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We need technical people who can manage the infrastructure

Jack Dangermond
President, ESRI, on the occasion of Map World Forum
Shares his vision with GIS Development

Q: As one of the pioneers of the GIS technology, and having seen it grow in the last 38 years, please tell us about the growth of this industry.

Jack: So much is happening in GIS today!
The use of GIS is growing, expanding considerably. In India our company is growing at about 50% this year, and this is indicative of what’s going on around the world, especially in the Asia- Pacific region. We are seeing a broad-based deployment of tools, and I believe that this is just the beginning.

In India we are seeing the maturation of many users compared to what I saw three years ago. This January at the ESRI Asia/Pacific User Conference I saw users presenting more sophisticated applications and enterprise-oriented projects than in the past. Globally our users are migrating their systems from workstations to PC applications. Their projects are focused on information systems. Transactions are being maintained and used by multiple organisations around an integrated database. The best examples are Reliance Energy, big cities, government agencies, or Wall Street. That’s the sort of dynamics in the industry today.

For the first time there is genuine consumer interest in geospatial information, starting with visualisation. This is just the beginning. Soon we will move to analytics over the web,image processing over the web, and multiple systems being dynamically brought together over the web in a distributed environment. There will also be a lot more participation by people wanting to add data to these systems. They will interact with each other in an informal way; Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth are examples of that. These tools are relatively thin and concentrate on visualisation without the full power of GIS services.

Q. How are technologies like GPS, GLONASS etc having an impact on the GIS market?

Jack: Contextually, we are moving towards a digital earth where we will measure virtually everything that moves or changes. The instruments for doing this include remote sensing, GPS devices, and a whole network of sensors that measure change. Ultimately we will see a virtual representation of all movement, of all change. Some people have described it as the nervous system for the planet to measure water change, climate change, vegetation change, land use change, settlement change, and to model population dynamics.

GPS is very exciting, but at the same time it is just one of the instruments used for scientific measurement. It has definitely had a huge impact because it has allowed us to think about dynamic geography rather than static geography. Geography is the science of our earth and we scientists always like to measure or quantify what’s going on around us. Now, we are measuring weather and traffic dynamically, and using GPS to “measure” people and things as they move around.

Q. We are moving to a tagged world. With respect to this how is GIS moving ?…. in context with the tagged world where does GIS stand?

Jack: Well it has to be so. GIS is, after all, an information system. There are financial information systems, and when transactions occur, tables in a database are updated. There are information systems about people, and these involve software with applications that update records about those people. GIS is an information system about geography, and the transactions are transactions of change and record keeping. The fundamental information system behind LBS or GPS applications is the GIS.

Relational databases are now being extended to support spatial objects, and GIS software components reside on top of these databases and allow the transactions to occur, for maps to be drawn and spatial queries performed. My view is that GIS is at the centre, while instruments like GPS, satellites, and remote sensing are just ways to update the central GIS. I realise that I’m biased…

Q. What will be the future of web GIS?

1.How will it (web GIS) evolve in light of services like Google Earth?
2.With the evolution of web GIS, how will it impact GIS software market?

Jack: In the 70’s and 80’s, if you needed an enterprise software system, you bought a mainframe. In the 80’s and 90’s you bought a relational database. Now the platform is the web. This platform has interesting characteristics that allow you to distribute data as services and perform operations that would be impossible on a single PC or workstation. It allows multiple systems to get connected and used.

Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth have opened the eyes of the world to the power and excitement of geospatial information. Google and Microsoft have concentrated almost entirely on visualisation except for some mashups and certain applications. My view of these big web central servers is that they are interesting because they bring one or two sets of content to people so that they can query and visualise them. But the most exciting thing for me is that we have thousands of distributed services that could be overlaid against a base map, and we can dynamically run models against the data in a distributed environment.

