His Coordinates

“Access to geospatial knowledge will grow exponentially”

Jul 2012 | No Comment

Jack Dangermond

Founder and President,
Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri)

“A big challenge is integrating the surveying profession with the GIS profession.” This statement was part of your interview with us in March 2007. Five years down the line we’d like to ask – Is the integration between Survey and GIS really necessary? Or can each domain not maintain its identity and still work ‘together’?

Surveyors have a rich history and recognized longstanding contribution to societies worldwide. This will always be part of the surveyors’ identity and I don’t think using new technology will change that. I don’t think maintaining domain identity is exclusive of integration. There is a big difference between integrating technologies and integrating professions. Surveyors have many new tools producing large amounts of data, such as LiDAR, highprecision imagery, and GPS. Integrating these new data types and delivering useful and meaningful capabilities for decision making presents challenges, but many surveyors have special skills to manage this. GIS lends capabilities to surveyors for integrating and managing these large data sets and gives them the capabilities for new types of deliverables from these new data. This is why we are continuing to see an increased use of GIS by surveyors worldwide. And for those surveyors who are not yet using GIS, technologies such as ArcGIS Online will offer new vehicles to help them integrate with GIS technology much more easily.

You have been coming to India for many years now and have seen the various phases in the understanding about GIS. However, some still feel the need of ‘convincing deliverables’ in the context of India. Please Comment.

In recent years, I think there has been a big change and that the masses have started to see, understand, and appreciate the capabilities of GIS. Because of this, senior people in government and industry are now able to more easily understand the signifi cance of GIS and are actively doing something about it. The growing awareness of geodesign is also helping in this respect as it expands the vision of GIS into the design practice. All of this is driving a focus on information technology (IT), and GIS technology in particular, as the foundation for economic development and in creating the future of India. To build on this momentum and continue forward, we need to address open data policies and increased sharing of geospatial data. India has much to benefi t from more liberal data policies and open geospatial data sharing. But one important thing we have to overcome in India is the perception that there are high security risks involved with maps of certain scales.

Do you think GIS will be able to maintain its identity or will it become part of a larger IT domain?

IT departments are still primarily concerned with maintaining, optimizing, and securing their organization’s technology infrastructure. They are also tasked with implementing new projects and technologies to meet the needs of various operational units—and to do all of this with existing staff and static budgets. ArcGIS Online provides a way for individual operational units to reap the benefi ts of GIS without a heavy reliance on IT resources. The impact on IT is very minimal because they keep providing the operational data to the various units where the analysis and reporting takes place. This is what “self-service IT” is all about.

How do you see the proposed National GIS initiative by the Government of India?

GIS has proven to be absolutely critical to solving a wide range of problems that require planning, management, and other types of decision making. Multiple agencies and departments in the Indian government have been successfully using GIS in this capacity for many years. The National GIS initiative is an effort to build a platform for linkages across these agencies and departments, resulting in a powerful new infrastructure to help drive India forward.
There are several factors currently at play which will help push the expansion of this initiative in the coming years:

• Technology is becoming faster and cheaper at such a rate that it can handle the types of very large databases that are necessary for a National GIS.

• The model of distributed services that can be dynamically mashed up, applied for various kinds of applications, and deployed in the cloud has now arrived.

• There is growing acknowledgement and acceptance of the concept of a National GIS at various levels of leadership.

What’s really needed to help move this vision forward now is cooperation and collaboration between the various government ministries. Distributed national agencies such as forestry, water, and planning each have large repositories of data which they create and maintain today mostly in isolation from each another. By tying all of their existing activities into a networked portal, there is an opportunity for many ineffi ciencies to be eliminated, and India can fi nally realize the vision of a national spatial data infrastructure.

But there is much more to the National GIS initiative than this. The National GIS also provides a platform for making the data available for much broader application across government, education, and business. The innovative new services delivered on the GIS platform will aid in building a safe and sustainable India.

How does one make GIS a priority with the Government?

Today, there is new talk of government being a platform for society at large. This means that government-based information and IT can be thought of as a platform much like the way we think of the internet or operating systems and other sorts of IT as platforms. By leveraging government IT correctly we can create a better business atmosphere, more prosperous economic development, consider the environment more effectively, and have open communication and citizen engagement with government agencies. We’re still in the early stages of this movement, but certainly GIS will play a signifi cant role in it as it will help facilitate the visualization and communication between government agencies and the rest of society.

