#EsriFedCon Day One – Users Will Be Happy

I didn’t catch the first half of the Esri Federal GIS Conference plenary but James did a good recap of it on his blog. I did, however, catch the second half and the opening of the exhibit hall.

GIS letters from the road

This year was a departure from previous years in that it wasn’t a litany of the new things coming in each component of the Esri stack. The “GIS letters from the road” theme drew attention to problems that can be solved by leveraging the entire stack as a unit. It was a good twist that made it impossible to just drop in, hear about your favorite Esri product, and drop out. I have to give kudos to Esri’s marketing team for taking it in this direction.

Overall, what I saw with 10.1 is that end users will be very happy. The whole user experience is smoother and just easier to use for end users. Some of what I saw was capability that has been around for quite some time but not presented to the user very well. Others, such as the drag-and-drop imagery handling is capability that eliminates work that technicians used to invest a lot of time into. Esri has really stepped up to automate a lot of bread-and-butter geoprocessing and include it in the core products as standard capability.

Some of things I saw, such as the entire situational awareness demo, didn’t show anything that I hadn’t seen implemented by consultants and business partners in the past. In fact, the entire capability of the situational awareness demo was very close to something I built for an ops center in 2003. Additionally, niche capabilities such as drag-and-drop CSVs are things that would have once been left to business partners.

So, what’s different? Esri understands their customer better now; especially the Federal government. A world where an organization needs to take a balkanized approach to building the full capability they need, with a core stack from Esri and a bunch of add-on extensions from business partners, is a procurement nightmare for Federal organizations. The fact that such third-party tools sit outside of an ELA doesn’t help. The end result is a less-than-satisfactory experience for users and perhaps a lot of unnecessary in-house development to avoid additional procurement. So, stuff all of this user-friendly capability into the core product and move on. I actually don’t have much of a problem with that.

All of this will be great for Esri and its end users. It might be less great for GIS technicians and certain kinds of business partners. With regard to analysts, all was not dark. Geoprocessing packages are a very powerful tool to encapsulate custom GIS analysis methods into standardized, repeatable processes that can be executed by end users. See that? End users again. If you’re an experienced analyst who understands complex spatial modeling techniques, there’s a bright future being the go-to person for such things. The technicians who did all the mundane data prep might want to start touching up their resumes, however.

What I saw yesterday leads me to the same conclusion for both analysts and business partners: the ones who will thrive will be those who have a deep understanding of a vertical domain to which GIS can be applied. What I didn’t see yesterday was a big push by Esri to get into the various verticals. This makes sense as is it would quickly spread them too thin. Business partners who made a living building generic add-on tools to plug gaps in ArcGIS probably have a limited time left. Business partners who really understand something like climate modeling, solar panel placement optimization, wildlife migration patterns, oil and gas exploration or a host of other vertical disciplines and understand how to apply GIS to them and build tools on top of the ArcGIS platform to support them will probably have nothing to worry about.

The same goes for analysts. Current GIS analysts with deep experience will continue to be in demand. If, however, you are currently in college with the idea of being a “GIS Analyst”, I strongly advise you to switch to another discipline and work toward becoming an analyst within that discipline who happens to know how use GIS as a tool.

What about developers? Between all of the platforms on which ArcGIS is running and all of the tools needed in the various vertical domains, I think things will be wide open for quite some time. And, as the demos yesterday showed, there’s a lot of value in being the person who can write the code that turns imagery preparation into a drag-and-drop process.

What I saw yesterday was that Esri understands the value of the infrastructure they have put in place and that they also possess a mature, holistic understanding of their user base and are now happy to step on the gas pedal.