GIS Monitor July 12, 2001


-ESRI User Conference Opening Session Report
-What’s the Big Deal About Geography Network?

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The 21st Annual ESRI International User Conference took place this past week, July 9 to 13, in San Diego, California. Attendees numbered about 11,000 and came from 110 countries. I was able to attend virtually, via webcast, courtesy of ESRI-Boston.

ESRI continues to grow, boasting 20% growth and 15% more staff this year. User organizations now number more than 100,000 with about 1 million seats in use. ESRI has about 1,300 partners involved in hardware, software, data and consulting.

But Jack Dangermond, President and founder of ESRI, didn’t dwell on the company, choosing instead to focus on the users. Jack moved on to highlight the work of users with a series of images of maps and applications. One that stood out for me was an implementation of ArcIMS from Lonely Planet, the Australian guidebook company.

Theme: Geography … Creating Communities

The theme of the conference was “Geography creating communities.” Jack defined a community by noting that it revolves around something that we share in common - interests, values, and beliefs - with a purpose or goal. A community is defined by communication: interpersonal, phone or Internet. Geography and GIS create information communities of many sorts - those in the same geography, those with similar interests like forestry, and those interested in solving the same types of problems, like delivering data over the Internet. The trick, he points out, is gathering those individuals into active groups and actually getting them all to work together. Jack believes that since GIS people have done much of this work in the past, there will continue to be a need for them. Finally, Jack described the earth as an organism, which will hopefully be diagnosed like a patient so it can be healthy. Part of getting to that point, he argues, is a move toward standardized data models for different communities: cadastral, soil, land use, etc. (This reminded me very much of Open GIS information community initiative.)

About Technology

Jack started his conversation about the state of technology with a statement from IBM: the coming years will bring 1 billion pervasive wireless, web-aware devices to the world. He also noted that the fights and hype over the role of servers, the desktop and mobile devices will be "calmed down" by introducing standards, likely web standards (.Net, Java, IT).

GIS Software

The big topic here was services. GIS is moving to a role as a problem solver rather than a technology tool. ESRI's big experiment in that arena is Geography Network (GN). GN currently hosts 2,000 services, mostly data-related, from 300 organizations, many of them governmental. ESRI will be adding e-commerce tools so those who wish to sell data via GN may do so in the future., an overarching vision, is the first implementation of the geography services of loosely coupled systems. In other words, the new vision is one in which GN will be a gateway to many "little" GNs developed by local authorities. There were several comments about how ArcIMS could be appropriately scaled for these local GNs. Some of ESRI's new additions to ArcIMS, in particular, the metadata server, will make this possible. As I have noted before, the lack of metadata and metadata search tools has been one of GN's limitations.

This vision has three key players: GIS users who consume data and services, GIS service providers who publish data and services and metadata clearinghouses which allow discovery of data and services.


ArcGIS 8.1 is shipping and is being picked up fast. A hesitant few had grappled with ArcInfo 8.0x but that was a bit shaky.

One new product was announced: ArcReader - a lighter ArcView that compares to the Adobe Acrobat reader. ArcReader can pan zoom, identify, print, plot and looks like it has the same user interface as ArcMap. From what I've deciphered, an extension to ArcView allows the creation of .mxp files, a specialized version of .mxd files, the new version of ArcView's .apr file. These are readable by ArcReader, but are merely pointers to data on a CD, or the Internet. This way data can be updated regularly (with a CD) or live (with the Internet). ArcReader can read all the files that ArcView can and will be free. Unlike ArcExplorer, which can read files (shp, DGN, coverages, etc.) directly, I believe that ArcReader requires an .mxp file, which can be created by the Publisher extension to ArcGIS. This product looks to be the modern version of ArcView Data Publisher, an extension for ArcView 2.1 that locked ArcView to a single project for distribution on CDs.

Several new extensions for ArcGIS (the new family name for ArcView, ArcEditor and ArcInfo) are on the way. Survey Analyst (cogo and survey measurement storage), Image Analysis (from ERDAS for imagery) and Publisher, the creation tool for data to be read in ArcReader are on the horizon.

ESRI is spending a good deal of energy on servers. Currently the two of note are ArcSDE for data and ArcIMS to serve that and other data via the Internet. The latest ArcIMS release, 3.1, focused on quality, performance, better docs, added security, templates, and internationalization. Several new services are coming: routing, metadata (to server metadata from ArcCatalog), ArcMap server (for cartography). ArcIMS is out for Windows, and several flavors of Unix (Solaris and AIX) and several are in the works, notably HP-UX, SGI and Linux. Yes, that's right, LINUX.

