2006 August 11

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Editor's Introduction

I spent this week at the Twenty-Sixth Annual ESRI International User Conference in San Diego, California. I attended all of the plenary sessions, many technical workshops, and a few social events (aka parties!) and conducted a dozen interviews. Then, just as I was starting to write it all up, I got sick. So, in this issue you will find my report on Monday's plenaries and an interview with a great bunch of kids. In the next few issues you will find several more reports and interviews.


ESRI User Conference Fills the San Diego Convention Center

This article outlines the conference and reviews its first day. You will find one more story on the conference in this issue and several more in the next few issues.

"Good morning, my name is Jack Dangermond." So began the Twenty-Sixth Annual ESRI International User Conference at the Convention Center in San Diego, California, this week, attended by about 15,000 people. Dangermond, ESRI's founder and president, began the opening plenary promptly at 08:30 on Monday morning, outlining his vision for the conference, the company, and GIS technology. This conference, he said, is mostly about "meeting people, building relationships, and sharing what we know" and its main purpose is to "meet each other and learn from each other."

Jack Dangermond

As in past years, Monday's program was dedicated entirely to plenary sessions—while 380 technical workshops filled the agenda all day Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, plus Friday morning. Pre-conference seminars, the Education User Conference, and the Survey and GIS Summit took place on Saturday and Sunday, while 17 regional group meetings took place on Tuesday and 78 special interest group meetings took place throughout the conference. Many social events, receptions, and parties—including a huge one on Thursday evening—completed this very full week.

In parallel to these events, the Map Gallery featured more than 800 maps produced by ESRI users around the world and the 240,000-square foot Exhibit Pavilion hosted booths from 285 geospatial companies (including GIS Monitor's publisher, GITC America), public agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Monday's plenary sessions were dedicated to Dangermond's introduction and award presentations; presentations by ESRI staff on new features of ArcGIS 9.2 (which will probably be released around the end of the year); application presentations by ESRI users; and a keynote address by former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, now president of The New School.

Plenary session

Dangermond began his presentation by reviewing the many areas in which GIS is used—from environmental protection to emergency management, from land use planning to bus routing, from homeland security to business analysis, from public health to land registration, etc. He singled out the role of GIS in saving lives during the Katrina disaster and the "sophisticated" and "comprehensive" land registration system developed by Lithuania, a "small, emerging country." He also cited human health as one of the most exciting new fields of GIS application.


Saying that he likes to "acknowledge people for good work," Dangermond presented this year's Distinguished Service in GIS Award to leaders of two national agencies. First, to Dr. N. Vijayaditya, Director General, and Dr. Vandana Sharma, Sr. Technical Director, of the National Informatics Centre of India, for building a national infrastructure of geospatial information. He called their work "just unbelievable." Second, to Lt. General James R. Clapper, Jr., U.S. Air Force (Ret.), former Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), for "transforming" that agency. Dangermond described Clapper's work as "amazing" and "tireless" and said that when Hurricane Katrina hit, "he did not hesitate. He simply went and threw massive amounts of staff and resources" into the relief effort.

Dangermond presented the President's Award to The Ordnance Survey of Great Britain. OS, he said, has transformed itself "from a traditional mapping organization to a complete geospatial organization" and has built "one of the largest and most successful GISs I've ever seen." Dr. Vanessa Lawrence, OS' Director General and CEO, accepted the award and presented a video—in which her associate, Ed Parsons, also appeared—showing how her organization collects terabytes of data with ArcGIS.

Later, Dangermond presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Larry Smarr, Director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California, San Diego. Dangermond credited Smarr as being one of the key creators of the national information infrastructure and Smarr gave a short presentation.

During the course of the day, Dangermond also highlighted the Society for Conservation GIS, pointing out that it is "an outgrowth of this very conference years ago;" showed a video presentation by Dr. Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, which has recently launched its Center for Geographical Analysis (helped by a large financial contribution by Dangermond); and enthusiastically introduced the keynote speaker, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who he urged to run for office again.

