Esri Development Center Program for Higher Education

By David DiBiase

ArcGIS has become a platform, a foundation, upon which geospatial professionals build custom solutions that meet their organization’s particular needs. Graduates of higher education programs in geographic information (GI) systems and science who can code software and build apps are highly sought after by employers. The Esri Development Center (EDC) program confers special status and benefits upon a select few leading university departments that challenge their students to develop innovative applications based upon the ArcGIS platform. This can include programs that help students advance and extend Esri’s core software or that provide training in system integration and application development within a particular domain. EDCs may be degree-granting academic departments or GIS research and development centers within higher education institutions that maintain an Esri Education Site License. Students affiliated with EDC programs gain special access to Esri software and have opportunities to be recognized for their accomplishments. 

What do EDCs actually do? Earlier this year we conducted a survey of EDC leaders with the goal of characterizing their activities relative to Esri's goals for the program. As expected, survey responses indicate that the nearly 30 active Esri Development Centers are a diverse lot. 

First we asked how many students were involved in EDC-related activities. Although the median response was fairly low - just 11-25 students - the variance was high. Three EDCs claimed to involve more than 100 students each, and nearly one in four stated that more than 50 students were involved in the past year. 

The disciplinary backgrounds of EDC students are similarly diverse. While 17 respondents reported that geography students accounted for some percentage of EDC participants (8-90%), 20 other disciplines were cited too, including geosciences, computer science, engineering, information science, social sciences and humanities.

In response to perhaps the most salient question, more than 50% of EDC leaders reported that over half of their students were involved in coding; 43% claimed that more than three-fourths of their students were writing code. While this is a reasonably encouraging outcome, commitment to involving students in programming and application development will definitely be a condition of acceptance for future EDC applicants. 

The most frequently cited scripting and programming languages used by EDC students were Python (which is used by some proportion of students at all centers), followed by JavaScript and Java. Less than one-quarter reported that some students also code with C++, C#, .NET, and Objective C.

EDC leaders reported that students were most likely to build Web apps and scripts or extensions to ArcGIS for Desktop. Mobile apps were reported to be "never" or "rarely" built by students at most EDCs. This is a situation we hope to change in years to come.

Where do EDC students learn to code? Most often through independent studies, while working on sponsored research or thesis projects, or by leveraging prior knowledge. 

Finally, the educational resources most often used by EDC student coders were Esri resources (found at, Esri's developers’ site, and other Web resources including Esri support, Esri user forums and StackExchange. 

One of the expectations associated with the EDC designation is that centers will sponsor participation by students in the annual Esri International Developers Summit in Palm Springs or at a corresponding regional event. The 2014 Developers Summit attracted 37 faculty members and students representing 13 Esri Development Centers. A record eight EDC students were accepted to present talks. Esri education team members attended most of these.

EDC representatives and Esri staff met at the event. As in previous years, the main agenda item was to hear from EDC reps about activities at their centers, with an emphasis on student app development.

In addition, the meeting featured two guest presentations. The first was by Andrew Turner of Esri's Washington, D.C. R&D Center, who introduced the ArcGIS Open Data initiative. Later, Jim Barry, leader of the Esri Developer Network program, discussed Esri's support for Dev Meetups and hackathons, as well as Esri's new website for developers.

Related to this, John Nording and Michael Humber - students affiliated with the EDC at the University of Maryland - earned second place in the Dev Summit hackathon. This is a remarkable achievement considering that their competitors included teams of commercial developers. We hope to see more EDC hackers compete next year!

For more information visit the Esri Development Center program website.

Published Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Written by David DiBiase

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