A Whirlwind Week Capped By WhereCampDC

The week of June 6, 2011 seemed to be something of a whirlwind week for the Metro DC geo community. On June 7th, two meetups took place at about the same time, each with relevance to spatial technologies:

Esri continued their excellent “Dev Meetup” series with an event in DC. I had the honor of giving the leadoff talk, “5 Myths About GIS in 2011,” which I will post in the near future. There were also five great lightning talks highlighting a range of projects and issues. It also gave me a chance to finally meet a lot of people, including many that I’ve known through Twitter. I like these meetups because they are fairly no-holds-barred. I was given two guidelines for my talk: 1) Don’t make it a sales pitch and 2) Try not to trash Esri too badly. I was happy to see that most of the speakers used that latitude well, talking about larger concepts and integration of various technologies and not just “here’s my ArcGIS Server site.”

At about the same time, the DC Tech Meetup was happening. There, Andrew Turner of GeoIQ talked about “Big Data and the 4th Dimension,” about what they are doing to analyze large data sets spatially and temporally. I was unable to attend this event as I was speaking at the other one but it seemed well-received. I find the increased exposure of the DC-area geo community exciting after so many years.

Of course, the week was capped by WhereCampDC, which spanned Friday night (with Ignite Spatial) and Saturday (with the unconference itself). I was unable to attend Ignite as I had previous personal commitments although people were still buzzing the next day about Sophia Parafina‘s “WMS is Dead” talk. My understanding is that Slideshare will never be able to capture the true essence of the talk. 🙂

WhereCampDC was my first experience with the unconference format and I may never view a traditional conference the same way again. I won’t go into detail about how it works; I’ll just say go to one if you get the chance. The event itself was eye-opening for me in a lot of ways. I work primarily in the US Federal government sector, and WhereCampDC gave me a chance to learn about some of the humbling work being done by people in the development, humanitarian and environment sectors. I was left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the work they are doing.

I took a different tack with WhereCampDC than I tend to take with most conferences and I avoided the more strict technical discussions (although the one on spatial databases/Fusion Tables would have been fun) and stuck more to discussions of concepts and issues. The exception to this was a discussion of R, in which I have both personal and professional interest and about which I trying to learn more. That discussion was helpful for me in giving me some places to start.

I also sat in on a discussion of digitizing historical data. The discussion focused a lot on ways to use crowd-sourcing to assist in digitizing old data that currently exists in in analog form. The need to do so is readily apparent as such data will support automated analysis of various kinds. Obviously, getting such data into digital form is a monumental task so the discussion focused on way to motivate people to participate in such efforts. This concept is perfectly illustrated by www.oldweather.org, which was the topic of Javier de la Torre‘s Ignite talk (which I also missed) and was still generating buzz the next day. To be honest, the discussion took a different direction than I expected but I found it more valuable also.

Next, I listened to Dave Smith talk about how the EPA is implementing linked data. Dave is very knowledgeable on this subject and EPA seems to be making good headway.

The “NoGIS” discussion was another one that went a different direction than I expected and left me pleasantly surprised. Sophia Parafina kicked it off by defining NoGIS as a joke intended to get people talking about new tools and techniques centered around big data, time and other factors that have are not addressed well by GIS tools as they have evolved until now. The discussion gelled around the idea of taking a more people-centric view of the uses of spatial technologies (thus the tongue-in-cheek “SoylentGIS” term that popped up in the discussion). I was also happy to hear Dane Springmeyer call for a positive discourse that doesn’t divide people into camps or put them on the defensive (even unintentionally). I think he made a great point because there has already been some bristling about the term and that can impede thoughtful discussion. In general, I found the NoGIS discussion to be constructive and free of hyperbole.

GIS is people!
GIS is people!

Andrew Turner offered a thought exercise about being able to tap into the information stream (think social media, news, weather, etc.) about a place, which took the discussion to the challenges of doing such a thing. This is a different spin that is not readily addressable by GIS tools as we have known them. At the same time, the traditional use cases of GIS (land-use planning, cartographic production, etc.) are still necessary and valid. So the discussion wasn’t so much about “this instead of that” as about recognizing that the nature of data, how we access it, how we produce it and what we expect from it is changing and that different tools are needed to better address this new relationship with information.

So, in the span of seven hours, we touched upon very old data, traditional GIS, emerging data streams and ways to exploit them. There’s a lot of innovation going on that was exciting to see. This was probably the best “work-related” Saturday I’ve ever spent. I’ll be reflecting on my WhereCampDC experience for a while.

The flowering of community in the DC-area geo scene represented by these events is long overdue and I hope the momentum continues. The primary industry in our region is government and I think the compartmentalization of the local geo community largely reflects the culture of that industry (and the defense and intelligence sectors in particular). That said, government will only gain the efficiencies it needs if individuals begin reaching across those boundaries to discuss tools, techniques and issues. For that reason, I think the organizers of WhereCampDC and the other events deserve a lot of credit for pushing that process forward in our segment of the tech community.