GIS and all of us

I started studying cartography in large part because it provided me tools and techniques to draw meaningful pictures with a measure of both precision and creativity when I did not have the manual skill to draw pictures realistically or artistically. Back then I had not heard of the following quotation by Gilbert Grosvener, National Geographic magazine’s founding editor, which elevates the product of cartographic practice to a rarified level.

A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.

Today I find myself in a field, GIS, that was practically in its infancy when I started to learn how to make maps, but which has engulfed cartography in what has become a vastly broader spatial-knowledge and spatial-communication industry. There is no better evidence of that than the annual Esri User Conference which I and many of my King County colleagues are attending this week.

Esri is a company that is celebrating 50 years as a Geographic Information System consultancy and software developer. (King County is a customer.) Esri’s annual user conference thoroughly covers the tools and technologies that it develops and markets. But clearly they strive to be about much, much more: everything that the tools can enable.

I am sure the entire week at the conference here in San Diego will be inspiring to curious and dedicated GIS professionals, but the first day is pointedly designed to be, above all, just plain inspiring. From first-responder use of GIS tools in fairly nearby Pasadena, to the application of mapping technology to combat wildlife poaching 9,000 miles away from here in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the use of spatial data analysis to assist in the painstaking work of de-mining the nearly one-third of the earth’s surface where people are at risk of sudden death or maiming by the diabolically deployed, then neglected, and now residual devices of past conflicts, to the community mapping conducted by super-bright and committed secondary school students who are studying the legacy of civil strife in their small town in Northern Ireland, the world of GIS that was on display today, as presented here in person by the very people carrying out such vital projects, was awesomely inspiring.

The day-long series of plenary sessions was capped by a discussion of biodiversity on our planet between Jack Dangermond, the co-founder and president of Esri, and Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson. The reputations of the two guest luminaries is a testament to the influence of the GIS industry. It is no insult to them to say that they did not outshine the other presenters who are all doing innovative work with GIS that is vital to their communities and to our global society. 

Jack Dangermond, Jane Goodall, and E.O. Wilson as seen on one of the huge screens that was floating above the very, very distant stage (can you spot them at the bottom of the photo?).

See all of the plenary session presentations on YouTube.

The title of our blog is GIS & You. It’s meant to be about how GIS influences your life. Today the Esri conference was about how GIS can influence all of us as we live the epic poem of our planet.

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