Is the Virtual Australia vision being refreshed? Not officially but various relevant advances are emerging from government agencies.
First promoted in 2005 to attract government funding for the University of Melbourne’s Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRC-SI), this world’s first ‘virtual nations’ project (to generate online data simulations of the nation’s environmental systems) was abandoned in 2013.
Virtual Australia remains absent from the new ‘2026 Agenda‘ for spatial industry transformation and growth – launched at the Locate ’17/International Society for Digital Earth Summit in Sydney in May. Instead Locate included several presentations highlighting different advances towards ‘Virtual Singapore’.
However, Canberra-based PSMA Australia (the trans-government data packaging and sales corporation) is working with global satellite imagery supplier DigitalGlobe on a national ‘intelligent queryable data model’ of Australian buildings, including geo-addressing of land parcels, building footprints, heights of structures, roof materials, and locations of swimming pools, trees and solar panels. Geoscape was launched at Locate, where it attracted enthusiasm from international data mapping leaders.
In June 2017, PSMA CEO Dan Paull and DigitalGlobe regional director Peter Kinne both highlighted the Virtual Australia vision in their titles for joint presentations of Geoscape to Sydney’s property development lobby group the Urban Taskforce. Kinne helped to write the original mid-2000s proposal for Virtual Australia and had not heard that the vision had folded.
He said that Geoscape represented a major advance in data modelling using high resolution satellite imagery and with substantial detail at a national scale. ‘PSMA and DigitalGlobe have taken this out of the research labs to develop an intelligent model which knows every piece of infrastructure across Australia … everything over a three by three metre footprint (so not just garden sheds),’ he said.
PSMA’s Geoscape data is extracted from DigitalGlobe’s World-View satellite imagery, analysed using DG’s GBDX (geospatial big data) and Tomnod (crowd-sourced data) cloud platforms. By early 2018, Geoscape will visually represent a cohesive dataset of Australia’s entire built environment. This will enable organisations across various sectors to make much faster and more accurate decisions on service delivery.
Among the first commercial uses of Geoscape is Pitney Bowes’ GeoVision system, which gives its customers access to traditional land and property (cadastral) information, including addresses, postcodes, localities, local government areas and census boundaries.
PSMA’s technical sales manager, Gerry Stanley, said Geoscape’s resolution and detail are significantly higher than the European Commission’s 2012-2016 world mapping of buildings and populations. Previewed on the cover of the D_City: Digital Earth | Virtual Nations | Data Cities ‘manifesto’ in 2012, the EC’s Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) mapping is based on ‘rougher’ Landsat imagery with census population data.
GHSL was produced by scientists at the EC’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, as a contribution to the Digital Earth and Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) concepts and the ‘sustainable development’ goal of the United Nations. Last September, the project was relaunched with a new name, the Human Planet Atlas, at UN-Habitat’s Habitat III conference.
Since the Virtual Australia vision was dropped, some of its initiators have been promoting Australia as a leader of the international Digital Earth agenda (modelling systems at the scale of the planet rather than a single nation). In 2016, CRC-SI CEO Dr Peter Woodgate was forced to leave the Executive Council of the Beijing-headquartered International Society for Digital Earth, because its international leaders perceived competitivity from the CRC’s establishment of a new Open Digital Earth Foundation (ODEF) and opposed its takeover of intellectual property developed by a team of researchers at QUT.
Based at QUT, the ODEF includes scientific advisers from Europe, the United States and the National Survey of India and the Los Angeles-based multinational Cr8Global innovation investment company. The ODEF recently used QUT’s G20 Globe system to generate a Vanuatu Globe which modelled elevation and flooding data following Cyclone Pam.
In this year’s federal budget, $A15.3 million was allocated to Geosciences Australia (GA) for development of a Digital Earth Australia satellite map, using GA’s internationally applauded DataCube time series data stacking processes. This map of Australia is expected to focus on natural environmental systems datasets rather than building and land information – and GA appears to be collaborating with both PSMA and the CSIRO’s Data61 group, which is developing a National Map online data portal.[*The ISDE since has awarded an honorary life membership to Woodgate, brokered by his employee and replacement on the ISDE Executive Council, Dr Zaffar Sadiq Mohamed-Ghouse.]