It’s not 1999’s GIS Day Anymore

November 13, 2019
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Twenty years ago, Ralph Nader suggested to Esri’s Jack Dangermond that GIS deserved its own day as a means for outreach, celebration, and awareness-building. Wow, 20 years and a lot of map-inspired cakes later, here we are, ready to shout it from the rafters again. It’s GIS Day!

Since the first year, the motivating driver has been the need to share about GIS not only to the general public or others who aren’t aware about GIS at all. It may be taking place world-wide  but it’s also an opportunity for show-and-tell with our own work colleagues from down the hall who are overdue for an update.  

The sharing part hasn’t really changed, but the methods, tools, and toys themselves sure have.  Cool technology circa 1999? Hmmm. Thinking. It wasn’t even until May 2000 that selective availability was turned off and GPS became democratized, so demonstrating a new location-based app on a cell phone would have been magical thinking! Digitizing tables were still in active and regular use, and not as the place to serve your platters of cheese and crackers.  

What are the trends and demos that differentiate 2019 from 1999?

Many more places have decided not to restrict themselves to the Wednesday of the third week of November. Relax, it’s really okay if you gather on a different day of the week, or even a different week, or even a different month. Can’t decide on which day to celebrate? Stretch out the activities over multiple days! At Texas A & M, it’s now 3 GIS Days! Everything’s bigger in Texas, right? 

GIS Days have long been popular events on university campuses. Presentations, posters, and pizza are the triumvirate. One notable trend over the decades is the increased involvement of libraries in helping to plan and host the event, rather than academic departments alone. This makes sense – libraries and their digitally-savvy staff are more involved than ever with GIS support and data distribution.  A few selected examples where libraries and librarians are leading the charge include the University of Idaho, Yale University, and Stanford.

Collaborative events seem more common now.  Share the responsibilities of planning and organizing, grow a larger event, and reach a larger audience.  Partnerships between schools, universities, and/or local town or county governments are more frequent than ever, such as in Raleigh (North Carolina) and Lindenwood University in Missouri.

For a few years running, drones and small UAVs have been the most popular technology to have on hand for demonstrations. Weather becomes unwelcoming outdoors? Have very small ones to fly down the hallways. Just don’t forget to close the loop and explain what connection these cool tiny flying objects have to GIS anyway (otherwise, we should be calling it Drone Day). The Library of Congress is exploring drones and data’s part in disaster response and reconstruction at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Augmented reality is another type of demonstration that’s popular this year and was largely non-existent at GIS Day Year One.  Heck, I remember the first time I saw someone display a series of maps showing change-over-time by having them on a PowerPoint slides animation set for one second/slide. Instant animation! At the time, it was quite the novel idea.

Another thing we didn’t have in 1999? Digital social media! We managed to share about GIS for years without the use of a #GISDay hashtag, but think about how much further our messages now go! We also didn’t have StoryMaps then and now they’re ubiquitous. Somewhere in the world this week, every six seconds a StoryMap is being published.

If you’re part of a group that manages to rally its organizational outreach and energy for GIS Day every year, more power to you. I’m seeing places that show their longevity pride by keeping links to all previous events too, such as Old Dominion University, Burlington County (New Jersey), and the State of Delaware.

Volunteer fatigue syndrome is a real thing, and the experience of planning and hosting these gatherings annually can’t help but feel a little like Groundhog’s Day. Remember, simple is fine. Print out a GIS Day sign, stick it on the conference room door, grab some snacks from the vending machine, and spend a little time going around the table to see what others are up to. We’re all so busy these days, isn’t it okay if we just keep our doors open wide and make ourselves available if someone happens to wander in?  I like the attitude of the Town of Truckee (California), where they are just as happy to have the visitors do the talking (tell us what kind of future maps and data you may need). Make this day be a two-way sharing day! 

Our constantly and rapidly advancing field means more possibilities for what we do and share each year. Go with big names – like they’re doing at Clemson University – or be small and familiar – like the City of Clovis (CA). Give away free water testing – like in Lancaster County (PA) – or cool prizes throughout the day, as Quartic Solutions is doing.  Acquire a state-wide proclamation each year in recognition of this important day; Oklahoma does! Or, as the description of one GIS Day registered event says: “Fill out our survey, eat our cake, fly our drone.” Any way you do it, celebrate the field of geography, data and maps.

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