ArcNews Online

Fall 2006

Why Have We Made It So Far and Done So Well?

So Many Miracles!

By Bob Kerrey

The keynote address at the plenary meeting, August 7, 2006, of Esri's 26th Annual International User Conference in San Diego, California, was presented by former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey. The following is his address.

The 4-H students who just demonstrated their GIS projects [onstage during the plenary session—see "4-H and GIS—A Combination to Spark Imaginations"] are a miracle. Their potential and promise are unlimited in no small measure because of the decision of 700,000 adult leaders who supervise and assist the 7,000,000 young men and women whose characters are being built in this important organization.

  Bob Kerrey
Bob Kerrey presents the keynote address at the 26th Annual Esri International User Conference.

Helping our young people make choices and acquire the habits needed to maintain good character is our most important responsibility. Indeed, GIS user purpose is directly connected to our hope for these young people:

  • Their safety
  • Their health
  • Their happiness
  • Their prosperity

GIS user purpose is also connected to the moment when these young people are given the freedom to make their own choices: social, political, and economic. You [the audience of GIS professionals] do this by allowing us to see where we are and to see the shape, structures, and patterns of our earth and our neighborhood more clearly. You are making it possible for us to shape our world in ways that more closely resemble our highest aspirations.

And because your systems are networked in an increasingly compatible fashion, participants are joining in problem solving across traditional government boundaries. They are making decisions, planning, agreeing, and establishing rules of conduct in their virtual communities, which impact their geographical ones. I believe Nobel laureate Dr. Armartya Sen is right in observing that we are seeing in these affinity groups forming on the Internet the emergence of a newer, better, and lower-cost way for large groups of human beings to make decisions without the need to establish expensive, slow-moving government agencies at all.

I do not mean that government agencies will be replaced. Quite the contrary. It is their adoption of GIS networks which is shaping and allowing powerful new virtual affinity communities to form.

My interest in geography began almost 40 years ago here in San Diego where I learned orienteering and mapmaking in the U.S. Navy. I learned the life-and-death difference between knowing where you are and being lost.

My interest in maps continued after I joined the U.S. Senate's intelligence committee at a critical moment in 1991 when we learned that images were our new maps. I participated in writing the legislation that created the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), was introduced to GIS, and had my eyes opened when the University of Nebraska became a part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) computer network.

I watched our military use, analyze, enhance, and distribute these new images in order to prepare our war fighters for battle and to help our peacemakers avoid the battle in the first place. No one did it better than the man you honored this morning: General Jim Clapper, first at the Defense Intelligence Agency and later at NIMA, which he renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Thank you, sir, for your service.

All this and more influenced my decision to establish a visualization laboratory called the Parsons Institute for Information Mapping (PIIM) at The New School in New York City. PIIM produced the maps you found when you came to your seat this afternoon and the images which appear behind me as I speak. PIIM and Esri are partnering in a project being built for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. We are building a geomedia tool that we hope will help the men and women of the U.S. Congress make better decisions by giving them tools that enable them to sort through the vast amounts of information that arrive in their in-box every single morning.

Committing yourself to building a tool to help Congress make better decisions does require something bordering on fantasy optimism, I will admit. But I do regard the United States' experiment in this miracle democracy of ours worth the effort.

And I regard the work all of you are doing vital to the success and survival of mankind both here and abroad. For whatever else you conclude from the relatively brief story of mankind on this planet, it is a miracle we are still here. All available facts tell us this is true:

We live in a 12-billion-year-old universe, on a 5-billion-year-old planet that for most of its existence has been extremely hostile to all life, including our million-or-so-year-old species.

We are made up of seven million trillion atoms that don't seem to care if we live or die.

We have a trillion bacteria living on our bodies and a thousand trillion living inside of us. God only knows why they do not finish us off before I finish this speech.

And if what we cannot see isn't scary enough, there are plenty of large carnivores strong enough, fast enough, and hungry enough to do the job. Add to this the fact that we have no natural home, are governed by a gene code with occasional deadly mutations, and are possessed of what appears to be a natural tendency of the male of our species to kill each other, and it is a miracle we are here at all.

Even the strongest, smartest, fastest, and most successful among us, if they are willing to acknowledge this miracle, acquire the humility needed to be grateful.

Warren Buffett made this case while observing that the marketplace isn't always the most reliable way of determining true value. "My only skill is knowing how to allocate capital," he said. "Today the market values that skill at $45 billion or so. A few thousand years ago I would have been some animal's food." Mr. Buffett also went on to observe that the most important thing that happened to him in his life was that he won the ovarian lottery when he was born white, male, American, and the son of remarkable parents.

It's good for us to orient to this miracle as we proceed down life's mysterious trail.

