The 2008 ESRI Federal User Conference

March 17, 2008  - By
Image: GPS World

By Art Kalinski, GISP

Several weeks ago, I attended the ESRI Federal User Conference, held February 20-22 in Washington, D.C. I wish I could report on some earthshaking new technology that is going to change everything, but as with most mature technologies, what I saw were mostly refinements of existing technologies such as ArcGIS 9.3.

In 9.3, scheduled to ship in June, Web connectivity and integration have been improved, as have 3D tools and applications. An automatic Send Crash Report to ESRI notification has been added, along with very easy integration and connectivity with Google and Microsoft. Other improvements include working under the Vista operating system and enhancements to Model Builder.

I’ve been a strong advocate of Spatial Analyst and its use with Model Builder, which has greatly simplified this aspect of GIS. Too many GIS users have been stuck in a “point, line, and polygon” GIS, but not all GIS data have discrete borders. Most environmental and social data have fuzzy boundaries and can only be modeled accurately as continuous functions. The beauty of Spatial Analyst (GRID) is that if you can mathematically describe what is happening, Spatial Analyst can model and display the phenomenon.

I know that grid cell modeling can get difficult, but the grid cell environment is a powerful tool that can take some GIS projects to the next level of accuracy and completeness. Grid cell modeling is also significantly faster than trying to force polygons into a large dynamic model.

I did see one new dataset that could be very valuable to certain users: Robert Renner of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demonstrated a free dataset from the U.S. Postal Service on address vacancies. It can be used to identify neighborhood changes showing emigration (vacated homes) or new neighborhoods (not-yet-occupied homes). This dataset is an early indicator that could be very useful for economic development, crime prevention, and public safety applications.

Although most attendees didn’t observe any major developments in GIS, it was a good opportunity to network and see what peers in other agencies are doing. Over years of attending conferences, I’ve found that unless you’re new to the business, 95 percent of the information presented is old news. What makes the events worthwhile is discovering that little gem, that new piece of information or technology that you would have missed otherwise.

It’s tough putting on a conference for such a diverse group of attendees, whose interests and experience levels run the gamut. With that in mind, and remembering the story of the blind men describing an elephant, I asked several of my fellow attendees what gems they uncovered at the 2008 FedUC.

William Gray and Tony Ferguson of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency are long-term users of GIS, and neither saw much that was new other than the refinements shown in ArcGIS 9.3. On the flip side, Beth Dorch and B. Schumacher of the FBI got great benefit from some entry-level sessions, such as GIS basics and GIS definitions. They also touted the value of a simple, yet real-world demonstration of how ArcGIS was used for law enforcement analysis.

Jim Mars of the Army Corps of Engineers liked the workshop demonstrating Model Builder, which showed how he could use the information for state shelters. Annette Miller, Montana Department of Labor, was new to GIS, so everything in the expo and all the sessions was new information and a major revelation.

Brian Sterling, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maryland, learned more about ArcExplorer and was happy to find out about TerraGo’s GeoPDF format — especially the publishing and collaboration tools. Craig Oaks of ProLogic appreciated being able to form a big picture of how customers are using GIS and how ProLogic fits in.

An unscheduled — but valuable — session was presented by Anne Miglarese, who is leading the effort to establish the National Geospatial Advisory Committee. This is a newly formed group composed of key public and private geospatial professionals that will use the public-private partnership to advance GIS and promote data sharing. This could provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure.

Miglarese explained the genesis of the committee, and highlighted the fact that all meetings will be open to the public, and the material discussed will be available through a Web site that all can access. I know several members of this committee, and I believe it will have a significant and positive impact on GIS and geospatial efforts.

The closing session was a very interesting presentation by David Kinley of SPAWAR. David explained how NORTHCOM and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had learned lessons from Katrina response and created interoperable systems to respond quickly to natural and manmade disasters, civil disturbances, and special events such as pending political conventions. NORTHCOM and NORAD use a system called SAGE, while DHS uses a system called iCAV. He also discussed TRITON, a Web-based critical infrastructure protection system used by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Through a combined effort, data stovepipes were eliminated, and data sharing is now the norm. David addressed the difficulty in finding trained and qualified people to support these systems and noted that the agency is turning to the service academies to train new personnel.

I found the last 30 minutes to be the most interesting part of the conference. Jack Dangermond announced that by popular request, ESRI was going to establish an Intel User Community that will be facilitated by Mark Schultz, ESRI’s director of intelligence. Jack then had an open-mic question-and-answer session with the audience. Unlike the current array of politicians, he didn’t have pre-screened and pre-approved questions. Some of the questions were very penetrating, and I almost cringed for him when I heard some of them. But he answered all the questions with great candor.

Jack has built a worldwide organization that almost has a cult following. One only needs to experience the annual User Conference, attended by 13,000, to get a sense of that culture. From a federal perspective ESRI, ArcGIS, and all the related software programs have become a critical national resource. GIS is now fully integrated in all aspects of federal operations, as shown by this year’s speaker and attendee list. So people are understandably curious to see how developments at Google and Microsoft are affecting GIS.

One member of the audience asked Jack why Google and Microsoft seem to be building such strength in GIS-related efforts such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, whether this poses a threat to ESRI, and why ESRI didn’t dominate this area. The ESRI president answered in a way that only someone who is really confident in his work and organization can.

He replied that the goals and funding of ESRI, Google, and Microsoft are directed toward different purposes. ESRI is a company whose resources of roughly 600 million dollars per year are reinvested to expand the body of GIS knowledge, further the use of GIS, and support GIS customers. Google and Microsoft have billions to devote to the key goal of driving customers to advertisers. They are interested in search engines, base maps, and mapping to capture 8 to 10 billion dollars in ad revenue, not the smaller technical niche of GIS. On the other hand they could decide to take over GIS and then we’d be out of business, Jack said with a wink.

One last question dealt with concerns about the openness of our society and the accessibility of information by terrorists, especially GIS data. Jack indicated that this also concerned him, but he was comforted by the thought shown by history that open societies ultimately are more successful than closed ones. On that note, the conference concluded.

After the conference I was able to talk with Jack, and I shared with him common feelings and conclusions I’ve heard from many first responders, planners, and DHS personnel regarding access to data. Most believe that it would be impossible to get the information genie back in the bottle. Additionally, determined terrorists can get information they need even without high-tech tools because they have the advantage of choosing and researching a specific target, even with simple ground-level photos and personal observations.

First responders, however, must be in a position to respond quickly and effectively to all possible targets, since they don’t have the advantage of knowing a target ahead of time. That tips the scale in favor of having accurate and complete datasets and imagery readily available for our first responders. Jack was comforted by that information, and indicated that he would use it in other discussions. I would appreciate hearing from anyone with a different point of view who would like to share the reasoning behind it; please contact me.

Overall, it was a good conference that met the needs of a very diverse group of attendees. I believe that everyone who attended came away with at least one new piece of information or insight that made the conference worthwhile.

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