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Summer 2008
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UC Newbies
First-time attendees share motivations and reactions
By Jennifer Caito, Esri Writer

What do a conservationist from Kenya, engineers from Lebanon, a site selection manager from Sun Microsystems, and a programmer from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality have in common? They were among more than 4,000 first-time attendees at 28th Annual Esri International Users Conference (Esri UC) in San Diego, California.

Alex Ngari of Nature Kenya
Alex Ngari of Nature Kenya is a conservation monitoring coordinator who learned about GIS while doing postgraduate work at the University of Nairobi.

Between August 4 and 8, more than 14,800 attendees from 120 countries gathered to solve geospatial problems, learn how to implement new technologies, and share innovative solutions with their peers. They presented professional papers, participated in technological workshops and presentations, and met new and old contacts in their field or geographic region during Regional User Group (RUG) and Special Interest Group (SIG) meetings and socials. Attendees, whether veterans or first timers, arrived to share knowledge and find solutions to specific problems.

"I came to learn, but there was more learning than I ever expected," explained Alex Ngari of Nature Kenya when asked about his first experience at the Esri UC. Nature Kenya, based in Nairobi, aims to connect people with nature to enhance knowledge and advocate conservation policies to create sound management and sustainable use of natural resources at Kenya's priority biodiversity sites. Ngari's interest in GIS began while taking a postgraduate class at the University of Nairobi.

"It was like wow, there is such a kind of thing in this world! All along I've developed more interest in GIS, and right now I have introduced my institution to pursue capacity building to support GIS." After attending classes on species modeling and the Image extension for ArcGIS Server, Ngari hopes to implement much of what he has learned at the conference. Ngari's team at Nature Kenya focuses on more than 60 Kenyan Important Bird Areas (IBAs) designated by BirdLife International.

Ngari, a conservation monitoring coordinator, learned about the conference through his involvement with the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) Kenya. Along with 10 other SCGIS scholars, he received grants to participate in an intensive, two-week preconference training class covering ArcGIS 9.3, building geodatabases, and cartographic techniques and geospatial analysis.

photo of Chaza Jazzar and Rana Habli
Chaza Jazzar and Rana Habli, who both work for Esri Lebanon, are engineers who now work with GIS on a daily basis.

Other first-time conference attendees included Chaza Jazzar, senior team leader, and Rana Habli, senior customer support coordinator, for Esri Lebanon. Both women, who are engineers, became involved with GIS inadvertently. A computer scientist, Jazzar said she did not know anything about GIS when she started using it in 2001 but has become something of an expert. "I learned GIS because we use it every day," said Jazzar. Habli, an electrical engineer, first used GIS on a project with an electricity company. "I started learning it myself. It was a lot, more than 15 GIS products to learn right away! Then I became technical support with Esri."

Both women continue to work with GIS on a daily basis. They handle data development and customer support for the Middle East region. When asked about the most useful aspect of the Esri UC, Habli said that "Across regions, we all share in customer support; to have an opportunity to meet with and share ideas with people from headquarters who normally we only talk with over e-mail only strengthens our work." Jazzar added, "Altogether it is a huge event, with demos, exhibits, learning the new functionality of ArcGIS 9.3; I can now apply it at home."

photo of Brad and Natalie Segrest
Brad Segrest, a programmer analyst with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, attended the conference to find out better ways to communicate GIS with his organization. He is shown with his wife, Natalie.

Brad Segrest, a programmer analyst with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and his manager Chris Staten, a senior business systems analyst, came to the conference with a specific problem to solve. They came to San Diego to facilitate communication about GIS across and within departments. Both were first-time attendees.

"GIS is like a spider that touches every one of the different parts of the agency; it's a part of all and belongs to none. Our agency has been using GIS for a long time; the database people and programmers, we have a language barrier," said Segrest. At the conference, Segrest's goal was "trying to get things sorted out, so we can communicate better, pass ideas back and forth, and all see the same vision of what GIS is doing for us."

Segrest's background in biology and wildlife fisheries did not include training in GIS, so he is largely self-taught. In 2005, he was dropped into a project to georeference all the assessed streams and water bodies that were impaired for the state's 305b Clean Water biannual assessment. Said Segrest, "I had zero knowledge of GIS and one of your business partners gave me a couple days' training, and I fell in and started swimming like a duck." He decided that it was time for some more formal training. "I hear this is the best training you can get for the time that you spend. So far I learned some Python scripting and helped myself to see the big picture on how to develop some Web applications."

photo of Margaret Lee and associates
Margaret Lee of Sun Microsystems is part of a team that is using GIS for site selection.

In a crowded strip of the exhibit hall, Margaret Lee, a site selection manager at Sun Microsystems in San Francisco, California, and some of her colleagues were meeting with Esri staff to discuss what directions Sun might take with GIS. Lee, who was familiar with ArcInfo, is shocked by how much the software has changed in five years. "That's why I went to the training. It's exciting for me. I am a very novice user," she said. "I just finished my training last week."

Lee's division had been using ArcGIS for less than a year, using geospatial analysis "to find solutions for a gamut of issues." For the last three years, Lee has been working on site selection for Sun. "For example, if in Beijing, we had an existing office in the northwest part of the city and we had discussions with business partners about whether the facility was in the right spot, when considering population and economic growth, and other market trends to decide where to move it, in the past this was done by hand." Now Lee's team is using GIS to understand the situation spatially by using analytic queries, based on Sun's market data. "We are looking at how to apply GIS to where much of our workforce is internationally, but in areas where the data is not always available it will take time, so a lot of the applications will also be internal."

Lee commented on the size of the conference, "It's enormous, I was not expecting it to be this large, and there are so many different groups of people here." She also reflected on her experiences with Esri. "Overall, the ethics of the company really show through, just seeing the plenary and the awards given."

During the Plenary Session, Esri president Jack Dangermond talked of his vision for GIS, "helping people plan for a more sustainable world. GIS is raising awareness." In terms of GIS raising awareness, as Segrest said, "GIS is the spider" that touches all but belongs to none. No matter the industry, UC has something for everyone." As Jazzar and Habli commented, there is a lot to learn when it comes to GIS. The opportunity to share in this ever-evolving technology must be what motivates more than 60 percent of first time attendees to return another year. Next year, the conference will be held at the San Diego Convention Center from July 13 to 17.

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