Esri Annual Conference 2016, London

Last week I was able to attend Esri's annual conference in Westminster. Here's some quick highlights and reflections.

First off, and most visibly, this was a big conference - the biggest in the UK yet. Over 3,000 people had registered, and the conference had packed out four floors of the QEII Conference Centre in London. More interestingly, I would estimate the proportion of female attendees was about 40% - which is unusually (and refreshingly) high in comparison to most data-related events in the conference calendar.

The talks

The day started with a keynote from Stuart Bonthrone, MD of Esri UK, who touched on the interesting work being done with geospatial data by a number of Esri customers. He referred to the term 'spatially enabling the enterprise' which in non-marketing speak means, I think, organisations having some GIS (Geographic Informations Systems) competence and ensuring that the benefits of this are maximised across functional teams. This is important for the continued growth and success of commercial GIS vendors such as Esri. But it's also important for the organisations procuring this kind of product suite. Very often these licence purchases are made on the back of an isolated business case; extending use into other departments and use cases should mean a high marginal ROI.

The examples he gave also seem to indicate a trend toward GIS ubiquity. Put another way, Esri's market centres on large organisations with national infrastructure concerns (public sector, civil engineering, utilities etc), yet more and more demand is coming from other (and smaller) organisations. Quite what is driving that demand for geospatial analysis is, I think, an open question (perhaps growing cloud adoption and the associated access to cheap computing power; or, maybe the increasingly rich feature sets have crossed some threshold that previously limited its appeal). What is beyond doubt is that the types of analysis, such as machine learning, that were previously restricted to GIS professionals or advanced programmers are now available to more varied users ('personas' in Esri terminology) such as the humble data analyst.

The most engaging talk I saw came soon after this: Foster + Partners began with an introductory video presentation followed by an account of the thought process behind their designs for a municipal metro system. This is more interesting than it sounds!

The Foster + Partners vision depicted metro stations situated in densely populated areas to encourage greater adoption of public transportation.

The Foster + Partners vision depicted metro stations situated in densely populated areas to encourage greater adoption of public transportation.

A Saudi government authority had invited proposals for the redesign of the metro system in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second largest city and 'gateway' to Mecca. The requirement was to present a vision for Jeddah in 2300. The winning Foster + Partners entry referenced various aspects of local life - in particular it contrasted the dense and highly-interconnected layout of the old town, Al Balad, with the sprawl of modern Jeddah, dominated by wide highways that separate people and make public transport a less attractive option. There is more to see in their corporate video, but the salient points from a GIS perspective were how they analysed population density within a quick walk from existing metro stations, and also how they went about mapping out the current and planned network without being able to rely on distinctive landmarks or street signage (architecture in the Jeddah suburbs is repetitive and indistinct, and it's usual for roads not to be named).

The keynotes closed with a very slick presentation from Esri on using their ArcGIS platform for a range of geospatial use cases. For example a global shipping dataset of about 25 million data points was interrogated in a live demo, allowing the hypothetical analyst to quickly understand and plan against piracy. However the demo that stole the show came with the announcement of the new 'Drone2map' app. This had a sizeable chunk of the audience salivating: instead of paying a specialist firm thousands to survey a site and produce 3d imagery of it, the idea is to use a drone (manned by a much cheaper licensed operator!) to take a series of 2d images in a short time, and then access ArcGIS directly oneself to convert these into various types of 2d and 3d rendering. The live demo 'approximated' real life (a technician walked around a miniature home with his iPhone) and the output was a set of impressive 3d renders produced in under 15 minutes. This will be an interesting app to explore for anyone responsible for managing, planning or maintaining large physical assets such as infrastructure or grand country estates.

In his talk after the keynotes, Chris Barker of Esri showcased ArcGIS's 'smart mapping' capabilities. This essentially refers to automated defaults and options the software suggests to give the best initial layout and design for the map one is attempting to construct - for example:

  • choosing the right starting resolution for a map of contiguous polygons such that one gets the best overview of the full dataset; or
  • choosing the colour scheme, gradient direction, border styles (and so on) to highlight the salient points in the dataset.

For those questioning whether the user really needs to be helped to produce a useful map, you can get a feel for the various design choices one must make by visiting Esri's 'maps we love' page.


There were a number of customer presentations throughout the day, including one from Daniel Irwin, GIS Manager at Crossrail. He highlighted the organisational challenges involved in the programme (there is a complex web of interested parties, many of whom are independent contractors) and the importance of data to coordinate them and ensure a common understanding of the work that is done and that which is planned. He also briefly explained some of the fascinating technical challenges for which geospatial data was necessary to overcome - including guiding a massive drilling machine through a congested subterranean landscape 40 metres beneath Tottenham Court Road with a 50-centimetre tolerance (coined 'the eye of the needle'). 

John Seabourn, GIS and Mapping Manager at the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), gave an interesting talk about the organisational benefits of moving to ArcGIS. The backdrop is an increasing demand for geospatial data for the industry and interested stakeholders: oil and gas companies want accurate information and means to analyse it; local authorities want to monitor and report on licensing; citizens want to check how their local area could be affected.

This snapshot of the area around Liverpool is taken from the OGA's freely accessible interactive map. It shows oil and gas exploration and production activity onshore in Great Britain.

This snapshot of the area around Liverpool is taken from the OGA's freely accessible interactive map. It shows oil and gas exploration and production activity onshore in Great Britain.

As with many public bodies the data John manages has historically been stored in multiple places and not always digitally. This could literally mean a request for a new map resulting in a paper version being filed away and under-exploited. John talked about his experience of moving the organisation to ArcGIS as a central system for storing, managing and analysing all of these data in a more structured and open fashion. This enabled various efficiencies, such as much more rapid production of updated shape files for online publication (a workflow reduced from days to minutes). But a key lesson for John - echoing Stuart Bonthrone's point - was the demand from other parts of the organisation that previously had not really been engaged in analysing these data. The list he cited included geologists, lawyers, policy writers, communications professionals, economists and senior management: right across the organisation the availability of mapping data, and the tools for analysing it, led to more fruitful conversations and more use cases affecting real world outcomes.


In summary

Esri's ArcGIS platform is the leader in the mass GIS market and demand for tools such as ArcGIS looks to be strong and growing. Innovation in GIS is being fuelled in part by the number of interested analysts, but also other factors like cloud adoption and the increasingly rich feature sets on offer. Real world scenarios as presented by Esri's customers support the claim that their ArcGIS platform is supporting more and more user groups, and hence use cases, across 'the enterprise'.


UPDATE 27 May 2016: The post-conference website has been announced and contains the above material and more - check it out: