resolution of .5 meters is the best we can provide to commercial customers,” he said in a recent communication. “So for the foreseeable future, we plan to have our satellites provide the half-meter resolution imagery.If you have your satellite provide higher resolution, you collect less imagery.”

Moreover, security-driven government restrictions prevent commercial suppliers and buyers from entering this realm. If a company did improve its resolution to a quarter meter, Herring said, it would have to resample the imagery to half meter for every non-governmental buyer.

But WorldView-1 is more than just hawk-eyed. It is also the most nimble imaging satellite ever launched. The bird sports state-of-the-art geolocation accuracy, stunning agility and in-track stereo collection. Herring explained that the latter two features allow WorldView-1 to collect its tasked images with a minimum of flyovers. “Many customers need to haveseveral point targets within an area collected,” he said. “With current generation satellites, this may take several passes. With Worldview-1, we are able to collect five to ten times more point targets because the satellite is so agile and we are able to point at rapid rates.”

First images are due back in mid-October. Herring would not say whether DigitalGlobe has struck any large commercial deals with major customers such as Google outside of the NGA contract, but did acknowledge that “they are always interested in more capabilities and capacity.”

All else being equal, WorldView-1's launch marks, at minimum, the arrival of geospatial data collection at state-of-the art metrics for applications in the mapping and monitoring markets.

NOAA Data and Information for a Changing Climate:
A Conference for Public and Private Sector Users

Join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to explore the challenges and opportunities you, your business, and your government face as a result of changing climate conditions. These discussions will take place November 5-6, 2007, at the NOAA Data and Information for Climate Change: A Conference for Public and Private Sector Users, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Over the past year, climate change has been a mainstay in the news worldwide. The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, along with numerous other studies on the potential impacts of climate change, have convincingly demonstrated the climate is changing and the best climate data and information are critical to all types of decision-making.

This conference will focus on energy, insurance, and transportation sectors. These discussions will consider all NOAA data, not just climate data, because many data and information products are needed to respond to climate change.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is undertaking a major effort to develop a better understanding of the insurance sector's needs given that the climate is changing now and is expected to change in the future. As part of this process, NOAA is hosting a conference to examine the data and information needs for the energy, insurance, and transportation sectors.

This effort is intended to:

  1. identify and explore the challenges and opportunities that changing climate conditions present for businesses and state and local governments in energy, transportation and insurance;
  2. determine the energy, insurance, and transportation sectors' emerging data and information needs to better respond to a changing climate versus a stable climate;
  3. explore NOAA's capabilities to meet those requirements and develop strategies to leverage and enhance those capabilities for the energy, insurance, and transportation sectors.


Two Perspectives; One Purpose: Long-term Sustainability for the Planet

Digital Earth Symposium Overview

by Rod Franklin

The Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth (ISDE), which convened in June on the University of California campus in Berkeley, was a convocation of some enigmatic color. Part communion and part IT conference, it was organized in a way that bundled vocational education within a framework of spiritual and holistic perspective. Talks by specialists in human consciousness, for example, were juxtaposed with speeches from data modeling experts. Technical primers on GeoRSS and managed code interoperability were followed by the supernal blessing of a Mala meal, eaten by hand from individually crafted bowls. Mashups like these were sprinkled throughout ISDE's five days of plenary sessions and technical presentations.

This merging of the incorporeal with the practical was one way of acknowledging the event's weighty underlying themes: climate change, sustainability, and the onus of intergenerational stewardship for the welfare of planet Earth. It also provided a context for discussing newer, socially responsible uses of geospatial data and imagery, including a few digital mapping efforts devoted to the realms of human rights and indigenous culture. In this atmosphere, working GIS professionals reiterated their commitment to evolve software platforms that draw from massive networks of information—platforms that will digitally represent, within a geographic context, all the physical, social, economic and cultural subsystems of the planet.

