GIS: Designing Our Future

ESRI Survey & Engineering GIS Summit and User Conference

We hear all the time how surveyors should engage the GIS field, both to improve the accuracy of maps and create opportunities for work. One of our columns labels it intersecting, and some call it synergy. But regardless, that time of year came recently when surveyors and GIS folks make the annual pilgrimage to beautiful, sunny San Diego, California for a week at the ESRI User Conference.

The Survey Summit portion of this serves as a prelude to the main gala at the San Diego Convention Center, running Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was an all-day plenary scenario, while Sunday featured breakout sessions. Some 300 people attended the Survey Summit, down about 17 percent from last year, but Brent Jones commented that the same number of companies were represented.

Jones, surveying/engineering industry manager for ESRI, welcomed the Survey Summit crowd with several remarks. "We're a pretty unique audience here. We're the foundation of the geospatial industry. One thing we have in common is that we're after accurate data." He noted that 36 percent of the attendees were first-timers. A technology guru, Jones compared surveying to media technologies such as newspapers, Twitter, PDF, and, saying that those who turn data into information succeed. He says more data should be transferred to the operation and maintenance stages of a project after it is built, as 75 percent of a project's costs are incurred here. In essence, turn project data into system data.

Next up, Juliana Blackwell, director of NOAA's National Geodetic Survey told the history of NGS and how Thomas Jefferson mandated it for our new country when he was President. Ferdinand Hassler established control in New York Harbour (correct spelling for the day) with a triangulation survey. Early surveyors created the National Spatial Reference System using tape, bars, and later EDMI. "They started the path for us." Today, NGS manages a network of over 1300 CORS and an additional 220 cooperative CORS.

In a technology demonstration, Amadea Azerski and two others from ESRI displayed a new version of ArcGIS Online recently introduced. Using a map of Oakland City, Michigan as an example, she talked enthusiastically about using ArcGIS with AutoCAD; you can reproject a CAD drawing to different datums on the fly and use Cadastral Fabric to get CAD data into the fabric.

Lunch with an Education

Breaking for lunch, attendees grabbed a box lunch and headed to one of two sessions sponsored by the Platinum Sponsors of the conference. We ventured to the session given by JAVAD GNSS because of the waves Javad Ashjaee has made in recent years with his new line of GNSS receivers. We had to see what it was all about. The other sponsor, Trimble, showed off its Trimble Access software, which provides the surveying industry with a comprehensive data collection solution that bridges the office and field.

"Brought to you from Russia with love," Ashjaee quipped as he opened his talk, playing off the James Bond movie and the fact his company has an R&D facility in Moscow. JAVAD receivers work with ArcGIS Server using an internal modem, and they have an internal RTK engine, yielding centimeter-level accuracy in real time. The Triumph microchip, which gives 216 channels for GNSS signal tracking, lies at the heart of JAVADÕs technology. As a result, JAVAD has become the first receiver to work with ArcPad data collection software out-of-the-box to give survey-grade accuracy. The Quattro package has four receivers and antennas-"all-wheel drive," as he calls it-yielding 16 baselines, making it effective for machine control applications or under canopy.

Ashjaee then proceeded to tell us how GLONASS has a receiver bias between the antenna and data collector, often making the signal inferior to GPS. He says his firm calibrates the bias with an accuracy of .2 millimeters dynamically and continuously; "this makes GPS and GLONASS identical." (See the Business Leader profile in this issue for our exclusive interview of Ashjaee.)

With sandwiches devoured, we returned to the plenary room for a presentation by Joseph Betit, survey manager for Dulles Transit Partners in Virginia. He detailed the large-scale, multi-year civil infrastructure Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. Dulles Airport was built several years ago a distance from the urban Washington, D.C. area it serves, but now urban civilization has grown closer to it, adding to the need for an extended Metro mass transit line to serve it. Betit said surveyors tried to integrate all technologies in the project except GPR (ground-penetrating radar). They used Trimble VX robotic survey instruments with integrated scanning and digital imaging. As-built work was done with laser scanning, and mobile lidar saw use; this often employed a Riegl scanner. He called this the first project where they left a dynamic, complete, working control network behind, one that gives active real-time control.

Could've Gone All Night

As a warmup up for the main event that has become a staple at survey conferences such as this, a rendition of Johnny Cash belting out Burning Ring of Fire set the stage for the "Industry Leadership Discussion: Business Aspects in Geospatial Technology." With industry consultant Joe Paiva moderating once again, the three panelists each gave an introduction about their view on business opportunities, and then Joe opened the floor for a question-and-answer session. Frank Derby, a GIS professor at Penn State, asked why surveyors don't embrace GIS. Curt Sumner, executive director of ACSM replied, "Fear, of the unknown and losing control." John Matonich, president of Rowe Engineering added that surveyors need to better understand where they fit in.