The miracle, however, does beg a question: Why? Why have we made it so far and done so well?

The attempt to answer this question is fraught with risk. Religions own much of the territory where the answer leads. And religions, as we learned again on September 11, 2001, sometimes put the miracle of our existence at risk.

So please do not think the worse of me for speculating that our most important survival characteristic is our strong tendency to adapt to our circumstances. Leaving aside the obvious point that our cumulative adaptations often adversely impact our physical circumstances—to which we must then learn to adapt—mankind's genius is our individual and group effort to find a better way.

Systematic rationalization is what the Greeks called it. Add to this the Hebrew idea of being governed by law, the Roman gift of planning, and the Christian command of loving your neighbor as yourself and you have the most valuable aspects of our Western culture. At least you have the ideas that contribute most to our survival.

But human beings—or more accurately, two billion of us—have moved far beyond mere survival. We are thriving. We earn and own far more than the dictates of existence. To thrive we must compete; we must adopt and protect the ideal of individual excellence and accomplishment. For all our talk about communal, national, patriotic aims, it is individual ambition—and the laws that allow it to be expressed—that has generated and is generating so much wealth beyond what humans need for survival.

And, with great respect for the international GIS users here this afternoon, I want to focus on the nation that has become the wealthiest of all: the United States of America.

Americans have a tendency to forget how rich we are. We listen to news accounts of the rise of India and China, are aware of growing inequalities at home, and see the negative impact globalism is having on the economic status of our middle class. These stories convince us that something is terribly wrong or that we are in decline.

But consider a few more facts. In 2005, the gross domestic income of the United States was 13 trillion dollars. With 3 percent economic growth, we added $390 billion to our economy in a single year. China's impressive 10 percent growth only added $220 billion—a little more than half of what we managed. The truth is that in 2005 only 19 countries had a total national income equal to the marginal increase in ours. Measured one last way for emphasis, the combined annual incomes of all the people of Thailand and Argentina, two large and impressive nations, does not equal $390 billion.

That is why humility needs to be such a constant part of our foreign policy. We do not want the rest of the world to think of us the same way the average American thinks of Paris Hilton.

Again I resort to a statement I once heard Warren Buffett make. He was the keynote speaker at a practical economics conference of Nebraska high school students who had gathered to discuss one question: can you become wealthy by saving a little bit of money every year? After he spoke, he was asked a question by a young man who courageously and respectfully asked, "No offense, Mr. Buffett, but aren't most wealthy people jerks?"

"No," came the wise answer. "My experience is that wealth just allows you to be a little more of what you already were. So that if you start out a jerk and become wealthy, you can be a really big jerk, hiring $1,000-an-hour lawyers to make everyone's life miserable. If you begin with good character, however, and become wealthy, you can do good and try to make other people's lives a little better."

What is true for the individual is also true for our nation. And it's why the work of 4-H and other youth organizations is so important.

But why is the character of the United States so important? Because there is still too much work to do. Too many things that need to be changed. Too many preventable events that threaten too many lives on this fragile planet of ours. And though it is true that some of the most important problems cannot or should not be solved by the United States, there are just as many where our leadership is needed. And there is a pretty impressive list of problems we face that we simply cannot do by ourselves.

Take terrorism—or more accurately, those groups who use terrorism as a tactic. One of the great and too little noted success stories following 9/11 has been the level and quality of international cooperation amongst law enforcement and military organizations abroad and at home.

Note that the strong differences of opinion about what is the correct course of action in Iraq and Lebanon put this collaboration at risk. The only thing that puts this unity of purpose at risk is a return to the pre-9/11 presumption that there is a significant difference between being attacked "over there" and "here." My view is there is no difference between the two, that it was this kind of thinking that created the vulnerability of 9/11, and that it would be even more dangerous today to return to that attitude.

Sorry. I wish this wasn't the case. I wish all we had to worry about was taking care of the U.S. of A. But wishing won't change this sober truth: the homeland is the planet. To be emphatically clear: I am not an advocate of intervening everywhere and every time we see a problem that needs to be solved. Our intervention—military, diplomatic, and economic—can make things worse, not better. Sometimes the best help is to do nothing.

Which brings me back to all of you, the Esri User Conference attendees. Geographic information is rapidly and understandably becoming the first step toward learning something that is a critical first step toward learning what we need to make our everyday work and nonwork decisions. That knowing where you are has become so important should not be surprising to anyone who has read Hansel and Gretel or Pinocchio or who has sung "Amazing Grace."

Knowing where you are geographically matters. Your chances of making the best decision—even when the choices are between bad and not so bad—improve dramatically if you know exactly where you are when you choose.

Knowing where you are geographically matters when you are trying to orient inside the growing haystack of data in which we must search for answers to economic, political, and social questions. Orienting to yesterday's time (history) and tomorrow's (planning) becomes easier if we know our physical location.

