NASA to Study Its Place in Digital Earth

NASA has commissioned a series of studies to better ascertain its responsibilities in the multiagency Digital Earth program, which the space agency leads.

Digital Earth is expected to encompass all the geological, geographical and demographic information collected about Earth and its inhabitants. But the initiative is more than a mapping application. It has the potential to become a framework to analyze information pinpointed to a single geographic location, including cultural and scientific data.

The NASA studies, to begin in fiscal 2001, will attempt to answer four basic questions, according to Mike Thomas, acting director of the applications division at NASA's Earth Science Enterprise:

1. What are its data holdings and how can people access them?

2. Where is the data and in what form?

3. What tools will be needed?

4. What restrictions will be tolerated?

Thomas said that with the small amount of funding NASA has available for the project, the agency decided to focus "only on what NASA can do and what nobody else can." He encouraged the other agencies involved make similar assessments. Thomas made his remarks Tuesday at the fourth Digital Earth Community Meeting in Washington, D.C.

"We've already written plans for these initiatives, and they will begin immediately when the fiscal year starts," Thomas said. "We'll report the results back to the Digital Earth community to help them find customers and applications that would be interesting to other agencies."

Thomas said NASA requested $3.5 million for Digital Earth activities, but not all of that money will be spent in-house. The agency will help fund commercial and interagency projects such as the Web Mapping Testbed, sponsored by the Open GIS Consortium Inc., a nonprofit membership organization addressing the lack of interoperability among systems that process georeferenced data and between those systems and mainstream computing systems.

Thomas said the upcoming presidential election also will have an impact on the Digital Earth program. "We're waiting on the election to see what the new administration's emphasis on Digital Earth will be," Thomas said. "It's OK with us to stay in the lead, but we'd prefer sharing the [responsibility] with other agencies."

Vice President Al Gore first announced the Digital Earth program two years ago.

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