ESRI's Jack Dangermond: GIS Brings Better Government Transparency

Dangermond explains role of GIS in smart grid, stimulus tracking and open government.

by / May 1, 2009 0

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton - what do they have in common? They're all synonymous with the field in which they worked. When you think of Jack Dangermond, you think about GIS.

Lanky, bespectacled and a touch harried, Dangermond doesn't cut the figure of an industry titan. He exudes the air of a man who was determined to follow his dream, as well as someone who is still slightly astounded by the success he has attained. Dangermond, above all else, is passionate about GIS.

In this rare interview, he sat down with Government Technology to detail ESRI's growing Web presence and chart the company's future. He also explained FedStat, a proposed stimulus dollar-tracking solution based on a program initiated by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley called StateStat; itself an evolution of New York City's legendary CompStat, a system of allocating police resources based on spatial data. In addition to stimulus spending and tracking, Dangermond explained the important role GIS will play in infrastructure, smart roads, energy, cloud computing and more.

 


What exactly is FedStat and how might it pair with Obama's initiatives?

A couple years ago, Maryland elected a new governor, Martin O'Malley. He used to be the mayor of Baltimore. In Baltimore, he used our tools to build CitiStat, a set of tools and procedures that allowed him to see everything that was going on in the city - the status of things, where the issues were and also how his people were working on these issues. He also set up systems to do performance measurement on how they were able to change the status of things through government expenditures. This rational, open, transparent system made the city better as a result of using GIS tools, and it managed the city in such a way that people were held accountable for their actions in a public-policy environment.


Photo: Jack Dangermond and his wife Laura founded Environmental Systems Research Institute -- or ESRI -- in 1969. After earning a master's degree in environmental science and landscape architecture, Dangermond returned to his Redlands, Calif., home to start a company he hoped would improve the environment. Today, ESRI employs nearly 2,500 people and serves more than 1 million customers worldwide.


When he became governor, he contacted us and we re-engaged with Maryland in an interesting way. We began to take his same concepts of accountability of CitiStat and expand it to StateStat and BayStat, for the whole Chesapeake Bay, so that he could rationally understand where the issues were - in the case of Chesapeake Bay, where to put money to clean up the water, measure the effect of his expenditures and do the same thing in highways and all government expenditures. When [President Barack Obama] was elected, he looked at Maryland and thought, "Can we take this same vision to the federal level?" So we began to prototype and play with the vision of FedStat. The examples we've been looking at give some of the early prototype evidence of how to take government expenditures - first stimulus funding and later all government funding - and visualize where the money is going and hold the people who are spending that money more accountable with performance measurement.

It's a whole new frontier for GIS. It's taking the

power of spatial visualization and analytics, and opening government up so legislatures, administrators and virtually everyone can see, understand and openly direct government into the future. It's probably one of the most exciting applications I've ever had the opportunity to support. I think it will change the way we look at ourselves and the way we run our democracy. It's almost like another step in the evolution of democracy itself.


Image: Integrated Web mapping applications, like Maryland's MD iMap site, provide public access to government performance information and offer a new platform for engaging citizens.

 

How can GIS technology be used to track stimulus money and make government more transparent?

The first wave of real benefit from computing happened in the financial world. The geo-referencing of financial transactions merely means putting those records into space, and that means dots on a map - like this project is going to involve this much money, is behind schedule or over budget. But GIS is much more interesting than just dots on maps. It's areas, lines and all the interactions of these different things in the economy. GIS is fundamentally an information system, and it's about spatial and geographic stuff. Events - like expenditures or where people live, or project construction and where money is spent - are just as valid as forests, water and other things that GIS has traditionally handled.


Where do you see your company or GIS in general fitting in with smart grids and intelligent transportation? How can we actually use GIS to make a tangible improvement in the way we travel?

I see GIS as a foundation platform for smart grid and intelligent networks, like highway or bus networks. It's the information system that really supports all the optimization, tuning and energy-saving applications that are envisioned by the smart grid. GIS has much to contribute in the energy world. Traditionally it's been about things like asset management, facility management - where are the pipes, wires and poles ... and sequencing them into a workflow and work- management system. People are beginning to use GIS for other dimensions. Like where can we locate solar? Where can we locate wind farms? How do we get wind through a master grid from the Great Plains into the consumer world?

