NEURISA Day: Networking New England GIS Users

October 6, 2011

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Monday, October 3rd was the 2011 NEURISA Day event. This event, held for the past few years in Sturbridge, MA, serves as a meeting place for GIS users in the New England region. The accessibly priced event ($45 early/$55 late) brought together about 95 people for a day of presentations, panels and networking.

I was invited to give the keynote, which I titled “Preparing for GIS in 2012.” My goal was to highlight some of the technologies, trends and phenomena which I expect GIS practitioners to have to address in 2012 (and beyond). I spoke about five in detail: HTML5, Google Fusion Tables, NoGIS, the state of learning and the state of communications. (My presentation should appear soon on the NEURISA website).

First, some observations. When I asked who in the room had played with Fusion Tables, about seven people raised their hand. When I asked who knew before I mentioned it, that Esri has announced last week the availability of its canvas maps on ArcGIS Online, again about seven people raised their hand. When asked how they heard about it, the first responses were James Fee’s blog and Facebook. Somehow the other 85 people were not tuned in to this news. (As I write this on Monday evening, after the event I received an e-mail from Esri on the news.)

I was quite taken by the questions and comments I received after my presentation:

  • Weren’t Google Fusion Tables just a “toy”? (I don’t think so.)
  • Is the “IS” in GIS getting bigger and the “G” getting smaller? (Yes, sadly.)
  • Commenter’s son (11) mentioned HTML5 to him this weekend! (He’s paying attention!)
  • Open source should have been in the list. (I hope that’s not new to people - still.)

The most telling conversation I had about the presentation was with an attendee who was having a hard time finding someone to hire. All the candidates could do GIS but none seemed to have that extra interest or drive. The hiring manager was considering hiring someone with less experience and more drive. I thought that was a good idea.

The first set of presentations was on mobile. Officer Scott Wilder, director of IT for the Brookline Police Department, detailed how that force uses Wi-Fi. It’s become quite valuable and uses a mix of local municipal networks and air cards. The force does not yet use real-time vehicle location due to union challenges. Andrew Flynn, GIS technician at Vermont Electric Power Company, demonstrated a variety of ArcPAD applications he’s built for the field staff. One big project: the automated creation of PDF reports. It was quite complicated and involved moving data from the GIS to InfoPath via XML and then out to individual PDFs. Allowing the staff to produce and send these from the field saved lots of time back at the office. Jayson Brennen, a newly appointed vice president at CDM, reviewed the various mobile data collection hardware the company uses. The devices range in price from weather protected, full-on mobile computers at several thousand dollars, to less rugged and less weather resistant but very friendly iPADs for hundreds of dollars. The takeaways: (1) hardware has caught up with software and (2) you have to select the right device (GPS accuracy/weather resistance/etc.) and software for the job.

A new session, “Exhibitor Speed Networking,” was a version of speed dating. Vendors, sometimes individually, sometimes in pairs, visited each table of attendees for a few moments to introduce their company or companies. It was quite fun, and a very efficient way to get a sense of the offerings of the sponsors. The oddest pitch was for a Windows tablet offered by Orienteering Unlimited (which also offers educational games and high cartographic software). The most heartening was from the HP representative who confirmed that even though we are using screens quite a bit, there is still abundant demand for large scale plotters and the paper maps they create. The pitch that revealed the most about my table-mates: I was the only one at my table who was aware that 3D laser scanning was terrestrial LiDAR.

The “speed networking” (aka dating) was a great way for vendors to test out their “elevator pitches.” Some, however, needed improvement.

During lunch, NEURISA awarded its very first Special Achievement Award to Dr. Zong-Guo Xia, professor of Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences and vice provost for Research and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. Dr. Xia started the GIS certificate program at the school, left for a few years for SUNY and returned to rejuvenate the program. Among his colleagues was outgoing NEURISA president, Feng Yang, who has invigorated this chapter. It was clear Dr. Xia invigorated his students as well. He listed the prestigious positions graduates now hold and noted they, not he, should receive the special achievement recognition.


Feng Yang, outgoing NEURISA President and Special Achievement Award Recipient Dr. Zong-Guo Xia, Professor of Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Vice Provost for Research and Strategic Initiatives, University of Massachusetts/Boston.

After lunch we tackled enterprise issues and learned how Vermont and Rhode Island are organizing their state GIS efforts. Steve Sharp, senior project manager at VCGI, explained the situation in Vermont, and Shane White detailed the newly funded efforts in Rhode Island. Vermont’s federated approach dates back to 2008 and “promotes cooperation by allowing organizational autonomy, provides incentives to promote effective participation, and supports an incremental development path.” Rhode Island has leveraged several exploratory reports for a road map for its Enterprise GIS Implementation Plan, which just Monday got its final confirmation of funding from a homeland security grant via the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. The big questions ahead relate to how much (if at all) to leverage the cloud, since the state has a significant investment in hardware and networking, and how to implement an Enterprise License Agreement. Jeffrey Barrett, information exchange broker for Booz Allen Hamilton, serves as the region’s representative for the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Database (HIFLD) Working Group effort to reach out to the states. He explained how different jurisdictions (and their consultants) could gain access to the HIFLD databases.

The final session of the day was a panel discussion of the various certifications available for GIS practitioners, including those from ASPRS, Esri and GISCI (GISP). Jamie Rosa, certification manager from Esri, received the most questions, perhaps because that program is the newest. Of note:

  • There are about 1,000 people who have one of the Esri certifications.
  • The company does not share the percentage of passing grades nor does it currently host a list of those who hold the certification.
  • Esri, its partners and distributors are among the first to explore having their employees or a percentage of their employees certified.
  • “The exams are hard, but not so hard you should not take them.”

The general consensus in the room was that GISCI’s decision to include a formal exam at some point is a wise move. That said, at least one attendee found herself using that designation in selecting bidders on a contract. She also noted re-reading the ethics code when faced with a potential conflict of interest in her work. Another noted that seeing the GISP on just two resumes didn’t really help weed out potential candidates from 117 applicants.

The oldest certifications, those from ASPRS, are the simplest to understand since they involve detailed, very technical tests. They are perhaps the least well-known, but also focus on the most specialized sector of the industry.

Matthew Barrett, GIS Program Coordinator, Town of Concord MA and President, New England Region of ASPRS speaks on the certification panel.

I was humbled when an attendee told me my presentation was worth the price of admission. I thought the certification panel was similarly valued, as was the opportunity to network with people across the region. NEURISA seems to have a successful formula for a tightly packed, efficient, single-day event. I hope other regions will borrow the idea.


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