2021 Esri User Conference Highlights

“Move rapidly and urgently because our world really needs it, because we need to create sustainable solutions, because time is running short,” Esri founder and president, Jack Dangermond, urged attendees at Esri’s second international User Conference to be hosted virtually. “It’s late in the day, but it’s not dark yet.”

Geography matters more than ever, and as the world faces ongoing climate crises, it’s time to act. That was the message as the 41st annual Esri User Conference opened Monday, attracting more than 70,000 registered attendees, with a focus on achieving sustainability by linking environmental conservation with economic empowerment and social equity.


Location Intelligence Takes Maps from Mountains to Mars

When the Perseverance Rover needed to find the Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars, it did what any traveler might do, it took a map. Perseverance, though, had a particular advantage that previous rovers didn’t—terrain relative navigation. Dr. Fred J. Calef with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained how Perseverance’s long journey to the red planet started with imagery captured by satellites orbiting around Mars. This allowed scientists to create elevation models, point out slope hazards, and let NASA engineers determine how long it might take for the rover to traverse the landscape. The rover needed to know where there were big rocks, high hills, deep sandpits, and where it might be able to land safely in between. And for the first time, a space rover wasn’t estimating within a broad range where it might be best to land. Perseverance knew precisely, within 5 meters, where to go.

Working with a cloud-based geographic information system, the Telluride Ski & Golf resort in Colorado keeps track of, maintains, and organizes all of its operations and assets—400 snow guns, chair lifts, pump house flow for snow-making, and staff—spread across 2,500 acres of private and public mountain land. The resort’s personnel can see the mountain’s geospatial infrastructure represented in a digital twin to visualize what needs to be done, where, in real time, from anywhere. The information is also helping the resort plan for the future, allowing it to determine how best to augment natural snow with manufactured snow to extend its seasons. In the future, Telluride hopes to be able to track everything in real time and send automated alerts to those who need them when issues on the mountain arise.

The USDA Forest Service monitors all of America’s forests. Its BIGMAP uses cloud-computing processing to take in an immense amount of data, including tens of trillions of pixels, and produce results in days. Among the maps the agency has been openly publishing for the public are those showing forest stocking levels in the nation’s “wood basket” and forest types across the US including ones that have a particular susceptibility to western forest fires. The agency is using data visualized in maps to also make decisions about where to focus planting to have the least adverse impact.


Keynotes Showcase Global Connections, Social Equity Solutions, Conservation Efforts 

Paul Salopek, a National Geographic Explorer and founder of the Out of Eden Walk, is in his eighth year walking the length of the globe, tracing the footsteps of the first humans to walk from the Rift Valley in Ethiopia to the southernmost tip of South America. In Shanghai now, he told conference attendees Tuesday that he expects his journey to last about 14 to 15 years and consist of 70 million footsteps across 24,000 miles as he moves at a pace of about 3 miles per hour. The goal is a global experiment in “slow journalism,” he said, to show how every story is connected to another. He described the walk so far, that has been mapped with help from Esri, as a “necklace of beads and every bead is a human story.” He encouraged attendees to look for rain like the nomads of Ethiopia, share what they have like the refugees of Syria, tear down walls, and mine the wisdom of our ancient forebearers who first walked across the world and were “master problem solvers.”

La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, explained that racial equity is about believing that we all are human and should all have opportunities to thrive. She talked with Jack Dangermond about the ways geography can illuminate how current systems might disproportionately affect people of color, and help determine a better path forward. Citing examples like COVID-19, where maps led to new understanding and insight about the pandemic’s impact on these communities, Tabron also emphasized the need for data to be informed by the people affected. Her organization is working with the Southern Communities Initiative which has an aim of strengthening racial equity in several large cities in the southern United States. Esri demonstrated a New Orleans Community Action Hub that provides data and mapping technology so those involved in achieving certain goals such as community wealth creation, can visualize the community’s attributes.

