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Posts Tagged ‘Esri Africa User Conference’

During the 2015 Esri Africa User Conference in Cape Town, Esri President Jack Dangermond shared his views on the future of geographic information systems (GIS), the secret of his success, trends in urban GIS, his legacy, and the co-dependency between technology and the geographic information (GI) science profession.

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Clare van Zwieten and Jack Dangermond

What is the secret of your ongoing success with Esri over the years?

I have no unique talent. I listen to my users and I do what they need and want. It’s one of my philosophies. I am very conservative financially so we don’t spend a lot of money on exotic things. We spend money on things that actually matter. We are privately held, and we don’t borrow money. We work hard, we have strong values around the area of software engineering, and we also support our users in building tools that really work. Our success is not due to marketing or sales talent or business acumen, it’s because we have built and continue to build a platform, a system that works for our customers.

 

Where do you see GIS in ten years’ time?

I’ve been involved in this business for 50 years. The first stage was with basic researchers and we were running on mainframe computers. This was just a few dozen people on the planet. People were curious about the idea of automating maps and automating geographic data. The second stage really happened largely in the 70s which was largely rooted in prototype application work – people would do projects with automated mapping tools but everything was project focused. That grew to a few hundred people on the planet. When a product came into play – ArcInfo was the first such product – it moved from a few hundred people to thousands. Agencies began acquiring this technology and the world changed from research or project-based to system-based, but the systems were largely departmental systems.

In the 90s with the introduction of PCs, which replaced largely workstation GIS, we saw GIS applications in the form of projects become more extensive – and we moved from some thousands of people to tens of thousands of users, and that made a significant footprint on the world.

In the late 90s the technology shifted to the client-server model and in that environment people began to think about connecting different departmental applications into enterprise systems but it didn’t quite work out. Although the market continued to grow and people would take enterprise approaches, we learned that it was hard to put everything into one central server. The constraints were technological and human, and it was hard to get different organisations to agree to share their data into an integrated environment.

With advancements in server technology, we began to learn how to share information on the web and this happened both inside of agencies and also with consumer mapping technology like Google or Bing. The world began to realise the power of geospatial visualisation through simple-to-use consumer technology.

What is occurring now is the web GIS pattern which is a new pattern. It’s not mainframe GIS, it’s not minicomputer GIS, it’s not workstation GIS, it’s not desktop GIS, it’s not server GIS, it’s a web GIS. And a web GIS is a kind of a system of systems. It involves the ability to federate systems of record like server-based systems or systems of exploitation like desktop systems. It allows those kinds of systems to be integrated in a new pattern.

The web GIS pattern is implementable in a country or in an agency. It’s also interesting because we can implement it for the whole world at the same time. Our approach being a software company is we provide basic tools that enable other people to do real work. Inside of cities or local governments or businesses, or mining companies, people are taking their different departmental datasets and using web GIS to bring them together through a portal that supports apps for accessing dynamically integrated data coming off the web.

That’s a new pattern from putting everything into a single database environment because it allows federated data to be managed independently but dynamically brought together using web services. This is not a simple technology to bring together. It’s not a simple concept, but it’s starting to work. It can also be done for national government.

So getting back to your question, what’s going to happen in the next ten years? I think this will evolve to involve not simply millions of users, but billions. We will see the opening up and providing of geo-services to all of society. This is already happening through applications like Story Maps, where agencies are publishing their information as stories for normal citizen people and policy people to understand what is going on. It’s creating a new level of understanding. I like to call that a kind of geo-enlightenment and that’s happening certainly in the agencies, but it is also beginning to happen with the public.

Do you see this happening mostly in North America and Europe? Or is it happening everywhere?

I think it’s happening everywhere. Society is going to become more geo-enlightened as they do that. People will understand the consequences of their actions in a new way, and there will be a new geo-consciousness about what’s occurring on the planet.

