This year Oil and Gas Space got the opportunity to attend and cover the Esri User Conference, and Esri did not disappoint. While we were there we got the opportunity to interview the founder of Esri, Jack Dangermond one on one. You can find the link to the full interview at the end of the article to watch Jack talk about Esri and learn some exciting history and reveal some exciting news he shared with us. Let me start off by saying that Mr. Dangermond is ever the consummate professional. He was a delight to speak with and offer some fascinating insights to how Esri came to be, the direction it’s headed and even gave us a little advice to pass on to you, our readers.
I’m sure one of the questions Jack receives is how did Esri start. We talked about it more in depth during the interview and he revealed some interesting details. ArcInfo was created out of a need for Harvard University realizing the benefit of using computer graphics to make data driven decisions and Jack being the consultant for the project developed a few copies of what he says was his homemade software. Eventually he was able to sell a few more copies in the private industry but soon realized that he was not going to be able to support it. That’s when he hired Scott Morehouse and he completely reimagined the software and started all over and started working with their existing customers and collaborating which kept the company evolving, eventually going from a services company to a products company. This is still the model they follow today, keeping a strong focus on building a core platform upon which users can build their own applications and implement.
Esri has created a nonprofit program to help lead the way in providing small organizations the capabilities to implement GIS systems throughout the organization to share and create data. This has led some people to view Esri as a leader for local and federal government to look for standardization of data. Jack explains that this is not the case. His hope is that GIS will empower these organizations and give them access to the knowledge and power of GIS in hopes of them finding this desired and very much needed open source platform, which is on the rise in use by Esri users.
Sometimes in this industry we begin to wonder if the users of the data actually understand what data is or do they just think it is a line on a map. This can often be frustrating for us as GIS experts because we understand that it is actually much more than that. It is a complex, structured information management system designed to hold geographic information and associated data with the feature. Jack explains that GIS powers the integration of “big data” and “big understanding” by providing a platform for data scientists, the end users, and the communication between the two.
Esri is hoping with Insights for ArcGIS that this will help bridge that gap between the data users and the data creators and administrators. Here’s a *Spoiler Alert*, Jack told us in his interview exclusively that Esri is working on its next phase of Insights where they will tie in the GeoAnalytical Server to maximize its geoprocessing capabilities and take data exploration to the next level.
So everybody in the GIS industry is asking about a hot button topic, “How can I effectively communicate what I actually do as a GIS Professional to others in my organization outside of the industry?” This can be a tricky question because GIS requires many types of roles to work, from technicians, analysts, managers, developers, and database administrators. Jack was able to sum it up in one sentence: “we are geographic data transaction managers. Just as Oracle has done with SAP to handle financial transactions and ERP from Microsoft for handling business transactions, GIS manages, maintains and documents geographical assets and the transactions that are associated with them.”
We hope us here at Oil and Gas Space were able to provide you with some insights, no pun intended, on the mind of Jack Dangermond and the future of Esri GIS. We look forward to bringing you more great articles about GIS in the Oil and Gas space and fascinating interviews with people who are leading the way in our field.
See the full transcript below:
S: Shyla Liebscher
J: Jack Dangermond
S: Hi! This is Shyla Liebscher with Oil & Gas Space, and we’re here with the founder of Environmental Systems Research Institute, ESRI as you like to know it, Jack Dangermond. Thank you Jack for having us today for your interview, we appreciate it. So we’ll get started.
S: So my first question is, y’all work with a lot of governmental and non-profit agencies and this has had a substantial impact on the sharing of government and information. Do you see this leading to a stewardship or ambassador role inside of the government to regulate big data and create standards from coast to coast?
J: I would like to say that we could really help in this area, but primarily this is a technology company, so we’ve got a platform and we work with organizations to encourage open data sharing, but in the policy space, I think we are a little shy. I think we need to be clearer about what we can do, and what we feel we are uncomfortable doing. So, in the last couple of years, we have evolved a technology for open data sharing and so many of our governmental customers are now using our portal technology for open data to disseminate their information. An example of that is, just between January and now, here in June, over 15 million data downloads have occurred, and there’s been about 60,000 data sets shared. These are base maps or imagery or information that people are willing to share publicly. So, I think the big difference that is part of our standard platform you could do open data, so you don’t have to buy something special, spend a lot of money on it if you are an ArcGIS user you can open that portal for free. That’s very encouraging to us. On the other hand, we also have a very strong commitment to open sharers and have built a CGI platform with the ability to ensure our customers can integrate our technology into other technologies. In other words, ensuring openness and operability in both our data as in our tools. And, the evidence that that works is that we just had thousands of systems that are now implementing complex and heavy ArcGIS environments. Strong on standards, strong on openness, strong on interoperability.
