The Esri International User Conference 2011 Takeaways and Big Ideas

By Adena Schutzberg

ArcGIS Online is the new center of the Esri universe

By the time my four solid days of Esri User Conference events were complete, I’d redrawn my mental map of the Esri product suite. I didn’t see an Esri-produced graphic that looked exactly like what was in my head, but some were close.

The center of the ArcGIS product universe (the “sun”) is ArcGIS Online (AGOL). As I detailed at All Points Blog (APB), it’s not a website, but a repository. In orbit around it are the clients from which you tap into AGOL:

  1. (that’s a website where you can explore the contents)
  2. thin map clients
  3. more robust, thicker clients
  4. mobile clients
    • Esri-built and developer-built clients for iOS, Windows Phone and soon, Android

There’s no requirement that desktop users must tap into ArcGIS Online, but without it the experience is very 1994. The 2011 connected experience is far more compelling and frankly, more fun.

To be fair, Esri’s slow-motion move into this cloud vision of services is coming to fruition at exactly the right moment. Remember ERDAS’ Titan (Directions Magazine coverage)? The feature that impressed me then was the ability to publish WMS services from your desktop! That, I thought, would revolutionize data sharing and put services on the map. That was in 2007. Unfortunately it was far too early for such a vision. 2011 is just the right time and that’s perhaps why this year GeoIQ, Google and Esri now have cloud hosted solutions for publishing services and open and private data sharing offerings.

What’s missing from all the discussions of ArcGIS Online are some marching orders for Esri users. I recall an early AEC Systems event (at the time, THE CAD event) where the Web was still shiny and new, probably 1997 or so. Keith Bentley in his keynote address told CAD users of all stripes how to get started with the Web. I think he had three specific suggestions, but the one I remember was “put your employee handbook online.” I thought then, and continue to now, that this is exactly what users want to hear from their vendors as new technologies or patterns evolve. So, since Esri did not provide such guidance, I’ll offer some suggested homework, not just for Esri users, but all GIS users, students of GIS and those who like maps!

  • Get an account at (free or link your existing Global Esri Account)
  • Join a group or two that includes geographies or topics of interest (I already joined the My Favorite Places to Run group)
  • Build a map with Map Viewer by using a map service as a base and some simple data in a spreadsheet or CSV file
  • Share that map via social media and/or embed it in a webpage or blog
  • Keep an eye out for a small project at work or outside where this free resource might be used

These steps should start the wheels spinning about how ArcGIS Online will become the center of your Esri universe in the months ahead.

No New Patterns

While just a few short years ago the cloud pattern of GIS implementation was new, and frankly, a bit overwhelming, now it’s nothing special. In fact, more discussion of AGOL occurred at the User Conference than any about generic cloud computing. Certainly Microsoft was there to speak about Azure, but the focus was on the way to implement it in a specific organization. One of the most valuable presentations at the EdUC detailed the different ways in which the University of Redlands has rolled out GIS for different instructors with a variety of students and diverse projects.

The real work now is about taking the cloud ideas as defined by Esri within AGOL and matching them to each organization’s needs. The questions during the ArcGIS Online technical workshops (APB coverage: 1, 2) honed right in on “how it’d work for me.”

While other cloud patterns exist (notably what, just two years ago, Scott Morehouse detailed as IaaS and PaaS), those are not the domain of users. Rather, those are the domain of IT departments and/or developers. The discussions of AGOL, the “user” version of the cloud, were aimed squarely at the focus of this “user” event.

Prepping to Share

While not harped on as much in this year’s plenary as in past years, one big goal of Esri UC is sharing between attendees. That sharing occurs in formal paper sessions and informal discussions in the halls and at social events. I found some of the user paper sessions quite disappointing. Since I attended those only at EdUC, not at the International UC, I can’t say whether my observations can be generalized.

