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When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf in 2005, government and aid organizations struggled to bring each other up to speed on the latest information. By the time Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast last year, FEMA was able to quickly collate federal, state and local geographic data to help in its wake.
One reason for the difference is Esri.
Esri is Facebook for the mapping crowd. It has 350,000 member organizations — governments, major companies in industries ranging from fossil fuel to finance, and many of the biggest NGOs in the world, including the United Nations. All of these groups have a need for the richest and most up-to-date maps, whether it’s a map of the wildfires in California or of solar power in Arizona or of international oil pipelines.
The most useful maps have multiple layers of data baked into them, and that typically comes from collaboration — groups of people adding those layers of data over time. Esri has created an online platform for that kind of collaboration.
ArcGIS Online, which Esri rolled out last year, allows members to swap real-time maps and map data in the cloud, instead of having to email the information back and forth, which is how it used to be. Members can take a map and add any one of the hundreds of data sets that Esri has in its library, or one of thousands of publicly available data sets, or drag and drop data from their own Excel spread sheet — and the map instantly changes to reflect the new information.
ArcGIS Online has already had an impact on the types of maps that are getting created. A series of New Jersey maps break down the state in every way, from hydrology to the migration path of its Gypsy moths. Using data sets from EPA, IEMS and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle mapped out piles of illegally dumped tires in border towns. Currently, members share millions of maps and data sets every month.
“We have been working for years to find a platform to share this information,” said Esri co-founder Jack Dangermond, an environmental scientist by training. Dangermond founded the company in 1969 with his wife in Redlands, Calif., and it now has 3,000 employees in the U.S. The company sells subscriptions to large companies for up to $40,000 a year. Nonprofits get free access.
This month, ArcGIS also added spatial analytic capabilities to its cloud program. It lets users ask the maps questions. For example, during its annual users conference this month, Esri showed how its online analytics could be used to query a proposed oil pipeline. One could ask, does a proposed pipeline interfere with any environmentally protected lands? Will low-income areas fall disproportionately in its path? With which weather or geographical elements will its builders have to contend? By adding data overlays, subscribers can visually and analytically drill down into the answers on the map itself.
Mapping can seem like a closed world of polygons and GIS certificates, but as maps become more accessible, the potential user base could grow. Already retail businesses, including some that had never used mapping, are tapping into ArcGIS, says Johan Herrlin, Esri’s senior business strategist. Using their customers’ addresses and demographic maps, companies can find out additional details about those customers — their likely income, say, or the size of their household. Then, assuming that their future customers will probably be similar demographically to their current customers, they can again use demographic maps to figure out where to put their next store.
Within the next few months, Esri will launch a marketplace for developers of mapping apps. The apps will be geared toward people in the GIS community—so you won’t find them in Apple’s App Store or on Google Play.
Developers can decide to give the apps away, or charge for them, and the marketplace will centralize the selling and distribution. That means public-safety organizations, for example, won’t have to rely on trade publications or contact lists to find mapping apps to help them in their fields.
The ubiquitousness of Google Maps, GPS and geolocation social data is making people more reliant on digital maps for their day-to-day lives — plotting out a faster commute, or finding that restaurant their friends were raving about. Esri has a different target: the growing number of people who can’t do their jobs without great maps.