Because several first-generation geobrowsers already are available, the notion of having arrived at a serviceable starting point for what Buckminster Fuller called a global “operations manual”—a series of front-end tools through which voluminous datasets of all kinds can be geovisualized—never was an issue at this year's gathering. Google Earth, Microsoft's Virtual Earth, ESRI's ArcGIS Explorer, World Wind from NASA and a few other geodata software clients are being used by an expanding group of developers to flesh out the vision that Vice President Al Gore articulated in the 1998 speech that gave rise to the ISDE biennial conference and to a three-year effort by the federally-sponsored Interagency Digital Earth Working Group. While it remains arguable whether any of these programs approximates the digital interface as envisaged by Gore, one thing is clear: public support for the Digital Earth concept is there. (Editor's note: Our August eNewsletter includes an analysis of Al Gore's vision compared to the actuality of Google Earth, and is archived here.

Google Earth Chief Technology Officer Michael T. Jones delivered a telling metric when he reported that downloads of the Google Earth client have exceeded 200 million. That eclipses the number of users who have installed the Windows XP Service Pack, and places the geobrowser on the same growth curve as Firefox and iTunes. “These are, I think, true signals of society adapting and sort of ingesting and coming to grips with ‘where' as an important part of ‘what,'” Jones told his audience on the opening day of the conference. “To me, that's pretty exciting.”

Google Earth has been mentioned in speeches by Bill Gates, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac. But Jones was careful not to gloat about its populist pedigree. “I think the truth is, in all modesty, they're not actually talking about the ‘Google' part of Google Earth,” he said. “They're talking about the ‘Earth' part of Google Earth. It's not about Google anymore; it's about Digital Earth.”

His remark may have captured the essence of the Digital Earth ethic. With a variety of platforms to build on, the Digital Earth Symposiums continue to advance as an intellectual movement – a forum devoted to the establishment of cross-platform standards and a polemic for the development of new tools within a framework of distributed but collaborative open source invention. Two announcements this year symbolized the cooperative spirit that has become the modality de rigueur for many modern geospatial research enterprises, especially those aimed at the arrest of global warming: Spot Image (Toulouse, France) reported it will make 20 years worth of archived remote sensing imagery available to qualified projects as part of its Planet Action program (see Imaging Notes, Summer 2007); and the Digital Earth community was formally invited to participate in the Fourth International Polar Year, a collection of more than 200 multi-organizational research enterprises dealing with melting polar ice, sea-level rise, thawing permafrost, endangered species and other climate change issues.

The Chinese were recognized at the outset of the program by Dr. Tim Foresman, ISDE secretariat. They are identified by Wikipedia as the culture for whom Digital Earth has become a “metaphor for modernization.” China hosted the first ISDE in 1999 (followed by Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan and now the U.S.), and as the casually recognized pacesetter of the crusade, continues to make technical contributions as ISDE passes from country to country. Included in this year's program was a series of Chinese papers on remote sensing applications for coal and oilfield development. China is adding about a gigawatt of coal-fired power capacity every week, and 80% of U.S. power generation is non-renewable. But interestingly, China was one of the first supporters of the the ISDE. Xu Guanhua was Minister of the Environment of China for more than ten years and has been and continues to be, in his current role as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a major supporter of the ISDE. He reported that China plans to increase its budgetary commitment to the environment from 1.3% to 2.5% of GDP by 2020. (Editor's note: Policy Watch in the Fall issue addresses China's advances in Earth observations.) Dr. Foresman complimented the Asian giant for its willingness to back the Digital Earth ideology with technical and institutional support, but lamented that a similar degree of underpinning is absent in Washington and Moscow. “We've got to make sure that our friends go back to Beijing and know that we've got a clue,” he urged the crowd.

What will convince them? Foresman suggests a deterministic rather than a stochastic approach to application development, with strict attention paid to metadata and the fundamental elements of an interoperable set of rules: “If we can do that, we can funnel (data) into all those different geobrowsers, and now Digital Earth has got some legs. We've got to get the traditional data folks together with the traditional whole Earth folks. We need to look at the operating systems as the modality for engineers and use the application systems as the modality for all the citizens.”

Giving legs to Digital Earth as a matter of policy might be another deterministic gesture. Ambassador John McDonald, a 40-year veteran of international civil service and chairman of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, knows from experience that any effort to proselytize human assistance doctrines across national boundaries can find sustenance in the institutionalization of core ideals. Drawing on his success in building support systems to address population growth, the environment, water sanitation and ethnic conflict, he implored the crowd to identify Digital Earth's missing link and focus on organizational mechanisms that will leverage the idea into a more cardinal state of being. “That (missing) link is often dealing with a question of how you get a structure created, a government involved, to make this kind of transition,” he said. “I am a great believer in what you are talking about.”

