A Conversation with Bern Szukalski about Geospatial Visualization, Part II

In Part I of my interview with ESRI’s Bern Szukalski, he talked about the long history of geospatial visualization tools at ESRI. In Part II, he talks in detail about ESRI’s current flagship visualization tool, ArcGIS Explorer, and looks towards the future.

How did ArcGIS Explorer come about?

It was really driven by Euan Cameron and Mark Bockenhauer at its inception. They were the lead development and product engineers respectively on the ArcReader and ArcGIS Publisher effort. ArcGIS Explorer evolved out of many ArcReader concepts, and was also influenced by ideas introduced with other non-ESRI products around that time, like the “virtual globes.” Some of the same drivers for ArcReader and ArcGIS Publisher became the drivers for ArcGIS Explorer, but in a different context. But clearly it was a natural evolution of existing products and ideas with some new thinking based upon past experiences and user wants and needs, and the evolving ESRI product landscape too.

Mark, among other things, is now the lead product engineer on the ArcGIS Explorer project. Euan is now the overall ArcGIS Desktop lead development engineer. I stepped into the picture on Euan and Mark’s invitation after the project was already underway, and prior to its first release with ArcGIS 9.2.

It’s been out for a while then.

Yes. That first release was ArcGIS Explorer 340, which shipped with 9.2 in November of 2006, but was quickly evolved over a number of follow-up releases throughout 2007. A rapid development and release methodology was adopted, enabling a quick response to user needs and the evolution of the product.

Bern Szukalski shows us how to create notes in ArcGIS Explorer.

Has the thinking about where it fits into the ESRI user landscape changed?

Yes and no. Just like with other ESRI products, we’re always learning from users where their needs and wants are. And there are lots of other drivers too. ArcGIS Explorer sits within a context of evolving ESRI products, with ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS Server all continuing to gain new capabilities and evolve, and ArcGIS Explorer having tightly coupled relationships with all of those. So the evolution of those products certainly has played, and continues to play, a strong role in where ArcGIS Explorer goes. It’s not a “standalone” product, or the only product that ESRI develops, of course. So it really compliments other ESRI products, and fits into an overall implementation landscape for users.

Is ArcGIS Explorer making a difference for the scientific user community?

I think that the scientific community, and I am using that term broadly, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of ArcGIS Explorer. They’re the professionals that have a strong need to use GIS data and perhaps GIS tools, but aren’t necessarily GIS professionals themselves. But they need to use geographic information, and may want to combine other geographically based information they have, and be able to explore, visualize, and communicate with others. I think of these as ‘geographic information users’. They’re the planners in a local government, the commanders at an emergency operations center, or the archaeologists, biologists, geologists, or conservation group members. Oh, and I can’t forget the education community.

What’s the common ground there?

They all have a strong need to use GIS content, but aren’t GIS experts themselves. They also represent a target community for existing GIS users with ArcGIS Explorer and even Web applications that leverage their content, but for a non-GIS audience.

Bern Szukalski shows us how to e-mail a map in ArcGIS Explorer.

So why ArcGIS Explorer over a Web application?

It depends on the target audience. The best GIS Web applications, even though they may be public facing, have a targeted public user in mind. So I may be someone that needs to find out about zoning in my neighborhood, or crime, or I may be a business user looking to move my business to a new location. All of these are public users, and there are many great examples of ArcGIS Web-based applications that target these needs or workflows specifically.

I think ArcGIS Explorer users are somewhat similar in some respects, but also different in others. A lot of GIS organizations use ArcGIS Explorer to deliver access to GIS data and tools to a broad audience. Sometimes that also means they want to control the user experience, and choose which tools and data they present to those users, so that’s why ArcGIS Explorer is customizable, and you can take control of the application through your own home site.

ArcGIS Explorer users also go “outside the application,” to add some additional content, or add their own GPS locations, or photos, videos, and reports, and place them in a geographic context. Once they’ve finished assembling things, they also want to be able to share and present their information with others. These are distinguishing characteristics that I think ArcGIS Explorer delivers uniquely.

What’s ahead for ArcGIS Explorer?

Quite a bit, and we’re very excited about this next release. We’re ramping up to go beta here very soon with ArcGIS Explorer 900, and there have been many changes based on what we’ve learned, and what users are telling us they want. The main thing users will notice is a new ribbon-based user interface. The ribbon really helps in working with all the various types of data that ArcGIS Explorer supports, and exposing in an intuitive way the appropriate tools for working with those different types. There are a lot of other things that are new to this release, but specifically in terms of visualization we’ve added an integrated 2D and 3D display. You just toggle between the two whenever you choose. In 2D everything is flat, of course. But in 3D mode if you have extruded features you’ll see them pop up. A lot of users have 2D data, or don’t want to visualize the whole globe. So 2D will be a great choice. But then there’s full 3D mode, so you chose your visualization mode depending on what you’re doing or want to look at.

ArcGIS Explorer 900 Preview.

So where do we go from here regarding visualization?

That’s a good question, and I think a lot of answers are still evolving. I think when we consider visualization we have to consider the whole stack of technology that comes together in someone’s visualization experience. That includes everything from the user interface and the various technologies used to implement that, how we deliver the visualization experience in the form of desktop, Web, or mobile applications, and even how we can present the data cartographically, taking into consideration 2D and 3D use, and local versus global content. And we also can’t forget the device platforms that the next generation of visualization technologies will evolve upon. Whether it is mini or mega devices, I think we’ll have a very broad spectrum of choices that will bring GIS visualization into our daily lives.

Thanks, Bern!

GIS, Citizen Science Reveal Global Warming Threat to Bird Populations

In a press release today from the National Audubon Society, the impact of global warming on North American bird populations was analyzed thanks in part to the spatial analysis capabilities of GIS.

“Detailed GIS maps produced using the California research project where the birds are likely to be in 50 to 100 years. Findings will help policymakers and land managers augment efforts to mitigate the severity of global warming impacts with better habitat conservation investments to address changes that can’t be avoided.”

The study also a good example of how Citizen Scientists can assist in important projects.

“Analyses of citizen-gathered data from the past 40 years of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) reveal that 58 percent of the 305 widespread species that winter on the continent shifted significantly north since 1968, some by hundreds of miles. ‘Citizen Science is allowing us to better recognize the impacts that global warming is having here and now. Only citizen action can help us reduce them,’ said Butcher.”