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bernie_szukalski_thumbThere was a great deal of buzz last week at the ESRI Developer Conference in Palm Springs about upcoming offerings and the more open GIS platform that is coming with ArcGIS 10. A lot of the buzz surrounded the Web-based strategies that harness the cloud and extend data access and sharing to larger communities. V1 Editor Matt Ball spoke with Bernie Szukalski, senior product manager and technology evangelist, who manages ESRI’s ArcGIS Explorer and ArcGIS Online offerings.

bernie_szukalskiV1: You manage quite a portfolio of products for ESRI that are gaining a lot of interest based on recent advancements and announcements. How long has the ArcGIS Online strategy been in place?

Szukalski: ArcGIS Online has been around for some time now, although it’s been rapidly evolving. It began with a focus on providing new and easy online way for users to find and use content from ESRI as well as other users, also providing a framework to share their work and build communities. As the notions about online GIS, and the technology to support it, have evolved, so has the strategy for how we can meet user needs, and how we can deliver cloud-based GIS capabilities. When we consider what we have together – online basemaps, sharing, communities, ArcGIS 10, and more – what we have is a new way to use ArcGIS – it’s now online. A new Web site we introduced at the BPC/DevSummit – arcgis.com – represents the gateway to online GIS.

V1: What are you doing to provision ArcGIS with online geospatial data?

Szukalski: We’ve developed and evolved a wide selection of online GIS basemaps, which are ready to use and are directly available in all ESRI applications. Many of these are from ESRI, others are from partners and other vendors that we work closely with. The goal is to provide choices for users that represent the best available data from which they can choose.

A few weeks ago, we released a  new suite of those online basemaps with updates. There are a couple of significant things that have happened there that will factor into this landscape.

We’ve recently introduced newly updated World Imagery, World Streets, and World Topographic basemaps. For World Imagery a number of different imagery services were consolidated into a single best-of-breed world imagery base map. This contains high-resolution imagery worldwide at 15M resolution at a minimum, down to 1M in over 2,000 cities and towns across the globe. In the United States, it’s 1M across the country. We’ve achieved that through working with our partners in federal, state and local government and also some commercial vendors. We’ve also had an ongoing relationship with i-cubed, and other imagery vendors. Now this imagery service is vastly improved, with lots of great content worldwide.

The second basemap is our new World Street base map that goes down to 1:5,000 scale and includes building footprints worldwide. The World Topographic basemap is a newly designed digital cartographic basemap that includes content from users worldwide.

V1: Is there a means for users to add to or update these base maps?

Szukalski: We’ve created templates that are downloadable that users can grab to build their own base maps in our style, or more importantly they can use these templates to add data back into our base maps. All of our base maps are becoming open and community based.

One example of the templates concept is work we did with ESRI Hong Kong who took our world street maps template and worked with their local providers to add details down to the building footprint throughout Hong Kong.

The new world topographic base map is the one that we’re most excited about, because it is very much a community base map. We’re working with a variety of contributors, including the City of New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and others to bring their data into this base map. They can easily slide their content into our base maps using templates with incredible detail. These are maps by ESRI that are for and with the ESRI community, and they’re very community based.

ESRI Canada took the templates and worked with Natural Resources Canada and other users and they’ve extended the topographic map base throughout Canada, and it’s all in the same style, because they’re using the same template.

It’s not just ESRI doing things, it’s ESRI working with users and vendors to create content that everyone can benefit from. Everyone uses a map, and everyone appreciates a good map, and good maps are often based on great base maps. ArcGIS has tons of great base maps to begin working with.

V1: Are there other data partners and base maps that you’re working on?

Szukalski: We’ve long had a partnership with Microsoft Bing. Those maps are part and parcel of what users can access through ArcGIS Online, and it’s all free for non-commercial use by ESRI users. It includes the Bing Maps streets, the aerials, and the aerials with labels.

We also offer a series of demographic basemaps, covering things like population growth and other factors down to the block group level. All of these are available online, and you can easily connect to them and use them in ArcGIS desktop or Web applications.

On top of that we have a number of maps in the works. We have a nationwide geologic map. We’re also in talks with the Open Street Map folks, and the Open Street Map base maps will be available to ArcGIS users soon.

Our goal is to find the best data that’s available and present those as choices that our users can select to accomplish their work.

V1: In addition to data, are there also online applications?

Szukalski: We’re working on a number of interesting applications that leverage all of these things. ArcGIS 10 is a major new release that includes a number of new capabilities in ArcGIS Server that factor into this as well. The data and the new applications are coming together for a new offering that we call ArcGIS.com.

ArcGIS.com is a site that will be released some time in April. It represents the community aspects of ArcGIS Online—I can share my content, I can find base maps and other content to use, and I can organize that into groups and build communities. It also includes a lightweight Javascript application that you can use to make maps and make mashups pretty quickly.

You can browse ArcGIS Online or the open web or connect to a specific GIS server to find content to bring into your map. When you save your map you can decide how to share it. You can share it to everyone or just to specific groups that you’re a member of.

One of the fundamental things that has happened in all of this is that a map can be opened in any application. A map now becomes not only the foundation to do your work, but also the foundation to share your work.