Image: Rich, interactive mapping applications like Solarboston.org let ordinary Web users investigate active renewable-energy installations and calculate potential rooftop photovoltaic capacity of city structures.

You use GIS the same way you do for suitability mapping. Many factors determine where you should locate a solar panel - they deal with the solar radiation coming from the sun, the amount of cloud-cover days or absence thereof, land-use conflicts and location relative to the consumer. You put these together and you can make a beautiful map showing where you should locate solar. That, of course, has to be mitigated against things like environmental consequences, but it's a perfect application and the same thing applies to wind. Where are the windy areas and how do we connect them to the grid?


Do quasi-GIS applications, like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, hinder professional GIS or do they open up opportunities to advance it?

Google Earth and Virtual Earth are designed to provide large amounts of image and maplike content to the public. The

public loves this, as they love traditional Rand McNally street atlases or map-guide applications. We have been working closely with both of those companies to integrate our tools with theirs. That means that our professional GIS systems can author knowledge and serve it using a GIS server onto the Web, and they can be overlaid in simple-to-use visualization environments like Google and Microsoft have provided.

I'd like to also say that these are not really GIS. They are fantastic visualization and content-delivery machines. We see them as very much complementary. Frankly they have done enormous good for our field, like pointing out the value of geospatial visualization. The next thing people really want to do is ask more intelligent questions. That requires a more intelligent data structure. The integration in an analytic environment of many types of geographic data - those [Google Earth and Virtual Earth] platforms are not designed for that. What is designed for that are GIS servers. We now have about 40,000 of these servers that are running in the open Web. I like to call this "Web GIS," and it's a similar architecture in the sense that it's server-centric and serves out freely to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people views, page views or intelligent views of geographic data.

Image: FedStat is ESRI's prototype solution to the question on everyone's mind -- how to track stimulus dollars. FedStat uses spatial data to track where money is spent within a state and show where states spend money beyond their borders. Based on the StateStat system ESRI devised in partnership with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, FedStat could usher in real government transparency and do so in a visually stunning way.

 

What does ESRI's future look like as far as living on the Web?

We have a philosophy called "software plus services," copying Microsoft's model. We are a software company - that's where most of our revenue has traditionally come - but we have increasingly been including Web services inside of our box, so to speak. If you buy a copy of ArcGIS, it includes millions of dollars of content services that are free to the users - basemaps, images and demographic data. We've also announced that we will provide Virtual Earth Web pages to all our users. We call this system ArcGIS Online. We also have partners like Microsoft, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye and a few others whose subscription to content you can purchase and use in your own GIS. So the way we see GIS emerging is on the Web.

We build desktop tools, which author maps, data, analytic models and metadata, and then we build server products where people can drag and drop their content or knowledge onto these services and serve them out to their customers or the public. An example is Los Angeles, which has a large server farm. They serve out all the land-parcel information for anyone in the county. They get thousands of hits an hour from people who want to look at property boundaries, title information and records that the county keeps about their property. It's one of hundreds of local governments that make their information available to citizens in much the same way and with much the same philosophy as Obama is suggesting happen at the federal government.


Image: Users can create layer packages directly from within ArcGIS Desktop's ArcMap application with just one click. ArcGIS Online allows users to organize, search and share geographic content on the Web.

IS. It's taking the power of spatial visualization and analytics, and opening government up so legislatures, administrators and virtually everyone can see, understand and openly direct government into the future. It's probably one of the most exciting applications I've ever had the opportunity to support. I think it will change the way we look at ourselves and the way we run our democracy. It's almost like another step in the evolution of democracy itself.


Image: Integrated Web mapping applications, like Maryland's MD iMap site, provide public access to government performance information and offer a new platform for engaging citizens.

 

How can GIS technology be used to track stimulus money and make government more transparent?

