Enabling Australia’s National Digital Twin Ecosystem with Cesium and TerriaJS

Kevin Ring
Jul 16 · 5 min read

We are building a National Digital Twin for Australia with Cesium and TerriaJS. Our vision is for the National Digital Twin to be a primary collaboration point for all Australian governments to bring together their high-value data assets for the country, and to support industry in creating a new ecosystem for innovation.

The National Digital Twin initiative is led by the NSDI (National Spatial Data Infrastructure) collaboration initiative, a Data61-facilitated collaboration group of ANZLIC, the peak intergovernmental organisation for spatial matters in Australia and New Zealand. We are working now with two of Australia’s most populous states — New South Wales and Queensland — on the Digital Twin development process, representing half of Australia’s population.

We originally created the open-source TerriaJS platform for Australia’s NationalMap. Like NationalMap, the National Digital Twin will make it easy to discover, explore, and access geospatial datasets, and it will use a federated model to allow diverse datasets to be brought together in a web browser without the need to copy any data into the Digital Twin system itself. While most of the data on NationalMap is 2D and static, however, most of the Digital Twin data will be 3D, time-varying (4D), and even include real-time data from sensor networks. This is a larger trend in the geospatial industry, and one that Cesium is uniquely positioned to enable. TerriaJS has been built on the solid 3D foundations of Cesium from the very beginning.

And while NationalMap includes only open data, the Digital Twin will allow non-open datasets to be securely shared within and between governments and industry. For example, a significant market driver to 3D/4D for spatial data custodians is the growing adoption of BIM and Digital Engineering practices by the construction industry. This trend will accelerate as government policy increasingly requires that these models be made available to the government itself. The Digital Twin provides a convenient place for aggregating, cataloging, and visualising these construction models, but they usually cannot be considered open data.

Buildings, trees, and buses visualisation, Penrith, NSW; data source: NSW Government — Spatial Services

Why a Digital Twin?

Governments and businesses increasingly use data to plan, design, and operate infrastructure and cities, and to make decisions about future developments. But many challenges remain around how data about the built environment is discovered, accessed, used, and shared. A data-driven Digital Twin of the built environment can address many of these challenges, making planning more efficient, improving the performance of existing infrastructure, and increasing safety. Of course, we must also protect privacy, commercial confidentiality, and national security in the process.

The Centre for Digital Built Britain recently released the Gemini Principles, capturing a well-considered perspective on the justification and values behind the concept of a National Digital Twin. One of the key values is openness: open source, open data, open culture, open standards and collaborative models that build trust, reduce cost and create more value. Openness is essential to avoiding vendor lock-in, and to creating an ecosystem in which all parties can use the best tools for the job. Openness is a key feature of the Cesium and TerriaJS communities.

The overarching goal of a Digital Twin is to enable decisions that influence outcomes in the physical world, forming a positive feedback loop between the physical twin and the digital one. This does not mean that the decisions and feedback mechanisms necessarily need to be automated, however. The Digital Twin may support insights that lead to good decisions. The decisions are then separately enacted in the physical world, and the Digital Twin is updated through sensor feeds and other updated data.

A Digital Twin Built on TerriaJS and Cesium

The Gemini Principles characterise a National Digital Twin as “…not a huge singular model of the entire built environment. Rather, it will be an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data.” This is a powerful narrative, and is a continuation of the successful approach used for open data in Australia. In both TerriaJS, which powers NationalMap, and in Magda, which powers data.gov.au, the emphasis is on federation and sharing.

Brisbane CBD, QLD; data source: AEROmetrex

While our attention is currently on supporting Australian governments in their Digital Twin journey, we realise these same challenges are shared by industry and by other countries around the world. We see this as a platform that is widely applicable. In this context, flexibility is essential, and the platform couldn’t exist without powerful open source technology such as Cesium and TerriaJS.

The goal is not just to create a cool visualisation, but to bring together a range of stakeholders, each with different goals and processes. The National Digital Twin initiative must accommodate their varying levels of data-readiness, support their use of a wide range of GIS and other tools, and enable their assorted digital twin use cases. We acknowledge that this cannot all be done by one organisation, and so we must work together to create an open and extensible ecosystem in which innovation can flourish.

We are thrilled to see Cesium spin out as an independent company! We know it will enable them to execute their ambitious vision for transforming the 3D geospatial industry. Cesium’s mission is essential to our mission. High-quality, 3D, web-friendly, geospatially-enabled standards like glTF and Cesium 3D Tiles help make the vision of a National Digital Twin attainable. These two international standards were created in part by the Cesium team, and they are an essential alternative to the vendor-controlled “standards” and ad-hoc solutions we would otherwise be stuck with. Meanwhile, Cesium Ion pushes the envelope on the quality and scale of 3D geospatial data that can be delivered on the web.

In the coming months we will continue to experiment and to strengthen the Digital Twin concept and platform in Australia, pushing the boundaries of federation, visualising large-scale 3D data, and enabling data sharing scenarios for our stakeholders.

Stay in touch https://terria.io/contact or follow @TerriaJS on Twitter.


Official blog of Terria, developers of the open-source mapping framework TerriaJS (https://terria.io).

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