Esri Federal User Conference Takeaways

January 26, 2011

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Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg joined attendees at Esri's 2011 Federal User Conference held in Washington, D.C. on January 19-21. She shares the takeaways here. More detailed coverage of sessions and exhibits can be found at All Points Blog.

Community Maps: Is it what OGC, FGDC and USGS always wanted?
If you build it, will they come? That was the question, as Esri built what's become the Community Maps Program over the last few years. More specifically, the question might be posed this way: If you create a platform for knitting together, hosting and publishing geodata, develop a standard for data structures, and offer up templates and tools to help move the data onto the new platform, will GIS professionals with authoritative data share them?

The answer is "yes." And, as Esri announced at Fed UC, it is looking to add more data layers including a parcel layer, among others, in the coming weeks and months.

The more time I spend with the Community Maps team and those providing the data, the more this program seems to fill a niche other related efforts have not. For example, I imagined the simple OGC Web Map Service specification would be a cornerstone of efforts for a national spatial data infrastructure. But here in the U.S., it's not played out that way. Another example: Geospatial One-Stop (GOS) and The National Map (TNM) aimed to make local and nationwide datasets findable and usable. That's not really happened either. In fact, this week I learned GOS is on life support as its functions are being rolled into I also learned that savvy geodata and map users will soon be guided to The National Atlas or the U.S. Topo GeoPDFs since TNM is often not the right tool for the job.

Maybe, just maybe, Esri is in the position to set the data structures, make the benefits clear and tangible, and make the process "doable" such that its community (and potentially other user communities) will share their authoritative data. Both Microsoft and Google have tried similar efforts in the past, but neither had the success that Esri seems to be having.

Why? Allen Carroll, who was the chief cartographer at National Geographic and recently joined the ArcGIS Online team, points to a "level of trust" to answer that question. These authoritative data providers trust the quality of their peers' data and are ready to share their own. Also involved in this effort is Don Cooke, who founded Geographic Data Technology (now part of TomTom) after working at the Census. He also sees the potential for this crowdsourcing of authoritative data. I, for one, find it refreshing these two gentlemen, who have been around the block a few times, are involved with this very modern way of collecting and making geodata available.

To be sure, there are lots of questions still to be answered about the long-term plans for the Community Maps Program and the role Esri and its users may play. But, I'm convinced this is one of the most significant data sharing efforts to come along in recent memory.

FEMA's Fugate Gets the Value of Social Media and Crowdsourcing; Who's Next?
There was universal praise for FEMA administrator Craig Fugate's vision for using crowdsourced data in FEMA's work (video). He also advocated for open data and collaboration. The only downside to his energetic keynote? The people who needed to hear it were probably not in the room. And, they are probably not involved in social media, where they might learn of his passion. (Follow him on Twitter @CraigatFEMA or check out this podcast from Wired Magazine.) The real challenge is how to expand his vision across the federal government. and in the Same Session and Sentence
I was most pleased to hear from the regular speakers on these efforts (Karen Siderelis, GIO, Interior and Jerry Johnston, GIO, EPA) about how the two seemingly separate initiatives are related. I applaud the federal government for both making the decision on how to consolidate and integrate efforts and telling at least the Esri federal community about them. I hope the details will be communicated beyond this single event. Federal officials need to communicate that input on the Geospatial Platform will be gathered until the end of the month via direct e-mails and the voting tool IdeaScale.

Moving to ArcGIS Online
The number of maps made on ArcGIS Online per month is impressive. But, are GIS professionals using the tool to its (admittedly still expanding) potential? My sense is, that will be a slow transition. The service in its current form has only been up and running for five months; it left beta at the Esri International User Conference last summer. And some of its best features, hosting of map packages on Esri's site with automatic conversion to Web services, won't be available until ArcGIS 10.1.

Still, I feel like I've seen the basic demo "a million times." In reality, I've seen it about four times. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It seems many users, including those in the federal space, are still wrapping their heads around just "playing with it," let alone using it for their job responsibilities. Moving to ArcGIS Online is a huge change for desktop GIS users. It's a platform change, a sharing change and a workflow change. And, most of us are not good at one change at a time, let alone three at once!

The first step for users, I think, is simply to play with the platform, to use it for "fun." The rest will come in time. Think about it; that's how most of us used Google Earth at first, right?

How Will We Know We Are Doing GIS in the Cloud?
My answer is this: when my colleagues in higher education and I can teach "Intro GIS" or "Intro Remote Sensing" completely in the cloud. I don't think that's too far away at all. The remote sensing part is well on its way with Esri's plans to host four different years of Landsat data and provide core viewing and change detection tools. Those are expected in February.

I suspected and confirmed that Esri's imagery hosting/analysis effort was put in place after, and in part in response to, Google's new imagery tool. The team involved includes consultant Kass Green, who gave the demo (and some of her former programming colleagues), as well as Gerry Kinn (once of TASC and Emerge). There's more functionality to come; expect to see it at the International User Conference.

Rebranding and Repositioning Tele Atlas/TomTom
I'm the first to admit I've been having a tough time getting used to company name changes. I had trouble with Geographic Data Technology to Tele Atlas and I'm still having trouble with Tele Atlas to TomTom. A bigger challenge, however, is to reposition the new organization within the professional geospatial marketplace. (The consumer marketplace still has its TomToms, so that needs less attention.)

So what then does the "new" TomTom have to offer geospatial professionals? Per the TomTom team at Fed UC: "a geospatial platform" - one with worldwide data, real-time traffic data and some well-known and mature GPS devices. I was trying to think of other situations where a consumer company engulfed a professional geospatial one. Here's an idea: Google acquired Keyhole. That worked out okay.

It's All the Same
While it's valuable for Esri to gather its federal users conveniently in Washington, D.C., the issues and opportunities facing federal users are very much the same as those facing state, local and business users. Talk of the cloud, crowdsourcing, mobile technology, security and data quality appear on everyone's "to do list." One vendor summed that idea up nicely when recounting a request from a federal agency involved in defense regarding a private secure server. "We have experience with that. We already do that for [a large communications carrier]." The more the GIS vertical sectors are different, the more they are the same.


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