Ozri 2011: Extended Interview with Damian Spangrud

One of the key figures behind the planet’s most important mapping system will visit Australia next week to provide the country’s leading GIS professionals with a unique insight into the future direction of the technology. Damian Spangrud, the Senior Product Manager for ArcGIS, will travel from his base in the U.S. to speak with delegates at Ozri 2011.

Over nearly two decades working for Esri, Damian has seen ArcGIS strengthen response efforts during the world’s largest natural disasters, underpin the energy and resource grids of whole nations, and form a critical part of defence systems considered vital to global security. No wonder he finds it difficult to single out the one that’s had the most impact…

Damian Spangrud will be speaking at Ozri 2011 next week.

Here, he speaks to us about his life working with GIS – and provides a sneak peek of what to expect from Ozri 2011…

 EA: So tell us Damian… What drew you to the spatial industry – was there ever a ‘light-bulb’ moment where everything clicked? Was your favourite childhood toy something like a giant globe or a street directory?

DS: No, there was no ‘light bulb moment’. I’ve always been interested in maps and intrigued by the answers they provided and the assumptions used in their creation. I found that the Geography departments allowed me to study a wide diversity of subjects and bring together ‘hard science’, history, sociology, and biology into a common understanding.

EA: Can you describe the most exciting spatial project you’ve ever been involved with?

DS: I’ve seen a lot of spatial projects over the past 17 years at Esri, so it’s hard to pick the ‘most exciting’, but a few stand out. I’ve seen GIS used to manage a very high-end plant nursery, mapping the plants, conditions, bugs and yield at a few centimetres by a few centimetres; I’ve seen GIS techniques used to uncover lost cities; and, increasingly I’ve seen whole enterprises running GIS as a foundation for all their work, truly integrating geography everywhere. Some of the most rewarding is where it makes a real measurable difference in the immediate lives of people such as disaster response and defence and security; and where it makes a long-term impact such as reforestation, urban planning, and social services.

EA: Why do you think ArcGIS is so successful and such a valuable product?

DS: ArcGIS has been so successful for many reasons, but the overwhelming growth of map awareness (prompted by some of the earlier work done by Esri and our partners) has played a large role. As people began to use maps as a language in their everyday lives, they began to understand that the ‘pretty picture’ of the maps was only the surface, and that the information behind the maps could be used to answer so many more questions. ArcGIS took a unique approach to this as we didn’t dictate the data you used, we use all data and allowed professionals to fuse (mash-up in today’s language) data from multiple sources and collect new data, so they could ask questions and express the results on a map. Once this foundation was laid, people were then able to use the rest of the system to push the maps out to everyone (mobile devices, web sites, ruggedised applications…), but not just the maps, it’s the maps and the tools to ask more questions and update the information that brought it all together.

Esri Founder and President, Jack Dangermond

EA: What is it like to work so closely with Jack Dangermond?

DS: Jack is an amazing person. He has more energy and ideas than anyone I know. The pace of his work and thoughts are exhausting to everyone around him,… but at the same time he also energizes people and discussions with his ideas. Fundamentally, he continues to be focused on making the world better using geographic understanding.

EA: How would you describe the software’s historical value ?

DS: ArcGIS has significantly changed how GIS and mapping is perceived and done. Its brought about a complete change in many industries on what they expect of their data and what they expect in their staff. The evolution of GIS is not finished, ArcGIS continues to push and drive the direction of how people can use and increasingly deploy GIS.

EA: After 17 years working on ArcGIS, does anything surprise you anymore about how the software is being used or developed?

DS: Yes, many times it’s the simple “why didn’t I think of that” use of some tools for a non-traditional use. And others you find people pushing the tool beyond what you envisioned (models that when printed take up whole walls) and getting results.

EA: On your visit to Ozri, what are the main topics you hope to discuss?

DS: At Ozri, I hope to talk about the changes in computing and how online-based solutions are becoming more accepted, and that mobile use is dominating the new users. Also there is an important topic about ‘freeing the data’ where GIS professionals can leverage the trend of open data access within their organisation to make their lives simpler while actually allowing the organisation to do more.

EA: Is there anything you expect to learn or take on board from Ozri?

DS: Yes, I’m always searching for what the current challenges are and what will be the next challenges, in everything from IT to science and mapping.

EA: What are your thoughts on the increasing role of GIS in more mainstream sectors?

DS: Most people still don’t know what GIS is, and that’s fine. But what has changed is most people have actually seen or worked with GIS information (although they didn’t know it by that name). People are internalising the concept that geographical information is important and expected with any information. That is a huge change, and in many ways we are just starting to see the results of this shift, as there is so much that can be done.

EA: In general, how has GIS technology evolved over the past decade?

DS: The past ten years in GIS have been interesting as we have seen a shift in the expectations of the data/content and in how all information is used. We’ve seen a move towards common basemaps, ensuring consistent quality and a ‘dial tone’ of information. Most people now can ‘use a basemap’ rather then have to build it themselves. This has allowed much more focus on doing analysis and data management. The other big change has been the rapid growth and adoption of web and mobile solutions and infact the ‘requirement’ that everything be available everywhere. And GIS has evolved with this allowing more than just ‘pretty pictures’ on the devices.

EA: What does the next five years hold for GIS?

DS: The next five  years will continue to evolve all aspects of GIS. I believe we will see more and more knowledge as a service application where users can all leverage a common set of understanding and use that information and knowledge to do new and amazing things with geographic information. The role of the GIS professional will become even more important as they become the curators of this growth of geographic information and will provide the guidance on its use and validity.

EA: Can you give us a sneak peak of ArcGIS 10.1?

DS: ArcGIS 10.1 is in beta now and is shaping up to be a great release with some amazing new analytical tools and productivity tools, but also a tremendous focus on server scalability and performance. We had a number of sessions at the International User Conference (UC in San Diego, CA, USA) this summer, and those sessions are available on-line. I also invite everyone to participate in the beta.

EA: What does a typical day in the office hold for you?

DS: Thankfully there are no ‘typical’ days. My days are generally a mix of business meetings, technology milestones, conference calls/video chats, customer briefings, and using ArcGIS for demos and prototypes. Generally I work in three modes at once: aspects of the current shipping products (issues, clarifications etc); aspects of the next product (planning, positioning, preparation); and aspects of further off products (requirements, features, design etc ). So my day tends to be a bit frantic.

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