S: Sounds great. So, when you started out, you were doing smaller, separate projects for private clients. When, at that point did you realize that these individual projects were actually greater than the sum of its parts and decided to create ArcINFO?
J: It happened in about 1979 or 1980. We were pretty much operating as a consulting firm. I had just gotten out of school and had some software that was developed at the lab for computer graphics at Harvard. So, we would do one process at a time, and at that time we were working on mainframe computers, so the graphics were picture maps that were very awkward but interesting. Very gradually, people began to recognize the value of data driven decision making and computer graphics as a way to improve the way that they would do things. About 1975 they said Jack could I have your homemade software and we sold a few copies of it, but it was not very good. About 1980 we made the sale of all of our software to a couple of companies, and realized, when we tried to support it, that it was not going to work out. Very fortunately, we at that time hired a young man at the time, Scott Morehouse, who was very interested in building the first principals based product, so we started all over. I thought he would just be a better programmer than some of the programmers we had, but he started all over. We didn’t have very much money, but we took all of our money we kept invested into building GIS’s and product, and we sold it a few times and then more. Suddenly people realized that on their well-engineered product they could actually do a lot of things. So very gradually, and in close collaboration with our customers, we kept evolving the product bigger and bigger. That led to product shipping and development, so you move from a services company to a product company, and that is almost never done in the IT industry. Sometimes you have separate companies move toward solutions. Like Oracle has done with SAP. Like Oracle has done with has done with ERP, that sort of thing. But we’ve remained very focused on building a core platform where many, many, many of our users can build their own applications, or many many business partners have extended their products, so it’s a rich ecosystem of partners for solutions. Particularly in the oil & gas business. You have just dozens and dozens of people who build out in a platform. I don’t know if that answers your question.
S: Yes, that does. It does actually, that was very informative. Thanks. I think our readers will enjoy hearing that story very much. So, this is my favorite question. The direction of data science is so far separated from the data creators and the data users. Do you feel like the relationship between knowledge and information is being divided because of access to so much information in today’s society without true comprehension behind what the data actually stands for. And do you feel like this has caused a lack of understanding between what the data actually is and the perception that a map creates for people?
J: It’s a big question. That’s a complicated question, and I will try to answer it in several ways. First, the specialization of different professionals sometimes leads to global specialization, and I think in some ways that’s happening to the data centers community. They may focus on the science of the data rather than on the application and communication. That’s not always true. I mean, certainly there’s many people that are great data scientists that understand the needs and wants of their users. I have a good friend. His name is Richard Saul Wurman and he says people are sick of hearing about big data. They want to hear about big understanding. And that really inspires me. The idea of getting large data sets and being able to manipulate them in effective ways should always have in focus the creation of insides of applications that are really responsive to what people need and want. In our field we’ve been integrating big data capabilities into the core product so that you can create an extensive library information. Our basic product strategy consists of supporting these, these and these. One of them is maintain systems of record keeping sometimes called systems of record and that’s through transaction updating data. In your business it would be like land and siesmic data. There needs to be a place for that to be managed…a system of record. And then there’s the system of engagement. That is, connecting people through social media or identity to access that information. And third, there’s systems of insight, where rich analytics that are going on. And in IT there’s three different worlds that have sort of been specialized to drop in the systems of record like the Oracle database or SAP database, to help you maintain your records, but when you get something else to do beyond what the system told us, now there is something else that we need to socially connect now the internet and this information. The power of ARCGIS today is that it gets all three of those systems into one organized platform. Systems of record keeping can be accessed directly by the analysts, the ones doing these things and it can also be connected to everybody in the organization with a system of engagement. And the power of that integration across the organization is enormous. So, I very much appreciate the science of data. It’s very important. Also, I appreciate the integration of data in such a way that it supports all three different kinds of user and information in organizations. We just recently announced a product called Insights. Which we showed on the screen. It’s a very exciting product. And it’s almost like GIS for data scientists.
S: Yes, I am a very big fan of Insights. We actually just published an article yesterday.
J: I saw it actually, I read it last night. It was very nice. A very powerful article.
S: Oh, thank you! Yes. I’m very excited about it!
J: And so, what a data scientist does not have is a very good insight typically on GIS and its power. So you’re gonna be a GIS specialist. But a data scientist is going to be able to find data quickly and responsively to things like what the mayor is asking for, what the CIO is asking for or the intended environment. How do you reach back and pull this information out of it, GIS has not quite had this, GIS has had great spatial analytics but it has not had that kind of interactive capability in the past So Insights clearly is visual, it’s clearly intuitive, and it clearly has reach-back back to big data setting the stage clearly doing thousands of calculations at once so you easily interact with and see it. I’m excited about that.
