Jack Dangermond Interview 2 of 3: Sharing Government GIS Data

Jack Dangermond is the founder and CEO of ESRI. ESRI’s software is used by every level of government around the world. You can see ESRI’s influence in online mapping tools from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and FortiusOne. I had the opportunity to interview him over the phone on April 20, 2009. In this portion of the interview we discuss the history of GIS and online mapping.

Jack will be speaking at Where 2.0 on May 20th in San Jose. You can use whr09rdr for 20% off at registration.

Brady Forrest: Thank you. I want to look back in history a bit. Last summer you made an announcement at Where 2.0 with John Hankey that would enable ESRI customers to publish to the web more easily. I was wondering what type of uptake you’d seen in that.

Jack Dangermond: We’ve had a lot of people that are putting their datasets out in the form of KML and loading it up onto Google Earth. I would’ve guessed that more would’ve happened than actually happened, but technologically now there’s no limit to doing it. And I don’t know why it hasn’t been as popular as we would’ve wanted. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Brady Forrest: Fear of making data more available, either from a keeping my job standpoint or for a fear about terrorism. And just poor awareness of doing it. Why they would do it. What would be the positive benefits for them? As Ian White has pointed out before, people are paid to maintain that data. And if it doesn’t go through them personally and it’s just off the web, they’re not as important as they were before or they don’t perceive themselves to be as important.

Jack Dangermond: I actually haven’t seen any of that. From the very earliest days, GIS was all about sharing data. And so USGS shared their topographic basemaps. And they became the basis for state and local government GIS’s. And the ability to share planning data within engineering departments within agencies certainly wasn’t restricted. In the early days, we’re talking about 1995, ’96, ’97, we came out with a product called ArcIMS which was one of the first commercial versions of web mapping. And we sold over 50,000 copies of that server. So people were serving up parcel data, serving up land use maps, serving up demographic maps all over the web. And that’s a pretty remarkable result of that. So contrary to that notion that GIS people don’t share their data — in fact, I’m absolutely certain that that’s not the case.

Okay. There are a couple of agencies here and there that have been restrictive about sharing their property data. And the reason why they’ve done that is for commercial reasons and almost Machiavellian reasons like they get revenue for selling their property data and, therefore, they don’t want to make it available openly.

And there’s even been some court cases on that in California. And that’s sort of slowly working its way out. Today, I think there’s only two counties left in the state of California, and it’s probably been replicated across the country where people don’t openly share their data on any kind of request. The three big reasons –

Brady Forrest: But there’s a difference between making it available upon request and just having it freely available out on the web.

Jack Dangermond: Right. The three big restrictions why people don’t share data are number one, commercial reasons because they’re trying to resell it themselves. And I think driving home on that, systematically over the last dozen years or so, people have dropped most of that because, as you know, it’s against our constitution. It’s against what we’re doing. The second one you already mentioned was the issue of security. And I think there are a number of countries like, for example, India, Singapore and others where they still have very restrictive laws that prohibit dissemination on the web or in any form of maps. Not so here in the United States. The third one is the issue of privacy. And that has — there hasn’t really been any court cases about it, but it is a little bit scary the notion that information is more and more out there about your location, where you live, what you own and things like that.

But again, I don’t think that’s holding back GIS users from sharing it. What you’re getting at is why don’t people spend the money to buy a server to share their maps on the open web? And I guess I think a lot of people have. Actually, tens of thousands of organizations do it. Why haven’t they done it on top of the Google Map? I’m not sure about that. If you Google in the text world about say a land use map or a property map on a particular location, you’ll often get many datasets or services that are available. But I think maybe it’s a matter of time and people getting familiar with it — that is the notion of instead of serving just a single map as part of a webpage about their properties or their economic development sites in their particular town, they put that stuff onto Google, maybe people are just finding out about that or maybe they’re not up on the next release of the software so that they’re implementing it. I’m not quite sure why they haven’t chosen to uniquely publish it so that Google can bring it into their maps.

Brady Forrest: Well, but not just Google. I mean KML is an open standard now.

Jack Dangermond: Right. Yeah. Whether it’s Google or Microsoft or whatever it is.

Brady Forrest: Yeah. But what do you think the role that GIS and ESRI will have with the new administration — do you see that changing?

Jack Dangermond: Well, as you probably know, we have our software across most of the federal government agencies in USGS and –

Brady Forrest: And state and local, right?

Jack Dangermond: — [inaudible] as well as state and local government. It’s almost ubiquitous. And many of those agencies do put up mapping sites or websites which publish and make their data available. So I think that what we see is GIS will continue to play a significant role in this administration like it did in the last several administrations in visualizing maps or doing analytics like in EPA or in Department of Interior or Homeland Security. There’s just huge penetration and usage. And they do this for reasons that bring benefit. It helps government be more rational and more effective and more transparent. So is that what you mean?

Brady Forrest: Yeah. Well, I’m also thinking of the digital control centers like in New York, 311 I think?

Jack Dangermond: Yes.

Brady Forrest: And Virtual Alabama. Just picturing more of those coming to our government and I was wondering what ESRI was going to do about that. But I’m also wondering — you just released I believe it’s Arc Viewer, your JavaScript and Flash client and so you’re doing an increasing focus on web services, but I had a question that came from Twitter about when you actually offer ArcGIS server in the Cloud, not just as a way of getting data but actually like a hosted version that someone could fire up just from a web browser.

