Queensland Globe: A novel approach to spatial data visualisation

Queensland Globe: A novel approach to spatial data visualisation

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Steven Jacoby
Steven Jacoby
Executive Director,
Land & Spatial Information,
Queensland Government, Australia

The Queensland government and Queensland University of Technology have been working on a major Open Data initiative called the Queensland Globe for about 18 months. It is an interactive and cinematic display of spatial data visualisations. Steven Jacoby, Executive Director, Land & Spatial Information in the Service Delivery Division, Department of Natural Resources & Mines, Queensland Government, Australia talks about the unique Queensland Globe developed for G20 summit for displaying spatial data sets during business meetings and the role of public in expanding the content in the globe. Gavin Winter , Project Leader at the Queensland University of Technology informs how the project has a specific research and teaching imperative and the manner in which spatial data visualisation is turned into a spectacular affair.

Please tell us more about the Cube Globe initiative and your plans ahead.

The Queensland government has been working on a major Open Data initiative called the Queensland globe for about 18 months. The Queensland government has a policy of making all of its data freely available online and of course much of that data, up to 80%, is spatial. The Queensland Globe has taken all of that spatial data and published it for free using Google Earth. That experience is the background that led us to create a Queensland Globe for G20 and the Cube Globe initiative.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet had asked us to assist with the G20 meeting. The issue was that 90% of G20 visitors would be coming to Queensland and Australia for the first time. The government wanted to take the opportunity to tell our global visitors about our achievements and opportunities. We wanted to have a conversation about trade, business and investment opportunities. But we are a huge State (1.734M km2) and understanding our location and geography was going to be important. So we were given the challenge of using the Queensland globe to help explain to an international audience about our economy across various sectors like agriculture, resources, construction, tourism, education, training, science innovation. It was a huge task. We worked actively with Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to develop a package of spatial information called the Queensland Globe for G20 and the Cube Globe is a pre-eminent example of that. And QUT has done a fantastic job in taking our open data and putting it into The Cube wall and delivering it in a way that is world- class.

Cube Project on Display at Queensland University of Technology

The Cube Globe is located at The Cube in QUT’s newly-built Science and Engineering Centre. The Cube is a three storey high, wedge-shaped structure with multiple projectors and over 40 interactive touch panels. You have to see it to believe it. We look at The Cube as a state-of-the-art interactive teaching space. The Cube Globe project has only been going for 12 months. When we worked with QUT, we wanted to see how best we can present our economy to an international audience using spatial technologies. What QUT has done at The Cube is absolutely brilliant. They have a very strong imperative to connect science, education and teaching which is very engaging for schools and research institutions to connect with the content. This is very new. Recently, we did a trial of the Cube Globe initiative with students of various high schools from all over Queensland. The reaction we got from them was great. They spent a lot of time there and found it highly engaging. So we think we are a real winner in terms of engaging the students and later the public, when we release the offering on the 27th October, ahead of the G20 Leaders’ Summit.

QUT has actually taken up open data that we prepared for the G20 and has presented it up on The Cube for a research and teaching imperative. But that is one aspect of we are trying to do with the Queensland Globe for G20.

What kind of data has been put on the Queensland Globe currently?

The Queensland Globe has the task of presenting all of our mapping data. We have about 400 layers of information that covers every possible topic imaginable from traditional mapping from topographic data, contours, addresses, properties through the thematic categories like farming, environment, planning transport, health, and education. But the audience was domestic from the State of Queensland. However, at G20, it is going to be a different audience. So we are presenting trade information like imports and exports and investments and the connections our State has with other G20 nations. This is a two-way exchange of information because what is an import for Queensland is an export for a trading partner and vice-versa.

A lot of foreign investment is happening in the state. We have, therefore, mapped all key investments by G20 nations into the state of Queensland and broken it up into different sectors like agricultural, resources, construction, tourism and so on. We have tried to present information that shows the connection between our state and the rest of the world through the G20 nations. The information about our total imports and exports and their breakdown has been presented in a global context further taking it down to the level of an individual project. So for instance, in case of coal, which is Queensland's largest export to India, through the globe, we have shown the supply chain, ports, mines and individual mining leases throughout the state. So the open data that exists domestically has been presented to an international audience to show the entire supply chain from an individual mine through a rail network and port facility out to a country and where it is consumed in a particular region of that country. I think we have taken this geospatial story to the next level taking the open data from a domestic level right to an international level.

Visitors testing the CubeGlobe

What was the purpose behind making the Queensland Globe an interactive visualisation?

When we were considering how we are going to publish our open data, we first explored how others in the world have done it. Often they had put the data on a website and you could go and download it. But we felt that since most of the information is spatial, we took the extra step of putting various data layers onto Google Earth for visualisation purposes.

We could have chosen a number of other visualisation tools but we chose Google Earth as it was free and most people have used it and we could deploy it to the business, government and community. So now there is one simple file that can be double clicked to load all the layers into Google Earth. We have taken the same approach with the G20 globe. We have put up the link to that file on our site and users are asked to go to Google's website, download Google Earth, download this one file from us, double click and you have all the resources on your desktop to visualise interactively.

