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October - December 2004
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The Language of Geography

During the week of August 9–13, 2004, more than 13,000 GIS professionals met in San Diego, California, for the 24th Annual Esri International User Conference. Traveling from 135 countries, these GIS users represent a global network of 120,000 organizations and more than a million users who have applied this technology to a broad spectrum of disciplines and interests.

In his plenary address, Esri President Jack Dangermond spoke on the emergence of GIS as a new language, the language of geography.

They came together for a week of sharing experiences, ideas, and information. Hundreds of presentations given highlighted users' work in addressing the world's problems from defense to economic development to the environment. The conference also hosted numerous special interest group meetings as well as three ancillary GIS conferences—the Survey and GIS Summit 2004, the Telecommunications and Location-Based Services Summit, and the Education User Conference.

The conference week also marked Esri's 35th anniversary. From its inception, Esri's Founder and President Jack Dangermond realized that geography matters—that it influences and connects cultures and societies and that GIS technology could bring about a better future. During his plenary address, Dangermond noted that "Geography is the science of our world. It's increasingly being seen as a framework for understanding patterns, relationships, and processes at all scales, not just the whole globe, but our little neighborhoods, our watersheds, our states, our cities, our nation. It's a framework for thinking about things, for modeling the future, for visualizing, and also integrating and referencing what we know."

Dangermond noted, "You and I live in a radically, rapidly changing world—increasing population and urbanization, globalization, economic development, and environmental change." Dealing with this increasingly complex, crowded, and challenging world requires greater understanding, not just more information.

This led Dangermond to an examination of this year's conference theme, GIS—The Language of Geography. "We use languages to describe our world," he said. Languages are a vehicle for greater understanding because they let us reflect on our experience and organize our reality. Languages help us conceptualize, communicate, and ultimately collaborate.

Just as mathematics and music have benefited from specialized languages developed to record and describe concepts in these fields, GIS has emerged as the language of geography. And like all living languages, GIS is evolving and expanding in response to change.

Geography encompasses both the physical and cultural and is both descriptive and process oriented. GIS has enlarged its scope from dealing primarily with the descriptive aspects of geography through content automation to addressing geographic processes by introducing new concepts and methods for complex data modeling, interactive mapping, geoprocessing, integrating data, visualization, and modeling.

These tools also integrate work flows within and across organizations and disciplines. This improves the way decisions are made, processes are formulated, and plans developed. GIS has helped create new knowledge in virtually all sciences that use spatial location. Slides projected in quick succession behind Dangermond illustrated diverse uses of GIS that ranged from a classic geographic application for modeling groundwater aquifers to the use of GIS by researchers at a burn center who are studying the ontology of the brain.

More than 13,000 GIS professionals met in San Diego, California, for the 24th Annual Esri International User Conference.

"It's a system for connecting things or communicating or collaborating—the very thing I think the world needs," he said. As a framework for understanding patterns, relationships, and processes, GIS provides a better way of dealing with change. GIS manages the five major abstractions of geography—data models, geodata sets, process and work flow models, maps and globes, and metadata-and makes them usable.

With the release of ArcGIS 9, announced during the plenary session, GIS users have a comprehensive system that is open, distributed, and networked. ArcGIS 9 takes advantage of technological advances, faster hardware, more robust mobile devices, and wireless networks. From server clusters to desktops to table PCs to cell phones, scalable hardware is becoming networked in a loosely coupled environment. Service-Oriented Architectures (SOA), based on Web services, provide a way to combine GIS and enterprise systems.

GIS specific Web services, ArcWeb Services, are making GIS more widely distributed by making it possible to integrate GIS with virtually any application. SOA is a far more powerful strategy for spatially enabling applications than simply putting spatial data in a relational database. By making GIS resources more universally accessible, ArcWeb Services make virtual collaborations possible.

ArcGIS now provides five platforms for integrating GIS. In addition to expanding the functionality of GIS on the desktop, throughout the enterprise, and in the field, ArcGIS 9 supports federated and embedded GIS platforms through two new products, ArcGIS Engine and ArcGIS Server. ArcObjects, the software components used to build ArcGIS Desktop, have been made available to developers through these products. Using ArcGIS Engine, developers can embed specific GIS functionality into mainstream IT applications. ArcGIS Server brings ArcObjects to the server. Thin clients deliver focused GIS functionality that is centrally maintained and cross platform. ArcGIS Server can be integrated with other enterprise systems at the application level. Both platforms provide new ways to share geospatial intelligence.

In addition to new platforms, existing platforms also benefit from ArcGIS 9. ArcGIS 9 exploits the new capabilities of mobile devices. These devices are becoming progressively smaller, faster, and smarter and are making real-time GIS a reality. ArcGIS 9 Desktop usability enhancements save time and effort. (For detailed information on these improvements, see "ArcGIS Enhancements Promote Productivity" [PDF-2.1 KB] in the July–September issue of ArcUser magazine.) The new geoprocessing framework includes ModelBuilder, a visual modeling environment for encapsulating and documenting work flows. This release of ArcGIS also provides robust raster management.

The ArcGIS Data Interoperability extension for ArcGIS Desktop adds many new data sources and converters and supports custom format converters and complex data transformations that are accomplished using a graphic interface. Continued improvements in interoperability and integration with mainstream IT are making GIS truly a universal language.

However, as important as the contributions GIS users are currently making to society, Dangermond emphasized that the ability to use GIS to imagine a better world promises to be even more important. Through a better understanding of the interactions and processes of both the physical world and society, GIS furnishes tools that help users plan and take appropriate action.

In closing, Dangermond looked to the future of GIS and Esri. "GIS is emerging as a new language. It's becoming intelligent and collaborative. That's one of the main missions that we have for the next generation of tools-collaboration. GIS professionals—you—will be the people who apply this language, creating a better future. That's how I see it."

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