In a demo that I did yesterday, I created a simple map on ArcGIS.com and shared that and opened it up with ArcGIS Explorer online. It’s a new lightweight version of ArcGIS Explorer that is built with Microsoft Silverlight that just runs in the browser. I opened up that same map that I built in this other application and I did some things that Explorer allowed me to do that the simple Javascript application in ArcGIS.com didn’t. I was able to make a presentation and I was able to add some markup, draw polygons and add notes. I could open up the same map in a variety of mobile devices or open it up in ArcMap to do other things.

The notion here is that the map is the foundation that is shareable across clients. What you can do on the map will depend on what you’re using. You’ll have more capabilities in ArcMap as opposed to the lightweight ArcGIS.com application.

ArcGIS.com really becomes your online GIS. A place where you find data, work with it, share it, build communities, and have interesting applications that you can use with it.

ArcGIS 10 has the ability to stream features, which enables editing online. We’ve been showcasing a variety of editing capabilities that bring in volunteered geographic information and allow people to edit maps through the web. We’re going to be using some of that ourselves to add additional context to some of our ArcGIS Online base maps.

V1: With ArcGIS.com as an online GIS, is there a sub-set of editing capabilities as compared with ArcMap? Will it match that editing capability online?

Szukalski: That’s an evolving part of the grand vision to deliver a complete online GIS experience, and the technology is still yet evolving to deliver that as reality. Over time that is going to be rapidly evolving. ArcGIS Server has those editing capabilities and feature streaming at ArcGIS 10, which we haven’t released yet. So, what we’ll see is that we’ll release ArcGIS.com, Explorer Online and other parts of this in April. As ArcGIS 10 becomes final, we’ll be rapidly evolving the capabilities of what you can do on ArcGIS.com, and our users will be able to do a number of additional things with our software.

One of the things that is coming up on the horizon very quickly is that users will be able to make maps, make map packages, and be able to add them to their ArcGIS Online account to share them. One of the things that they’ll also be able to do is to spin this up as a map service to be able to consume it in Web applications and allow other people to do mashups with it. While they can do this already by sharing their map services, or by creating maps using the arcgis.com com applications, the ability to author a complete map using ArcGIs desktop and have the option to have that pubished as a ready-to-use complete map services is coming ahead.

Over the next six months, you’re going to see a rapid transformation of what is ArcGIS.com. It’s hard to talk about what you can do with ArcGIS.com because what you can do is really going to be expanding quickly over the next six months.

V1: I’ve heard a bit about an application store where people can trade and sell applications and data.

Szukalski: We’re working on an iPhone application that will be available through the Apple Store and our own app store. Many of our partners at this conference are interested in building applications that they can feature and sell through an ESRI application store, and that’s definitely something that we’ll be doing. Some of those applications may be free, some will be built by ESRI, some will be built by users. Other applications will be built by our partners and offered for sale. There will be a rapidly growing application store as we begin to list that.

V1: I’m trying to wrap my mind around the definition of an application. I get the sense that it’s more than a mashup, and that it offers custom processing that might be domain or application specific.

Szukalski: The way that I simplify it is that inherently we work with a map. You can create a map by authoring layers or combining them together into a complete map that you can view through simple generic applications like the Javascript viewer on ArcGIS.com or through ArcGIS Explorer or a Flex viewer. When we think about an application, it has a slightly different role. It usually provides specific information to a user or it supports a specific workflow.

For example, an application published by a city might showcase real estate that is available for businesses to use. It’s using maps generically, but focused on providing a certain bit of information. You might go to your city site, and get back a number of different pieces of information.

Other applications are designed to support the specific workflow. Business Analyst online is a good example. You have a customer database that you want to map and create a service area analysis. That is a workflow that is supported by that application.

When we use a map online, we’re actually using an application in order to pan, zoom, identify and add other things to a map. When we go to more task-oriented purposes, we  really have an application rather than a map.

V1: I’m really interested in the analysis aspects of this too. With Business Analyst there are a number of tools that have been developed over time. Will users be able to share data models and workflows for analysis?

Szukalski: We already offer data models online, and we have encouraged communities to form themselves around industries to keep those models evolving and running. It’s really easy now for users to share their maps, and even things like models will be increasingly more shareable in the future. I can publish models through ArcGIS Server for people to discover and use within their application.

Last week we released ArcGIS Explorer, Build 1200, and one of its capabilities is that you can now connect to any GIS server to find maps and layers, but also find geoprocessing tools and models that I can run directly from the application. That is carried forward across web applications. It can be published online or can be protected for specific users.

V1: There is a lot of sharing going on, and community building, but I’m wondering how you might enable a workgroup to communicate as they’re working. Are there real-time edit functions?

Szukalski: Real-time editing is going to be supported through the ArcGIS 10 Server. You’ll be able to put up a website, and people can edit and collaborate on it. When you say collaboration, I think of other things as well. I think of being able to chat in real time or add notes and make observations. Part of that involves these edit capabilities where I can mark up a map in real time that gets stored in a central location and any other user of that application or map can also see those same markups.

