Takeaways From the MidAmerica GIS Consortium Symposium 2010

By Adena Schutzberg

I attended my first MAGIC event, the 2010 Symposium, in Kansas City, MO last week. While high-level obligations (meeting the prime minister of India) and environmental hazards (volcanic ash) prevented ESRI's Jack Dangermond and Google's Michael Jones from attending, those who did make it found a great deal of valuable, focused and practical content.

The Public Face of GIS
I spent all of day one and much of day two in a track titled The Public Face of GIS. Nearly every paper dealt with the challenges public organizations face moving from ArcIMS implementations to ArcGIS Server based solutions.

In the first session Tracy Schloss of the state of Missouri and Lisa Hallberg of the state of Kansas detailed their efforts. The former discussed a client-facing Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) "finder" tool and the latter, more generalized mapping apps. Schloss, who made it clear she's not a programmer but more of a user, detailed the choice of Flex for her implementation. Then, she made a choice too few people have made: She decided the sample Flex viewer did not fit her needs and she used small snippets of code from the ESRI Resource Center to build her app.

Hallberg, who is a programmer, used Google Maps to highlight the programmatic meaning of "state." Have you noticed that even after you do a query on Google Maps the URL is maps.google.com? But when you ask for the URL to be emailed, it includes additional code. That's part of it, and was a gentle introduction to why REST is valuable to programmers. She went on to highlight some of her team's solutions, which among other tools, depend on open source OpenLayers. I will note, just because I noticed it, that this was perhaps the first technical session in years where both presenters were women.

Tom Meyer of Fayetteville Public Schools discussed how he used ArcGIS Server to implement an in-house bus routing management system. Among his challenges: sharing regularly updated geocoded datasets. In the end, his solution will be to create KML and have staffers use it with Google Earth/Maps. After an insightful discussion with the audience he was contemplating a slightly different workflow (CSV vs. DBF) and the use of a KML network node, so the data need not be regularly distributed.

Heather Hendrickson described Entergy Arkansas' Site Selection Center, which aims to put key data in the hands of third-party consultants who help companies find suitable locations. While the app is not very "GIS-y" yet (it's built on Bing), it's gotten quite a lot of use, and nine jurisdictions in the state have built "wrapped" sites that cover just their regions to try to draw new business. She didn't put it this way, but clearly, the electric utility wants to draw in new business, too, so it can sell the newcomers electricity.

David Bayer and Jamie Petersen, of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, detailed their "paradigm shift" as they moved from ArcIMS to ArcGIS Server. In particular, they moved from one site that tried to do it all, to a much simpler, parcel-focused site. When requests came in to add this or that layer of data or to extend functionality, they said "no." Instead, they worked to create focused sites to address very specific needs. Bayer explained that once the apps were simple enough to use, he no longer had to spend time teaching people GIS; they could just use the apps. I have to confess when I saw what was considered the "focused" parcel site, I found it more complex than I expected, but far clearer than many others I've seen. Pottawattamie County's apps use more of ESRI's Application Developer Framework (ADF), in part because of some .NET PDF tools they favor.

Jeffery Robichaud, of the Environmental Protection Agency, described its work with the local KCWaters.org project, an interactive site to share data, connect partners and help protect water bodies in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Brian Culpepper, of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST), detailed some prototype work using ArcGIS in the Deployment of Arkansas- Limited Impact from Natural Gas Operations (LINGO) Web portal. He shared an interesting insight: The client requested all sorts of security so that data providers (private companies, for example) could feel safe posting data that only they could access. Being a good contractor, his team complied with the request, but he felt they spent too much time/effort on it because, in reality, none of the stakeholders would ever realistically trust such a site with their data. He also noted plans to move from WebADF to Java to open up more options and not be tied to ESRI's modeling.

