Takeaways from the Esri UC 2010

By Adena Schutzberg

Trying to boil down all that comes out of the Esri International User Conference into just a few paragraphs is always a challenge. Here's this year's rundown after a few days to digest the event.

Data are New Again
While the big data players were in the house (TomTom and NAVTEQ), the real excitement in data was not in their booths. Instead it was in two places that don't typically get too much attention: user data and the small- and medium-sized data companies and implementers.

While there were references to user generated data via demos from CitySourced (coverage) and an open discussion on the Gulf oil spill response (coverage), among others, I am referring to authoritative user data. For the first time Esri wants your authoritative data, not as something you upload and share, but as part of a basemap. While many government and non-government organizations have flinched at Google, the federal government and others demanding or offering to host your data, those same players seem far more interested when Esri asks, and offers to serve them out via ArcGIS Server. I was surprised at how many people packed the 8:30 am Tuesday session about Esri's Community Basemaps initiative. So was product manager, Chistophe Carpentier. I was lucky to get 30 minutes with him at the event (and even that got rescheduled once, coverage)! His partner in the effort, Dean Kensock, was 100% booked. What does that say about the Esri community's willingness to work with Esri to share its data? Others in the audience were there to learn about how they could use those published data.

While not touted on the main stage in plenary, there are other options for those authoritative data, where they might bring in some money to their owner: in WeoGeo's Marketplace. And, of course, there's no reason they would not appear in both of these!

There's no question there are times when you need the coverage and detail provided by players like TomTom or NAVTEQ; there are also times when you do not. That means roles for smaller players with the potential for closer relationships. That's why Accuweather went with ADCi (press release). That also means roles for the likes of earthmine (coverage 1, 2). Earthmine captures detailed 3D imagery from its vehicles along the paths you specify. I think the excitement surrounding mobile and augmented reality will mean new opportunities for these more focused data providers.

Further, I think this is a good time to take a look at your own datasets and what you may want to do with them for your organization, whether for income generation or sharing through local, regional or national spatial data infrastructure efforts. And, it's a good time to look at your current data provider(s) and compare their products and services to those of the next smaller tier.

Ed. Note: Directions Media will offer a webinar on this topic ("Learn about Esri’s Free Community Maps") on Aug. 19.

New Name, New Pronunciation
Esri is now a proper name (and hence is capitalized). The new company logo has the name in all lower case, but don't let that confuse you. How to pronounce the new name? However you like, says Jack Dangermond: "EEE ESS ARE EYE" or "EZRI" or "ESSRI." Those are the practical directives from corporate; the more important part of the story is why Esri is making this change. Among the reasons I heard from Esri staffers were the goals of creating:
  1. a single brand across the world
  2. an information technology-friendly name
  3. a position beyond "environmental" and "institute"
In short, Esri is looking to join, and act like, the big IT players.

Third Party Developers Stay Home
Many of my developer friends have told me over the last few years that for them the Esri Developer Summit is the place to be. The User Conference is a waste of their time. I don't believe I heard the term API once during the plenary (okay, maybe once, when support for iOS came up). There was almost no discussion in the plenary of how demos were built. Instead, the plenary was 100% aimed at end-users (and their managers/bosses). To be sure there were sessions on getting started with ArcGIS Server and Python, and I'm sure those interested attended them, but this was truly a User conference, with a capital "u."

I do have one regret about not having the developer community in attendance. No one poked Esri about when the promised API for the file geodatabase would appear. That came up only in my discussions with Don Murray and Dale Lutz of Safe Software (both are programmers as well as senior execs at the company, coverage).

Even More Industry Specific Events (and Exhibits)
I confess I was surprised to see some press releases (1, 2) about imagery sponsors of the user conference and to learn there was an imagery conference track at the UC! That puts the count of co-located events and tracks up around a dozen. That's not a bad idea at all; it helps to "scale" the huge event into reasonable-sized ones for users in these verticals or technology areas. It's comparable to how colleges break down the huge number of students into "colleges" or "houses" to give students a place to call home.

The other half of the conference is the exhibit hall floor, which I noted had lots of open space (coverage 1, 2). A good portion, as my colleague Joe Francica pointed out, was full of industry neighborhoods, highlighting partner solutions in public safety or defense. I know Esri funded graphics for at least one of these areas (coverage) and now that I think about it, most of the players in those areas also had a stand-alone booth in the hall as well.

A Continuum of Products
I pointed out in my coverage of the plenary that the big story of this conference was ArcGIS 10 as a "complete system." When I met with Matt Davis, the regional manager at Esri Boston (and my team leader when I was employed at Esri), he used a different term, a "continuum of products." I have to agree, that's far more accurate because there is certainly overlap in the sense that you can, for example, edit geodatabases with desktop ArcGIS or ArcGIS Server apps. Esri's product offerings, which back in the early 1990s I described using the fingers on one hand (ArcCAD, PC ARC/INFO, ArcView, ArcInfo and SDE), are far less segmented today. That frankly means more choices for end-users (a good thing!) and a potentially more complex sales cycle for Esri staff and partners.

Social Media a Win? A Nuisance?
While it seems the "GeoLounge" (a room on the third floor of the convention center with couches and bean bag chairs, a feed of the plenary, and large screen displays of near real-time tweets) was a hot place to be, I found social media to be rather a nuisance this year. I think it was Joe Francica who noted to me that the same people were "doing all the talking" on Twitter. I, for one, found those who were tweeting were all saying (or re-tweeting) the same thing. I look to media (social, new or traditional) to bring in more and different voices; that didn't seem to be happening.

That said, it seems several outlets, including Directions Media (coverage) and Esri, were running "social media" based "games" for prizes. I saw one tweet from DigitalGlobe about its game once I landed back in Boston. I think our community is still trying to figure out how to engage one another via social media at these events.

I will say that social media before the event was very helpful; it's how I found out about a last minute addition of a session on the GIS response to the Gulf oil spill.

Rock Stars
When I walked by one corner of one of Esri's many booths on the exhibit floor a young employee called me by name and offered his hand in greeting. I didn't know him, but he clearly knew me. We chatted about his career in GIS and his relatively new position at Esri. When I asked about how he was enjoying the conference, his eyes lit up and he beamed telling me about how he'd met both Mark Stoakes from Safe Software and Michael Byrne, the new GIO of the FCC! To him, they were Rock Stars, and he got to actually speak to them. It made me wonder how many students or even young employees on the floor knew who those two people were and if they'd have the guts to walk right up and talk to them. I have no doubt in my mind about the future of the fellow I met.

XML Still Matters!
I know I said earlier that developers stayed home, but I still managed to run into XML several times in my conversations during the conference. In short, it still matters as it hides in the background of much that we do. The first time it came up was in a discussion of how INSPIRE (the European Union initiative for its SDI) requires geodata to be formatted. Yep, it's in XML! Then I ran into a former colleague who is now in the metadata business. What does he do? He formats all that ugly XML metadata so it can be nicely packaged and used. Business seems to be good! And then I ran into a consultant who touted the use of OpenLayers, the open source render made famous by MetaCarta. He noted how you could use it as a front end to ArcGIS Server and ArcIMS, with some open source code that turns Esri's ArcXML into something OpenLayers understands.

Final Thought
Even as the Esri International User Conference gets larger, the company fights to make it seem smaller and more relevant to each user. The company seems to be using every tool it its arsenal to do so and with few exceptions, it was quite successful this year.

Published Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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