Making Sense of the 2014 Esri International User Conference
The challenges of hosting an event for 14,000+ software users are numerous. Esri has done the yeoman’s work for decades figuring out how to provide each user with a valuable experience. This year, a variety of factors made the event even more challenging for both Esri and its users. While I’m addressing the event itself, I want to suggest that these challenges are also impacting Esri’s relationship with its user community.
Back when Esri had just a handful of products (staffers could literally count them on one hand), the conference messages were few. The user conference plenary introduced new features in the main product (ARC/INFO) and gave just a little time to others such as ArcView, PC ARC/INFO and my product, ArcCAD. In 1992, I believe, the first young people, from a private school in New England, presented their work on stage. They used PC ARC/INFO.
Now Esri has a bewildering list of products. One current company goal is to unite them in one platform, ArcGIS. That means that attendees need to hear about all the products (CityEngine, Web App Builder, will.i.am’s mapping watch) and the platform enhancements (ArcGIS for Desktop 10.3, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Runtime). That’s a tough mandate for a few hours of a plenary and the few days of a conference. It means the key messages for a specific user may not reach him or her. In point of fact, it puts more onus than ever before on the attendee to find relevant messages.
GIS technology is more complicated and more powerful than ever. The success stories it enables are comparably complex. Consider the graphically fantastic geodesign story from Singapore offered during the plenary. The Urban Redevelopment Authority showed the use of City Engine to manage various constraints written into law that guide development. The real-time resizing of buildings to maintain waterfront views was great and there was a solid story. I confess that I didn’t understand all of it, but got the drift of how technology was helping guide design by visually enabling planning restrictions and requirements. Or consider the geostatistical demo on crime in Chicago: again, there was a story and I understood just part of it. It’s hard to tell stories that highlight both the power of the tool and the impacts it might have to attendees with such different backgrounds. One story that I did fully understand: the one from the fourth graders at Sonora Elementary in Springdale, Arkansas. They sent up a weather balloon to collect data. It traveled 600 miles and was found a by a high school, which arranged its return.
Product Lines and Product Names are Blurring
I read conference coverage from a tech publication where the author conflated ArcGIS Explorer and Explorer for ArcGIS. There was also confusion about whether ArcGIS Pro was already in users’ hands and feature-complete or not. I can’t fault the author. Trying to keep track of the products, product names and releases is a challenge for those of us who have done it daily for years. Even well-respected geospatial integration consultant Bill Dollins is confused!
Consider the beloved (and it is!) Story Map. I think of it as a group of templates for publishing data in ArcGIS Online. Just as users and non-users think of ArcMap as a stand-alone product (it’s not), others are not quite sure how a Story Map Tour differs from a story map or the purpose of the new Story Map Journal. It’s very hard to keep these offerings straight, even as Esri is trying to tie them all to the single ArcGIS platform.
Esri is breaking new ground with new portals and resources for the individual user. There’s MyEsri to replace the customer care portal for managing licenses and other issues. There’s GeoNet (APB coverage) for connecting and sharing with other users beyond the dates of the user conference. There’s Learn ArcGIS (Directions Magazine coverage) to gain experience using tutorials focused on real world projects in specific industry areas. And, I understand, there are plans for a portal to tie together Esri’s teaching and learning resources more tightly.
I know from the teams behind these efforts that there was significant scrambling to get them up and running for the User Conference. Congratulations on that work! From the user standpoint there was some bewilderment. Why so many portals? So many log-ins? Can even Esri keep them straight? That’s a valid question based on my reading of the Mythical Man-Month and my study of internal communications in companies large and small.
Some traditions are good and worth keeping. Others are not and should be retired. I was pleased one tradition was gone: the hawkers and loud music at the booths at the Expo. The loudest sounds this year were from a drone buzzing near its host booth. The rest of the floor was calm with many intense one-on-one or one-on-a-few conversations. I do not know if the change came from the vendors themselves or with Esri’s guidance, but it’s most welcome.
I found a new (to me) tradition on the Expo floor this year. Esri staffers presented 30-minute technical workshops in small enclosed “theaters” in the back of the hall. The ones I viewed were well attended. I have to believe user demand prompted these bite-sized offerings. It’s hard for me to imagine users wanted to see more PowerPoints and demos, but the shorter offerings can perhaps better fit complex schedules.
The traditions that seem to be working and expanding are the focused conferences around the main one. I spent the weekend at the Education GIS Conference while my colleagues attended the Senior Executive Seminar, the National Security Summit and the Business Summit. I saw user group meeting signs for water and telecommunications, and I know there were many others. I’m hopeful these groups will flourish on GeoNet. As I suggested above, users are one community made up of many industry and product communities.
Esri is bursting at the seams with new products and services. Users are working hard to do their day jobs (heads down, as we say at Directions Magazine) while keeping up with Esri’s inevitable push into the future.
What is the most valuable tool available to keep both of these groups from teetering over the edge into true chaos? I may be biased but I think it’s a commitment to focused, timely, internal and external communications. That’s hard work, I know. But I think Esri is up to the challenge and its users deserve nothing less.