So that need for Digital Earth to be institutionalized is one piece of the collaboration puzzle. Another piece may be Digital Earth as this millennium's ultimate wiki project, suggested evolutionary biologist and futurist author Dr. Elisabet Sahtouris—at least inasmuch as it can be viewed as a measure of the deliberate and accelerated species maturation cycle mankind will need to foist upon itself if it hopes to survive with half the resiliency exhibited by those simple archaebacteria which inhabited the Earth for better than half its 4.5-billion-year existence. These were simple organisms that hadn't yet evolved nucleated cells, yet managed to harness solar energy when food supplies ran low. Likewise, for human beings, “it is intelligent reorganization that is really what evolution is all about,” Sahtouris argued. “I think a Hot Age may be the evolutionary driver that we need to kick us into more intelligent behavior. If we don't join the game, it will be an evolutionary driver for all the species that we are extinguishing, because the Earth will come back with or without us at hotter temperatures. It's our evolutionary mandate to create sustainable global economics and truly become a global family.”

A little bit of angst might help push that advocacy along. As public dialogue over global warming climbs to a higher pitch and the tools of Digital Earth mature, we are likely to uncover patterns that encourage a certain level of systemic deconstruction while more sustainable approaches to the uses and production of energy are engineered into place. Urban planning critic James Kunstler, whose book The Long Emergency predicts that epochal social, economic and political changes will accompany the dwindling of global oil supplies, thinks society eventually will be forced to reorganize itself into highly localized and largely immobile clusters. “I believe it will be a period of hardship and a period of disorder and mostly of discontinuity—of a break between the things that we have been used to, that have become normal for us, and the things that we're really going to be contending with,” he warned. “The truth of the matter is, no combination of alternative fuels or systems for running them is going to allow us to run the stuff we're running the way we're running it.” Kunstler isn't really convinced that alternative energy will resolve any of the larger dilemmas, and has little faith in contemporary methods of farming, commerce, schooling, manufacturing and urban lifestyle. He cites the energy-intensive business model of supercharged supply-chain management as one example of modern artifice: “We're going to have to do commerce and trade differently, because guess what? In the long emergency, Wal-Mart and all the systems that operate like it are not going to work. The warehouse on wheels with the incessant circulation of tractor-trailer semis going around America all the time—forget it. In an energy-scarce economy we're not going to do that anymore.”

Students preparing to graduate with skills in digital mapping and database management may not feel comfortable with all of Kunstler's views—he regards Google's casual business culture as “infantile,” and feels technology in general tends to be overdressed in grandiose sales patter—but there will be no denying the state of environmental affairs they are poised to inherit. Still, other factors are at play that suggest the next wave of Digital Earth contributors will not be restricted to the ranks of the formally degreed. ESRI Director of Products Dr. David Maguire pointed out that, already, a combination of professionals and lay people are feeding the collective geobrowser maw with KML files, Shapefiles and digital elevation models, some of them tapping the value of specialty datasets in creative ways. “I contend (that there is) really one digital reality,” Maguire said. “We've got in here the National Geographic Society's rendered cartography. We have a street map made up of all the available streets of the whole world, rendered like you would expect a traditional street map to appear. We've got weather information; we've got geological information; we've got soils information; we've got administrative boundaries; we've got place name gazetteers. There will be many people who author and create those globes. Some globes will be household names—like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, ESRI and others. Some of those (globes) will be individual users with their own software and their own server who will want to publish information and share it with their community.”

This trend has indeed begun. Increased demand for fresh public domain imagery, in fact, is likely to result in an expansion of NASA's earth observation satellite program, according to Dr. Peter Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center. At the same time, progress is being made in the development of knowledge repositories which can be mined to geographically model specific global warming impacts, such as the reshuffling of plant and animal occurrence ranges. Dr. Stan Blum announced the debut of a new Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) portal hosting more than 126 million occurrence records of living organisms, 17 million of which have attached geocoordinates. “This has been a dream for about ten years and now it's finally coming to pass,” he said. Blum was quick, however, to qualify this bit of news, explaining that some technical caveats linger due to the amount of GBIF taxonomy data still hampered by legacy system issues. “This is the first water coming through these pipes,” he confessed, “and it's going to be dirty.”

