My 2019 Interview with Jack Dangermond

Above: Dangermond and Duggan at the Esri UC 2019.

What’s changed in a year? 

Editor’s Note: At last year’s Esri User Conference, writer Nick Duggan interviewed Jack Dangermond, co-founder (with Laura Dangermond) of Esri. At this year’s UC Nick spent time with Jack again to delve deeper.

Nicholas Duggan: First, I need to thank you. It may have been Dr. Roger Tomlinson who coined the term, “Computerized Geographic Information System,” but without you and Laura, GIS would never have made it to the masses. I feel that you don’t get the credit you both deserve.

Jack Dangermond: But it’s only just beginning.

ND: Exactly. Where do you see things going from here?

JD: There are two kinds of worlds. One first started with GIS as a foundation for very specialized systems like forestry or utilities. My background was not in those kinds of systems; my background was in using geography in projects, like to pick the right new town or location for something or for making a beautiful map.

[GIS] has its two kinds of origins: one is system thinking, and that’s why Roger started his forest management systems. My background was really as a planner and landscape architect, to use geography to help us make a decision. We would spend a lot of money doing all this data analyzing and making maps to help somebody else make decisions.

This other kind of thinking, which was a geographic information system, had a notion of transactional data management of things. Think of the [map] layers today, the forest polygons, the land records, the water lines.

In the early ‘70s, most of the way that Esri operated was based on projects. Nobody bought our software; we just worked on projects.

By the end of that time period, people wanted to buy the software, but also they wanted to buy information systems, and there was just nothing available. So they would take project-based systems and try make them useful in information systems.

What we have is a close relation with our users where they gave us feedback, saying that “you have to have this” or “you have to do that,” and we began to realize that this was becoming an enterprise information system that we were building.

Maturity didn’t begin to happen until the beginning of the ‘80s to mid-‘80s, and we started passionately studying database theorem. Single database, transactional-orientated database, multiple views … things that SQL did so well with Oracle. We developed a kind of spatial SQL, so we began to think about the first principles for how you do geographic data management.

Now, that has matured nicely. Now there are probably hundreds of thousands of GIS-based enterprise systems that are systems of record, which is basically what people are doing but with the thought of doing projects within the domain of desktop users. There are millions of those users, and that continues on.

Most recently we’ve been wiring these systems together with project-based systems and systems of engagement; these are apps. Apps can reach out to people on the web and geospatially enable all kinds of thinking.

Then another overlay on this was the notion of deep analytics for science. And that, like project-based systems, was early in the game. Geographers would get GIS and explore the unknowns to figure out what others had not by overlaying maps, developing digital models to interpret geography.

Geospatial Infrastructure

Where does all this lead? My own thought that I was trying to get across at this conference was that the enterprise systems, the systems of record and the web-mapping systems which are an expression of them, are going to get interconnected, and they’ve started to get interconnected with these portals.

We invented the first portal technology about seven or eight years ago to link multiple services together and add access to them. This was just a service at first; portals had been around for quite a while.

The vision here is that the service directories could not only just search and run a distributed service, but they could also dynamically integrate multiple services, no matter what the data structure would be, and make them available in different kinds of clients—in web clients, in thick desktop clients—or they could continue to support project-based stuff.

[Directories could also make service available in] field clients, and with dashboards, and in exploration clients like Insights, so you can have exploration data, exploration geospatial data, all built into one system. I guess I would call that a system of systems, and it’s also the basis for this nervous system [we would] technically describe as geospatial infrastructure.

That idea is not brand-new; that dates back to the early 90s when people said, “Let’s build an NSDI [national spatial data infrastructure]. Well, there was no technology, nothing; it was just an idea; it never went anywhere. The whole focus was on building data infrastructure.

What we’re seeing now with all these [external] agencies and organizations is it’s a services environment that is linked to people doing real work, whether it is project work or working on the build-out of geospatial data, forestry, running cities smarter, or making locational decisions in businesses.

Global Impact

All the technology now is mature enough, and that is maturing in the shape of shared geospatial infrastructure. As that matures, like the web itself, [it will be] in a context of geographic knowledge which people will start using to impact almost every function on the planet.

I don’t think people are aware of this funny little thing called a GIS, but it is going to literally transform thinking. It already is. It’s going to transform our science, it’s going to transform our cities; geospatial infrastructure is the foundation for smart cities and smart utilities. It’s going to transform ultimately everything we do, just like a nervous system.

You asked the question, “Where is it going?” Fundamentally, there’s this division between these enterprise or organizational systems. This is true of all technology and consumer systems like Google, Apple, Facebook; these are all for consumers, as opposed to our [Esri] tools which are designed for enterprise.

How do we make this bridge? It isn’t that there isn’t mapping in consumer space; there is Mapbox, there’s Google. They just focus on one thing, but it’s not the same as the deep and sophisticated enabling data and tools that allow Google to operate nice systems on the enterprise.

I’m working on something that will transform … [pause]

ND: Tease!

Geospatial Nervous System

JD: I think we are releasing software at the end of the year which will explain more. It’s not a tease; it’s the idea that we can feed the rest of society with spatial literacy, that they would have the ability to be enriched by everything that’s happening within the enterprise space and also use the same techniques.

ND: Is this the same as what we are seeing with Excalibur, where the GIS is hidden?

JD: Historically Esri has focused on ArcGIS: we see ArcGIS online, we see ArcGIS enterprise, it’s all around ArcGIS. Excalibur is a separate system which focuses on the workflows for image analyst. I call it geo-enabled.

I guess we could have engineered it into ArcGIS, but it’s like putting more raisins in a muffin: the muffin’s full. There is this thing that will continue which is ArcGIS, and there will be a family of geospatial systems.

One of them is called Urban, which is all about urban planning, a visual, interactive planning capability about everything in a city, in an open and interactive environment for the citizens, the developers, the architects, the planners—all of the collaborators. I suppose you can get some of it by configuring ArcGIS Pro, but this is integrated workflows in a geospatially enabled system.

There’s one for indoors [called Indoors] so you can do GIS indoors and indoor complexes and apply some of the same theory, but it’s very specialized.

There is one for Mission, and there’s another one for business: it’s actually called ArcBusiness app. These are connected to GIS through geospatial infrastructure, but they are all for specific use cases. It’s what is going to be maturing over the next decade.

Finally, there will be engagement systems. Engagement systems are a way for maps and apps to connect citizens through hub: how we get collaboration between organizations, analysts, and researchers in GIS. Hub is the switch arm towing geospatial infrastructure into the nervous system.

A geospatial nervous system: that’s my sense of the future.

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