Big Challenges

Population growth, resource exhaustion, technological change, and political and social conflicts, according to Dangermond, are threatening the planet's climate and our safety. (Al Gore's recent book, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, was for sale in the publications area of the exhibit hall.) "To meet these kinds of challenges we all need to participate," says Dangermond, and "accept a shared sense of responsibility for what is going on on the planet."

Conference participants stream through the San Diego Convention Center

We need "more collaborative efforts" and "stronger leadership," he said, while showing images of various leaders, including Nelson Mandela and last year's conference keynote speaker, Jane Goodall. "While these leaders are important, I have a special message for you, as GIS practitioners: I think GIS provides a framework for us personally and in our organizations and society in general to make a huge difference, allowing us to participate, to step up to the challenge that the world now presents."

Dangermond then expanded on the conference's theme—Geography and GIS: Communicating Our World. GIS, he said, is providing us "a new medium for understanding our growing physical and cultural knowledge of our world" and for "authoring and sharing geographic knowledge." It is also "an integrative framework" that allows us to visualize and intuitively grasp the causes of many of the challenges we face. "GIS is influencing how we see things and how we do things in response."

The Web, according to Dangermond, is "the new platform for GIS" and it is becoming "geographically enabled." It will "change the way we do things and the way we talk about them." Google and Microsoft, he pointed out, are already doing this, by introducing new ways of interacting with geographic information on the Web. Those companies have introduced "dynamic and continuous content" as well as "fast and intuitive" ways of giving people access to geographic information.

"GIS on the Web," he said, "provides many additional possibilities for sharing, integrating, and leveraging the full stack of geographic knowledge," allowing users to "share maps and data, models, analyses." This, he argued, will create "a whole new way of thinking about GIS at all scales." Meanwhile, the enabling technology is "evolving nicely:" faster machines, increased bandwidth, larger storage, Web servers providing real-time information, and a new generation of geographic software. "I believe this will improve our ability to share dynamically in this real-time environment." He calls it the "geo-web."

ArcGIS 9.2

Shifting, then, to ESRI software development, Dangermond said that the company's focus this year was to make its products "much easier and more reliable." He described ArcGIS 9.2 as "one of the biggest, most productive releases that we've ever done." Besides fixing "several thousand bugs," ESRI added many more tools to make the program "simpler and more intuitive."

Dangermond emphasized ESRI's commitment to interoperability and to making ArcGIS "a truly open platform" through strong support for IGC, ISO, and other industry standards such GXM and KML, which makes ESRI's products interoperable with Google. He cited ESRI's work with data organizations on template data models.

Consistently with his vision of a geo-web, Dangermond highlighted the central role played by servers in distributing the geographic knowledge and services that are both authored and used by desktop machines. In this context, he pointed out that ArcGIS 9.2 includes new Web clients for exploration and mapping. The new release, he said, also includes many improvements in cartography, charting, and animation, and the extensions have been "extended with many new capabilities."

ArcGIS 9.2, Dangermond said, also includes improvements in data correlation and editing, better tools for feature extraction, better integration with CAD systems, and new rule-based tools. The COGO editing/construction tools have been added into the main product.

Jack Dangermond

In a world dominated by ideology, faith, and narrow self-interest, in which we continue to devastate the environment and underfund education, I greatly appreciate Jack Dangermond's steady emphasis on rationality, scientific analysis, interdependency, collaboration, and social responsibility, and his strong support for environmental protection and education.

Roger Tomlinson and Jack Dangermond

Though the leader of a company that produces sophisticated technology, Dangermond never gets lost in the technical details. His focus is always on the big challenges, on big ideas (one of his favorite words is "interesting"), and on people. Throughout the day, he displayed his sincere admiration for those who develop and use geographic knowledge and tools—including brilliant scientists and engineers, such as Drs. Smarr, Vijayaditya, and Sharma; competent and visionary leaders, such as Dr. Lawrence, Dr. Summers, and Gen. Clapper; ESRI's staff, several of which joined him on the stage to demonstrate new features of ArcGIS 9.2; and GIS users in all fields. He was most enthusiastic, however, when, as in previous years, he introduced a group of kids—and the audience gave them the longest ovation of the day. This year the kids were from 4H clubs around the United States (see my next story).

