Posted by Davina Jackson on 15 Feb 2014

Satellite image of Australia. terra-mater/tumblr.

Satellite image of Australia. terra-mater/tumblr.

How did the Virtual Australia vision begin?

The earliest published document using the term ‘Virtual Australia’ (VA) appears to have been an April 2005 presentation by University of Melbourne geomatics academics Abbas Rajabifard, Andrew Binns and Ian Williamson to the Cairo conference of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association. It was titled Development of a Virtual Australia Utilising an SDI Enabled Platform.

From June to December 2005, a small group of Victorian public servants and geospatial academics from UniMelb and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) produced the first white paper outlining the VA vision.  Titled Know, Think, Communicate – Key Elements of Virtual Australia, this was prepared for the UniMelb-based Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRC-SI) by a team of authors led by Bruce Thompson at the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment.

It proposed ‘a virtual (digital) model containing and representing all non-trivial objects and their contextural environment – from blue sky to bedrock – in (real world) Australia’. The authors also promoted VA as a ‘Supranet’ (a term originally published in 2001) ‘enabling locations and conditions of all non-trivial objects to be updated automatically via remote sensing and wireless technologies. The Supranet would link the real world with its virtual model in real time and would have the ability to automatically collect or have specific information (know), process information (think) and communicate the information.’

Production of both the Cairo presentation and the VA white paper coincided with the Commonwealth Government’s focus on funding new infrastructure development programs for networked national research across emerging realms of strategic importance for Australia’s future. For example, in 2006, the Commonwealth allocated over $120m of National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) funding to set up the Terrestial Ecosystems Research Network (TERN) and AUScope national lands modelling projects, followed in 2010 by $20m NCRIS funding to the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN). The TERN and AUScope projects both are concerned with using geospatial systems to clarify Australia’s natural environmental systems while AURIN aims to develop spatial systems infrastructure for research into virtual planning of urban (built) environments.

Two more Virtual Australia documents were next delivered to different stakeholder groups:

—In early May 2006, Bruce Thompson summarised the Know, Think, Communicate report for a ‘Big Picture’ lecture at the Victorian lab of NICTA, the national info-comms technologies research consortium, which published the PDF online.

—In June 2006,  Rajabifard, Binns and Williamson published an article in the Spatial Science journal, titled Virtual Australia: Developing an Enabling Platform to Improve Opportunities in the Spatial Information Industry. It proposed a ‘common rail gauge’ among Australian state governments developing systems for managing and accessing geodata, and provided suggestions in detail.

Late in 2006, Australia-born, NZ-based architectural scientist and activist Richard Simpson organised in Auckland the world’s first Summit promoting Al Gore’s vision of a Digital Earth. Australian visitors, including Peter Woodgate as CEO of the CRC-SI, agreed with delegates from Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) that they would collaborate. Simpson recently left NZ to lead the Queensland branch of the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA), which is a partner of the CRC-SI.

As well as those proposals (from geospatial science leaders concerned mainly with data management and lands and natural resources surveying), discussions began among a group of digital architecture research leaders (initially with RMIT, QUT, UNSW, the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne and the CSIRO), who agreed in 2005 to collaborate to establish a ‘national and global digital cities research network’. Over the next several years, these professors were divided by their alliances with competing interests, mainly research organisations but including three major global corporations (Cisco, Arup and IBM), whose senior executives were hunting first-mover dominance of future ‘smart cities’ markets worth multi trillions.

The group’s earliest published document, written in August 2006 by its ‘catalyst’, Davina Jackson (author of this post; then a cross-faculty professor at UNSW), proposed a national Virtual Modelling Research Network (VMRN). This concept was extensively criticised by leading architects, planners and structural engineers as being ‘too far ahead’ or ‘not credible’ and was collaboratively resisted by leaders of all Australian universities with architecture schools, by 13 ‘sustainable built environment’ industry groups aligned with the national Built Environment Meets Parliament (BEMP) consortium and the now-defunct major cities unit of the federal Labor Government’s Infrastructure Australia department.

In 2008-2009 Jackson wrote NICTA-funded proposals for a national research collaboration network called, alternatively, the Data Cities Research Alliance (DCRA) and the Virtual Australia Research Collaboration Alliance (VARCA). These were opposed also by supporters of the CSIRO (where senior staff have since canvassed a desire to absorb NICTA), and by leaders of the CRC-SI, three now expired QUT CRCs (Construction Innovation, Facilities Asset Engineering Management and Interaction Design), and by academics then jostling to set up several post-2009 CRC funding bids, including UNSW’s current CRC for Low Carbon Cities and a failed (competing) proposal led by UTS and RMIT for a CRC Designing Cities and Regional Communities.

