Snapshot - The ESRI UC Senior Executive Seminar

By Joe Francica

The Senior Executive Seminar is a gathering of nearly 300 invited attendees who represent the crème of the GIS crop from around the world, in business and government. Hosting the event, as he has for the last few years was Roger Tomlinson, president of Tomlinson and Associates, who is recognized as the "father of GIS. Among the keynote speakers in the morning session were Vanessa Lawrence, Director General and CEO of the Ordnance Survey (OS) and Richard Stier, Executive Manager of Strategic Network Planning, Dealer Network Development for General Motors (GM) Corporation. Both the OS and GM rely extensively on geospatial software solutions from ESRI and represent organizations that employ an enterprise vision for implementing location technology. Using GIS, the OS maintains a common land base for the United Kingdom; GM maintains its the profit motive and a unique competitive advantage for a variety of divisions.

The audience presented the Lawrence and Steir with very pointed question about the pros and cons of free versus for fee spatial data. The OS is a government entity that employs a cost model that requires users to pay for data, unlike the U.S. federal policy that believes that taxpayer’s dollars have already paid for the capture and distribution of data and makes geospatial information available for free. In response to the question about the benefits of a cost recovery versus free data business model, Ms. Lawrence said, "That's a decision that will never be mine," and went on to explain that the minister to whom she reports is very clear that the OS will continue to operate under the existing model. However, she stated that she understands that more people want to use geospatial information than ever before and that "mashups" such as for entrepreneurial ventures want just a small amount of data for their purposes. She recognizes that there are different types of users. Utilities tell the OS that they save them millions of dollars because the OS keeps a stable land base that is consistent across jurisdictions. Ms. Lawrence hinted that plans were forthcoming to address some of the concerns of those that don’t want to pay for an entire OS dataset. She and Ed Parsons, CTO of the OS, are working on such plans expect an announcement soon regading those who require only small datasets.

Stier said that "Free is always nice." But he also underscored that it is the value added portion of geospatial data that provides him with the necessary information.

During the afternoon sessions, presentations were made by John Hickenlooper, mayor of the city and county of Denver, Graham Heale, Underwriting General of the Royal & SunAlliance, the United Kingdom’s number two insurance provider, and Dr. Peter Bol of Harvard University, the director of the newly created Center for Geographic Analysis.

"Insurance is a very different product…the end costs are never known at the time of manufacture," said Heale. "As an industry, we are extremely data rich…and systems poor," referring to the fact that many systems include older technology. Heale explained that the impetus for using GIS was related to assessing risk for flood exposure. After taking the job in 2001, with nearly twenty-five years in the business, a series of events led to his department’s implementation of GIS technology to solve the problem of risk exposure in flood prone areas. At Royal & SunAlliance, after a recent merger, new expertise came together to help model flood risk using GIS. The result was that the company was able to sell more insurance policies because it could offer insurance to more people now that it had a better understanding of the potential exposure of the whole portfolio. Once the base GIS was implemented, Royal and SunAlliance began to use the system for other types of risk such as property subsidence, arson, and crime.

"We backed GIS in the organization on the cheap because it helped us resolve a very high profile problem (major flooding) and from then on they have never had much problem getting funding." Heale has created an online GIS system for underwriters and it is now one of the groups most used intranet pages. The tangible benefits? Over the five years of using GIS technology, it has saved the company over £20 million to the cost line and is projected to save £5 million to the profit line.

Dr. Peter Bol of Harvard had a unique perspective on returning geography to the curriculum at the university. The school closed its Geography Department in 1948. Bol likened GIS and the center to the those who made scientific breakthroghs using new tools like telescopes and microscopes. With new tools come the ability to seek more discoveries. "Why a GIS? It deals in space and time," said Bol. "Historically, in the effort to track spatial variation, two fundamental tools were created: A map and a chronology or listing of events. This resulted in two disciplines: Geography and History. In both, we deal with problems of scale…From an historical perspective…GIS is a revolutionary change."

John Hickenlooper's vision for an enterprise GIS arose from his years spent as an exploration geologist. His appreciation for spatial information gave rise to creating a central geodatabase whereby multiple departments can share spatial data. He said that GIS is used on a daily business to improve business development such as for future conceptual land uses where maximum development is needed. One of the major uses is to define underdeveloped parcels and bring it in line with intended land use. "As someone new to government, when I look at an overview of the city, I can’t understand how anyone operated without it (GIS)," said Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper was ranked by Time Magazine as one of the top 5 large city mayor’s in the United States in 2005.

Published Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Written by Joe Francica

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