S: Yes it’s amazing how fast the processing is on that for the amount of records.
J: Yes, and before it’s released, what happens to the Geo-analytic server, we really haven’t announced this, but we have to reach all the way back to big data environments which are millions and billions of records.
S: That sounds awesome! Very much looking forward to that integration. I love it. So, here’s the $10million question for all of our readers. We constantly get this. We’ve touched on it at a couple of conferences, but I think our readers would like to hear it straight from you. The hardest part as a person in the GIS industry is explaining to people what we do. Most people think of GIS as a grab bag of data, and they tell us what they want, and it’s automatically there, and formatted, and symbolized, and the map is just ready. We drop the data in and there’s not a lot of work behind it. Which is often times not the case. So, in reality, it’s a very managed, structured information system. What’s the best advice that you could give some of our readers in just a few sentences to help them explain to their managers and other coworkers as to what we actually do?
J: GIS is an information system for managing the problems you have with data, or geographic information. And that’s, it’s 50 year old legacy. What are geographic datasets? There are wells, there are pipelines, there are land records. So, just like we have information systems about financial records, like SAP, that does transaction updates to understand business data. Just like we have personnel record keeping data information systems that manage personnel records on a transaction basis. A geographical information system is an information system that manages geographic things. Not money, not people, geographic stuff. What is geographic stuff? Look out the window. It’s everything you see. The trees, it’s the buildings, it’s cars moving, it’s people moving, it’s bicycles, it’s what I am seeing.
S: Yeah, everything somewhere on the Earth.
J: It’s actually, geospatial stuff or geographic things. And so your information system allows us to manage the data of everything. It’s a very abstract thing.
J: And yet, people aren’t interested in everything about everything they are interested in their thing. So if you subset down from a world of geographic things down to the things that an organization really cares about. Let’s say oil companies managing their wells and their pipelines, the ownership, production, where the people are, where the trucks are, where the reserves are, where the geology is or isn’t. It’s all that stuff. So GIS is so much an under pinning for the energy business. It’s almost ridiculous. It’s their foundation. So, managers often say, I need an information system to manage my money. It’s complicated. Particularly in a multinational company like many oil companies are. But even in small companies, definitely need an accounting system to manage their accounts, and their money. They often need a personnel record keeping. Because businesses have hundreds of thousands of employees, and they can’t do this any other way. So, what about the geographics of it? How about the risk of it, to be an owner of a production field? All of that. They need a geographic information system to manage that. Now, what’s occurring is, this is becoming so pervasive, what im saying that I meant is that GIS is becoming a central platform for managing organizations. And, recently we have seen GIS as a foundation for all of their processes. A geographic information system that everybody across the organization can have access to use regularly. Well, maybe not everybody. Just like not everybody is getting access to the personnel or financial records. So we’ve had to accomplish a very difficult activity, security and access systems of identity into systems so those who have permission can get at the records, and those who don’t can’t. Those records are basically complex records, and to maintain those complex records, we need all the transactions kind of like barcode transactions often supporting complex work flows like changing subdivision or a piece of land or changing the engineering configuration of the wall. So, a lot of transactions, complex data, and yet the world is used to accessing things quickly. And then, there’s the visual connection you have to ask. That’s making, kind of like a new language. So, people speak the language of sequel. Yeah, a few do. Not many, but a few do. They speak the language of money. They speak the language of emails. So, what GIS is actually doing behind the scenes is providing infrastructure for the new language of maps. Dynamic visualization, interactive visualization. So, this is an interesting language because it’s a language where it’s not only you can see all this stuff visible physical, demographic, or money. You can also imprint the different layers of knowledge together in such a way that all aspects of organizations and all types of organizations can actually acknowledge and see the relationships and patterns. So this language is powerful not just because its visual its integrate able. And it speaks to each user, complexity, and the fact that everything is inter-related to everything else. John Muir had a saying about that. Everything is stitched together and if you pull on the thread of the web of life, there are connections to everything, so its a language of understanding and its also a language of imagining because we act on our maps about things that are located here, I have vehicle layers are up and concerned about security here, so it’s very powerful.
S: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us today. It is greatly appreciated. Again, it is wonderful to speak with you sir and thank you Oil and Gas Space readers, and thank Jack Dangermond if you get a chance to see him here at the conference. Y’all have a great day.