While the majority of the geospatial world was at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego last week, I was at a different conference in Orlando, Florida. This was my third time attending the Children with Diabetes (CWD) Friends for Life (FFL) conference and I’ll be there as often as I can for the foreseeable future. It’s beneficial in many obvious ways; enabling us to keep up with the latest developments in diabetes research and technologies as well as keeping us refreshed in terms of diabetes management best practices.
The unexpected thing for me over the years has been how the lessons I’ve learned at FFL have begun to translate into other aspects of life outside of diabetes. (I do not have diabetes myself but I am a parent of a person who does.) This year, perhaps because the ongoing Esri UC was somewhere in the back of my mind, it provided a different lens through which to view my approach to my professional activities.
The content at FFL is varied. Some touches on leading edge work in the field of biological treatments such as the Diabetes Research Institute’s BioHub as well as mechanical/electronic treatments such as the Artificial Pancreas Project. Other content touches upon achieving more effective day-to-day management using current techniques such as insulin pumps, shots, carbohydrate counting and the like.
The conference includes many pharmaceutical companies offering competing products, differing lines of research that stand a chance of superseding one another, representatives of government agencies, insurance companies and advocacy groups that can have very adversarial relationships. Yet FFL has an overwhelmingly positive tone. This because everyone is focused on one goal: the elimination of diabetes. Any approach that represents a step toward that goal is cheered by all, as is any technique that eases the burden of living with diabetes in the meantime. Ultimately, the various technologies showcased at the conference help facilitate progress toward this goal but the technologies are not the point.
Let me say that again.
The technologies are not the point.
This is the lesson that I am reminded of and am bringing back to my professional existence in the geospatial industry. Our industry has seen a lot of innovation from a number of players in recent years. The flowering of mature capability in the open-source world has, in my opinion, pushed proprietary vendors such as Esri offer improvements to their products and better solutions to their users. It can be easy to get caught up in the petty intrigues of the industry. What are Esri’s real motivations behind their latest acquisition? What mapping library is that government system using? Is that API really RESTful? And so on…
All of the geospatial tools in the marketplace, regardless of provenance, serve to facilitate solutions to a myriad of real-world problems. And those problems are the point. As a consultant in the geospatial industry, my job is to help my customers find the tools that best solve their problems and help implement them. My responsibility is to keep an open mind about all of the tools that are available.
(May be considered NSFW by some)
That doesn’t mean that I don’t have my preferences. I believe that open systems are better than closed. I believe that open-source licenses are inherently better at facilitating both enterprise scalability and grass-roots innovation. I believe that there’s a lot of really good proprietary, closed-source software. I believe that the greatest asset of any organization is its data. I believe that any tool that restricts an organization’s access to its data and its ability to share its data how it sees fit should be strongly discouraged. I believe that users bear the ultimate responsibility for understanding the technologies that they choose. I believe there is nothing more interoperable than a URL. I believe lots of other things learned through patience, experience, and collaboration.
If I were employed by a vendor or a vendor-like organization, I may take a slightly more partisan view. I also don’t begrudge such organizations their own biases. I expect them to be loyal to their tools and to want to see them used and improved through that use. I would be suspect of them if they weren’t.
That, however, is not the case with me. So, believing that open is better than closed, my responsibility is to ensure that my own thinking and my own mind are kept open. That’s something that I always know, but it is good to be reminded of it by being immersed in a community that is strongly focused on a goal.