Off-stage, too, Jack is personable and engaging. Despite the fact that ESRI now has more than 3,100 staff, he and his wife, Laura, are still intimately involved in every aspect of the company. When I was trying to figure out in which line to stand on Monday morning, to get my conference materials and then enter the huge room in which the plenary session was about to begin, Laura was on hand to give me directions. She also signs the company's checks and supervises the gardeners at the Redlands campus.

Until a couple of years ago, when ESRI bought electric vehicles, every morning Jack loaned his Ford Taurus to the mailroom staff to deliver mail around campus. Recently, when a new sidewalk was being built, he supervised the pouring of the concrete. When I needed a book that was not currently on display in the ESRI Press area of the Exhibit Pavilion, a staffer told me that he would mail it to me, because "only Jack and Laura can authorize books to be checked out of inventory."

Unlike most corporate websites, ESRI's does not have a bio of its president, or even a picture. It does say, however, that "ESRI is privately held, debt-free, and there are no plans for the company to go public or change ownership."

Kids Think GIS is Cool

4H clubs in 14 states have formed GIS Technology Teams that encourage young people to understand and contribute to their communities and environment by using GIS and GPS. For the past four years this voluntary program has gained substantial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ESRI, other major corporations, universities, and local communities across the nation. Tom Tate, national program leader for the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) Economic and Community Systems Unit, and Jim Kahler, program specialist with the CSREES Families, 4-H, and Nutrition Unit, provide national leadership to the team.

At this year's ESRI User Conference, a group of 4H kids presented their work during the plenary session. They were Kaitlyn Kilpatrick, 10, Lauren Kilpatrick, 10, and Shelby Kilpatrick, 12, from Denton County, Texas; Emmaline Long, 15, from Genesee County, New York; Billy Swift, 16, from Livingston County, New York; and John Trammell, 18, from California. I caught up with them shortly afterward and asked them a few questions. (Unfortunately, I lost track of who gave me a few of the responses. I apologize!)

Matteo Luccio, Emmaline Long, Lauren Kilpatrick, Billy Swift, Kaitlyn Kilpatrick, John Trammell, and Shelby Kilpatrick

  1. What did you think of geography before you got involved with this project?

    • Shelby: I knew a little bit about geography but I really didn't know a lot. This is really cool, though.
    • Emmaline: I've always been kind of like a spatial thinker. Whenever we go on family trips, I'm always, like, looking at maps and trying to orient myself and know where I am. So, it's always kind of, like, been there. I enjoy looking at maps, knowing where I am and stuff like that.
    • Billy: Geography started off in school, obviously. The teachers pull out big maps on the chalkboard and you try and figure out where places are. Then just being able to learn GIS and see what it has to offer really got me interested in geography and all the things that they have, like Arc maps and stuff. So, that's what got me hooked.
    • John: Before starting GIS and stuff two years ago, I really was interested in geography. We had a freshman class that we had to take in order to graduate and that's where we started really getting into the locations on Earth—from every single type of bio-region to where countries are located and everything. I really got interested and that class was the highest grade I had in high school. So, I really did get interested before GIS.
  2. Are there things that you now know that you had gotten wrong before?

    • Someone else: When you say the word geography we think of big maps on the wall in school, learning about where countries are. But coming to this conference and seeing all the different presentations and learning about GIS, I've kind of realized that it's a lot more than just knowing where countries and rivers are and just being able to identify things in the world.
  3. Is this is a lasting interest? What will you do next?

    • Shelby: Maybe some more community projects. I don't know what I'm going to do in college. I like entomology too, so maybe I can figure out a way to get entomology and GIS together and do that.
  4. Yes, map the bugs!

    • Billy: In western New York state there wasn't much awareness of GIS, so coming to this conference really made me aware of it. I am going to take everything I learned from here, all the sessions and all the projects that I heard about, and bring it back to New York state. [I will try to] introduce that, starting with 4-H and really getting 4-H familiar with the basics.
    • John: I have spent the past two years at this conference, learning my way up. In the process I've also determined that I want to be an environmental scientist, protecting the environment and trying to save places that are already protected, but also try to get awareness to the public about the environment and how important it is that we keep it.
    • Someone else: I had never heard of GIS until, like, half a year ago. Now its so encouraging coming to here and seeing that tons of schools have GIS programs. I'd really like to get more people in New York [to know about GIS], since a lot of the school districts don't even know what it is. There's so many different ways you can incorporate it and there's so many different curriculums. So, I'd kind of like to just introduce it to my schools and be able to show them different projects that other schools are doing.
  5. What will you tell your friends about this conference? What stuck out the most?