Gavin Winter,   Project Leader, Queensland University of Technology
Gavin Winter
Project Leader, Queensland University of Technology

What is the QUT side of the story?
QUT has partnered with the Queensland Government to develop a spatial data visualisation application for display in immersive, interactive, large-scale environments. The project complements the Governments “Queensland Globe” programme by accessing and displaying the same spatial open data sets already published through the Google Earth program. QUT have embarked on this project to bring world-first digital experiences to the G20 events this year, but more than this, The Cube Globe makes the experience of viewing spatial data spectacular, engaging, and collaborative for many audiences in many places into the future.

Is it possible to scale the visualization platform technologically?
Yes. The platform is delivered by WebGL and HTML5 – it is accessible for mobile, desktop, and tablet devices and distributable to a single user, classroom, or a large organization anywhere in the world.

Is there a mechanism to keep the platform regularly updated?
Yes. The Cube Globe is served by a content management and GIS database system ensuring that data is kept current but offers easy refactoring for new deployments.

What is the significance of the project from a teaching and research perspective?
The introduction of spatial information into a teaching program is significant – and the flexible and engaging experience like the Cube Globe has made access and interpretation of spatial data simple and effective. QUT and The Cube are heavily focused on engaging students at all levels and leveraging immersive, interactive technologies for real learning outcomes. The Cube Globe will be a major part of this focus for the years to come. From a research perspective, QUT is embarking on major spatial information and GIS projects that encompass other disciplines such as big data, sensor networking, built-environment monitoring, and resource management – these projects will focus on themes of sustainability, security, and resilience at many levels.

We will also release an app in a couple of weeks. The current platform is tremendously interactive. We are training our trade commissioners to have this as a tool that they can carry on their trade missions trying to encourage investments and trade from Queensland to the G20 nations and beyond. The exciting thing is that this concept, which I don't think, has been done previously, is very repeatable.

We are very keen to work with others and to encourage a similar approach. We have taken an open data and open source approach to this issue and think it has greater power if we can get other countries to start taking a similar perspective to publishing, collaborating and exchanging information spatially about their trade and economic investments at a global level. We are hopeful that we can take this novel approach for future international trade meetings. Spatial will be the way in which we communicate. At the moment I see officials using facts, figures, graphs and reports. Why aren't they using geospatial technologies to have these important business dialogues? I would like to see geospatial operating amongst world leaders and finance ministers through their desktop and tablet devices. We think this has got great potential.

Are you also planning to create some application using the kind of data that is available on this globe?

Our priority is to publish the information and get it out in the openly. The government feels strongly that it is not its role to create applications and to service the market directly. We are only promoting our data, making sure we are publishing current, high-quality data accessible to everybody. I think there are great opportunities for the private sector to come in and develop applications and deliver services. We want to work with the international geospatial community and foster a collaborative exchange of information.

In addition to Queensland globe, do you have any plans to create such a platform for pan Australia?

Australia has six states and two territories and a national government. We have globes being built nationally and by individual jurisdictions and they can be federated together to create global content. We can even engage with other nations and they can all come together for a collaborative exchange of data. But in our view, it is very important that this is done openly, so that content is available without constraints, particularly price or restrictive licenses.

Considering that each province is creating its own globe, is there a mechanism where all these globes can seamlessly function with each other?

Yes. If you take an Open Data approach and adopt Open Standards, then you find that the data can link and mesh together. There are many geospatial tools to enable that to happen. But where we get bogged down is when agencies don't publish data openly, they licence or put it within proprietary technologies, which forces the user to work within, often expensive technology stacks.

We are very keen to work across boundaries, across technologies and use open data, open source and open standards wherever possible. I should clarify that whilst we’ve used Google Earth as a visualisation tool all of the data that sits behind it is available for download and the visualisation engine in QUT’s Cube Globe uses an open source toolset called Cesium.

Are there any federal government guidelines in this direction?

Yes, the Australian government and our state government’s policy to make its data openly available are very similar. I am in charge of spatial data policy in Queensland and making sure that data is pushed out. QUT is a leading research university and are a large consumer of data. They have joined our initiative to promote the use of open data and have been showcasing that through The Cube. So we are all very much behind the open data initiative. We want to encourage economic development, research and investment. We want smarter people than us to pick the content up and do clever things with it like creating services. Open data for us is actually an economic initiative. We don’t intend to charge for the base data to create that economic value. We think we can roll it on to a higher value proposition.

How are you enabling people participation in expanding the content in the globe?

We have been focussed on getting out all of our data by unlocking and sharing it. The next step is when users start using it. We want to have an ability for users to feedback changes and to value-add to that data. This is something that the private sector can enable to happen on the cloud or in different service offerings. But we also want the crowd sourcing changes and crowd sourcing improvements if people wish to add to the base data. So we want to have a community map in the broader sense where one single view of our geography is not government’s view only. It needs to be validated by business, community and public. We have to be receptive to that change. So crowd sourcing is a very big part of that.