I have a good friend Richard Saul Wurman who started the Ted Talks many, many years ago. He has a favourite phase he uses, “understanding precedes action”. It’s very basic to human beings. He says, “Jack what you are in, is the business of understanding, and geospatial is an understanding language.” I like to describe my users as people who are working towards creating a better understanding of the planet and while we do that it in various sectors, the reality is that in concert GI, or GIS professionals, are creating understanding which I think will become essential infrastructure for the evolution of the planet.

And that’s what’s going to happen over the next ten years. If we have a hope of surviving the challenges that we are facing, geospatial professionals will provide the infrastructure that will change that. At least that’s my aspiration.

During his presentation Michael Goodchild spoke about the issue of GI being a science as opposed to being just a tool. Where do you stand on this debate?

Is GIS a technology or is it a profession or is it a science? Basically GIS is a bunch of tools that have been embraced by many different professions such as healthcare, engineering, planning… These professions have taken the basic set of tools and configured it to support different sorts of workflows. Surveyors certainly are empowered by GIS as a way to do their surveying practice, so are planners, so are foresters, so are healthcare people. There is also a co-dependence between technology and professions, as technology advances there are new methods for doing things professionally. Things are improved, sometimes automated, sometimes made obsolete. Old ways of thinking, old ways of doing things can be replaced with new ways of doing things because of technical advances. I would say that this debate about whether it is a technology or a profession is up to the observer. Different people see it in different ways, and I don’t want to get into a battle about that, because it’s both.

We sometimes struggle with getting decision makers to see the value of GIS solutions. Do you get involved in trying to get decision makers to buy into GIS?

I am often asked to speak to senior executives in organisations. At our normal user conferences in California we have an executive track which gets senior executives to see the context of why GIS is so very important in their organisations. It happens that when senior executives get the value of GIS they are the ones who drive it, rather than the technical people pushing it. In 2014, UPS, a large package delivery organisation, saved about US$400-million dollars by using GIS to automate their routing of trucks and deliveries. Business value… that’s what speaks to executives.

Getting politicians to see the value of GIS can be problematic. Is that something you have noticed around the world?

What is occurring in GIS right now is that there is a growing demand for policy maps. These are maps that speak to policy people with information products that help them. One of the US presidential candidates today is Martin O’Malley. He used GIS when he was a mayor to better manage his city. He made maps of where the crime was and then put the cops where the crime was. When he became Governor of Maryland, he mapped where there were educational deficiencies in schools and he poured the money where schools were really in need of improving. He used GIS as an instrument for public policy but he had a creative team of GIS specialists who understood how to make maps that really spoke to politicians.

President Obama also made maps for stimulus funding early in his administration. He not only looked at where the needs were for putting money, but he also spent money in those locations of greatest need. Obama uses GIS for everything from national security to directing resources, perhaps not as much as he should in my opinion, but he understands its value.

Have you noticed similarities between metropolitan municipalities around the world?

Yes. In the 70s I was challenged with figuring out what was wanted and needed in different cities for GIS. I started with Los Angeles and made a huge discovery that there are only 33 or 34 basic geographic workflows and databases that cities use. Later looking at San Francisco, Toronto, Istanbul, Jakarta, and Bagdad… we found that these thirty-some basic functions were the same in every city around the world.

Later in surveys we found that all cities function exactly the same way. They call them different names, they organise them differently under different departments, but there is a generic set of geographic functions and geographic datasets. We used to call it the urban data model that all cities are required to do: picking up garbage, delivering things, addressing, cadastral data management, engineering, pipes, environmental reviews, zoning, planning etc.

In those early days we examined the relationship between those functions and the different datasets that were required to build an urban SDI. And also what software tools were necessary to automate those functions and make the right kind of maps. Those early research projects led to the development of ArcGIS. And that’s fundamentally how urban GIS came into being.

What are the big drivers for urban GIS?

There are four or five big drivers where the benefits are happening in urban GIS, and actually in GIS in general.

Number one, GIS tends to drive efficiency, it makes things cheaper or faster… and what mayor doesn’t want their city to be more efficient.

