GIS users come from every field

July 20, 2017  - By

I just returned from the 38th Annual Esri International User Conference (Esri UC), which is the largest gathering of GIS (geographic information systems) professionals in the U.S. No GIS event in the U.S. is close to its scale.

Every year for the past 38 years (I presume, as I’ve only attended the last 11), Esri President Jack Dangermond begins by spending time during the kick-off plenary session painting his GIS vision. I appreciate that he doesn’t just dive into Esri-product-specific information. Granted, I know he’s setting the stage for that, but why wouldn’t he? He has a vision, and the products Esri develops will naturally follow that vision. Every year during his plenary presentation, I look for striking statements he makes. This year, a statement that struck me was:

“GIS users come from nearly every field of human endeavor.”

Remember this slide from the Esri UC Plenary in 2015?


The concept was that historically, geospatial technology has been a technology for scientists, but as geospatial awareness builds with business consumers and then mainstream consumers, the users of geospatial technology will count in the millions and, eventually, billions of users. One could argue that location-based services (LBS) have already reached more than one billion as consumers use geospatial technology in their mobile phones for navigating.

Without geospatial technology, the mobile phone would just display latitude/longitude, offering no situational awareness. That’s not what the above slide is referring to. Geospatial awareness for the business consumer (and mainstream consumer) is becoming more about analytics. A communication tool, a decision-making tool. … not only for the scientist, but for a much wider audience.

Of course, some will say I’m just “drinking the Esri Kool-Aid.” I would agree, except for one point: It’s actually happening. Think about it.

Clearly, geospatial technology has reached thousands of users. (Reference the above slide.) Also, it’s clear that geospatial technology has already reached hundreds of thousands of users. We know this from market research, and even Esri has stated in the past it has about 350,000 customers of its enterprise, desktop and mobile products.

How about millions of users? Check out the following slide Mr. Dangermond presented at this year’s plenary session…


4.4 million!

That’s more people that live in the State of Oregon (where I live). That’s more than one percent of the entire U.S. population. That’s the number of ArcGIS Online users.

If you’re still not convinced about the direction of the trend, then consider the number to the right of 4.4 million on the slide above: “+30%.” That means a 30 percent increase in ArcGIS Online users (presumably from this time last year). If you look closely at the slide, you’ll see that 30 percent is the lowest number. Map tiles served increased 95 percent to 3 billion. Open data downloads were more than 40 million, an increase of 200 percent.

Esri is a fascinating business case. With any other business model, it would be very difficult to accomplish what Esri has. Three points stand out to me:

  1. Esri has remained a privately held company. In other words, they didn’t “go public” and risk polluting its culture. Also, being a privately held company held means Esri can make major strategic decisions (such as shifting to web GIS) very quickly without having to worry about Wall Street or the next quarter’s financial report. This is very rare, and makes it very difficult for other companies to compete with Esri. Esri says it spends 28 percent of its revenue on R&D (research and development). In comparison, Microsoft spends 13 percent.
  2. The key management team has stayed intact. Senior management turnover is a killer in the technology world. Every time a key strategic manager changes, a company, or portion of it, is paralyzed until the next senior manager gears up. Six to 12 months can be lost during this transition. That’s an eternity in tech.
  3. Focus. This is a function of leadership and a stable management team. Esri isn’t perfect, but they’ve done a solid job for being a billion-dollar organization.

Ok, enough of my armchair quarterbacking. Following are some quick observations.

Mobile GIS is king

The Collector and Survey123 user base is expanding, fueled by the rapid adoption of iOS and Android devices as field data-collection tools. Add to that the growth of high-accuracy GNSS receivers for the GIS professional.

This is a perfect storm of technology convergence that’s resulting in a paradigm shift in high-accuracy GIS data collection. In other words, there’s a ton of demand for iOS/Android mobile devices running hardware-agnostic data collection software (such as Collector or Survey123) connected to a high-accuracy Bluetooth GNSS receiver.


The UAV technical sessions were jammed with people. If you’ve kept up with my GSS Monthly newsletter the past couple of years, you can see why. You can use an inexpensive UAV (~$1,500) to generate centimeter-level orthophotos, 3D models, volume calculations and elevation contours.

UAVs are another tool in the box, and one that I think most GIS users will eventually have access to. UAVs will continue to get cheaper and better. The challenge will continue to be how to consume UAV data efficiently into your GIS workflow.

Structure from motion

I see this technique being implemented with many technologies like UAVs and other devices. If you haven’t looked at the GeoSLAM device, the Zeb Revo, it looks incredible. With it, the GeoSLAM team scanned the San Diego Convention Center in 2 hours at 1.5-centimeter resolution.


The handheld Zeb Revo by GeoSLAM.


Using the Zeb Revo, the GeoSLAM team scanned the San Diego Convention Center to 1.5-centimeter resolution in two hours.

The user simply walks around with it as it scans an area. No tripods, no setups. Just walk. It’s expensive, but so were GPS, UAVs and 3D scanners when they first entered the market. The beauty of the GeoSLAM product is its simplicity. Check out this three-minute YouTube video:

BYOD GNSS receivers

The transformation is here. Trimble is finally on board with the Catalyst, in a big way. No more proprietary GNSS handhelds. You pick the device you want to use (an Android smartphone or tablet) and the software you want to use, then select the BYOD GNSS receiver (submeter, decimeter, centimeter) you want to use. This is the way it is supposed to be. If you think about it, it was backwards for so many years!

Oh, and I forgot to mention. At nearly 18,000 attendees (that’s the high number I heard), this was the largest Esri UC in history. As someone who has attended the past 11 Esri UCs, this was the best one yet because I could feel the technology (hardware and software) really starting to come together to form practical solutions that can be deployed in a large scale.

Thanks, and see you next time.
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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.