    • Someone else: I don't think anyone who hasn't seen 15,000 people would be able to imagine it. If you've never seen that many people you'd never be able to comprehend how big it actually is.
    • Billy: Last night, when we were talking about our projects throughout our state, we met people from Japan and Ghana who work with GIS. It's really a worldwide thing that I didn't know about. That's one thing that I'll really take from this and try to bring back.
    • John: I teach people in 4H all over California. One thing that I'd really bring back, that most people don't realize, is that there's a lot of free resources for them online to get. No one knows how to get the data. There's an awful lot that they can access through ESRI and other companies that are free. Also, some of the software that ESRI has to offer just for introducing GIS to people.
  6. What roles did adults play in your project?

    • Emmaline: If it wasn't for, like, the leaders that I have been involved with, especially, like, Chip Malone, one of the extension officers in Gennesee County, [I wouldn't be here]. He's the one who got me started with GIS stuff a couple of months ago and, like, he's just so excited about all these projects. When I showed interest in it he just kind of took it and ran with that. I'm here because he said, "Wow, she really has interest in this! What can I do to help her expand that and what can I do to help her be able to work with me?"
    • John: In the summer of 2004, I got an email from Steven Worker. He works at our state 4-H office at U.C. Davis. He gave me this information that there's this cool thing you can do on a computer and it's called GIS and maybe I would be interested in being on this team and coming to this conference. So, I'm like, OK. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into at first. Then we had a host conference with one day focus, where youth all over the country came over to get an introduction to this at our national technology conference in Saint Louis, Missouri. Just being there and seeing what the possibilities were, with two people from ESRI who taught us, the stuff really got my spark going. I've been back ever since, so now I've been to three and I've been spreading the word throughout the state.
    • Someone else: I think the adults really were the driving force behind us and the support. I think they're the ones who really got us motivated for this and the presentations that they had us do. We were willing to speak, but I really think that, if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have taken the opportunity as we did.
    • Shelby: It all started out with Diane Schwin. She introduced the GIS GPS project to the Denton 4-H club and she's so enthusiastic about it. We did our project mapping the Lake Ray Roberts hiking, biking, and equestrian green belt corridor and had a lot of fun with that. Our parents supported the whole thing and then we were asked to come here and that was pretty exciting. I think today there were more than 200 hundred countries represented here and, like, 15,000 people. That is just amazing how it started out.
  7. What was the most fun part of this whole experience so far?

    • Shelby: I think actually being up and talking to all those people was kind of fun. We haven't been getting much sleep. There's so much stuff going on, but this whole thing has been pretty exciting and fun.
    • Emmaline: I have to agree with Shelby on the speaking up there. That was really fun. Just getting to know this group really well. We had some funny things happen. It's just been a fun time getting to know people.
    • Billy: One of the most memorable parts was the preliminary team, down in Redlands, practicing and just getting to know all the people through ESRI and really how nice they are and how they support 4-H and their attitude towards us and all the positivity that they had for us in all the presentations that we were doing. And, once we actually got into San Diego, meeting the whole team and just really coming together as a team.
    • John: I really liked seeing all behind the scenes at ESRI, seeing how all this technology stuff comes together at the last moment. Even though we spent hours and hours and hours in Redlands and here in San Diego preparing for this presentation, it was really great to work with ESRI staff and working with Jack and other members of ESRI staff to do this presentation. It was a really great experience to see how much time this takes to do and it was just really great and we had lots of fun.

Briefly Noted

According to The Guardian, "The Ordnance Survey has finally stopped falsifying Britain's maps, almost 80 years after the government first ordered cartographers to delete sensitive sites in the hope of thwarting German bombers." Read the entire article!

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