A Conversation with Bern Szukalski about Geospatial Visualization, Part I

As a senior staff member at ESRI, Bern Szukalski has been involved in a variety of different aspects of development, implementation, and marketing. For more than 20 years he has been an integral part of the evolution of ESRI’s software. He currently focuses on GIS technology trends and strategies, specifically related to ESRI’s geospatial visualization tools such as ArcGIS Explorer.

I recently spoke to Bern at length about geospatial visualization. Bern has been a key player in the development of various visualization tools over the years. In Part I of our interview, he gives his perspective on the history of geospatial visualization tools at ESRI.

What’s your background, Bern?

My educational background is in biology and chemistry and just prior to joining ESRI I was involved in the field of bone and mineral metabolism as a research assistant.

You’ve been here a long time…

This April will mark my 23rd year at ESRI, a personal milestone I never intended or thought I would reach.

And what’s your title?

“Product manager and technology evangelist”.

So what does that mean?

I am very fortunate that my tenure at ESRI has enabled me to be in a somewhat unique position, one that straddles product management and marketing and allows me to be involved in a variety of other activities as well. My day-to-day responsibilities center on ArcGIS product management, currently focusing on ArcGIS Explorer, but on a week-to-week basis just about anything can come up. I’m definitely “old school” ESRI, having entered at a time when the company was much smaller. In that environment it was not uncommon for staff to do a little of everything, and to cross group boundaries to form virtual teams spontaneously as needs dictated. To some degree that still persists at ESRI today, and is part of its unique culture. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to maintain a somewhat unique role in what has necessarily become a more structured company over the years.

How do you see the role of geospatial visualization tools (like ArcGIS Explorer) in the larger geospatial industry?

Well before even knowing what “geospatial” meant, I was employed by an environmental consulting firm. The culminating effort of most consulting projects was a presentation of one form or another, in many cases involving a map to convey information to the client or the public. Those maps represented a means to communicate with our audience, and to portray what might be complex information in an easy to understand context. To me those are key aspects of visualization.

We’re talking paper, slides, etc., not visualization software…

Back then those were paper maps, and crude ones at that, and today we have far more vibrant, interactive, and expressive ways to visualize geographic information. In my mind presentation and visualization are perhaps the most important aspects of the geospatial technology domain, as even the very best data or analysis that GIS can offer is no better than our ability to communicate that information broadly to our intended audience through various means of visualization. Good visualization tools provide broader access to that information, and increase the inherent value of that data or the results of geographic analysis. In some respects this reminds me of looking at a compelling photo of a natural landscape. Through such photographs we can communicate, and can increase the inherent value and understanding of the subject itself.

Who do you see as the primary audience for use of geospatial visualization tools?

Geographic information can be visualized in many ways. Printed maps are certainly the foundation of geographic visualization, but even more compelling are the dynamic, online, interactive visualization capabilities that are possible through a variety of Web-based and desktop applications. Those types of geospatial visualization applications run the gamut from consumer applications, to targeted public applications (like many GIS users create), to professional GIS desktops. Somewhere in between the latter two is a space whose persona I think of as the Geographic Information User. Not a GIS expert, but someone needing to explore, visualize, and present geospatial or GIS information along with other geographically based information like photos, GPS locations, and even documents and other forms of rich media. That’s the visualization and presentation space that ArcGIS Explorer serves and continues to evolve in.

You’ve been intimately involved in geospatial visualization tools at ESRI—not just ArcGIS Explorer, but earlier solutions as well. Can you step us through that evolution?

I have to think hard on that. For me I guess it began early on when I was a member of the Applications Prototype Lab, headed then as it is today by Hugh Keegan, someone who played a very key role in my career and that I owe a lot to. We worked very hard prototyping GIS implementations, also known as “functional benchmarks,” for every GIS procurement worldwide. Over time, as the technology and platforms evolved, more of the focus of those was on visualizing GIS data and in presenting geographic information, not as paper maps but as digital maps you could interact with onscreen.

We kept rebuilding many of the same tools over and over again for each benchmark. At first they were very simple tools, but later we took advantage of AML (Arc Macro Language) as its capabilities grew to enable developing user interfaces. It was crude by today’s standards, but was far more interesting than command line macros. Finally we got smarter, and realized if we built those tools in a modular fashion they could be easily reused and repurposed for each project, and all we had to do is slide new data in underneath them. That first iteration was called GDI, or the “Generic Demo Interface,” and was used internally and in demonstrations only. Those concepts along with others eventually evolved into ArcTools, which was the first out-of-the-box user interface for ARC/INFO. Matt McGrath, who is also still at ESRI, and I worked on the early foundation of ArcTools, which for a while represented the default out-of-the-box tools for visualizing and working with geographic information.

How did you get involved with ArcView?

Later I left the Prototype Lab and became a member of the ArcView 2.0 team as a liaison for business partner developers working with the new object-oriented language called Avenue that Jim Tenbrink worked on. While ArcView eventually grew into a full-fledged platform for GIS professionals, its origins were based upon simpler geographic information needs. Interestingly enough, the original core members of the ArcView 1.0 team, Jeff Jackson and Michael Waltuch, are now key leads contributing to ArcGIS Explorer and other projects.

After another release or two, several of us on the ArcView team formed the new MapObjects team, which was a collection of developer components that we targeted at developers to “put a map in your app.” So we hoped that MapObjects would be used broadly to provide geospatial visualization components for otherwise non map-enabled applications. At the time it was pretty revolutionary, or so it seemed. Shortly afterwards we added components for building Internet mapping applications, and so was born MapObjects IMS [Internet Map Server]. Following that I became the product manager for the first release of ArcIMS, which one could arguably describe as the first broadly implemented visualization platform for geospatial content on the internet.

You were also involved in development of ESRI’s “publisher” products, weren’t you?

That’s partially correct. The first “publisher” was actually the ArcView Data Publisher, which was an extension for ArcView 2.x. Its mission was to enable users to create a standalone application with tightly coupled data that could be distributed easily. At the time most of the interest was based around CD-based distribution, and that’s what the product was targeted at. That was my first experience with publisher type products.

Some of those concepts were carried forward with the current ArcGIS Publisher, an extension for ArcGIS Desktop which lets you create published map files, or PMFs, that can be distributed and viewed using the free ArcReader. That’s still a very popular and effective platform for providing wide access to content and allows users to visualize what’s been authored for them. Though I was not involved with that project, several of the key ArcReader and Publisher team members are now key leads on the ArcGIS Explorer team.

And then there was the ArcExplorer family of products…

True. ArcExplorer was also an interesting project, and is still in widespread use. I almost hate to mention it—because of the proliferation of “Arc-based” names and the re-use of “explorer,” there’s a tendency to mix-up ArcGIS Explorer with this much older and much different ArcExplorer. But ArcExplorer was free, and was built using MapObjects. It was intended as a kind of super lightweight GIS desktop, in hindsight almost a “learning edition.” Since it was so super lightweight it was never really adopted by GIS users. And because it still required the user to understand data sources, how they’re rendered, and things like projections, it was never very public friendly. Still, it was a good tool for educators, and in fact ESRI later created a version called ArcExplorer Java Edition for Educators, or AEJEE, which runs on the Mac since it was built using MapObjects Java Edition. That’s still in play in the education community today.

In Part II of this interview, Bern talks about the development of ArcGIS Explorer and the future of geospatial visualization tools.