ESRI Reshapes its Proprietary Mapping System Into an Open Crowdsourcing Platform, Raising a Challenge for Google

7/16/10Follow @bvbigelow

In the plenary session that kicked off the ESRI International User Conference this week in downtown San Diego, ESRI founder and president Jack Dangermond demonstrated the features of ArcGIS.com, a free website the company recently launched that allows ordinary folks to create their own maps.

Dangermond also highlighted a free mobile app that the private, Redlands, CA-based company created for the iPhone and iPad, as well as various community “crowdsourcing” initiatives that are making use of other free resources to create “intelligent” maps of city parks. With its new ArcGIS for Apple iOS and the new website, which can be accessed using Safari and Firefox, ESRI has now extended its mapping technology well beyond its traditional Windows-based market. ESRI’s David Cardella tells me they also are working on an Android app, and just started work on an app for Windows 7 Mobile.

ESRI conference displays

ESRI conference displays

“Our initiatives here are to access services and to bring community resources back to the user,” Dangermond told the audience.

Even while ESRI released the tenth version of its proprietary ArcGIS program, a prominent theme of the conference this week was the democratization of its geographic information systems (GIS) technology. Since 1969, when Dangermond founded the business initially known as Environmental Systems Research Institute, the technology has evolved from proprietary systems that customers purchased and loaded onto their own computers into technology that’s also now available in free and open-source forms, like so much else on the Internet.

At ArcGIS.com, anyone can use the free online resources to create a map, starting with a base map (topographic, aerial view, street view, etc.) and adding layers of information (crime incident reports, real estate valuations, public transit routes, and other data). The result could be a map for a neighborhood watch group that shows crime hotspots along local bus routes or a realtor’s list of mountain homes adjacent to a ski area.

Much like an online wiki, the maps created on the ArcGIS.com website also can be edited, organized, queried, and shared with other users, a capability that Dangermond says prompted some people to describe the website as “GeoFlickr.” (As with Flickr, Yahoo’s photo sharing service, ArcGIS users also can pay to use more advanced map-making capabilities, and to store more data in their online account.) But Dangermond says the website’s capabilities come from ArcGIS—ESRI’s flagship development software for creating geographic information systems.

(Apple appears to be developing some mapping capabilities of its own. The Cupertino, CA-company bought a Canadian mapping company called Poly9 this week and an API mapping developer called Placebase last fall.)

The Web is democratizing access to geographic information. As Dangermond demonstrated, it is relatively easy today for anyone with Internet access to create their own maps, and to store and share their data in the cloud. As impressive as it all seems, though, it’s hard for me not to view ESRI’s open mapping initiatives as anything but the company’s strategic response to the immutable forces unleashed by free mapping tools like Wikimapia, Google Maps, and Google Earth—and the voracious online appetite for free services and open software.

Yet when I later met with Simon Thompson, ESRI’s director of commercial marketing, he said there’s much more to ESRI’s initiatives than merely providing some new open APIs and GIS resources on the Internet.

“People have always tended to work with experts, and looked for authoritative sources,” Thompson says. “What Google has done has been a separate kind of awakening,” at least among GIS developers, to the significance of credibility and transparency in the creation of online documents.

What GIS developers and users are wondering now, Thompson says, is what does “authoritative” mean? “You can provide open access to information,” he says, “but if you don’t explain how you got that information, and where that information came from, then what have you got, really?”

Thompson says that ESRI’s map-making technology enables a user to access data about the authors and sources that were used with a mouse click. The website communicates with other systems, so a mapmaker can pull in data from Bing, Yahoo, and Google, Thompson says.

The ArcGIS.com website also is fundamentally different, Thompson says, because free mapping systems like Google’s don’t make it easy for a user to compare different maps of the same region, or, for example, to combine two maps of California to show both earthquake hazards and wildfire hazards in a single document. “It used to take this death march to create these maps and apps,” Thompson says. But with ArcGIS.com, “Somebody with relatively low expertise and no cartography-specific skills can produce something that can be shared.” It would also possible to combine that electronically with another map that details real estate parcels—to scale that up—and include 10,000 records or 10 million records, which is something an insurance company might want. “Before now, it was really difficult to do that,” Thompson says.

By integrating its website with social media, Thompson says it’s also possible, for example, to create a map of concert sites on Lady Gaga’s tour and push it to Facebook and Twitter.

He maintains that ESRI’s open initiative is targeting a broader audience of GIS users. It allows users to bring together data from different sources, which couldn’t be done easily before, and includes references for the “authoritativeness” of each document for anyone to check.

“So this initiative is about being able to accommodate all uses of information, and that’s just not possible with these other systems, which are amazing systems for visualization,” Thompson says. “But they lack these capabilities and the knowledge that people put into publishing their own maps.”

Google might take issue with that, but now the ball is in their court.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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