The Manual of Digital Earth: An open access publication to advance the creation of a Digital Earth

Blog / Gregory Giuliani & Changlin Wang / November 29, 2019

‘Digital Earth’ is a global initiative to create a comprehensive virtual representation of our planet. As digital technologies advance, this vision is quickly becoming a reality. The International Society for Digital Earth (ISDE) has just published a new open source book to help advance the creation of Digital Earth.

The International Society for Digital Earth (ISDE) is a non-governmental and not-for-profit international organization for promoting international collaboration towards the achievement of Digital Earth through academic exchange, science and technology innovation and education. Relying on collaborative efforts between Earth sciences, geospatial information and space sciences, Digital Earth aims to monitor and forecast natural and human phenomena on our planet.

The concept of Digital Earth traces back to 1998 when Al Gore, the former Vice-President of the United States, presented his visionary concept of a Digital Earth as a “a multi-resolution, three-dimensional representation of the planet, into which we can embed vast quantities of georeferenced data.”  

Talking about geospatial data, Gore outlined the difficulties of taking advantage of this vast amount of data. “Turning raw data into understandable information” was a challenge because at that moment there was too much information to handle and it was stored in “electronic silos of data” that remain mostly unused.

He envisioned applications where “information can be seamlessly fused with the digital map or terrain data” allowing the user to move through space and time. To achieve this vision, a collaborative effort from government, industry, academia and citizens is needed.

Two decades after the vision of a Digital Earth was presented, a concerted international effort has engaged in nurturing the development of a technology framework and harnessing applications to preserve the planet and sustain human societies.

All the technologies and capabilities required to transform this vision into reality and to build a Digital Earth are already available:

  • Computational science: even a simple desktop computer can process complex models and simulations. With the potential of technologies such as the Grid new insights into the data are possible, giving us the ability to simulate phenomena that are impossible to observe.
  • Mass storage: storing Terabytes of data on a desktop computer is not a problem anymore.
  • Remote sensing imagery: many satellites and airborne are continuously observing the Earth offering high spatial and temporal multispectral observations.
  • Sensors: it is now possible to access real time data from sensors that are continuously monitoring and measuring various environmental variables.
  • Broadband networks: are already a reality giving the ability to connect different databases together.
  • Interoperability: this is a key point to allow communication and integration of distributed data, allowing the geospatial data generated by one software to be read by another. Still if technology is available, data interoperability is not yet achieved.
  • Metadata: are important as they describe the data, allowing a user to evaluate and discover the data before using them.

The work done by GEO to improve availability, access and use of Earth observations for a sustainable planet and the establishment of GEOSS Portal could be seen as an important step to achieve the Digital Earth vision. All relevant technologies are available and there is growing recognition that countries can benefit both economically and environmentally from better access to data. GEOSS has the potential to support the achievement the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to offer a unique framework to share data and collaborate for a better society.

As of today, it is necessary to make an in-depth analysis of the expanding scope of the concept of Digital Earth, as well as the impacts of Digital Earth on interdisciplinary science and social progress. This is a necessary step to ensure better-informed decision-making for the more sustainable development of our planet.

On the 18th November 2019, the International Society for Digital Earth and Springer publisher released the “Manual of Digital Earth”, co-edited by Prof. Huadong Guo, Prof. Mike Goodchild, and Dr. Alessandro Annoni. The Manual of Digital Earth contains 26 chapters written by more than 100 authors from 18 countries, aiming at presenting the current status and future directions for Digital Earth research. It presents a systematic analysis of the theories, methods, and technical systems of Digital Earth. It also presents a summary of the key achievements to date and predicts the likely direction and probable future developments within the discipline.

This book can be seen as an important contribution from ISDE, a GEO Participating Organization, to the GEO community and can certainly help to create synergies and strengthen the relation between GEO and ISDE for efficient and effective national/regional developments, multi-domain applications, technologies to provide the necessary basis for reliable and accountable scientific understanding and knowledge to support informed decisions and evidence-based policy advices.

This book is an open access publication and can be accessed free of charge here.

For more information please contact: Prof. Changlin Wang <wangcl@radi.ac.cn>


About the authors

Gregory Giuliani

Dr. Gregory Giuliani is a Senior Lecturer in Earth Observations at the Institute for Environmental Sciences (University of Geneva, Switzerland) & Head of the Digital Earth Unit, UNEP/GRID-Geneva. ISDE Council Member and active contributor to GEO/GEOSS.


Changlin Wang

Prof. Changlin Wang, ISDE Secretary General; Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


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