Thanks to worldwide geographic information systems, we know the physical makeup of our planet better than ever. But if you think there are no more earthly secrets left to reveal, then you’re not Esri founder, president and CEO Jack Dangermond.  

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Esri has gone above and beyond through its Disaster Response Program to support global initiatives helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the process, the pandemic is proving a need for a shared geospatial infrastructure, Dangermond says. Such a system, he explains, will not only help us better prepare for future pandemics. The geographic information system data will also help us better understand our ourselves as a population. 

“Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we have been working around the clock to help those on the front lines of the pandemic,” says Dangermond. “Because COVID-19 is a specifically geographic crisis, we see people using location technology to understand the situation, respond, and recover. We are working to get this powerful GIS technology into the hands of everyone who needs it.”

Originally a land-use consulting firm, founded as the Environmental Systems Research Institute in 1969, Esri is now the leading international supplier of geographic information software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications.

The upcoming virtual Esri User Conference (July 13-16, 2020) focuses on "Interconnecting Our World," including an extensive program to support how a more connected world might better our serve a post-pandemic society. Although Dangermond can't predict the future, he is determined to make certain that GIS is a part of the solution.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, what has been Esri’s priority for its customers and moral priority as a company?

We have always believed in using technology to address some of our planet’s greatest challenges. We engineer powerful GIS tools, and our priority is to deploy them to solve problems, especially in times of local or global need.

In response to large-scale disasters, we supply people with the maps, apps, data, dashboards, and analysis they need right away. We also offer free training, education, and technology resources to help organizations plan and prepare for the next event.

Esri’s Disaster Response Program is our 24/7 support for disasters, open to anyone working on the crisis. This team has already provided thousands of organizations with free software, on-call technical assistance, and training. This includes the distribution of thousands of ArcGIS software systems to local, state, and national governments, and to NGOs around the world. We are also supporting Johns Hopkins University with its COVID-19 dashboard, which has become the global standard for visualization of the pandemic. 

If at all, how have the needs of Esri’s customers changed since the outbreak? Also, how have Esri’s development goals changed?

We are seeing greater need for maps and dashboards from our customers in the public sector who deal with emergency management and resource allocation. Many states and government agencies are using GIS hub sites and dashboards to track and share data.

The private sector has been hit hard as well. To adjust to disruptions in revenue and adopt new operational processes, they need complete visibility into workflows, personnel, supply chains, and other vital data in real time. Our customers in commercial and manufacturing industries are using Esri’s Business Continuity Solution — designed for organizations that must reconfigure their operations. While this solution was developed to help organizations weather the current crisis, it will still benefit them after recovery.

Esri’s goals have not changed in a fundamental way, in the sense that we have always put our users first. In a way, this global crisis has shown us why this mission is so important and worthwhile. We are still dedicated to providing the software and services our customers need, and we maintain strong customer relationships for continued support.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how important it is to have customer relationships based on communication and collaboration. This allows us to scale disaster response capabilities quickly and efficiently, in different industries and regions.

Last year, you mentioned that a shared geospatial infrastructure system is needed because the “context of geographic knowledge will begin to impact almost every function on the planet.” With more pandemics and climate change surely on our horizon, it seems the time for such a geospatial nervous system is now, but are we ready to make such a system happen?

Our GIS users are already starting to make this happen, along with the dedication of researchers, scientists, and students who share a passion for GIS. Early in 2020, extraordinary efforts worldwide sprang up as a global response to the Coronavirus pandemic. GIS practitioners and heroic people everywhere joined together worldwide to implement and apply community GIS in virtually every nation and global region as well as at local levels. One of the most impactful traits of GIS is the user community’s strong interest in sharing.

Starting with the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Dashboard, a wave of sharing erupted across emergency and medical response communities around the world. The Johns Hopkins Dashboard was originally built by a handful of people, and quickly grew to become the primary tool used worldwide to track the rapidly evolving story of coronavirus. By mid-May, it had been viewed nearly 1 trillion times worldwide.

So, I think COVID-19 has demonstrated that we are ready for a shared geospatial infrastructure, and we are prepared to scale it to tackle challenges like climate change and global pandemics.

In your mind, does such an infrastructure offer more than just data to inform the building of new structures?

The idea of a geospatial infrastructure, or an “intelligent nervous system for the planet” as I like to put it, is much more than data, tools, and applications that function in an enterprise ecosystem. The geospatial cloud allows numerous geographic information systems to combine. We talk a lot about “digital twins,” which are dynamic virtual models of physical places and systems—they allow people to see all the moving parts of their operations or organizations in real time. If you take those digital twins and connect them in the cloud, you have an interconnected virtual model of the entire planet, and all the organizations that use GIS within it. They can collaborate and learn from each other, share information, and communicate with a level of awareness that we have not seen before.

At this moment the world is ready for community and global GIS. It is no longer solely about enterprise GIS and the hundreds of thousands of GIS organizations worldwide. It’s also about the new GIS hubs that sprang up one by one worldwide. In 2020, a new GIS has emerged, one where all of our geographic information systems combine into community hubs.

This is a transformation that affects all industries, organizations, and individuals, because the better informed we are in making decisions about our institutions as well as our planet, the better off we can be as a global community.

The context going into this virtual Esri User Conference is certainly extraordinary. What is the message you hope everyone takes away from this conference as we push forward into a new world?

Forty years ago this month, we had our first Esri User Conference in Redlands, California, with only a handful of participants. While initially no one was quite sure what the outcome would be, the event started an ongoing tradition where Esri and our users would come together, share our work, learn, and create a community of common interests.

That first meeting on the Esri campus provided the groundwork for the annual event where thousands of professionals from every corner of the globe meet one another, share inspiring examples of work, and learn from each other's experiences. While we can't replicate the experience of being together in person, we will do our best to create an amazing event that will continue to move users and the rest of our community forward.

One of the benefits of going with a virtual format will be that organizations will be able to send an unlimited number of attendees. With each User Conference, our community has grown, evolved, and improved. This year will be no exception, and it serves as an example of how dynamic our users are in adjusting to the quickly changing world.

If there is one message I would like attendees to hear, it is that we could not have made this historic step without them. Our GIS users are a crucial part of the progress we make as a company. They are why we build our software and services, and why we hold an Esri User Conference. We want to learn about and highlight the innovative work of our customers. We want to collaborate with them to find out what they need and how we can continue our support. The virtual UC is, in many ways, a direct result of the close ties between Esri and the greater GIS community.