VIRTUAL NATIONS AND NETWORKS, CITY INFORMATION MODELLING | Arguably the world’s first ‘Virtual Nation’ project was unveiled in more detail during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Canberra last week (16 November).

At a conference discussing new applications by governments of spatial information and imaging (Google Earth-style) technologies, several speakers discussed how to prototype a world’s best practice ‘Virtual Australia and New Zealand’ platform to support a wide range of computer simulations of complex, dynamic, operational and environmental systems.

The intention is to integrate with, expand and accelerate existing international achievements and agreements towards one ‘Global Spatial Data Infrastructure’ system to underpin both the ‘Digital Earth’ and ‘Global Earth Observation System of Systems’ (GEOSS) visions.

These now seem central to the forthcoming ‘global technology network to accelerate climate change solutions’ that is gradually being developed by the Bonn-based United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC).

Auckland-based architect and scientist Richard Simpson, chair of the digital cities working party of the International Society for Digital Earth (headquartered at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing), indicated that his members would be concerned with accelerating smart infrastructure, developing new tools and systems to help save water and energy, minimise costs and carbon pollution, and engage communities to help make well-informed planning decisions.

To help kickstart a new global project ‘towards online urban planning of eco-cities’, he showed several new ‘3D post-CAD visualisation’ applications intended to be viewed on mobile tablet devices to help planners and property owners understand in much greater detail the conditions of their environments; especially to develop smarter methods of water management. They are:

—3D Catchment View (amalgamating LIDAR, hyperspectral, GIS and sensor data to understand flows of water across a catchment zone or suburb),

—3D Property View (providing more detailed information to property owners and official inspectors, including information on underground geology),

—3D Operations View (focusing on above and underground pipe and cable systems)

—3D Underground View (exploiting radar mapping and augemented reality technologies to visualise locations of underground services, tree roots, rocks, etc)

Melbourne logistics and manufacturing management expert Michael Haines clarified more detailed concepts for advancing the Virtual ANZ Infrastructure project – focusing on how to create an alliance of all regulated (official) owners of data to construct a highly secure platform that could allow different levels of authorised access to regulated datasets. He said the platform should be owned jointly by the data owners, with the data maintained separately by each owner.

Haines proposed a new project to work with local government authorities to develop a ‘Virtual Homes and Workspaces’ program that eventually would allow property owners and users to contribute images, plans and other information about their land and buildings to council-held databases that would be accessible via the national system. If applied especially to regional communities (a Government priority in Australia), this proposal would provide a strong rationale for relevancy of Australia’s currently controversial National Broadband Network (NBN).

Another controversy is how the Australian Government can establish an effective governance system to manage competitive government, research, commercial and community groups and leaders. Several special interest factions already have been jostling to gain control of the Virtual Australia-Data Cities project or specific aspects of it.

For example two substantial research organisations – NICTA and the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRC-SI) – have gained research sector control of Haines’ new VANZI company despite his stated intent that it should represent official data owners (government authorities, utilities).

These research organisations and others have been refusing to support a 2008 NICTA-funded proposal to set up a Data Cities Research Alliance (DCRA) representing all Australian and NZ research organisations and to help bring the built environment professions towards the Virtual ANZ/Digital Earth vision via integrating natural systems modelling with models of buildings and cities.

Meanwhile a key cluster of companies, universities and government agencies – the Australian Spatial Consortium (set up to support two funding bids by the CRC-SI) is being disbanded and CRC-SI CEO Professor Peter Woodgate has lost support from the University of Melbourne’s geospatial unit, notably its new Director, Professor Abbas Rajabifard, a key global leader of the spatial data Infrastructure and management movement.

Sydney electrical and telecoms research engineer Peter Hitchiner, proposed leader of the Data Cities Research Alliance, is being backed by a Reference Panel of about a dozen national industry groups but this consortium recently lost its chairman, Warwick Watkins, a former government leader of the spatial and land information sector, following a New South Wales government corruption inquiry.

Arrangements for involving research organisations in the Virtual Australia project are likely to be proposed by the ANZ Land Information Council (ANZLIC, representing senior Commonwealth and State Government land information bureaucrats) and the Commonwealth Government’s Office of Space Policy in the Department of Resources Energy and Tourism. Leading all three organisations is Canberra surveyor Drew Clarke who was hailed at the conference as ‘a worthy champion’ following lack of progress by his predecessor. Clarke also represents the Government on the CRC Spatial Information.