In an age of growing interdependence where understanding of the other person becomes critical for conflict resolution in order to produce and enforce an agreement, knowing where someone else is geographically also matters. The story of the Dayton Accords and NATO's success in implementing that agreement is an extremely important object lesson in the importance of knowing where you are.

Knowing where you are geographically through GIS offers exciting promise and benefits to the world. I see five areas where technology, perseverance, ingenuity, and collaboration could combine powerfully.

The first is physical security. This is naming the obvious. However, since so much natural and man-made risk exists that can only be managed downward with GIS-based planning, preparing, and training, security must top our list. The best evidence this is true comes from America's governors. They and our mayors have the most personal stake in making certain we take an all-hazards approach to this problem. The western governors—perhaps our most trusted political leaders—have recommended spending $6.6 billion for initial collection of geographical features, including transportation, elevation, hydrology, boundaries, cadastre, and imagery.

Governors are people with a lot of credibility on the question of public spending. Their budgets must be balanced, and they must directly defend every taxpayer dollar they collect. That's why their call for spending is so significant and why it is highly likely taxpayers will get their money's worth. Indeed, I have no doubt that investment in public data of this kind and in this way would produce jobs, tax income, and returns many times over.

The second area of promise is government planning, especially in those difficult situations where multiple government entities have authority. River basins and public health are good state and local examples. I can envision a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (currently run by a former governor) and the National Governors Association to produce a GIS map of current health data. Or a partnership between the U.S. Department of the Interior (also run by a former governor) and the National Governors Association to produce a GIS map of soil and water data. Both of these would improve the quality of public decision making by giving all of us a clearer picture of what is going on in areas that are too complex for most of us.

I can also envision an international project that would load current oceanic and climate data for the purpose of helping us understand both of these vital subjects. All of these are cases where massive amounts of changing data must be processed into easy-to-understand visualizations if we have any hope of resolving all conflicts and making good, fact-based decisions.

Let me present one final challenge, which could be a first-order candidate for GIS visualization: human migration. According to the United Nations, as many as two billion people will move from rural to urban areas over the next 25 years. Most of these urban areas will be megacities. All will present tremendous sets of problems for those who must plan, adjust, resolve conflicts, maintain the quality of our environment, and avoid violent disputes. Without GIS, I fear that mankind simply will not be able to adjust fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

At this point I must say that I remain optimistic. And among my sources of optimism is the international deployment of GIS. That over 100 countries are represented at this conference tells us a lot about our willingness and ability to manage the great changes taking place on our planet. It also tells us that GIS is going to be a key enabler of that success.

The third area of promise is improved intergovernmental decision making. Already being used by cities, counties, and states, a rich database of geographical information would, I am certain, bring federal decision makers rapidly and beneficially into the GIS network. More important is the increased knowledge of citizens themselves whose ignorance of the benefits of change often keeps their elected leaders from straying too far from the status quo.

The fourth area of promise is to increase the effectiveness and lower the cost of regulating health and safety conditions. In these cases, the current system of physical inspections, litigation, and paperwork could easily be replaced with a highly visible, transparent, real-time GIS presentation of the location of problems. With precise and current knowledge, regulators could perform the regulatory equivalent of laser surgery.

The fifth area of promise is education. There is no question that GIS-based systems could be of tremendous assistance in helping students learn as well as helping us test their knowledge. That was obvious from the presentation made by the 4-H students earlier.

There is also no question that neither the marketplace nor local school districts can do this on their own. They and we will need the federal government as leader, partner, and primary funding source to unlock this promise. My hope is that they will.

The miracle now is that I am almost finished. It is much too nice a day to try your patience or test your survival skills beyond what I have already done.

Before I leave, I must tell you how much I appreciate your leadership. You are leaders of a movement that is transforming for good the way we human beings are able to make decisions. Our nerve may fail us because we are afraid of the consequences of choosing. But thanks to you, the excuse "Sorry, I didn't know," after selecting the easiest, but worst, option, will become much harder than it is today.

As leaders, you face the reality that neither a clear road map nor an instruction manual exists to tell you what to do. You face critics and skeptics who say you are wasting time and money on these new, untested systems. I sincerely thank you for daring to do it differently.

To close I give you William Faulkner's words spoken on December 10, 1950, upon the occasion of his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He spoke of the miracle of our survival. He spoke for me and, I hope, for you:

    I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

So as I depart this stage, I give you this wish: may your work bring out the best in us.

More Information

For more information, contact Bob Kerrey's assistant Latoya Marsh (e-mail:, tel.: 212-229-5656).

Listen to Bob Kerrey's keynote speech available as a podcast.

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