The first wave of real benefit from computing happened in the financial world. The geo-referencing of financial transactions merely means putting those records into space, and that means dots on a map - like this project is going to involve this much money, is behind schedule or over budget. But GIS is much more interesting than just dots on maps. It's areas, lines and all the interactions of these different things in the economy. GIS is fundamentally an information system, and it's about spatial and geographic stuff. Events - like expenditures or where people live, or project construction and where money is spent - are just as valid as forests, water and other things that GIS has traditionally handled.


Where do you see your company or GIS in general fitting in with smart grids and intelligent transportation? How can we actually use GIS to make a tangible improvement in the way we travel?

I see GIS as a foundation platform for smart grid and intelligent networks, like highway or bus networks. It's the information system that really supports all the optimization, tuning and energy-saving applications that are envisioned by the smart grid. GIS has much to contribute in the energy world. Traditionally it's been about things like asset management, facility management - where are the pipes, wires and poles ... and sequencing them into a workflow and work- management system. People are beginning to use GIS for other dimensions. Like where can we locate solar? Where can we locate wind farms? How do we get wind through a master grid from the Great Plains into the consumer world?

Image: Rich, interactive mapping applications like Solarboston.org let ordinary Web users investigate active renewable-energy installations and calculate potential rooftop photovoltaic capacity of city structures.

You use GIS the same way you do for suitability mapping. Many factors determine where you should locate a solar panel - they deal with the solar radiation coming from the sun, the amount of cloud-cover days or absence thereof, land-use conflicts and location relative to the consumer. You put these together and you can make a beautiful map showing where you should locate solar. That, of course, has to be mitigated against things like environmental consequences, but it's a perfect application and the same thing applies to wind. Where are the windy areas and how do we connect them to the grid?


Do quasi-GIS applications, like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, hinder professional GIS or do they open up opportunities to advance it?

Google Earth and Virtual Earth are designed to provide large amounts of image and maplike content to the public. The public loves this, as they love traditional Rand McNally street atlases or map-guide applications. We have been working closely with both of those companies to integrate our tools with theirs. That means that our professional GIS systems can author knowledge and serve it using a GIS server onto the Web, and they can be overlaid in simple-to-use visualization environments like Google and Microsoft have provided.

I'd like to also say that these are not really GIS. They are fantastic visualization and content-delivery machines. We see them as very much complementary. Frankly they have done enormous good for our field, like pointing out the value of geospatial visualization. The next thing people really want to do is ask more intelligent questions. That requires a more intelligent data structure. The integration in an analytic environment of many types of geographic data - those [Google Earth and Virtual Earth] platforms are not designed for that. What is designed for that are GIS servers. We now have about 40,000 of these servers that are running in the open Web. I like to call this "Web GIS," and it's a similar architecture in the sense that it's server-centric and serves out freely to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people views, page views or intelligent views of geographic data.

Image: FedStat is ESRI's prototype solution to the question on everyone's mind -- how to track stimulus dollars. FedStat uses spatial data to track where money is spent within a state and show where states spend money beyond their borders. Based on the StateStat system ESRI devised in partnership with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, FedStat could usher in real government transparency and do so in a visually stunning way.

 

What does ESRI's future look like as far as living on the Web?

We have a philosophy called "software plus services," copying Microsoft's model. We are a software company - that's where most of our revenue has traditionally come - but we have increasingly been including Web services inside of our box, so to speak. If you buy a copy of ArcGIS, it includes millions of dollars of content services that are free to the users - basemaps, images and demographic data. We've also announced that we will provide Virtual Earth Web pages to all our users. We call this system ArcGIS Online. We also have partners like Microsoft, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye and a few others whose subscription to content you can purchase and use in your own GIS. So the way we see GIS emerging is on the Web.

We build desktop tools, which author maps, data, analytic models and metadata, and then we build server products where people can drag and drop their content or knowledge onto these services and serve them out to their customers or the public. An example is Los Angeles, which has a large server farm. They serve out all the land-parcel information for anyone in the county. They get thousands of hits an hour from people who want to look at property boundaries, title information and records that the county keeps about their property. It's one of hundreds of local governments that make their information available to citizens in much the same way and with much the same philosophy as Obama is suggesting happen at the federal government.