The second big benefit value is in the area of communication, and maps and integrated GIS just help better communicate the situation. Cities that adopt and embrace GIS tend to communicate more effectively, not only between their departments but also with their public, their constituencies.

The third big area is that GIS benefits cities by increasing the quality of decisions. If you look at all the different layers of geographic data when you are making a decision, it improves decision making.

A fourth area is transparency and accountability. Those cities that really implement it and do it well, tend to be more transparent and connected with their citizens.

The last one is a little more abstract. Some people describe it as science benefits. Or in the vernacular today, it’s data-driven cities, or data-driven government. Certainly GIS’s underpinnings lead to data-driven operations and data-driven decision making because of the relationships between the different agencies in the city that are sharing and co-operating with their information.

How is work progressing on the transitioning of users from Google Earth Enterprise to Esri? Has there been a lot of take up?

Yes, a lot. Early on Google had the idea that they would get into enterprise implementation of their technology, becoming a kind of software and services organisation for enterprise people. This overlapped somewhat with what we were doing with GIS although Google had far more limited technology. In 2014 when they decided that they couldn’t sustain that business, they approached us looking for collaboration, and we offered to provide the Google customers who had bought into that technology, licensing of our software for free. Many of their customers moved over to our platform as a result of that.

Once we became committed to supporting the Google Earth Enterprise customers, we discovered that we should take that same technology footprint, that global visualisation, and build a client technology that would be free and disseminate it in the world freely for all sorts of people to use and access our users’ information. So the ArcGIS Earth client technology which is a desktop system (later it will be a browser-based technology) will be provided free to anyone who wants it. And given that visualisation tool, they can connect to open services from our platform, and can also host datasets or services. I think it will very quickly become pervasive in the world as an alternative to the Google base map visualisation. It will basically provide free geospatial technology to a community that doesn’t have it now.

How much does Esri spend on research and development? How do you decide where to focus your R&D?

We spend about 28% of our revenue on R&D, and there are three main drivers. The biggest one is our users, and the reason why we are here at this user conference is to listen to users, both at the technical level and the business level. Every year we send out questionnaires to our users before our big user conferences. It’s a very difficult process because we have to confront that we are not perfect by any means. We figure out then what we must do for the next year’s agenda and that’s a huge influence on how we prioritise and evolve things.

The second major influence is technology changes. We watch that very carefully because our users want to be on the platforms and with the technology framework of the day, not yesterday or five years ago, they are interested in staying current. They are interested in us driving the technology in such a way that it takes advantage of all the platforms and the context of evolution that is occurring.

And the third basic driver is just having some very, very innovative and creative people that work on this and come up with new ideas. I’m continually blown away by what occurs in our development areas. For us it’s not one shot innovation, its continuous evolutionary innovation. It’s very tricky to evolve it so that all of our customers come along and all of our customers can be updated with their databases, their visualisation tools and their app users.

What keeps you working and innovating? Is it just the money?

It’s not the money. I think I love my work. Very few people have been lucky enough to find something that they are really passionate about. I lucked out as a young student. I got totally turned on to the potential of what computing and GIS could really mean for different organisations and individuals. I’ve been at it now for at least 50 years. Speaking quite frankly, if somebody isn’t passionate about what they are doing, they should quit and find a different job.

What is your succession plan?

I am the front person today but our institution is set up as a very stable organisation. There are twelve directors who actually do the real work and at least half of them can take my job easily.

And they have the same game plan as you?

Basically Esri is a company driven by our users. They have lots of ideas and aspirations, and they tell us what to do. We are a private company, and we make money for our users’ benefit. Unlike a public company which is about making money, what we are about is serving our users. That’s been our philosophy for decades.

What legacy would you like to leave behind for the world?

I don’t think I’m actually interested in a legacy; I’m just interested in continuing my work. I would like to share that you can live a meaningful and productive life in service to other people. That’s something I believe in.

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