Mike Killion, of the Kansas Geological Survey, described its huge (sorry I didn't document how big it is) oil and gas drilling database and the challenges of bringing it to ArcGIS Server and to the geologists who use it. He noted the parity of all of ESRI's APIs for Server, but went with Flex, in part, because of the ease of moving to it with his knowledge of Java. He also noted two little things Flex has that the JavaScript API does not: a scale bar and printing support. But, he was quick to point out that you can get around those, if necessary. He also echoed comments from others building public-facing sites earlier in the day: "Geologists don't get icons - so we used text buttons."

A paper by Dan Steen, of Johnson County, KS, on his county's experience with Web mapping (many presentations were histories of Web mapping and what was learned) yielded some interesting tidbits and observations:

  • Johnson County uses SQL Server 2008; when he asked who in the packed room was doing the same, only three or four people raised their hands.
  • The term mashup is no longer used much (he's quite correct! I'd not noticed!).
  • Use of SQL Server 2008 for spatial queries allows for speedy responses that need not go into ArcGIS Server and can go directly in the Bing Maps API.
  • Use of little bits of ArcGIS Server, Google Maps API, Bing Maps API and Yahoo Maps API can make for some great apps. That's perhaps the new meaning of mashup.
  • The county is mostly just presenting data, not offering geoprocessing, but Steen wants to do more. I was unclear whether it is the programmers who want to do so or the users who are asking for it.

My summary of the key points across these sessions:

  • The transition is still ongoing from ArcIMS to ArcGIS Server or from one ArcGIS Server API to another.
  • There's an intensified focus on making apps that users can use (ideally without help) rather than making sites the programmers think are cool.
  • There was no religious war over the APIs; each speaker explained why one or another was selected. There was much praise for ESRI's Resource Center that supports those APIs.
  • Several speakers noted using Dojo, the JavaScript toolkit, mostly because it can help make apps run well across various browsers (and it's the tool ESRI uses).
  • Moving these apps to phones came up just once (in a Flex focused discussion) and ESRI's Steve Kinzy assured attendees that the Flash/iPhone issue would be solved at ArcGIS 10, meaning there'd be an iPhone SDK, I presume (not that Apple will be supporting Flash/Flex).
  • There's still a lot of learning going on. In the first session of this track (which was packed) only five or so in the room were using the Flex API.

Data Sharing Policies & Licensing
A session on Data Sharing Policies & Licensing led by NSGIC President Will Craig was not heavily attended but those in attendance were keen to figure out "best practices" for their organizations. In an introductory slide show Craig highlighted Xavier Lopez' pros (diverse channels, decreased end-user cost, easy market entry for small innovators, enhanced development of NSDI) and cons (limited supply, difficult to recover costs, few fiscal incentives for enhancement, unregulated use) of open access. Craig then detailed the winners (end-users, small re-distributors, small users like non-profits, requesters of raw data) and losers (public agencies selling data, partners seeking exclusive distribution rights, others seeking exclusive partnerships) in an open access scenario. He then did the same for a paid distribution model; the result was basically a list of the "opposites" of those named above. He cited a 2004 National Academies study on the topic that among other things offered reasons to license (but not necessarily charge a fee for) data:

  • retain credit
  • restrain "no effort" resellers
  • limit liability - disclaimers
  • formalize relationships
  • can still be free

The two caveats to licensing:

  • use standardized, simplified licenses
  • limit use of data related to regulations or policies - keep that open!

He noted a 2010 CAP grant to Randy Johnson (MetroGIS) to determine the value of Hennepin County (Minneapolis' county) parcel data (proposal, announcement of grant). Right now those data are being sold and bring in $90,000 annually. The question: If the value is half, or perhaps more, of that figure, should the county simply give it away?

