A Turning Point: Thoughts on GITA and Those Other Geo Conferences Without Many Attendees

By Joe Francica

Several people asked me what I thought of the GITA 2010 conference this month in Phoenix and my response was not a lot different from what it has been in previous years. Often prompted by lackluster attendance, the question hangs there as if it wasn't obvious that the GITA organizers hoped for better. The problem with this conference, and several others like the URISA annual event, is tied directly to industry maturity and economic doldrums.

Let me explain in more detail the two key reasons why the professional association conferences can't draw more attendees. First, once a city or state DOT or utility has selected a geospatial system, the decision is made and probably won't change for quite some time. Budget practicality dictates that users should attend the system vendor's user conference. Second, if the travel budgets have been slashed and you can attend only one conference, the choice becomes obvious. You'll pick a user's conference over a more generic, multi-vendor event. The reality is that we have a sour economy and anemic government budgets. If you are lucky, you might have the opportunity to attend a local user's group meeting and not have to travel far at all. But the most unfortunate outcome for these conferences is that there are lots of good presentations and hardly anyone in the audience to hear them. Organizers can get good people to make thoughtful presentations. However, they end up preaching to empty pews.

The dichotomy of geospatial technology popularity rears its two ugly heads at events like GITA. If geospatial is "hot," where is everyone? Surely the fact that geospatial technology as a whole has remained somewhat stable during this economic disaster should bolster attendance at major trade shows... no? If not, something is really wrong. The technology is central to many enterprise decisions these days and the consumer location based services marketplace seems to be overheating with enthusiastic entrepreneurs who launch one location-aware app after another, thereby benefiting Mr. Jobs' and Apple's core users. (Excuse the pun.)

So, when asked what should be done, my answer is similar to the one I gave several years ago and which GITA has taken to heart: combine conferences. This year, GITA coordinated a co-located event with the American Congress on Survey and Mapping (ACSM). Still, the results were probably modest at best. But I would not be discouraged by this year's results. In fact, I would urge the executive directors of URISA and ASPRS, as well as GITA and ACSM, to put all of their respective geospatial tech events under the same big tent. "Oh, they will lose their identity if you combine them," say the loyalists. Hogwash. Poppycock. Bull. These conferences will continue to lose their shirts if they don't starting thinking with their wallets instead of their hearts. And who pays? The members pay, and some will get so "PO'd" that they'll stop renewing their membership. The vendors pay, and many won't return to the exhibit floor.

Thinking logically about what has happened to the geospatial technology sector, there has been a rather successful global movement for data integration and interoperability. Standards allow a straightforward means of exchange between data formats, and software solutions now easily aggregate both proprietary and open source data. Problem solved...for the users. As a result, even doing the unthinkable, like replacing a GIS system entirely, is not such a big deal anymore. Interoperability makes it possible. Further, GIS professionals are more skilled than in the past, thanks to more focused geospatial education in universities and two-year colleges. For the associations, then, the need to keep the remote sensing specialist separate from, say, the surveyor becomes questionable. In fact, it's counterproductive to keep them separate. Professionals and students of GIS both know more about the spectrum of geo technologies than in the past. Both groups (and others) would benefit from a mega-conference that offers diversity. Remember GIS/LIS, anyone?

And the vendors... the ones that foot the bill for these conferences... what will they think? These are business people. They are already fully capable of seeing how many people DON'T show up at these events. I have already talked to a few exhibitors who will not be back at GITA next year. Noted absences this year were GE Energy and Autodesk. Pretty soon, it will be ESRI alone on the exhibit floor.

So, if the technology has moved on and matured, the professional societies should catch a clue and move to better serve their members by delivering an educational experience that offers the diversity that is indicative of the geospatial community today. Put the major geospatial conferences together and combine the exhibit space so vendors feel like they can get a substantial return on the investment of time and resources in support of these events. For all involved, the choice should be to effectively deliver the kind of conference that all geospatial professionals can get behind.

Published Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Written by Joe Francica