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Recapturing the GIS Mojo at NEURISA Day 2012

Wednesday, October 17th 2012
By Adena Schutzberg

NEURISA Day was Monday October 15 in Sturbridge, MA. The agenda included LiDAR in the morning, exhibitor speed networking before lunch, followed by tech trends and mobile tech in the afternoon. The attendees numbered just about 100 (it was a sell out) and fell into roughly equal thirds: local government, private companies and edu/non-profits. This first year of offering a special student rate netted six soon-to-be members of our profession.

Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of the University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Laboratory argued that many GIS users were losing their “mojo” (aka, energy, excitement) and that LiDAR might be just the thing to recapture it. He reviewed how LiDAR works and several example of real world use among silly survey responses and pictures from the Austin Powers movies. The mix of education and entertainment was most welcome at this typically serious event. Esri’s Gerry Kinn probed deeper in the formats and use of LiDAR within the company’s platform. He argued that we are now with LiDAR data where we were in the early days of GPS. That is, we really don’t fully know the power and value of it or ultimately how and how widely it will be used. Jeff Amero of the City of Cambridge, MA detailed how the data was used there. 

While all of the speakers made good arguments for the value of LiDAR data and the new, easier tools available to make use of them, I didn’t get the sense attendees would be rushing home to download some data and play with it. Part of the reason, in my estimation, there was not an immediate problem it could solve.

The last hour before lunch had the ten exhibitors visiting each round table of attendees to explain what they did, and frankly, to try to drum up some business. After a few presentations, I realized there were different strategies. One vendor had each of us introduce ourselves, using up most of his few short minutes. Another, after learning that only two of us were local government, pretty much decided talking to us was a waste of time. A third handed out a complex diagram and walked us trough it. The more I think about this form of information exchange, the more I realize it’s like an Ignite presentation, or perhaps an elevator pitch - just without slides and in a noisy environment. That means that exhibitors need to cut their message to the basics and focus on those. I was pleased to see Intergraph in attendance as an exhibitor; I think that was a first.

During lunch NEURISA awards its Special Achievement Award. I’m lucky since I’ve known the recipient, Ben Lewis, since his days in Pennsylvania at ATS (now GeographIT). Lewis, at right, is now at Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis. His brief comments highlighted the need to keep an open mind when working with technology and to focus on the right tool for the job. That led him into open source, the licensing of the well known WorldMap project, developed at the lab.

The technology trends session took a please wander from specifically addressing GIS. Shane Bradt, from the UNH Cooperative Extension discussed desktop Free and Open Source GIS software. He was quick to put his argument in context of the many small and underfunded towns and citizens he serves in New Hampshire. Thus, his evaluation was quite practical and addressed which software might fit the bill of those users. In the end he suggested four: gvSIG, AccuGlobe, QuantumGIS and MapWindow. He does offer a class on these offerings, but made it pretty clear that he himself uses ArcGIS most of the time. His findings can be explored in this PDF, which he admits he should update. It’s from 2008. A team from Amherst, MA (where NEURISA president Mike Olkin is GIS Director) detailed that town’s big tech initiatives: municipal Wi-Fi, citizen notifications, mobilizing the workforce with iPads, moving the Exchange Server to the cloud and virtualization. I think we need more discussion of how we place GIS technology into this broader IT context. Chris Trevillian of Trimble laid out the promise of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and the steps needed to get them off the ground in the United States. I’m not sure he mentioned that Trimble had acquired GateWing, a Belgian UAS company, last year (APB coverage). The big issue there in the Q & A was how the U.S. would get behind in this area due to all the Federal Aviation Administration regulation.

The day concluded by “going mobile” with the Town of Concord, which detailed its heavy use of PeopleGIS’ PeopleForms to quickly develop all the input apps required for a variety of city tasks. Esri’s Alfredo Frauenfelder walked through the various mobile APIs and solutions for ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Online.

The ability to tackle so many different topics and compare notes with “neighbors” within a short drive makes this sort of event so popular. NEURISA is looking for a larger venue for next year.

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