As a GIS software provider, our interest is in helping our users be successful. We have introduced ArcGIS Explorer, and we will roll it out with a lot of content for the whole world. Currently, it comes with 15m resolution, and soon we plan to release it with 1m resolution for different parts of the planet, as well as a bunch of maps. ArcGIS Explorer is for GIS professionals who will take the base maps and add their own data to create applications for their users.

What will evolve now are mini globes with thousands of mini maps that are easy to access and use. The difference is that this technology will dynamically associate one server with another, and this technology is basically GIS integration. This vision has been around for 15 years, but now we actually have a platform to accomplish it.

GIS server architecture is another new development. I’m not talking about serving maps, but rather the whole GIS as a packet of web services. That’s basically what we introduced last year with ArcGIS 9.2. We made everything a service, all functions that we historically had in intelligent workstations or in thick client database environments are being moved on to the web or web services. This means that the thin client browser access, mobile device access, and integration of those services into enterprise systems are possible. This will grow the GIS market by a hundred fold because it makes everything so easy to access and use and integrate with IT systems.
Parallel to this has been the emergence of strong IT, GIS, and Web standards so that GIS services can be integrated successfully.

Q. What have been the milestones for the GIS Industry?

Jack: In terms of milestones, the biggest was the introduction of GIS software products. During the first 12 years of ESRI’s existence we worked on lots of projects, and in the process built a lot of tools. We weren’t doing software engineering. It was software support to perform projects. In 1981 we introduced the product that changed everything- ArcInfo. It allowed us to take all our knowledge that we had acquired during the earlier projects and disseminate it to other people so that they could take those practices and tools and implement it in their own organisation. This was a monumental event. Later, thousands of organisations bought ArcInfo. The second big milestone was when PCs and workstations matured and we reengineered our products for these platforms. The number of users increased ten times when PC ArcInfo was released, and another ten times when ArcView was released. A similar explosion occurred with the emergence of the Web. It’s a new platform that allows people to author information or data, geographic knowledge, maps, models, 3D visualisation, metadata, and more. I see it as a three tiered system: author, serve, and use. GIS professionals author geographic knowledge that is served using the Internet or other medium to the end users who use this knowledge.

Q. How do events like Map World Forum contribute to the geospatial community?

Jack: The geospatial community is made up of a very diverse, multidisciplinary, multi agency, multi organisation community. They are working on every problem, every aspect that the world has faced. The nice part about GIS is that it’s an integration technique and multiple disciplines use it in an integrated way. Forums like this one bring together users from all those different backgrounds and allow them to see each other’s work. That’s perhaps the greatest contribution. It also allows them to see where the industry is moving and to catch up on the latest tools. These forums also help people communicate and build relationships and interact with each other.

Q. Would you like to give some message to the entrepreneurs interested in this industry ?

Jack: There is a strong need for geospatial professionals, people who can actually make these systems work, so getting into this field is as exciting now as it was five or even 25 years ago. There are a lot of opportunities, both in the public and in the private sector. We need technical people who can manage the infrastructures, manage the data flow, build applications, and manage the people in a geospatial work flow environment. We also need people who are interested in building applications on the new platforms so that they can support growing markets. There are a lot of opportunities, especially for young entrepreneurs starting new companies.

Looking at my own career – well I’m not that smart. I just had an early introduction to the concepts and was able to formulate ideas with my colleagues. The secret to success is very hard work, around the clock, not stopping. It requires dedication, vision, and lots and lots of work. I would like to cite my example in the University – at night, my car was the last to leave the parking lot. Even today, I’m the last to leave. That’s what I think it takes for entrepreneurs to be successful. It is not some dramatic idea or some special idea using venture capital. It is the persistent application of talent and work on an ongoing basis – year after year.

The second reason why I’ve been successful is that I listen to my users. I have always believed that I’m in service to other people. The philosophy of serving someone else can drive you if you listen carefully. It is not what you want to do, but what’s needed to be done by you. That’s the most important thing in the world. Successful people serve other peoples’ needs, and not their own.