"The Science of Where" - Esri User Conference 2017 (San Diego)

12 July 2017

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Blog by Chris Morris, Interpret Group Manager 

It’s about 9:45pm after the first day of the Esri User Conference 2017 and I’m sitting down thinking about the day. The last time I was in San Diego was in 2009 and with that in mind I thought it would be interesting to think about the changes between now, and then, not just in terms of technology but also San Diego and the conference itself.

The conference has a familiar feel.  Arriving in San Diego over the weekend, I spent a couple of days getting reacquainted with the city. It’s a city I have enjoyed in the past as its vibrant hub known as the Gaslamp quarter is filled with busy bars and restaurants. Not much has changed over the last 8 years other than perhaps the names of the bars and eateries in the area. Last time I was here I was struck by the large numbers of homeless attracted by the year-round mild weather. It’s a shame to say that in 8 years not much has changed - indeed you immediately notice the large numbers of homeless who wander the streets in need of food and shelter.

The conference centre is huge, running the width from 1st Avenue in the west to 6th Avenue in the east. With an auditorium big enough to seat the 16,500 delegates, the largest number ever attending. Back in 2009 I think there were about 15,000 delegates, but to be honest I didn’t notice the extra 1500 people today.  You were still just as likely to randomly bump into someone you knew back then as you were now, which is surprisingly frequently as it turned out.

The biggest difference is of course the technology, so much changes so quickly in this industry. However, in a strange way that change wasn’t as apparent as you might think. Sure in 2009 there was no ArcGIS Pro, or Portal, but ArcGIS Online had just been released as a public beta and so at least the germ of an idea was there. What we have seen over the last 8 years or so hasn’t been changes in leaps and bounds but rather an incremental change with technology getting better rather than new technology replacing old. Either that or I have become so used to advances in many technical fields that I have become immune to change in my own industry.

The exception, perhaps, is in the mobile space where there has been wholesale change. 2009 saw ArcGIS Mobile, a predominant Windows Mobile Phone platform, leading the mobile charge. We are now in an app-focused world where tools like Collector, Survey123, Workforce, Navigator and Workforce are all multiplatform, working on any device, whilst AppStudio encourages you to build your own custom tool once and reuse on any platform.

What has certainly changed is the language used to describe our industry. Earlier in the year Esri launched “The Science of Where” as its new tag line. A calculated decision to propel our industry out of the IT backroom and into the science limelight. In 2009 the tagline was “Designing our Future”, but the focus of the conference was on the technology. Today there was less of a technical focus and more of a problem-solving focus. Esri, as every good Esriphile knows, stands for Environmental Systems Research Institute and it really did feel like that today, when we were being asked to stop thinking of ourselves as IT geeks but to think of ourselves as research scientists. Who could ram home that message better than Geoffrey West, theoretical physicist and keynote speaker who spoke with passion and knowledge about our role in shaping the cities of the future.

What’s changed in 8 years?  Well everything of course, but perhaps nothing quite as much as our role in society and in the workforce.