The World is Talking: Esri UC 2020

July 22, 2020

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Is everyone out there taking a breath and processing the massive content from the first virtual Esri User Conference? I am! (If you’re reading this you were probably there for at least part of it, but if you weren’t, it’s online. Sign up for a free Esri account to log in.)

The first time I attended the Esri UC was 2001, while working for Esri. This year, I was honored to be Directions Magazine's media correspondent for the conference, and, wow, has it grown! If I were to describe the conference in three words, they would be “expansive,” “inspirational” and “transformative.”

Actually, it is a blurry line between “expansive” and “overwhelming.” There were just 11 attendees at the first Esri UC in 1980. In 2002, the last time I attended, there were about 13,000 attendees. The final count this year was over 80,000. In a poll taken in the plenary session, a vast majority were attending for the first time. The conference featured 160 technical sessions, 628 on-demand presentations, and more than 1500 maps in the gallery.

While the technology aspect of the sessions is far beyond the scope of this article, I can say that a common thread was integration—not only of data but also visualization. Dashboards are nearly ubiquitous now and for good reason. We all know the power of maps to paint a picture, but these same data can be visualized in many different ways: on a map, in a chart, in a graph or a table. New tools showcased at the conference allow us to delve deeper into the fourth dimension of time. Some apps and dashboards provide animations for past conditions; most prominent were the various Covid-19 visualizations. Other tools give us the power to reach into the future. Amazing people are building predictive models to forecast sea-level rise, famine, urban growth and Covid-19 spread. We now have the tools, data and talent to be proactive, and, hopefully, prevent problems instead of simply responding to them.

“I can’t teach you passion,” said one of the panelists in the “Women in GIS” session.

I was privileged to attend several media-only sessions with visionaries from organizations as diverse as regional councils, small and global corporations, and non-profits—all passionate and motivational. What made these small sessions so inspirational was that everyone brought a different perspective to the same problems. Whether at a regional or global level, all parties preached the importance of LISTENING.

The days of stove-piping are over. There is too much at stake now for territoriality. Every person in every panel and in every session delivered the same message. In many different ways, from many different time zones, they all said, “We need each other to make the world better though geography.”

Dr. Vicki Phillips named GenGeo as a new generation, five million strong, who will use geography in every field—climate change, business, social science and natural science. While geography is sometimes taught as a stand-alone subject, it permeates everything we do. As professionals, we have the power and, thus, the responsibility to raise geographic awareness, and to illustrate how the entire world is interconnected—every piece is part of the whole.

“We’re not pivoting, we’re growing.”

 As one of the Esri panelists at the media briefing told us, our current crises offer transformative opportunities.

Going virtual

 This was my second virtual conference this year. The GeoEd conference in June was about 400 people, twice the usual attendance. Esri UC 2020 was exponentially larger. This illustrates how virtual conferences are powerful venues for attracting audiences that may not have been able or interested in traveling to on-site events.

Virtual conferences offer great opportunities to raise geographic awareness and engage new audiences with talent, tools and perspectives to which they may never have been exposed. Given the attendance numbers at this and GeoEd, we can be proud that many people who have never used or seen GIS have realized the potential of geospatial knowledge to solve problems.

But as technology and engagement spread, we still need to be cautious. Humanity’s power to develop and deploy technology far outpaces our wisdom to use it responsibly. Having a hammer and a saw doesn’t mean you can make a cabinet. 

Jack Dangermond said, “Our world is talking.” As all of the speakers and panelists iterated, communication is essential. It seems that now more than ever, people are listening. Watching the geospatial community continue to build tools and solutions will be exciting.

We have the tools, but when in doubt, call in the carpenter. 


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