Esri Survey Summit, User Conference, and GIS Lessons from Will.I.Am

August 6, 2013  - By

The Esri Survey Summit and Esri International User Conference (UC) were held in July in San Diego, California (they’re held San Diego every year). As always, these events are a whirlwind of spatial data technology, covering surveying software to handhelds/tablets, GNSS/GPS units, UAVs, handhelds/tablets, and plotters. There are only two conferences in the world where you will experience such a breadth and depth of hardware/software spatial technology: the Esri International User Conference (UC) and Intergeo.

The Esri UC, which is preceded by the Esri Survey Summit, is a vendor-specific conference, so you won’t see any Esri competitors there (such as Autodesk, Intergraph, MapInfo, Bentley, and Smallworld). Intergeo, set for October 8-10, is vendor-independent, so anyone can attend if you pay the fee, but it’s always located in Germany, which puts it out of reach for many North and South Americans. It’s also much more focused on business and a trade show than the UC. Finally, the Esri UC offers many more technical sessions than Intergeo. In my opinion, one of the greatest values of the Esri UC is the diverse, GIS-centric technical sessions available for about any vertical market you can imagine, from utility infrastructure to municipal engineering and wetland science. If you’re interested in browsing the technical sessions from last month’s Esri UC, you can do so here.

Survey Summit

The bulk of the Survey Summit was held the weekend before the Esri UC. This is an event where surveyors and GIS professionals (sometimes the same person) interact. The concept is solid, as surveying and GIS technologies are converging. However, this year’s Survey Summit suffered from a lack of attention from the organizers and, consequently, attendance took a hit. Only about 150 people attended, when the conference really should attract 750-1,000 people. Yes, tight travel budgets can be attributed to the decline in attendance, but there wasn’t buzz created leading up to the conference, and the content was marginal. For the first time since I can remember, there was no exhibition area for vendors. Note to Survey Summit organizers: I get that you’re busy on other projects, but if you want this to be a serious conference, you’ve got to put more energy into it.

Who's in the Room. Survey Summit + UC.

Who’s in the Room. Survey Summit + UC.

Who’s in the Room. Survey Summit + UC.

Most interesting take-aways from the Survey Summit:

• Esri programmers responsible for the geographic datum transformations in ArcGIS were at the Survey Summit and engaged. Esri needs to do a lot of work in this area to accommodate high-precision GIS and surveying, and it seems the company is taking it seriously, but it can’t come soon enough.

• National Geodetic Survey (NGS) usually sends a pack of people to the conference. This year, it all fell on Michael Dennis, who delivered a record number of presentations. The NGS is getting smaller. It employs about one third of the people it used to. People with a tremendous amount of knowledge and outreach throughout the years such as Dave Doyle and Bill Henning have retired recently, and there’s a hiring freeze at NGS. While geodesy for GIS is becoming more important, we are losing geodesy expertise at the federal level.

Photo: Esri Survey Summit

Most interesting quotes from the Survey Summit:

• “GIS isn’t an acronym for Get It Surveyed; it’s an acronym for Get Involved Seriously.” — Curt Sumner, National Society of Professional Surveyors

• “Think about what’s not going to change in the next 10 years, that’s the more important question.” — Brian Matsubara, Amazon Web Services

Esri International User Conference Keynote

Photo: Esri Survey Summit

The challenge is that Esri President Jack Dangermond sets the bar so high every year that there’s an expectation that he will “wow” us again. That didn’t happen this year. Mind you, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Dangermond. I love it that he’s kept Esri a privately held company (no public shareholders) and the way he dismisses investor community analysts. I love it that he has a vision, sticks to it, and yet doesn’t hesitate to make significant changes as he sees fit. He told Investor’s Business Daily, “We’ve never borrowed money,” conceding that this meant the company grew more slowly than it might have. “We had to be very, very, very conservative with money. …It drove careful decision making. We were never at the (beck) of outside shareholders or banks. What that means is we could focus on our users and employees.”

Think about a guy who, at 67 years of age, struck up a relationship with pop musician Will.I.Am, who ended up speaking in front of thousands of attendees at the Esri UC this year. You can view a video of Will.I.Am’s and other keynote conversations here. By the way, Will.I.Am says he’s going to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this fall, studying computer science. I’m impressed.

Esri International User Conference

Attendance at this year’s conference was probably down from last year, likely from reduced government travel budgets. On the conference opening day, Jack reported that 12,000 people were in attendance from 130 countries, making it the largest gathering of geospatial users in North America.