The open discussion that followed was energetic and informative with many of the attendees sharing questions and experiences. Among the interesting comments/ideas:

  • What is a license for? Many are familiar with them for software, but less so for data.
  • Who finds value in parcel data outside a county?
  • Inappropriate use of parcel data can be a challenge to sharing (for example, a scammer enticed those who owned land from which oil was being pumped to sign over their payments to him).
  • Does the sale of data imply "more" liability and/or higher quality?
  • The irony of some jurisdictions happily using others' free data but not making their own data freely available was noted and admitted.
  • Open data laws have not kept up with electronic documents in many states.
  • Indiana is serving up parcel boundaries from the majority of counties via Web Feature Service. (I could not find details on it, however.)
  • Several attendees noted the need for, and implementation of, disclaimers including in some states, the fact that data were not prepared by a licensed surveyor.
  • The limitations of paid data licenses to share data with the federal government occur because in some cases, that would force those data to be made freely available to other jurisdictions.
  • One story highlighted challenges of getting paid vendors to allow "ownership" vs. licensing of data.
  • Another story detailed how commercial users of free (RSS fed) data came back to the city that published the feed, to ask for payment to include those data in their offerings (crime data were noted in particular).

Conversations on all aspects of data sharing and licensing will continue to receive quite a bit of attention and the path forward will likely be different for each data provider.

GIS on the Web: Good Looking Site!
Another very interactive session was presented by Amber Reynolds of AECOM. After a few slides of dos and don'ts about Web design, brave attendees shouted out their website URLs for her and the audience's critique. Among the "areas for improvement":

  • removal of splash screens
  • clarity of purpose of website (including its geographic area of interest, a pet peeve of mine)
  • pop ups (though many use these to force acknowledging disclaimers and other information)
  • failure to locate key information in most-seen locations (top and left of the page)
  • too much information
  • public sites looking like internal sites

Reynolds noted that the success of a site is defined solely by user experience, though she did not detail a process to develop such sites. That'd be a great addition. This session was essentially a focus group, but one done only after these sites went live! Reynolds recommended a valuable book about Web design in general: Don't Make Me Think. I'll also offer a plug for Mucki Hackley's new book specifically aimed at GIS human computer interfaces: Interacting with Geospatial Technologies (not yet released in the U.S.).

My Closing Keynote
This was the first closing keynote I've ever presented. I chose to give attendees some "homework" to address as they went back to their offices and classrooms. I detailed four challenges we face in 2010:

  1. The Use of Geospatial Technology - Instead of the old "pyramid" diagram of doers, users and viewers, I introduced a "use case" type of model featuring three distinct use cases, ranging from analysis on the desktop, to querying maps on the Web, to social media on mobile devices. The challenge: how do we take the strengths of each to better do our work? These use cases should not be isolated, but integrated. (My slides were provided to MAGIC to share.)
  2. The Use of User Generated Spatial Data - It's just another dataset of which we can take advantage. We need to work hard to figure out how to do so.
  3. The Move (or not) to Mobile Apps - As we perfect online Web mapping apps, should we simply tweak these for Web-enabled phones or build custom apps for iPhones, Android phones and other platforms?
  4. Data Wars - New players and new demands for data are pushing new players to the fore (notably those who will host free and openly licensed data in the cloud, and Microsoft, which is flying the state of Michigan and not providing those data in the public domain).

Tidbits from the Event

  • More than one person was very frank about not having ever heard of Foursquare until I mentioned it in my closing keynote. That confirms what I'd thought for some time: that some GIS folks keep their heads down and do their jobs and may well miss key spatial trends just outside their purview.
  • I saw a neat presentation on using computer projectors to show stereoscopic images to a crowd (wearing 3D glasses) to teach photo interpretation. It's an "open source" design for what's termed a "GeoWall."
  • A session on the latest tools from USGS included a demo of the new MapViewer, including its download capabilities. You can download vector data in file or personal geodatabase format only, unless you want NHD data; those you can have in shapefiles. The TerraGo "add-on" for the PDF viewer is still Windows only. USGS is aware of these limitations, which I raised with the comment, "I'm not feeling very open."
  • The presentations, overall, were of higher quality than most regional events I attend. I saw none that seemed to have been written on the way there. That was truly awesome.

Published Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

Published in


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