Jack Dangermond: Right. Well, let’s go back a second to your previous question. ArcGIS server is being deployed by a lot of government agencies to make their strategies more transparent. A couple of years ago the governor who’s currently the governor of Maryland, his name is Martin O’Malley, was the mayor of Baltimore and built something called CitiStat. CitiStat was a GIS-based system which allowed each of the different departments to express in the form of maps their strategy. So the police department was showing where there’s crime and also showing their police beats and showing that they were allocating money to where the most serious crimes were occurring or patterns of crimes. As a result of that, crime dropped in Baltimore.

He did the same thing with the parks and open space department and the same thing with the public works department. They began paving roads where there was the most potholes and complaints. And this started actually something in government, kind of transparency in government by having these maps illustrate not only where the big problems were but also illustrate where the government was spending money. When he became governor, he initiated with us a similar kind of effort called StateStat and BaseStat[Word] where all the measurements of his different departments are being put up as maps showing where not only there’s need, but also where they’re spending money and also their effectiveness. And the current administration, the Obama administration, likes very much the State of Maryland’s website because it makes transparent the government spend and also shows accountability dimensions to what’s going on in government.

When the stimulus bill came out, many of the states wanted to model themselves after the State of Maryland. And ESRI has built a ArcGIS viewer-based system that is free and downloadable to any state basically or actually any government who wants to replicate what Maryland has done, that is show where they’re spending money and where there’s problems. And I think to date, 44 states have brought that up and implemented parts of it. Also, a number of the federal agencies are showing that same kind of attention. With respect to the second subject — sorry; does that clarify in your mind the notion of how governments are beginning to spatialize their expenditures and make it available.

I would say that currently in our user base, there may be 2,000 of those servers that are out there that are in one form or the other looking at making mapping of government expenditures available to the consumers. Another dimension of that is CIP funding where for many years local governments would make available their capital improvement program spends by geocoding different projects like street improvements or park improvements and showing the amount of money that they’re going to spend or that they’re spending on the city. And I think that that adds one more dimension to open democracy. It uses mapping as a way to spatialize government.

This is actually not a new concept. It’s been going on even when there was just simple printed maps before the internet, but by putting it on the web it adds to the access of that information and adds to the transparency of what government is doing. With respect to the Cloud, ESRI has put up a very large server, ArcGIS online server with many layers of information, basemaps and imagery, for use by our users. Unlike the Google or Microsoft basemaps, these are focused principally on providing a foundation for GIS users. They’re not intended for the consumer sort of where to marketplace; they’re intended for content supplements to what GIS users are creating and maintaining. And we offer these services available for free. Increasingly, this footprint of putting ArcGIS online up and available for our users is teaching us a lot about putting GIS server in the Cloud as a general purpose Cloud-based GIS. So in addition to content, we also have geocoding and routing services that developers can take and build applications on top of and extend.

With respect to Google, we’re very interested in having Google’s web maps and basemaps participate in that ecosystem of geospatial content. But it hasn’t been made available as a commercial or noncommercial service because of, as I understand it, some of the content restrictions at Google has to date.

Brady Forrest: Meaning around the underlying geodata?

Jack Dangermond: Yeah. I think that that’s some of the constraints, although I really don’t know. I mean Google has a policy where to look at the Google data, it has to be by way of their own browsers and geobrowsers. So opening that up will be possibly the next big dimension that they carryout.

This was the second portion of a three-part interview with Jack. The first was on Web Mapping and the third on Sharing GIS Data will be published tomorrow.

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  • Archie Belaney

    Wow. The world according to Jack…there’s some really, really fascinating nuggets in here. Completely disingenuous mis-directs of the questions…way to go, Mr. Dangermond.

    That people ‘share’ data is true – by sneaker-net and person-to-person handoff. Local governments, in fact DO NOT share data very well at all. Because there’s usually little incentive to do so. Notwithstanding the idea that “it’s the right thing to do” folks tend not to share openaly because “it’s yet another thing to do, and I don’t have time, and there’s privacy and turf issues in this equation, too”.

    The idea that he’s mystified that Google searches rarely turn up maps. As if it’s some issue with Google…when the reality is search on the ESRI-verse of maps is well-nigh impossible. ESRI software requires a completely obtuse set of naming conventions, and every user entity uses a slightly different convention within the short file name. Or names, more properly, since most ESRI ‘files’ are actually assemblies of sidecar files, each with the same prefix and all sporting a different suffix.

    And the straight shot across the bow regarding the geodata that underlies the geographic world of Google. The data are proprietary because they’re tiered and merged into a stack which ‘requires’ a simple, free, open, accessible, easy-to-use, tool to access the products. Sure, others might consume these data if the right terms were granted, but ESRI *can’t* come to terms with the entity they see as their largest competitor. So now it’s Google’s issue to solve?

    There’s a reason why Jack controls the market. He’s really, really good at sending the message

  • Steve Ediger

    Great interview and great comment Archie. I tend to agree with you. The data is certainly there, but not for sharing. I think that we owe Jack a lot of credit for the products that he’s produced over the years, but you’re right; he’s operating in the capitalist economy not the reputation economy.