Esri International User Conference: A Geographer’s Place to Be

Last week, I flew to San Diego to promote Geography Awareness Week at Esri’s International User Conference, the largest gathering of geographic information systems (GIS) users in the world. On a shuttle from the airport, a man in the back talking on his cell phone mentioned ArcGIS, and my ears pricked up. What a coincidence, I thought. I turned around and asked if he was going to the ESRI conference, and he looked at me like I had asked if we were on planet Earth. “Yeah…” he replied, hesitantly. I clearly had no idea what I was getting into. 
The conference started on Monday, and the streets, hotels and restaurants of San Diego were packed with folks from all over the world, proudly wearing their ID badges all day and into the night. The Convention Center where it was held is home to the renowned San Diego Comic-Con International, where more than 125,000 pop art fans, some dressed up as their favorite comic superheroes, had gathered just a couple of weeks before. Although Comic-Con is famous for the animated sub-culture it garners, I cannot imagine a crowd more enthusiastic than my GIS compatriots.
15,000 users – all self-identified “Geogeeks” – came together not only to learn about what’s new in the geographic information systems world, but also to boast of their geographic prowess. Such talents may be scoffed elsewhere, but here, they are revered. During one conference session, attendees were discussing preferred map projections and datums so heatedly that I would have laughed, had I not been just as excited as they. Despite the abundance of geographic knowledge present, I admittedly spent half of my time helping lost users figure out the map of the conference center. 
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The other half was spent educating my fellow geogeeks about Geography Awareness Week. This group of GIS professionals can appreciate that data means nothing without solid geographic understanding, which is exactly what GAWeek is all about. As Jack Dangermond said during the conference, “geography is the platform on which GIS is exercised; GIS is simply a tool for better geographic understanding.” Mr. Dangermond, as you may know, is the President and CEO of Esri, and a rock star amongst the GIS community – a fact I was unaware of when I greeted him one day with a goofy smile on my face.  

Many individuals with whom I spoke at the conference were looking for ideas on how to participate in GIS Day, which falls on the Wednesday of Geography Awareness Week, in November. On this day, GIS professionals are encouraged to share their knowledge with interested coworkers and students. To many who were interested in talking with young children, I explained that GIS is useless to someone who does not yet understand the concept of space or appreciate the contexts of different geographies. So instead, we concentrated on developing activities that promote fundamental geographic knowledge.
Although nearly everyone at the conference was a GIS professional, the diversity within this group was incredible. There were developers, teachers, and analysts in every field imaginable. There were also people from all over the world: I spoke to a group from Nigeria, practiced my Spanish with a couple from Belize, and went to the Esri party in Balboa Park with a guy from the Philippines. I was even quizzed on my geography knowledge of our neighbor to the North by a Canadian gentleman.
An enormous map gallery in the convention center displayed hundreds of professionals’ and students’ work, and demonstrated the breadth of the capabilities of GIS. On my flight back to Washington, DC, the talkative man next to me asked what the point of maps today is, if there even is one. I imagine that this man, when thinking of maps, envisions something similar to a Risk board. I looked at him incredulously. I didn’t know how to answer, or better said, where to begin. The projects at the gallery had displayed everything from geologic formations to wildfire potential to hospital access. Spatial problems require spatial answers, I finally told him, and mapping technology and all of the analysis behind it is struggling to even keep up with the need for such tools.
This brings up a significant problem that I faced during the week, and that National Geographic Education has faced since the very beginning. Geography has unfairly developed a stigma over recent decades as a discipline involving memorization of state capitals and place names, rendered useless with access to a GPS device. In truth, geography is as static as the world we live in, meaning, well, it’s as dynamic as ever.
The Esri conference was a great opportunity for me to learn, as a geographer and GIS user. It proved to be a congregation of like-minded, although incredibly diverse, people. All appreciate and understand the importance of geography and its role in every aspect of life today. I am more proud than ever to call myself a Geogeek.
– Eric Spencer for National Geographic Education


2 responses to “Esri International User Conference: A Geographer’s Place to Be

  1. Great post! We probably passed each other in the halls.
    Promoting “fundamental geographic knowledge” is definitely what is needed. Too much of what is learned today is just how to click buttons. Many GIS “experts” are just ArcJockeys and do not really understand what is happening behind the technology.

  2. “During one conference session, attendees were discussing preferred map projections and datums so heatedly that I would have laughed, had I not been just as excited as they.”
    I was in that room and I thought the exact same thing! What an amazing gathering. Thank you so much for sharing.
    This was my second UC and it was my favorite so far.
    -Alex

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