During the plenary session, four technologies were emphasized. None of them are new or earth-shattering, but each are pushing forward:

Cloud-based GIS: Esri is pushing cloud-based GIS hard. It’s a significant transformation, and there’s no turning back. During the plenary session, Jack announced that starting with ArcGIS 10.2, each license will also include a subscription to ArcGIS online. The cloud is a natural segue into Big Data.

Photo: Esri Survey Summit

More Data: If GIS software is the engine, then data is the fuel. More data usually translates into more apps. More granular data usually translates into better decision-making capability.

Esri reported that 100 million square miles of imagery was added or updated to ArcGIS online. DigitalGlobe announced that ArcGIS Online users will now have access to DigitalGlobe’s Global Basemap, FirstLook, and Multispectral Premium Services.

Photo: Esri Survey Summit

More Apps: Taking a lesson from Apple, Jack reported that “in a couple of months Esri will introduce an itunes-like appstore for GIS apps.” Seeing how GIS apps are largely customized, it will be interesting to see what this offers to the user community. It’s a super-smart idea from an Esri strategy perspective, allowing users to derive greater value from their Esri investments.

3D: Esri is spending time promoting 3D online. Jack said, “Once you get there, it’s hard to leave. 3D is a major footprint for us.” Ten years ago, I was involved with 3D visualization in landscape architecture and accident reconstruction. Generating 3D models was a painfully slow process. Jack is correct. If you can generate 3D visualizations relatively easily and inexpensively, why would you stay in 2D? This is the future. Check out Autodesks’s free Recap software for easily generating 3D visualizations from scan data and photos (even from your smartphone).

Photo: Esri Survey Summit

The most interesting take-aways from the Esri International User Conference:

• Esri’s app store coming in the next few months.

• More and better imagery.

• Greater selection and cheaper mobile devices.

Photo: Esri Survey Summit


Photo: Esri Survey Summit


Photo: Esri Survey Summit

• Esri Mobile GIS strategy is moving away from ArcGIS Mobile and ArcPad, towards Collector for ArcGIS, but Collector isn’t ready for prime-time.

Esri Mobile Platform Landscape

Esri Mobile Platform Landscape.

Most interesting quotes from the Esri International User Conference:

• “One quarter of all Esri licenses are used by NGO’s or non-profits at little or no cost.” — Jack Dangermond, Esri

•”The poorest of the poor must obtain the best education possible. Information will be the fourth pillar of democracy in 21st century.” — Dawn Wright, Esri

• “In the past year, ArcGIS online has transformed from a web mapping tool to a true GIS.” — Jack Dangermond, Esri

• “Gangs are a business too, and they recruit (kids) earlier than companies do. To get a job, you have to graduate from college. What do you want these kids to be? If you’re not going to tell (them) what to do, (they’re) just going to go over here (to the gangs). Our system is broke.” — Will.I.Am

If you missed it, I along with Michael Dennis (Geodesist, NGS) were guests on the NSPS Radio Hour <ACSMJuly22_2013>. We talked about geodesy, LightSquared, and a few other subjects. It’s anMP3 file so you can download it onto your smartphone, i device or computer to listen at your convenience.

Thanks for reading, and see you next month.

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This article is tagged with , and posted in Opinions, Survey

About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

3 Comments on "Esri Survey Summit, User Conference, and GIS Lessons from Will.I.Am"

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  1. David Scherf says:

    Thanks for the insightful update on the ESRI User Conference and the Survey Summit. For those of us who can’t afford to travel, it helps to get the “scoop” on these events. It is interesting to me that the push towards the future includes heavy emphasis on “lighter” and simpler small platform apps, cloud-based GIS, and 3D visualizations, and less emphasis on the building blocks of geodesy, cadastral data, and surveying. It almost seems like the GIS community is pushing the hard stuff under the rug and focusing on what is new and shiny. And doing this while talking about higher quality standards.

    Keep up the good work, Thank You.

    • Eric Gakstatter says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comments. If you’ve followed my series “Nightmare on GIS Street”, you’ll see that I’m trying to raise awareness of the importance of geodesy in GIS. I don’t believe that most people are sweeping this subject under the rug because it’s a difficult subject, but just that they aren’t aware that it’s a problem. Secondly, if they do recognize the problem, many don’t know how to solve it. There’s definitely a knowledge gap, and an opportunity for geodesists (or qualified surveyors) to contribute.


  2. Alex Snow says:

    Re Interesting Quotes: I agree with the idea that the poorest should have good education. There have been several suggestions for additional ‘pillars of democracy’, e.g. public education, transparency, free media. ‘Information’ is only valid if there is a free media.