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Esri Takes Its Deep Mapping Software Online To Help Developers Become More Like Geographers

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Beyond the edge of SXSW last week, the Esri team camped out in an old brick firehouse with the interior of an Italian palace. It felt like the home of an eccentric Texas aristocrat, alone in his mansion, dripping with rich fabrics, chandeliers and the odd sense of a New York loft. And it was just right — an old world yet modern setting for a 44-year-old mapping company to host a new generation of developers who know little about cartography but a lot about data.

“Do you want to make a playing card?” asks Amber Case as she points to a rich backdrop, a painting of rock and red oozing lava. Case and her partner Aaron Parecki brought their playful, forward-looking, geek-centric view of the world when they sold their company, Geoloqi, to Esri last fall. They now run a research and development lab for Esri out of Portland where they are in many ways helping this 3,000-employee, privately held company reconsider how geodata is as much for cartographers as it is for developers and even the rest of us with little or no programming/mapping experience.

Amber jumps in front of the camera, dons some bee antennas and hams it up.

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It’s not what you would expect from a traditional mapping company with more ties to the august world of National Geographic than the edgy data playground where hackers play.

But here they are, making playing cards to show on a map and the different ways their tools can be used to shape geodata.

Developers played with data that has helped communities like the city of Austin create a map of its most dangerous dogs (chihuahuas — no joke). They scanned and mapped the ridges of visitors’ thumb prints to create personal, 3D virtual cities.

Here’s what my thumb print looks like as a city:

Bernard Szukalski is a product strategist and evangelist for Esri. He showed me how my thumbprint became a virtual city and gave a demo of ArcGIS Online.

I looked over his shoulder as he added live weather and weather warnings data to a “community basemap” – that GIS crowdsourced basemap compiled from various GIS sources. He also dragged and dropped a spreadsheet with traffic onto a map and configured symbols and pop-ups. It required no coding, just configuration steps to create aan app that a user can embed in blogs, websites, etc.

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Esri was founded in 1969. Its fame comes from its Arc-GIS mapping tools that urban planners, cartographers and other technical professionals have relied on for generations. It’s a world of its own. People speak language that pretty much they only understand. It’s a rarefied community, much like tens of thousands of other professional communities that now face a different reality. They are experts at what they do in a field that no longer necessarily requires a deep technical background. It’s the data that’s the difference, giving programmers room to abstract complexity and make it easy for people to use and understand. And that data is essentially shaped with accessible programming languages that developers use to create lightweight covers — essentially what we know of as apps.

And the result is a revolution in how we think about almost anything imaginable.

Maps are an appropriate metaphor for this new data universe. Today’s maps help us shape an infinite space, giving structure and visibility to what had before been empty and invisible.

Esri sees itself blending its GIS software to create relationships about where things are and how they are connected.

That’s a shift for Esri. It means they have to create a data mesh that spans the globe across thousands of data centers. You don’t do that one vertical software stack at a time. It’s impossible. And so Esri is turning to the cloud with ArcGIS Online as a way to give developers and people without a technical background, access to its vast geodata stores. Again, that data gives developers ways to create apps that help us navigate using virtual tools that will soon be, if not already, more predominant than the paper maps and atlases that many of us grew up with.

But they will have to act fast. Google, Microsoft and a host of startups are building or have built platforms that have made it easier to use geodata in their apps.

“The future is that developers will become more and more like geographers and cartographers as they increasingly work with real-world data,” Case said in a text message today. “Esri will be there for them with the tools they need in the languages they use at the subscription model they’re used to.”

This shift is exemplified in any variety of services and in the number of people now making maps as illustrated by Thierry Gregorius this week on his blog, Geofenced:

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Esri is making the changes you see with more forward-looking enterprise software companies. The company has a market-leading position but faces its deepest challenges from companies that do not have legacy software to support.

The only way to make the transition is to work with technologists like Case and Parecki – people who understand the geek culture and how to connect to the ever-growing developer community.