Mapping GIS through space and time

When entrepreneur and former nursery worker Jack Dangermond asks, "What is a tree?" he's not spouting a cliche he heard years ago in some college philosophy class. He's serious.

Dangermond is president and founder of electronic mapping software company Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. He believes that before anyone can easily share information, the mapping community must reach an agreement on when a plant is a tree, or exactly what is a street, or how to label the maze of underground lines that transport water, waste and fuel to and from homes and businesses.

Standards for how we label objects on Earth will be key to more easily sharing information to support research on the environment and our society, Dangermond said.

"What is occurring is that we are beginning to measure everything that changes," Dangermond said at an ESRI open house held this fall.

The data collected on population growth, economic development, consumption of natural resources, environmental hazards, the economy, soil chemistry and water supplies can be aggregated and shared. Researchers can use the data to manage land, businesses and governments better, according to Dangermond.

Dangermond has helped push the geographic information systems industry toward adopting standards. As founder of GIS software powerhouse ESRI, Dangermond—along with his wife and former high-school sweetheart, Laura, and company employees—has turned a tiny investment into a $350-million-a-year enterprise. The company has almost 220,000 clients worldwide, and ESRI's products have become standard tools for U.S. federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. More than 50 military organizations around the world also have standardized on ESRI products to make electronic maps.

Dangermond based the company in the city where he was born, Redlands, Calif., a city of about 60,000 people outside Los Angeles. His father owned a nursery, and Dangermond grew up with the family business. "I moved from growing plants into selling plants into landscape architecture," he said. "[Landscape architecture] really is geographic architecture."

Learning landscape architecture meant learning about such things as a piece of land's flood potential or soil content, which required collecting data that could be assigned to a map.

While pursuing a master's degree in landscape architecture at Harvard University in the late 1960s, it became obvious to Dangermond that using computers to represent and analyze data could make the job of designing landscapes easier. His work in the computer graphics laboratory during his time at Harvard fed his vision of the role software could play in making maps.

In 1969, after earning his degree at Harvard, Dangermond moved back to California and with Laura founded ESRI. With a $5,000 loan from this mother, Dangermond began to build a business that made specialized maps for clients. He hired a part-time secretary and a part-time programmer.

Early ESRI clients included a local air-pollution agency and a ski resort. ESRI also made maps on the environmental factors associated with establishing a new town, for the design of a San Diego park and for sitting power lines.

The defining moment for Dangermond and his company came more than a decade after the founding of ESRI. Around 1980, some ESRI customers decided they wanted to buy the software so that they could design their own maps. Up to this point, the company had been doing most of the mapmaking work for its clients.

At a users' conference, ESRI officials decided to change their business strategy and organize as a software company instead of a strictly professional services company. "We decided that we would concentrate on serving other people by building tools and leverage our experience rather than doing the work ourselves," Dangermond said.

ESRI is a private company. That means there have been no venture capitalists to appease and no debt to worry about. "Our mission can be whatever we make it," Dangermond said, who described his company as a "software company without all that Silicon Valley hype."

Dangermond continues to urge GIS users to work together to develop standards for sharing data. He speaks of "a geospatial enlightenment in the way we communicate." He looks forward to the day when the layers of data on any particular region will be shared so easily that a "Geography Channel" will emerge alongside The Weather Channel—perhaps giving viewers instant updates on topics such as nationwide traffic flow on the day before Thanksgiving, crime hot spots, volcanic or earthquake activity, deforestation, new business registrations or concentrations of consumer product sales—all topics that can be represented geographically or "geospatially."

Dangermond is so absorbed in GIS' role in the future that separating the man from the company proves difficult. He asks to be described as a normal guy, but not many normal guys work 18-hours days and receive a continuous thrill from their jobs.

"For me, it's like driving a race car," he said. "Not many people get to play at 100 percent." And when he says that, he's not spouting a cliche. He's serious.

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