Many governments are experiencing tough times due to the current economic downturn, and the easiest way to convince them to prioritize GIS is through a clear presentation of return on investment (ROI). Government organizations worldwide realize a signifi cant return on investment in GIS. GIS is integral to operations, decision making, and communication, and has demonstrated signifi cant ROI over the years. Some of the important ways that GIS can increase government ROI include:

• Direct savings of money and time.

• Increased effi ciency and accuracy.

• Generation of additional revenue.

• Workfl ow automation.

• Improved accountability and transparency.

Likes of Google and Microsoft have redefi ned the geo-spatial visualisation domain. Some of us have concerns that at times they overstep the ‘limits’. What is your opinion on privacy issues in this context?

Esri is a GIS company with the mission to serve our users. Our business model is based on providing our users with useful technology to help them make a difference, not using them as an audience for advertising. Without passing judgment, I’ll just say that these are two very different business models.

Google has certainly played an important role in helping us move geospatial visualization forward, but many people have serious concerns about privacy in an advertising-based business model. Esri’s new ArcGIS Online platform gives you a choice: you can share your data with the entire world, or you can just share it with a group of people you defi ne. That means, for example, local governments can spatially enable all their fi eld workers. Sales people can access their business and sales information. Oil companies can access their natural resource information. So our emphasis isn’t on trying to sell ads to consumers. With ArcGIS Online, Esri is really building enterprise technology for use within universities, businesses, governments, and other organizations that want to maintain control over access to their data. It’s a heterogeneous or hybrid approach, where your organization has some data centers with especially sensitive data that you want to keep internally, and some more general geospatial data which can be shared with the outside world in an open cloud environment. For example, a government agency may build base maps which are available to everyone, while keeping some of their sensitive operational information on their own server.

It has been over 25 years now you founded ESRI. Did you envision at that time where you see Esri today?

Our company has had a rich and diverse history supporting thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of users around the world. As Environmental Systems Research Institute became ESRI and then Esri, our work also evolved: from performing geographic planning projects and environmental studies to developing GIS software. Some might see this shift as a marked change in our philosophy, but in fact I actually see it as a reinforcement of our philosophy. Let me explain why.

From the very beginning, Esri has been about making a difference. The shift from doing hands-on geospatial project work to building generic geoprocessing tools meant that instead of focusing on a handful of important projects where we could make a difference, we could codify and refi ne and grow our portfolio of geospatial tools and distribute them widely. By enabling a virtual global army of planners and scientists with these tools, we took a giant leap forward in our mission to facilitate better decisions about geography through the application of sound science. Strategic collaboration with business partners and NGOs has further leveraged our work and extended our reach to the widest possible audience.
Today, we continue to do both professional services work as well as software product development. This mixed culture has provided many benefi ts to our users and Esri including ensuring that our products are practical and responsive to real production requirements. Governments, industry leaders, academics, and non-profi ts trust our tools to connect them with the analytical knowledge they need to make the critical decisions that shape the planet.

Over the last few decades, widespread adoption of GIS has caused a change in thinking. People can look at overlays of maps, see new relationships, see different kinds of phenomena, and it creates a new understanding. Up until recently this has largely taken place in specialized communities, or with professionals using specifi c applications.

Today, GIS is being deployed on a new platform—the Web and cloud computing— and we all are in the early stages of adjusting to it. The characteristics of this environment are easy-to-use technology, more pervasive access, and the ability to mash-up or integrate distributed knowledge. This means that access to geospatial knowledge will grow exponentially. Our existing users are gradually adopting this new paradigm and integrating this platform with their traditional workfl ows. So, in addition to running their enterprises, they are putting up public services and applications that can be accessed by anyone.

The next step in GIS evolution means that everyone will have access to the idea of map overlays and spatial analysis. While traditional GIS has brought greater understanding within organizations, this next step will mean greater understanding within society at large. It also means greater collaboration and communication across organizations. This will ultimately result in a geospatial platform that could potentially reach billions of people.

For Esri, creating GIS products and solutions is a business strategy that helps accomplish a much greater goal. We are committed to helping solve Earth’s most pressing challenges and helping people take informed action based on a better understanding of our world. I am personally very appreciative of the opportunity to participate and continue to play a part in making this happen.

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