Three Takeaways from ESRI UC 2008

By Adena Schutzberg

By the third day of this event I was getting the sort of questions I've come to expect at large geospatial gatherings: "What was the theme?" "What did you see?" "What was the event about?" With those queries, fellow attendees were asking me to knit together what I saw into a neat package. This year I found three key ideas of note.

This was the term Jack Dangermond sprinkled liberally through the opening day's plenary events. Later in the week, sessions about Web GIS frameworks and related topics drew large crowds. Why is the term important? Because it specifically distinguishes itself from Web mapping, an activity so pervasive that Autodesk termed it a commodity and escorted its latest software product into the open source arena. Even before that, perhaps hundreds of companies popped up to offer methods to put shapefiles and other map formats on the Web.

The term Web GIS also distinguishes itself from whatever Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Maps/Earth are, or do. I don't know what term best describes them (perhaps advertising platforms?), but they are not Web GIS. ESRI is wise to use and own the term Web GIS, just as it owns GIS.

Web GIS encapsulates, at least for me, solutions that involve ArcGIS server, mobile solutions that operate in disconnected mode until "synced," ArcGIS Explorer and others. Even ArcGIS on the desktop becomes Web GIS when tapping into ArcGIS Online or other services. In many ways, all GIS today can be, and likely in the coming months will be, Web GIS.

The Cloud: The Elephant in the Room
I listened with care on Monday and didn't hear anyone on the main stage refer to the cloud, that vision of "hosted elsewhere" data and services. Still, the concept was present, in particular in the passing mention of Virtual Earth joining the list of premium ArcGIS Online services. I did hear the term in a few technical workshops, and heard the term far more in the exhibit hall and passing conversations. Datasets are getting bigger with higher imagery resolution, and more detailed 3D point clouds. Data and service providers are feeling the demand from their clients for more uptime, faster delivery and more coverage. Several newer players in the marketplace made it clear to me they could not have launched their startups without the cloud. They point out that "cloud competition" is healthy and keeps costs down as the computing architecture proliferates.

Why is the cloud the elephant in the room? That is, why is this a topic everyone wants to talk about, but our hosts at ESRI are shy to bring up? GIS is conservative. Among its most conservative players is ESRI. Among its customers are conservative users, including the government and the military. This was not the year for ESRI to dive into the new world, though the IT world has been exploring it for a few years (or many, if you track back to its roots in grid computing). That follows my initial assessment of this year's conference as a "breather" for users to catch up and get their minds around ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS 9.3. I suggested, before the event, this would be the year of the cloud at ESRI UC. I think I was a year off.

Round and Round
I am certainly not the first to point this out, but the evidence is building in geospatial for many a "return to the old days" as we move to Web GIS. When I started in GIS (at ESRI in 1992) we used X terminals; it was a client-server world. Now, though the clients and servers and underlying network (the Internet) are different, we are heading right back there. And, we have to. How else can I ask the most popular GIS question from trade shows in those days: Can you show me my house? Now everyone can see their house; they just need to tap into one of the many servers for images, street maps, terrain, etc.

A second return is to "data partners." When I joined ESRI, one of the most popular pieces of literature was the ArcData Catalog, which listed all the ESRI data partners offering data in ESRI formats. Today ESRI, and others, are redefining those partnerships to serve data via ArcGIS Online. The new twist? These partnerships require new business relationships.

How to Proceed?
I'm sure only some aspects of geospatial will be in the cloud in the coming months and years, but it's worth exploring. The big issues for many GIS users and service providers are security, uptime (Amazon's services were down for some hours in recent weeks) and costs. Related, of course, is passing on those costs to clients. I encourage GIS practitioners and their managers to start picking apart Web GIS and the cloud, and its impact on company culture and the bottom line. You'll want to have a plan going forward, whether you enter the realm of the cloud this year, or not.

Published Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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