A Turning Point: Thoughts on GITA and Those Other Geo Conferences Without Many Attendees
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
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 Friday, May 7th, 2010
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