Making the Geoscope a Reality

by Schuyler Erle

I've just attended the Geostorytelling session at the PlaNetwork conference at the Presidio in San Francisco, and all I can say is: Wow. The session was opened by Joshua Arnow from the Buckminster Fuller Institute. He describes the aim of "geostorytelling" as "an effort to make the invisible visible."

Arnow quotes Fuller as having once said, "There is no energy crisis, food crisis or environmental crisis. There is only a crisis of ignorance." Fuller conceived of a "Geoscope" which might serve to ameliorate humanity's ignorance of its own condition. "Consequences of various world plans could be computed and projected using the accumulated history-long inventory... of data," he wrote. "All the world would be dynamically viewable and picturable and radioable [sic] to all the world, so that common consideration... of all world problems by all world people would become a practical everyday, hour and minute event."

Towards this goal, Arnow says, the BFI has been building the EARTHscope Library, a free access, low bandwidth interactive online library, to promote whole systems understanding from global to local, to advance a standard for web-based geo-storytelling, and to allow users map and animate change over time, and explore future scenarios.

Arnow then turns the mic over to Joe Skopek, lead architect of the EARTHscope Library. Skopek's first demonstration, plotted on Fuller's Dymaxion map of the Earth, is entitled "Impact on Natural Habitat: 1700 - 2100." He shows off EARTHscope's shiny user interface, which allows a user to display features like global biodiversity, human population, critical habitat, human development, and more, as GIS-like layers. The user can then select a development scenario -- sustainability vs. business as usual -- and then pull a slider along a timeline from 1700 to 2100 to experiment with the effect that the chosen scenario has on the chosen variables. The difference between the two projected futures is clear: Environmental destruction can be stopped, rolled back -- if only we have the wit and the wisdom to see to it. Other demos include the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Atlas of Population and Environment; a Green Maps "Lomap" demo of Lower Manhattan "as seen by youth"; and a USGS temporal mapping of the SF Bay Area showing urban sprawl (ugh) from 1800 to 1990. "You might think a community is getting crowded," Skopek says, "But once you can it on a map, only then you can really see the trends."

Next, Todd Helt, of Telemorphic presents his company's work on Maplicity, a Java-based network-capable GIS browser, for which they provide layers from a huge variety of sources. Some demos on their site include multi-layered, detailed maps of Afghanistan and of Iraq, provided as a public service to help people understand and research these places and the prominence they've recently held in the news. The truly eye-popping bit of Helt's presentation were, however, the demos based on David Rumsey's historical map collection. According to Helt, Rumsey approached them wanting to make some of his collection of 150,000-plus historical maps available online, and georeference them, so one could overlay historical maps with modern maps. Helt's demo showed maps of the San Francisco Bay from 1850 overlaid with modern digital raster data, fading from one to another at will, showing very vividly how the historical coastline of the Bay differed from today's -- in particular, the progressive landfilling of what are now Alameda and Treasure Island. Cooler still was the ActiveX-based 3D fly-through of an 1870 map of the Yosemite Valley, stretched over modern topo data -- very impressive! Another similar fly-through of San Francisco.

Finally, Ben Discoe of the Virtual Terrain Project, takes the podium to steal the show with VTerrain -- a free, MIT-licensed 3D GIS browser, written in C++ and OpenGL, and designed for portability. His demo of VTerrain starts with a 3D spinnable globe using NASA's 1 km scale "Blue Marble" data, which morphs in real-time into an icosahedron, and then unwraps and flattens into a Fuller projection of the Earth; the view zooms in, out; plots points of light across the world representing first 2,000 users of VTerrain. The display zooms in on a detailed portion of Hawaii; Discoe highlights models of individual buildings and vegetation; he adds, deletes, moves them around the 3D terrain; then smoothly zooms the display all the way back out to the whole globe. Damn.

Impressive as these demos are, the work is still far from complete. Beyond the systems presented, free or inexpensive tools are few and far between, and the level of technical expertise needed to make them do useful and novel things is still a fairly high barrier to entry. More importantly, even when useful and useable tools are available, they depend on the availability of accurate data. In some places, like the US and Denmark, this data is free from a variety of governmental sources. In other places, like Canada and the UK, activists are still lobbying their governments to open the taxpayer-funded government survey databases, and make them available on a broader (i.e. inexpensive or free) basis for non-profit projects.

Despite the hurdles, the dream of the Geoscope - or, really, today, a thousand little Geoscopes, almost forty years after Fuller's initial conception of it, is now slowly but surely, becoming a reality.

Are you or your organization building your own Geoscopes? What kinds of applications are you finding for this technology?