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The View from Here

Tuesday, March 21st 2006
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Summary:

Adena Schutzberg offers some observations on the recent AAG meeting, and on the topic of whether or not the users have perhaps finally gotten out in front of the vendors in the big geospatial world.

AAG: In the Groove?
I was jazzed when the folks at Very Spatial announced last year they'd be doing a session on new media at the AAG Conference. Then I heard there'd be a session on virtual globes (“Geography v2.0: Internet-based Virtual Globes”). I thought perhaps the academic focus of AAG was finally melding with the realities of geospatial and media technologies. Just the other day Jeremy Crampton, from Georgia State, who blogs with us, noted that his colleague "John Krygier just organized three sessions at the AAG on "Post-Cartographic Map Design" which struggle with some of these new mapping possibilities afforded by map mashups, map art, locative technologies etc. etc. (we really need some kind of name for all this!)."

Despite these efforts, I still feel AAG is "staying its course" as an academic organization. The Very Spatial folks offered several podcasts from the event, but the session on new media (which I could not find in the online program) was described as "thin." The virtual globes session was covered quite a bit, including by one of its speakers, David Maguire, who used the opportunity to define the Geographic Exploration System, something ESRI had, to my knowledge, not done before, though the term had been used.

I was amused to find coverage from a USGS staffer from Rolla on the conference. He reviewed his GPS, rather than the event. I wonder if the technology was more memorable, for better or worse? Another reviewer noted two excellent papers from folks at West Point. The titles exude relevance: "A Geographical Analysis of Ungoverned Spaces" and "The Future of NATO and the EU." The writer seemed embarrassed to note the rudeness of many attendees (ringing cell phones, coming and going during papers, etc.). Another attendee noted the lack of networking: "I didn't really come to this AAG with any goal in mind. I guess I was initially rather reluctant to attend - it felt like I was doing it simply to pad the CV, but I guess it was nice to meet up with people I know. Minimal networking going on here, there haven't been a lot of cultural/urban sessions interesting enough (maybe the sessions on public washrooms?), but it also seems like the interesting sessions clash with mine, on Saturday morning."

The AAG offers a quite limited "press page" which suggests to me that it has yet to embrace the new media, including the Web. I found but one press release noting the meeting this week which detailed papers given by USGS staffers. Clearly, these outside players (bloggers, podcasters, even the US government) are trying to create buzz about the value of the AAG. The challenge to AAG is to pick up on it and grow it. How? How about a full-time blogger? ESRI, for example, had a terrific blog covering its User Conference, which nicely complemented those of the "unofficial bloggers." Maybe find a sponsor for such a post? How about capturing some of the "hot topics" as podcasts? How about a real press page highlighting "interesting to the public" papers that might spark the traditional media to cover the meeting?

Who Leads?
A number of years ago I attended a big industry event and after attending a number of sessions, I was, frankly, bored. I asked one of my more experienced colleagues why the presentations were so, I believe I used the term, "lame." He replied that it was because we, the software vendors, were leading the industry. He was quite correct. Most GIS presentations at the time were something on the order of "Here's what I did, and oh, maybe I'll not mention the fact that it's what the vendor told me to do." And, from a vendor standpoint, that was just fine; users spread the word to other users. Vendors had to simply go back home and think up the "next thing" for users to need/do.

So, here we are some 10 years later. Are geospatial software vendors leading the way, as they did? I'll take the easy way out and say the vendors are trying to lead the way, but users/developers (are they one in the same?) are getting in the way. Some data points for your approval.
  • ESRI offers The Geography Network and Geodata.gov. Jeremy Bartlett offers Mapdex. (Did you know it's now integrated with Cadcorp SIS?)
  • Google offered Google Maps and maintains it had no part in the mashups that followed (I don't know if I buy that or not). In any case, the mashups from users are leading the way. Clearly, other vendors want that same sort of community, which is why they are sponsoring those contests.
  • Many vendors and publishers offer formal conferences on geospatial and IT topics. What's perhaps the hottest event this year? MashUp Camp! It included presentations by, well, users. And word is, they are not lame, since they are leading not being led.
  • The MapServer Foundation, which at one time seemed to be Autodesk "swooping in" on an existing open source community, is now the Open Source Geospatial Foundation, a developing, open, responsible organization - run by the "inmates of the asylum" some might say.
So, who's leading now? Do these and other data points make traditional and new geospatial players irrelevant? No, but it changes their role in the big dance. Jack Dangermond has been noting for years ESRI's strength at making tools. Perhaps only just now have the tool users had all the equipment to get out in front of his and other vendors?


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