Dr. Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence, National Geographic Pristine Seas, explained how in academia studying the oceans he, “felt like the doctor who was telling you how you were going to die, in excruciating detail,” without offering a solution. That changed when he joined the Pristine Seas program that aims to save the last wild places in the ocean by encouraging preservation of marine areas, much like national parks on land. He said he’s seen examples of turnarounds in as little as a decade where areas that had become barren water deserts saw a return of abundant life following dedicated preservation. His group has been using data about biodiversity, food production, and carbon, and mapping it to determine the marine areas to prioritize for preservation.

Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, talked with Jack Dangermond about the work the state is doing to respond to droughts, catastrophic wildfires fueled by climate change, and protecting the state’s biodiversity. He said technology and leadership are both needed to work toward the goal of preserving 30% of the state’s lands by 2030, aligning with President Biden’s target for the nation. Crowfoot said political will must be married with scientific understanding and tools to solve challenges. The state’s CA Nature site will integrate data about the state’s ecosystems and identify how to achieve equity, protect biodiversity, and combat climate change by tracking conservation progress and providing tools for local governments to help determine what areas should be made a priority for preservation. His optimism comes from seeing nature return where it had disappeared, including condor habitats restored by the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, as well as beavers repopulating rivers. “When you give nature half a chance, it’s resilient,” he said.


New Products and Capabilities:

ArcGIS Velocity, which is helping users monitor operations in real-time by taking in a continuous feed of cloud-hosted information from IoT and asset tracking systems, now includes dynamic geofencing. The new beta capability, which enables users to perform spatial enrichment, joins and distance calculations between two data streams in real-time, was demonstrated with Telluride Ski & Golf resort in Colorado (see above). Esri showed how the destination could create virtual boundaries around its moving snowmobiles and snowcats in order to alert drivers when they were near one another, in order to avoid collisions on the mountainside.

Site Scan for ArcGIS now incorporates 3D Terrain which allows users to implement automatic “terrain following” flights that keep a drone at a constant altitude above ground, resulting in higher, more consistent data collection quality. The incorporated SURE for ArcGIS mesh engine allows the captured data to be turned into extremely high-quality, high-resolution 3D meshes. New flight planning mode Corridor Scan efficiently maps assets like roads, pipelines, electric transmission lines and other similar linear features. All flights are recorded, and the information is sent to a new Fleet Management Dashboard for administrators to track drone maintenance, pilot currency and flight history for the organization.

Reality Capture has made ArcGIS-generated 3D meshes of city scenes and landscapes into realistic, immersive experiences that can take city planners, architects, and even the entertainment industry to virtual locations, based on very real details of a person’s surroundings, around the world. With new spatial analysis tools in ArcGIS Urban, proposed developments can be evaluated in real-world context, too. Using extended reality (XR) and 3D meshes, users can also see what the view is from inside a proposed building. With the combination of drones and artificial intelligence, organizations can also expediate inspection processes that previously took hundreds of hours to complete in-person.

ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online now offers advanced hosting, visualization and raster analytics in the cloud, making it easier to share data and workflows, and uses both tiled and dynamic imagery layers for different visualization and analysis. A collection of raster analysis tools is available, including tools to perform Deep Learning, multidimensional analysis and terrain analysis. The raster function editor has access to over 150 raster functions that can be chained together to create advanced models.

ArcGIS GeoBIM links AEC projects and workflows by interconnecting ArcGIS with the Autodesk Construction Cloud, bringing together project development data that is spread across multiple systems. It searches Autodesk Construction Cloud projects and creates boundary features linked to BIM to bring these isolated worlds together. GIS Professionals can build ArcGIS GeoBIM apps that enable collaboration across teams and improves project coordination and delivery. The new product reduces the manual effort necessary to link GIS and BIM data, saves time and enables access to projects through interactive web apps, and simplifies team collaboration to improve project coordination and delivery.

ArcGIS Maps SDK for Unity and ArcGIS Maps SDK for Unreal Engine plug-ins allow users to create simulations and urban scenarios for situational awareness, advanced planning, and collaboration. With the ArcGIS CityEngine SDK, generate data directly inside the game engines to visualize different scenarios and develop a digital twin. Visual effects and animations can be added, including characters and cars so viewers can understand how a new space may be used. Experiences can be shared on a large stage (like the one at the UC), through virtual reality glasses, on a tablet, or on a phone.


For more from the 2021 Esri User Conference, check out videos from the plenary session online.

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