Esri FedUC: Clouds, crowds and mobile GIS

Jack Dangermond is seeing his vision realized. More than 40 years after he founded Esri, GIS is moving outside of its traditional boundaries to find new niches in both the consumer and enterprise spaces.

So what happened? I met with Dangermond, Esri's president, this morning at the Esri Federal User Conference in Washington, DC to talk about where the technology has been - and what's driving it: Web services, crowdsourced content, mobile, and cloud computing.

Esri now has what can be a confusing array of options for the uninitiated. I asked Dangermond sort it all out.

GIS has two focuses, he says. One is for traditional missions such as providing mapping data to help attack forest fires or to create land use plans. But increasingly, he says, "The GIS stuff is taken out of one domain and put into another," and the number and type of edge applications is growing.

Web services have enabled that. "People are making their maps available on the Web as Web services," and can publish them to the community on Esri' ArcGIS Online Web site, Dangermond says. "Geospatially enabled Web services enable mere mortals to understand the information."

And GIS doesn't have to be a back-room operation anymore. Rather than keeping everything GIS experts create on an in-house server or desktop running ArcGIS, organizations can do mash-ups and publish and share them internally or more broadly using resources such as the free ArcGIS Online and Microsoft SliverLight-powered ArcGIS Explorer services, which in turn allow for additional customization. Since ArcGIS Online launched last July, users have uploaded more than 50,000 data sets, which other users have rated and commented on, Dangermond says.

GIS professionals no longer have to buy and maintain their own ArcGIS Server. The system can be accessed as a subscription service hosted on Amazon's cloud services today - and it will be available on Microsoft Azure and IBM CloudBurst services by year end. "People rent the software instead of buying it," he says. Version 10.1 of ArcGIS, to be released later this year, will move the cloud offering up a notch, allowing users who consume the service to be working from a shared ArcGIS codebase rather than a dedicated virtual server instance.

For business analysts who want to do it themselves but don't have the technical chops or in-house resources to create their own GIS apps, Esri has developed highly targeted GIS applications that provide direct access to thousands of public and private data sets. These include Business Analyst Online, ArcLogistics Online for delivery route optimization, Community Analyst (in public beta) and Redistricting Online (coming next month). Business Analyst and ArcLogistics online level the playing field for smaller businesses, Dangermond says. "the big firms all use Business Analyst Desktop or Server. "Business Analyst Online democratizes all of that analytics," he says, allowing smaller firms to optimize their own operations without getting caught up in the cost and complexity of a full-blown GIS system. ArcLogistics Online, he says, typically provides small delivery companies with about a 15% savings on operations.

Some assembly is still required to get what you want with these SaaS applications, and they're not as customizable as having an application you build from the ground up. But the applications provide a workflow that's much easier for the GIS novice to navigate - and they're plenty powerful. "We've acquired a lot of data to make these systems work," Dangermond says, with 5,000 to 6,000 layers available in Business Analytics Online alone.

Finally, you don't need a laptop or desktop to consume GIS apps anymore. ArcGIS Businesses are developing GIS applications for mobile devices including the iPad, and Esri itself rolled out an iOS version of its popular Business Analyst Online.

So now users can run GIS software on a local PC, from a Web browser or smart phone, pull data from the desktop, cloud-based or on-premise ArcGIS server or from ArcGIs Online, and distribute the maps or apps they create to select groups or the general public by way of ArcGIS Online.

Dangermond likens GIS to where the early days of the movie business, when producers simply pointed the cameras at a stage play and distributed the results. "What you've seen here with respect to maps is something akin to that," Dangermond says. The mash-ups show what's possible, but the real movie has yet to start.

Today Esri's products are still very much presented as a loosely connected assortment of pieces and parts. The challenge now is to connect the dots between all of these offerings, pull them together under a unifying umbrella, and explain clearly to those users who are bringing GIS into new domains (as opposed to its core base of die-hard techie, GIS experts) how the whole story fits together.

But if these are the previews, I can't wait to see the full-length feature.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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