Looking forward to ArcGIS 8.2, several "old" features are being brought back. First off, ArcGIS 8.2 will include a geoprocessing framework for raster, vector, network and terrain data in geodatabases. Said another way, geodatabases will soon have topology and will be able to be built and cleaned just like coverages.

Two other old features returning: the command line along with support for a scripting language. The existing dialog boxes will include more options. Modeling diagrams, now used only in Spatial Analyst will be available for all geoprocessing tasks. This is a way to visually lay out the plan of attack to solve a problem. Enhancements in cartography will include automated map series production, raster display, exploratory spatial data analysis, GPS layers. Parts of the Mapplex labeling engine will be available for ArcGIS as an extension. On the editing front, ArcEditor will be completed and will gain interactive topology checking and possibly conflation. There will be enhancements to the geodatabase including support for topology, relationship networks (non spatial connections, such as the relationship between cities linked by airline routes), linear referencing (dynamic segmentation), support for TINS, and a tool to manage history. The demonstration of walking through time and seeing changes in land ownership brought cheers.


David Maguire, Director of Product Planning, hosted the second session. He introduced ESRI's software plans and vision. He highlighted the move to a scalable family of products, which reduces the need for training and allows users to do work without worrying as much about technology. He also noted ESRI's support for a variety of standards including IT, Web Services standards (Java, .net, XML) and GIS standards (OGC).

After a review of the features in 8.1, the first demo of the day -- and most subsequent ones -- were done not by ESRI staff, but by users. Representatives of the city of Aylesbury, UK showed some 8.1 planning demos. ESRI's John Calkins showed raster tasks with Spatial Analyst and Geostatistical Analyst. He used the modeling tool that will be available across ArcGIS in coming releases. Clayton Crawford showed off a 3D Analyst fly through. Some parts were underground and others above ground showing San Diego. The finale of the demo, showed the sun setting on the convention center using the light alteration tools; it was a real crowd pleaser. Bernie Szukalski showed off ArcIMS and ArcPad. The new routing extension for ArcIMS will include US nationwide data, with future release supporting Canada, North America and Europe.

Bernie introduced the upcoming ArcPad 6, which will include internationalization, customization, query, and edit tools. The demonstration was from Hong Kong Dept of Civil Engineering. In addition to viewing data on a hand held PC (iPAQ), the two users showed an application supported by ArcIMS running on a WAP phone and a subscription based ArcIMS vehicle tracking application.

Soren Anderson, from Denmark, presented an application based in that country for an insurance company. The interesting thing was that the data was all hosted outside the company! The ArcIMS-based app used several country-wide data servers.

The final demo of the morning explained the streamlined process of published metadata using the upcoming metadata publishing extension of ArcIMS.

1. make metadata in ArcCatalog 2. get to server hosting the metadata, a secure server 3. drag and drop the metadata file from ArcCatalog onto the server, there it's put into a geodatabase, and indexed 4. preview it 5. now anyone can now search this service from ArcCatalog 6. after performing a query, with found records, searchers can preview the results (see footprints of all) or examine individual records

This slick process makes it easy for a small organization to build their own local "Geography Network" and that's exactly what ESRI wants to see. If these metadata servers can be linked via the main Geography Network, or a similar type of portal, much of the vision of a searchable worldwide database will be possible. I'll note that to make this fully interoperable with other vendor solutions, ESRI will need to support Open GIS interfaces, something they've supported in the past.

After Lunch

After lunch Jack worked with Hugh Keegan and his team from the prototype lab to show off what was possible with the Geography Network. They pulled real time weather (from WSI) and combined it with real time stream monitoring data for Pennsylvania from USGS. The general sense was that the possibilities are endless so long as data developers choose to share.

Clint Brown then had members of the development team show off some of the research work in progress, including coincident editing, topology building in geodatabases, and tracking of history over a several year period in one area.

ESRI has always done a few things right at their conference. The stars were the users and it was good to see them on stage. There was a respectfulness that not everyone was on the ArcGIS 8.1 platform and ESRI staff members were careful to explain new terms (.mxd file) with reference to older familiar terms (.apr). Finally, I'll make the statement that ArcGIS 8.1 has arrived. It works, it's real and ESRI is already growing it further.


For the past few years ESRI has been touting their experimental Geography Network as a place to share data across the Web. You can use it with free ArcExplorer and access data through the Internet using desktop products like ArcMap (available in all members of the ArcGIS family). During the 21st ESRI International User Conference, no less than three partners have signed on to support it with their data and services: Syncline, Tele Atlas and DMTI Spatial. Trimble announced support for it several weeks ago on the client side.