Image: Users can create layer packages directly from within ArcGIS Desktop's ArcMap application with just one click. ArcGIS Online allows users to organize, search and share geographic content on the Web.

 

How can a government agency overcome organizational and cultural barriers that apply to GIS and get those functions to work across the board?

True GIS servers, which are available now, take all the business logic out of the desktop and put it into a server that can be served out to browsers or mobile devices that virtually anyone can use. This is the architecture of things like Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth - a server-centric model with intuitive, easy-to-use clients. The GIS world has that now and it's deploying it in thousands of services. Some of these services are focused with a fixed application, like a building-permit application or looking at conservation sites around the world.

For the enterprise, it says that all the different departments can serve out their separate Web services. The police serve out their police files, the water guys do the water, and planners, engineers, and so on. They can be orchestrated into overlaid applications by people who have no more knowledge than JavaScript. They can e-mail those to their friends or send out to other people. Is that a complete replacement of the desktop GIS or client-server GIS? Absolutely not. GIS professionals often have knowledge about how to make maps: They're called cartographers. GIS specialists often have special knowledge about how to make process models, like producing a soil-erosion map or a geologic-interpretive map or model. They can predict land use or look at global climate change and its sources. These are not simple visualization overlays. These are the kinds of things that only people with professional skills, so-called "authoritative source specialists," can do. There's certainly no sense that I have that GIS professionals hoard knowledge. They have been famous for as long as I have known them, for 40 years, in sharing and wanting to share their information with others.


Image: Integrated Web mapping applications, like Maryland's MD iMap site, provide public access to government performance information and offer a new platform for engaging citizens.

 

One way people communicate now is through social networking. Is there a role for GIS in that space?

We're now seeing that these servers can be hosted in a cloud so those agencies that want to take advantage of cloud computing can simply say, "I want to put my data into a server that rests in the cloud, and I don't want to have any of the administration of dealing with that." That's not the full story, because in GIS it's not simply your applications and data. The other big trend we're seeing is standardized basemaps - like Google Maps, Virtual Earth or our own basemaps. - become basemaps that other people can use and ingest into their professional GIS. ArcGIS online, for example, has dozens of data sets that are hosted and maintained in the cloud. I can bring them into my own application as if they were on my own machine. So cloud computing is where GIS is going.

There are three areas where GIS has been supporting the concepts of social networking. The first is the use of it as a tool for things like gang and crime analysis. Seeing this information on maps gives a new dimension to law enforcement and intelligence organizations about what's going on. Second is the consumer area, and we're starting to see the development of little things like [Twitter] "tweets" geospatially referenced and linkages between this twittering going on - seeing that there are special social groups that we can spatialize and understand more effectively. Some of that's just fun, but some of it I think will lead to better understanding

of how human beings communicate in groups with respect to the spatial dimension. Third is understanding demographics in societies in such a way that we can analyze the data to make better decisions - where to put hospitals, day-care centers, businesses in geo-demographic settings, and where to do economic development. Spatialization of the way people are interacting has huge potential.

 

It sounds like we're getting closer, not there yet by any stretch, but toward a real model of convergence. Is that accurate?

Convergence is an interesting word. I think historically GIS has changed the way people think. It's changing how they reason. That's because GIS introduces the relationships and patterns that you can only see through GIS visualization. Imagine when full GIS capabilities - all the analytics and power - are available to everyone so they could be more thoughtful and considerate about what they're doing to the environment. They can look at the cost of development, government people can understand and reason about all the implications of a particular private-sector or government action before they do it. They can model it, and talk about it, and have that data open and visible so regular citizens can get involved in the conversation and comment on it. That will change the way we operate as a society.

The GIS revolution that's occurring is no little idea. It's not just another kind of IT. It's fundamental to the way people act now and will be that way in the future as it becomes more pervasive, as it becomes embedded in every device and mobile device. It will help guide us where to go.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.