Following the 2008 NICTA and NSW Government-funded launch of the ‘national and global digital cities research network’ (promoted by Jackson as d_city), NICTA abandoned its support for a national system of cities simulation research. It responded to pressures from its main partner universities, especially UNSW and QUT, and advice from Michael Green, leader of the industry action agenda and industry innovation councils programs for the Commonwealth’s Department of Industry Innovation Science and Research (DIISR). Green broadly managed  his department’s decisions, working with its former Minister Kim Carr as a member of the sanctum around then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Especially opposed to the data cities network was NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane, who was appointed to that role one day after the d_city@NICTA launch in October 2008, when she chaired the QUT CRC Interaction Design (ACID), before it dissolved and she became chair of the CRC-SI in Melbourne in 2009. She influenced Australia’s Chief Scientist, Penny Sackett, NSW Labor Ministers and senior bureaucrats who had sponsored the launch event, and her colleagues on the NSW Government’s Innovation Council to drop their initial enthusiasm.

Supporting her campaign was former NSW Surveyor General Warwick Watkins, who for several years chaired the Data Cities/Virtual Australia Research Alliance reference panel of 13 industry group leaders, while duplicitly blocking its proposals as a leader of numerous land information agencies. Instead of enabling Sydney as the proposed headquarters for the national research alliance, he and O’Kane (and others) supported Melbourne’s CRC-SI to obtain its second round of funding with a platform claiming to include urban research (where its leaders do not have significant expertise). The CRC-SI now dominates more than 30 other CRCs in developing federal government policies for the emerging Australian space technologies industry.

Satellite image with cloud cover. Aust Bureau of Meteorology.

Satellite image with cloud cover. Aust Bureau of Meteorology.

In 2010, CSIRO alumnus Dr Ron Sandland produced for the Commonwealth Government the AURIN Investment Plan for UniMelb’s Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning to administer AURIN with $20m funding from the national SuperScience program, naming other universities as stakeholders. This money was allocated without a competitive bid process, apparently as part of a close relationship between UniMelb’s then-new Vice Chancellor, Glyn Davis, and then PM Rudd (both from Queensland).

Brokering of industry support for the VA vision now is being organised by Victorian logistics specialist Michael Haines, as CEO of VANZI Ltd, based at the CRC-SI’s offices on the UniMelb campus. VANZI is not publicly funded but has a contract with a Sydney event production company to host three annual Virtual Australia and New Zealand conferences, the next in September 2014. These have replaced Jackson’s 2012 proposal for a national conference series on ‘Spatial Data Cities’, which was not favoured by key stakeholder groups, notably the Commonwealth Government’s Office of Spatial Policy, led by Drew Clarke and Helen Owens.

The OSP, which supervises the ANZLIC group of government land information agencies, is now part of the Australian Department of Communications under Liberal Party Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He does not support national co-ordination or ‘interference’ in state and local governance of cities because of what he has called ‘the tar baby effect’.

With Commonwealth funding for VA research now weighted mostly to centres at UniMelb, VANZI Ltd next has to bring into the VA vision leaders of 13 ‘sustainable built environment’ industry groups (mainly headquartered in Sydney and Canberra), whose members are concerned about their relevance to the emerging geospatial simulation and Earth observations movement.

Meanwhile AURIN has been setting up a portal for environmental modellers to access data relevant to major Australian economic activity ‘lenses’. It seeks a new round of funding after its current budget concludes in mid 2014. It is not clear how this portal would differ from the ‘gateway’ (‘not portal’) proposed in 2013 by VANZI Ltd for property-related information.

The former major cities unit at Infrastructure Australia compiled and printed several State of Australian Cities annual reports full of dense statistics that could be valuable for Australia’s emerging breed of 3D environmental analysts and visualisers – but the future of these reports has not been publicly clarified. (A logical new publisher could be the Australian Bureau of Statistics.)

Based on these rocky first eight years of the Virtual Australia vision (which was extended to NZ in 2011), there’s still substantial scope for cooperation among the many organisations and industries destined to evolve the concept. But many leaders of these groups were trained in pre-internet management methods and want to remain narrowly focused on the ‘core business’ of their silos and fiefdoms.

Also Commonwealth policies for research and state government funding continue to demand rigorous competition – and the nation’s ‘senior’ science research organisation, the CSIRO, has conspicuously avoided leading a cohesive national focus on geodata potentials for urban environments. Geodata modelling of cities of course is crucial to the entire VA vision.