Why is ESRI spending its resources this way? Should users of other GIS products be concerned? ESRI has for some time done what it wants -- or more precisely -- what founder Jack Dangermond wants. Without a board of directors or shareholders, Jack and his colleagues call the shots. And, Geography Network, like ArcExplorer before it, was something important enough to take on.

When ArcExplorer came out, ESRI set the bar for all GIS companies. Every company had to provide a free viewer for their own format – and perhaps other GIS formats. The list of free viewers is quite long and has changed how we use and share GIS data. Image viewers for the new formats (MrSID and ECW) are available standalone and as plug-ins for CAD, GIS and graphics products.

ESRI is now setting the bar higher yet. Now companies have to find a way for their users to share data -- or be left behind. ESRI does, of course, have a leg up with so many users in key government mapping organizations worldwide. Jack pointed out in his opening remarks that most providers on Geography Network are public agencies. Many of these have a mandate to provide data and ESRI has developed a rather simple way to get the data out to the world.

And, as ArcIMS, the technological foundation of ArcIMS grows into a more mature server -- soon to include publishing metadata -- Geography Network can only get more useful. With metadata searches available, finding the right data is no longer hit or miss.

So, how does this affect the NON-ESRI community? ESRI has worked to make Geography Network conformant to the Open GIS Consortium’s Web Map Server (WMS) Interface. This means that any WMS client can access the data, even one from a competing vendor. But how many MapInfo, Smallworld or Autodesk users are willing to have ESRI host their data?

There are two things that are very hopeful for the Geography Network and the entire GIS community. First, ESRI and many GIS organizations have to be practical. One very sharp colleague put it to me this way: if you want it now, choose proprietary systems, if you want long-term interoperability, choose standards and interoperability specifications. ESRI chose the former and got it done. I’m optimistic that ESRI users and others will encourage ESRI to adopt standards and interfaces as they become available. The other hopeful side of Geography Network is simple: People use it and it works! As a privately funded experiment it did quite a lot to dispel fears of those working on spatial data infrastructure projects because it is a real life implementation of a true data-sharing tool. Think of it also as a worldwide, ESRI-focused, pilot project.


-Geographers are interested in patterns and their causes. Typically, we work at the scale of towns, counties, states, countries. A few of us work on a larger scale, tackling such things as traffic flow in shopping malls. ShopperTrak of Illinois offers an automated sensing device to track where shoppers go and ultimately what they buy. I went through grad school listening to my advisor talk about following Lolits (little old ladies in tennis shoes) around malls to determine traffic patterns. Roger, they’ve solved it, so you can rest easy.

-Webvan, a grocery delivery service, filed for bankruptcy this week. The high overhead of storing and delivering the groceries, with few takers ate all their capital. Geography can make delivery expensive!

-Amazon ended its free shipping on multiple purchases. Amazon noted that it was an experiment and they learned a lot. Again, you can’t ignore geography.

-It’s very nice to see so many small GIS organizations recognized at the ESRI conference. To their credit, they use the opportunity to highlight GIS in their communities, as Ames, Iowa did in its local paper.

-The general consensus is that WAP is fairly slow and hard to use, so how are we to order merchandise from our cell phones and communicate with Web services? Enter Roamable. Their solution turns Web-based e-communication into – that’s right – e-mail. A business can provide any online content in the good old fashion form supported by RIM pagers, Palm Pilots and some phones. How does it work? You start the conversation saying something like “I want headlines.” Your return e-mail lists them with numbers. You reply with the numbers of the ones you want further detail. I used the demo asking for movies in my area by putting my zip code into the subject of an e-mail. It returned a rather large HTML page that was fine on my desktop, but might be a bit much for my Palm Pilot. I guess you could do this with maps, too. Still, this doesn’t sound too much better than WAP phones!

-Bad news for Bluetooth. Psion, known for its hand held computers and PDAs, is restructuring to focus on wireless business networking and dropping plans for Bluetooth enabled devices and connectivity tools.


Bill Thoen responds to a statement I made last week:

“In your latest GIS Monitor, you imply in the "VINDIGO AND MAPINFO FIGHT ECONOMIC DOWNTURN" piece that DeciBel Planner is a MapInfo product. It's actually produced by Northwood Geotech, in Nepean, ONT. They were recently bought out by Marconi.”

Bill is quite correct. It’s interesting to note that the press release on that product was from MapInfo and Northwood, with no mention of Marconi. Marconi had its own financial troubles last week with a warning on earnings, dismissal of 4,000 employees, the walkout of their CEO designate and a lawsuit.


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