Conference Report: New York State GeoSpatial Summit 2006

By Adena Schutzberg

_No one seemed to mind ithat there was very limited Internet access (one line!) and virtually no cell phone service in North Creek, New York, home of last week's New York State GeoSpatial Summit. In fact, by the end of the day attendees noted how nice it was to attend an event and leave "invigorated." My response was simply, "And we didn't have to go to San Diego!" My reference was to ESRI's annual event, which for many helps reinvigorate the passion for geospatial technology and inspires another year of good work.

This event could not be more different than the one held for 12-13 thousand people at the San Diego Convention Center. The Summit was not vendor focused. It was held on a single day in the middle of "nowhere." It was oversold at 168 people. So what happened that left attendees "jazzed"?

First, the main event set a tone of candor and good humor. The panel on the "Future of GIS," which I was privileged to host, included senior staff from Google, Microsoft, Pictometry, TeleAtlas, MapInfo and ESRI. As many attendees pointed out, "you don't get all those guys in the same room too often." That's true. And, you don't get to ask them pointed questions that often, either. The questions ranged from the future business models of geospatial companies, to how to get K-12 students ready for the new world that includes geospatial, to privacy and security, to the importance of 3D. While I can't say anything earth-shattering was shared by the panelists, I will say that the perspectives of the panelists were most instructive. It was a valuable lesson in "how some people who think a lot about geospatial look at the world" and from those perspectives I think attendees took home as much as if each participant predicted the future formally.

The afternoon was a mix of a New York State specific presentation (on New York State GIS Coordination Program) and four, what I'd call "non-traditional for a GIS conference" presentations. Ian White of Urban Mapping offered his "I'm not one of you" look at geodata, how they are used and how they are presented, highlighting how his company's datasets may be very different from those with which we are familiar. Todd Fabozzi from the Capital District Regional Planning Commission knocked our socks off with a perspective on the changing economic and population patterns of upstate New York. I hadn't thought about landscape that hard since grad school, nor had I heard the name of David Harvey since then. What moved much of the audience, I think, were several series of maps showing over and over again the decline of the cities and, for better or worse, the growth of car-defined suburbs. We groaned at the look of both, clearly hoping for better, even as we contemplated our own chosen geography. (Or at I least I did. I also kept thinking back to this great National Public Radio piece on cul-de-sacs from a few days before.)

I couldn't imagine a follow-up presentation that might move us in the same way, but Ross Whaley, chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency, did. He connected the importance of the map of the park, one steeped in legislation, with its mission. He held up a paper map of various shades of green noting land use in the park, and needed no pretty pictures of the park or any other visual aids to get us thinking about sustainability of such areas, supporting both environmental and economic goals. Michael Jones, who'd been on the panel earlier in the day, wrapped up the event (they were kicking us out as we overstayed our welcome!) with a "tour" of Google Earth.

The second half of the day was not really about GIS, and I enjoyed that. It was about ideas, and how GIS and its products can help us change the world. Mostly, it reminded us of what it is that geospatial technologies "let us see" and then forced us to consider what to do about what we did see. That is more inspirational than seeing "yet another feature/function demo or sales pitch." That, frankly, is what differentiates ESRI's event from many others. I like to think the committee behind this event took a page from ESRI's playbook and executed it brilliantly.

There were some newsy tidbits worth sharing that popped up among these presentations and discussions:
  • Ian White noted that he was working with Manifold and was having some code written to link it to PostGIS (the open source data store built on PostGreSQL). That code, he shared, would be made available as open source.
  • Michael Jones alluded to new offerings from Google that might have to do with making it easier to integrate a "medium amount" of GIS data with its mapping products and better rendering houses in SketchUp. (These may or may not be announced at Where 2.0 this week.) He did share that Google had the opportunity to populate the 3D world by partnering with Pictometry (which is what Microsoft is apparently doing), but chose a "shocking alternative bet." That was the choice to acquire SketchUp and let the world be populated with buildings "built by the people who live in them." Just one note about Jones, who I've now heard speak twice: besides being very articulate and passionate about his work, he's terribly funny.
  • There is motion on a proposal I noted last fall about having states host their data in TerraServer. Use of that service, despite fancier interfaces and more up-to-date data elsewhere (from Microsoft and others), is way up. That seemed to please Tom Bailey of Microsoft, who was lead programmer on the project back in the day. I don't think we give that project enough credit for how much it changed expectations for the availability of geospatial data.
  • Ross Whaley noted our need to (I'm paraphrasing) have a thin line on a map be precisely wrong and not have a "fuzzy line" be approximately right.
The organizing committee boldly called this the "1st Annual Summit.” I don't know how they'll top this one, but I urge them to try and you to get your registration in early for next year!

Published Friday, June 16th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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