Another fellow took the microphone and asked the panel how small survey firms can get involved with GIS. Matonich replied, "These opportunities are there no matter what size you are." Sumner added that it might actually be easier for smaller firms because they're more agile. When another attendee asked how he could convince his struggling firm to adopt GIS, Pete Borbas, owner of Borbas Surveying & Mapping, recommended hiring a new surveying graduate who doubles as an IT guru and turn him or her loose.

Dr. Jan Van Sickle of Van Sickle, LLC then stood up and commented that he didn't understand how people can't get excited about the possibilities in geospatial work, "There is so much work out there. This is a tremendous opportunity. Surveyors can handle it better than anybody. Why the long faces?"

The rousing session featured the usual plethora of jokes about the average age of surveyors, with the panelists joking about their ages. Issues of licensing, ethics, and getting young people involved in surveying also arose, and the questions and comments continued until Paiva had to wrap things up so we could proceed to the last event of the day, the GIS Solutions Expo and Reception.

Sunday brought a bevy of  breakout sessions to choose from, most on case histories or subjects that integrate surveying with GIS. I sat in on "The Technological Revolution in the Geodetic Unit at MnDOT" as well as "Using GIS and Survey Grade Data for Urban Energy Operations."

On to the Big Show

About 11,000 people attended the ESRI User Conference, down from the 14,000 that normally attend. Following the usual format, thousands streamed into the huge ballroom of the convention center on Monday morning for the opening day of plenary sessions. President Jack Dangermond kicked it off by talking about the myriad areas of application for GIS ranging from environmental issues such as pollution and species extinction to social issues to planning efforts like where to place solar panel arrays or WiFi coverage. The upbeat crowd applauded often.

Dangermond then presented his President's Award to Maryland governor Martin O'Malley for his efforts in using GIS in state operations. Maryland implemented a statewide land use plan to manage state operations and mapped trends such as homicides and shootings in Baltimore in an effort to reduce crime, increase mass transit ridership, and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. They also mapped home foreclosures, unemployment, and where stimulus funds are allocated.

With these overtures aside, Dangermond delved more into the nuances of ESRI software and its latest upgrades. "ArcGIS 9.3.1 has substantially improved our platform," he began. A technician demonstrated how maps are available for free on ArcGIS 9.3.1, pulling up the town of Ville Nancy, France as an example. "A lot more is coming soon." ESRI will release a new version of ArcGIS Explorer soon, and Dangermond remarked, "This is transformational."

The biggest development, however, seemed to be the upcoming release of ArdGIS 9.4, which Dangermond said his crew has been working on for the last three years. He described it as the next big step, saying ArcGIS 9.4 Desktop will make GIS easier and more productive. To explain why, "9.4 Makes ArcGIS a Complete 3D GIS" flashed on the screen. Several of Dangermond's coworkers took to the stage to demonstrate the features. As "Mobile GIS is Growing Rapidly" played on the screen, Dangermond added, "Mobile GIS will connect everybody." He told how 9.4 will improve the mobile platform. ESRI is expanding 9.4 to tablet PCs.

That afternoon, the plenary session featured talks by keynote speakers. Hernando de Soto, a celebrated economist from Peru and president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, shared how GIS technology is being leveraged to formalize land ownership. He sees this as helping poor people in developing countries rise out of poverty. Indonesian biologist Willie Smits shared his passion for rebuilding forest habitat and orangutan populations. He talked about a project in Borneo that is impacting communities by creating a better future for local people, trees, and the orangutan.

Down to Business

On Tuesday, the tone of the conference changes as attendees disperse through the convention center to attend myriad technical sessions, peruse the Map Gallery with its more than 800 maps, attend special interest group meetings, and stroll the aisles of the Exhibit Pavilion. With the ESRI Showcase occupying the center of the Exhibit Pavilion, some 180 exhibitors populate the trade show on both sides. These consist of GIS companies, survey equipment manufacturers, and government agencies.

I took in a session "Geodesy and GIS" in which Eric Gakstatter, a GPS consultant and contributing editor for GPS World magazine, gave the audience an overview and update on GNSS. He cited a recent GAO (Government Accounting Office) report that GPS has been mismanaged somewhat, citing satellites being used beyond their design life and delays in new satellite development. He said that while the report does raise legitimate concerns, GPS users shouldn't be overly concerned.

In wrapping up his talk on Monday, Jack Dangermond told us "This year, ESRI is 40 years old." He said the company's purpose remains unchanged, and it is financially strong and growing. That bodes well for GIS continuing to progress and presenting opportunities for surveyors. And it also means we can plan on coming back to sunny San Diego for the annual user conference.

View videos from ESRI on our YouTube site: our YouTube name is ProfSurvMag.

About the Author

  • Tom Gibson, PE
    Tom Gibson, PE
    Tom was editor of the magazine from June 2006 to May 2010. He is also the editor of Progressive Engineer:

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