I observed several tweets in the #esrieduc thread where those presenting in the coming days or hours noted they had “not yet” or “were just” putting together their presentations. I attended some of the presentations in question and they were lacking. In each case, the first question or two from the audience revealed that the speaker had not effectively conveyed basic data on the topic. In common parlance: the attendees did not understand what it was the presenters were talking about! Do Esri conference presenters not feel a strong urge to “share well” and not waste the time of their peers? Is getting a paper accepted simply a passport to have someone else pay for a trip to San Diego? What does it say to the many students in the EdUC audience, including those who “won” trips here to present their work about how carefully we prepare our professional presentations?

Rebranding and Re-naming

Last year’s big branding news was two-fold: it was “ok” to call the company “EZREE” and the logo was redraw with all small letters. This year, pre-conference, the world learned that all of the product names would be variations on “ArcGIS.” There was tittering on Twitter, but at the User Conference, where it seemed the change had been quietly made already, no one seemed to notice or care too much. As a senior Esri staffer put it to me: “No one is going to say, ‘I use ArcGIS for Desktop Basic,’ they are going to say, ‘I use ArcGIS.’” I think the name change, especially alongside the maturing of ArcGIS Online, is well-timed.

Activism Limited

At least two organizations came to Esri with activist agendas. The Coalition to Save Our GPS is a group working to ensure LightSquared’s planned 4-G implementation does not impact GPS use (APB continuing coverage). The group behind Speak Up for Geography encourages U.S. residents to contact their Congresspeople to encourage passage of the Geography is Fundamental Act, which would fund geographic education.

The Coalition was represented in a session and a panel, and had a booth. The latter had a note in the conference bag (I know it was in the EdUC bags; I can’t say about the International User Conference bags) and also had a booth.

Coverage of the several sessions related to LightSquared at the Survey Summit/ACSM event was quite limited and I saw at least one tweet noting poor turnout at these sessions. The effort to get people active regarding geographic education didn’t make a splash at either EdUC or the larger event it preceded.

Add to these observations the decision of GITA to leave the Coalition of Geographic Organizations (COGO) due to its dysfunction, and it seems geo-activism is in a waning cycle.

Heads Down

Social media is a great way to connect at large events. I was lucky to meet up with one Twitter friend because of it, which was a real treat. Still, far too many attendees seemed to be spending their in-motion and in-session minutes looking down at their devices.

How many people did you nearly run into because they were looking at their phones? Now, they might have been using them to pick out or navigate to a session, or check e-mail or play Tetris, but I suspect many were tweeting or Google+ing or the like.

Having said that, I wonder how many people were reading the huge flow of tweets? After a few days I found myself not bothering to check the #esriuc tagged tweets and simply kept an eye on the folks I regularly follow. I don’t think I missed much. At sessions I attended, the most active note takers I saw were using pen and paper. I found myself the rare individual with a laptop open who was actually writing, not reading.

I think the jury is still out on the “best practices” to integrate social media into this type of event.

More User Focus

I observed, and several attendees confirmed, that current iterations of the Esri User Conference are more focused on users than ever before. The opening session included no words from Clint Brown or Scott Morehouse from the development side. The most technical demos illustrated tasks anyone in the room could quickly learn and complete (save the one about exploratory regression, I concede). The “keynotes” (APB coverage) were user stories highlighting extraordinarily successful users. I mean successful both in their use of technology and their efforts to change the world for the better.

Esri has carefully separated out events for developers and partners, as well as for special communities of interest like the federal government and various industries. That leaves the User Conference aimed squarely at the large proportion of Esri’s base that sits in front of the software every day. My hat is off to Esri for treating them right and not getting distracted with other types of customers. The users are, after all, the ones creating work for those developers and partners.
One Map

While the idea of “one map” came up throughout many sessions at EdUC and the International User Conference, its meaning became quite jumbled in my mind.  I am told by senior Esri staff, that it refers to a single definition of a map that lives at AGOL and thus can be accessed when needed on the platform and with the software appropriate for the task.

That may not be a difficult idea to grasp, but the history of Esri’s products and their limited ability to share data (remember E00 for moving between UNIX platforms and later, to and from the desktop products?), let alone maps (AEP, AVP, MXD, layer package, map package, etc.) indicates this is a significant and important vision.

Published Monday, July 18th, 2011

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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