Flawed data isn't the only issue for biodiversity experts who continue to study threatened organisms with the geospatial equivalent of a magnifying glass when they'd prefer to use a microscope. Most mapable data isn't scaled at a level useful to biologists and other scientists, said Dr. Healy Hamilton of the California Academy of Sciences in a technical breakout session. “We rearrange the components of biodiversity—plants, animals, fungi, microbes—they all have their ranges, and we rearrange their ranges. Every valley and every peak has different species in it, and it's hard to interpolate in data-poor places. If we could downscale this data to a much finer level … if we could overlay and project those change factors from interpolation of the global level down to the local, we can get much finer predictions about the future and what the landscape is going to look like. For people to rise to this, they want to understand how it's going to affect them locally.”

Human imagination is seeding the ground for new mapping applications in humanitarian and social work, too. Dr. Afton Beutler of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women in New York presented an idea for “mapping peace” that will incorporate a digital georeferencing of peace advocacy projects around the world with the accompanying goal of increasing the number of women involved in peace brokering efforts. “We are coming to you because we think that the work that you're doing in digital global mapping is exactly what we need to promote our idea further,” she told a plenary session crowd. “We have found that a lot of the (peace mapping) outcomes are very similar to health (mapping) methodologies, where we can map and systematically control diseases, epidemics and pollution threats on a global level. We find that our results from mapping peace very much follow these health maps.”

In other human rights domains, things can get messy fast. Few know this as well as Dr. Lee Schwartz, the State Department Geographer in the Office of Geographer and Global Issues (OGGI) who has been involved with GIS information collection efforts associated with humanitarian emergencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Russia and the Balkans. It's work that gives geographic context to volatile scenarios where conflict mitigation and strategic warning are among the central salving objectives. To keep logistical complications from overwhelming data collection efforts on the ground, Schwartz's office devotes much of its energy to situations that haven't yet reached a state of unmanageable chaos. “What's critical in a lot of the early warning efforts for crisis planning is to identify areas where there may be a crisis—to go out to those areas and capture information before the crisis hits,” he explained. “Because if you wait until the crisis hits, usually what happens is a lot of good information and a lot of historical knowledge and a lot of the NGOs working in the area—a lot of university holdings—disappear.” Despite these obstacles, useful work has been completed. The OGGI worked with United Nations personnel and the Kosovo Verification Mission in Yugoslavia to georeference booby traps, checkpoints, housing damage and the location of displaced citizens. It also has helped identify land mine areas, regions in Afghanistan where irrigation systems were destroyed by conflict, and bridge and road damage resulting from last year's clash between Israel and Lebanon. (Editor's note: See story on the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war in the Fall issue.)

Amnesty International chose to launch www.eyesondarfur.org at the Digital Earth Symposium. This is the first use of satellite imagery in an attempt to prevent attacks on at-risk villages of Sudan. This site publishes near real-time imagery of these identified villages, putting public pressure on the janjaweed to not attack. This is major news, in that imagery had previously only been used to do analysis after attacks, and this also exposes Digital Earth to a much larger audience of the public.

This year's ISDE conference was a sounding board for those geospatial data and imaging leaders who are shaping a new collective syllabus for our understanding of the world. The challenges they have taken on endeavor to place, as Al Gore suggested, “the full range of data about our planet and our history at our fingertips.”

Jim Geringer, director of policy and public sector strategy at ESRI and former governor of Wyoming, summed it up this way: “So often these conferences have focused significantly on energy, the environment and climate change, but there are so many other issues out there that dominate. We can see something for the first time, but now what do we do with it? Analyze it. Model it. Understand patterns, relationships, processes that enable not only situational awareness, but decisions and action at any level by anyone in the context of place. That's what GIS is by my definition. It's going through rapid change. It's reaching across traditional agency boundaries. It's going from the desktop to the database approach to knowledge sharing and collaborative projects. Collaboration is a very powerful enabler. We can make better lives for ourselves as well as for the next generation by taking people from where they are to where they ought to be.”

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