GIS in the Rockies / NoCo Roundup

Last week marked a couple of firsts for me: it was my first time attending the GIS in the Rockies conference and also my first time in Northern Colorado. I enjoyed my trip greatly.

First off, the people of Northern Colorado were universally nice. That held true of everyone I met at the conference as well as people at every restaurant, gas station and other establishment I entered. Of course, why not? The countryside is beautiful. For a lifelong resident of the East Coast, the countryside of Northern Colorado represents the stereotypical image I get in my mind when I think of “the West.” Driving north from Denver, the plains stretched out on one side as far as I could see while, on the other side, mountains arose as if just “plopped” there. All of this under a sky so vast I have really only seen its like back East when driving through the Everglades.

In this setting, I made my way to the conference. This is the first time I’ve been to such a regional conference. Due to committments at home, I had to fly out Wednesday morning so I did not get to catch Peter Batty’s keynote. I did, however, run into Brian Timoney and Glenn Letham rather quickly so I started out with friendly faces.

The first session I attended was a VMWare session related to running ArcGIS Server in a virtualized environment. My primary reason for attending this one was, due to the staggered schedule of the sessions, it was the only one that was beginning as I got there. That didn’t break a lot of new ground for me but I got to finally meet Brian Sullivan and Jeff Fruhwirth, whom I have followed on Twitter for some time. I missed the “Web Mercator” session, which I understand was very heavy on math and left some brains bleeding at the end. I would’ve loved to have caught that one since I have been hip-deep in dealing with that for the last few weeks.


I won’t make this post a blow-by-blow of each session I attended but one of the things I liked about the conference was that the focus seemed to be more about using GIS as a tool to solve real problems rather than focusing on the latest bells and whistles of a particular software. This was true even in the software-focused sessions such as “ArcGIS Server: Factors Affecting Performance and Scalbility.” Mostly, though, the sessions were more like Anthony Alvarado’s session discussing monitoring of levees in the Sacramento Valley. In this one, it became very clear that GIS was one tool among many in a very complex effort. As a consultant who is usually brought in to “do the GIS,” this was a particularly effective reality check.

One of the more illuminating experiences for me was the Wednesday night social. Quite by accident, I stumbled into it. I had been awake for something like 18 hours at that point so I was foraging for food and happened into the venue where the social was occuring. As a result, I got to spend a couple of hours with people working Front Range GIS in various capacities. Some were with Boulder County, another supported the mining industry as a consultant. All had one thing in common: they had not heard of the open-source technologies that many in my extended circle discuss and use. This, again, served as a good reality check.

Over time, I have become an advocate of being a “technology omnivore.” We all have our primary toolsets (proprietary or otherwise) with which we work most of the time but proficiency with other tools increases our versatility and can also cause us to re-examine the ways we use our primary tools, making us more efficient with them. Exposure to alternate tools may cause us to think critically about tasks that may otherwise become rote through the habitual use of a single tool.

This concept was illustrated prefectly for me in the talk that preceded mine, “Utilizing PostGIS for Large-Scale Geoprocessing” by Robert Spotts and Michael Tafel. They described how they were able to use PostGIS and spatial SQL to accomplish a large task in a few minutes which had previously run for days in ArcGIS without completing. It’s this type of “right tool for the job” approach that familarity with multiple tool sets can enable. That served as a good lead-in for my talk on zigGIS (Michael Tafel did a great job arranging the track).

I have a tendency to really wind myself up before a talk so, afterward, I cut out. Thursday evening was a treat due to good food, beer and conversation with Sean Gillies, Brian Timoney, Chris Helm and my good friend (and recent Colorado transplant) Dan Getman (Glenn Letham also stopped by for a bit). I hadn’t seen Dan for quite some time and I was happy to see that he and his family are settling in well out there. There was a little shop talk and a lot of non-shop talk and it was a good evening. Thanks to Sean for setting it up. The work Dan and Chris are doing at the National Renewable Energy Lab along with the work Sean does with mapping ancient sites serves to illustrate the wide range of applications for which geospatial technologies can be used. The variety of tools they use also serves to illustrate there is more than one way to approach things.

On a personal level, I got a lot out of the conference. Stepping out of my bubble for a few days was a good way to recharge my imagination for the work I do and the tools I use. Although I saw a lot of different applications and a variety of tools in use, I also saw indications that knowledge of alternate tools (such as open-source) is not as widespread or as deep as it may appear to me from where I normally sit. I will need to chew on this fact for a while.

Lastly, Northern Colorado was a big hit with me. I really need to bring my family out for a trip. If I could ever get over my need to be within 20 minutes of tidal salt water, it’s a place that could definitely be on the list.

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