ESRI International Users Conference, Day 4

My 2nd ESRI conference was the last ESRI conference held in Palm Springs, California. We flew from Nashville, to Atlanta, then to LAX. From LAX we boarded an 18 passenger puddle-jumper, stopping first at Orange County Airport, then finally Palm Springs. I highly recommend that special flight leg. The flight is rough as the route is over and around the San Jouquin mountains. The air currents flowing around the mountains keep pilots busy. If flying during daylight one of the U.S.’s first wind farms is clearly visible from the windows.

20130709-224338.jpgSome readers may wonder, What is ESRI? Why should I care? Is what this company does important? What is this acronym GIS? To answer those questions I’ll begin with the pictures on the refrigerator.

These refrigerators are merely mock-ups of real Frigidaires but the pictures on them are real. Real maps made by real kids and posted on fake fridges for 15,000 people to examine. 15,000 give or take because that is the usual number of people who attend the yearly ESRI International Conference. The fridges and the pics are right inside the front doors of the San Diego Convention Center and are almost impossible to miss, or ignore.

Everyone is intrinsically a geographer. From our earliest days, our memories are geography-infused.

“Mom, remember when we went to the grocery store and you fell down?”

“Remember when we used to live in Warrensburg? Do you?”

“I remember when we used to vacation at that lake and there was that dam we had to drive across.”

Everyone builds cognitative maps, mental maps of our experiences and our surroundings. We know where our friends live and how to walk there. We know who has mean dogs and yards with fences and yards with no fences. We know where the cranky old people live and what street the bully lives on. Sometimes, we write these details down and when we do we call the resulting drawing a map.

Maps do not require scale bars, and they don’t need a legend, and they don’t need a north arrow. Leave off these items, these marginalia, from a map and you risk confusing your audience. Using software, we can take the information from paper, from brains, from smartphones and tablets, from satellites and aircraft, and make maps. Really cool, informative, and interactive maps.

Now, look closer at the fridges. We don’t see artwork, we see maps made by 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders, maps made using some pretty hard-core software, actually. Thanks to the crappy resolution of my iPhone coupled with the hindsight realization I should have gotten a close-up of a map, I don’t have a higher resolution pic to share, but it should be obvious from the color, contrast, and shape of the blobs the kids mapped information associated with the United States.

In a nutshell, and granted its a huge nutshell, ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) is a privately-held software company building apps, tools, software, together with ideas to transform our ideas into interactive maps. And I lied a little bit. Maps are not the end result. Maps are tools to help answer questions and ask more questions. One of the maps, near the bottom-right, is entitled, “Tough Times for Turkeys.” I’m guessing the map shows the number of turkeys harvested during the turkey hunting season. The map is color-coded, each state is shaded a color based on the number of turkeys killed. The map could be used to figure out where turkeys live, where they don’t, otherwise known as the “Turkey Belt.” The information could be collected year-to-year to look at hunting trends. Every state Fish & Wildlife office collects information on hunting and fishing and related activities.

Now we know what ESRI is, a software company which specializes in taking numbers and converting those numbers into visualizations, like maps. Those numbers are not only mere integers but represent the spectrum of numeric and text information plus, and this is the catch, plus some kind of location the numbers can be attached to. The location can be something like a ZIP Code, a street address, or a GPS coordinate. Or, in astronomy, one might refer to “right azimuth and declination,” or maybe “altitude and azimuth.” Anything can be mapped, even the Universe.

We should all care about geography. Sometimes, geography is literally in-your-face. When you are using Yelp to find a local coffeeshop or pub, Yelp is using geography to assist you. When you turn on your TomTom to set-out on your weekend roadtrip, geography is in-your-face. When you buy a house, geography determines your options. ESRI helps build some of the tools being used today to assist people do precisely what I describe above. And more, a lot more.

20130709-234601.jpgThe tools, the people – the developers, programmers, engineers, technicians – the computers, the software, the information, the network infrastructure, all of these together is what is called a geographic information system (GIS). Sometimes, the “GIS” is one person, one computer, one software package. Other times, the GIS is huge. Walgreens, Target, Starbucks, and even Little Caesers have GIS environments for the express purpose of managing their business. Even the town in which you live is most likely being managed to some degree by a GIS. If not, your town should be; tax payer dollars are being wasted if not. Crimes are solved using GIS. Utilities are managed using GIS. The E-911 system, if one is in your community, runs purely from a GIS.

Right there in front of you, beside you, above you, below you – all around you, geography is happening. Don’t freak-out; it’s been going on for millions of years. Technology is merely helping us understand the geography.

In fact, you can become part of geography right now. ArcGIS Online is a good way to begin. Or, download and try out their free data viewer, ArcGIS Explorer Desktop.

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