We put one of these maps up as part of our earthquake response in Chile. It integrates a number of different things, including server-side, schema-based editing. You can add observations and markups on a map and they get stored in a central location, and anyone that uses the map can see what you’ve marked up.

This extends into other things as well. We have an idea that we’ll be expanding these capabilities to enable the user community to add into our maps. It’s kind of like the Open Street Map concept, but perhaps rather than just anyone being able to edit content for a map, it might be within just the ESRI user community. You need to have an ESRI account, and can edit map and update information in your particular location.

That’s something that we’re beginning to experiment with. We have a vision that it will be something that we’ll be doing and promoting later this year.

V1: On the cartography and design side of things, will there be a marketplace for stylized templates from designers that increase the artistic quality of maps?

Szukalski: We have a carto team at ESRI that have been designing these templates for our new base maps, and those templates are published where people can contribute data back to those base maps. We certainly anticipate other people doing their own types of cartography that are specific to interest and industries, and those can also be shared online.

V1: You mentioned an iPhone application, and I’ve heard rumors about Android development. Are different mobile platforms part of this effort?

Szukalski: We will have a number of iPhone applications that we’ll be releasing very soon, and some of those will be available through the Apple Store and our own App Store on ArcGIS.com. Android will be another platform that we’ll be looking to support as well.

V1: With GIS-quality mobile applications, are they designed to increase the quality of data that you can gather from the crowd?

Szukalski: Just recently I was looking at a couple of blog posts that were talking about crowd-sourced data. It seems that crowd-sourced data is becoming a bit stratified. There is crowd sourced data at large, with information from anybody, and there is sort of authoritative crowd-sourced data that comes from a specific crowd. There is a website that collects information about species habitats that is from a crowd of experts — wildlife biologists and species experts. Our world topographic base map is an example of crowd-sourced content, but it’s coming from authoritative crowd sources in our ESRI user community.

It’s kind of like the Web, where I might experience a pain in my side and look for what it might be. You find lots of content, and invariably you make decisions on which sites you’re going to trust. You might trust the Mayo Clinic site more than say “Uncle Bob’s Health Tips.” There are all sorts of levels of crowd sourced information, and depending on what you’re doing you may choose a crowd of experts rather than public at-large observers. I think we’ll see some stratification there.

V1: Open Street Map might be another example, and if the arrangement moves forward, I would think that it would be mutually beneficial.

Szukalski: The Open Street Map arrangement isn’t official yet, but it’s something that we’re pursuing. What made Open Street Map real for me is the Haiti earthquake where GIS folks were scrambling for data, and it was very difficult to find any source of detailed data. Open Street Map ramped up efforts to collect quite a lot of detail that was extremely useful and existed when there were no other alternative sources.

Our goal is not to say one source is better than the other or take a position, but rather to embrace as many sources as make sense to offer to our users that can make decisions about what’s right for what they need to do.

V1: There has obviously been a lot of effort behind a lot of these advancements in terms of developer time. Is it an accelerated growth period for ESRI?

Szukalski: I think that we’re able to reveal these new technologies at an accelerated pace now because we have spent a lot of time laying the groundwork. The groundwork that is making this landscape really exciting and new right now has been laid over quite a long time. We’ve been working on ArcGIS Online and the base map concept for quite a long time, and it has taken a good bit of time to get the infrastructure set up and to do it correctly to make it scalable, etc. The technology that supports all of this has been evolving, particularly with ArcGIS Server over a number of releases.

We’re kind of at the point now where  we’ve reached this critical mass where we have most of the foundation in place, a lot of its coming with ArcGIS 10, and now we’re really able to move forward with things. We’re able to show these things now and make them real, where before we were still working on the underpinnings and foundation. The results of these efforts are reflected in cool Web application, mobile applications, and other things that you can do online now.

V1: Certainly we’ve been hearing about the long-term vision, but now with ArcGIS 10, it’s almost a public coming out of ESRI. It really seems to have enabled and opened up a lot.

Szukalski: I definitely agree that it’s sort of a public coming out. ESRI is and has been very well established in the professional GIS community. The place where we haven’t been as well known is in the mapping and geography community at large. That’s where Google and Microsoft came forth and increased geographic awareness, and ESRI was still pretty much an unknown. That same awareness has created more of a demand and need for GIS parts of the whole big puzzle, and now we have the technology in place to move forward with consumer or externally-oriented applications that bring us more into the public domain.

In the past we’ve built technology to enable our users to reach the public, but now we’re able to reach the public directly as well, and there is a lot of synergy between the two. There are lots of way for anybody to leverage what our users publish and what we publish and vice-versa.

Jack I know is super excited about where the technology is and where ESRI is positioned at the moment. I think he sees this as a very revolutionary time for ESRI, but perhaps more importantly for geographic information and GIS in general.

I get really excited about this too, because we’ve been working for a long time on the underpinnings and now we’re able to push some things out and see the potential. I sense this big wave coming up on the horizon, the next wave of GIS. All these things — cloud computing and the platform advancements — are lining up and I think that it will be a big transformation for how we build, use and work with geographic information.

V1: I’m excited too, and I think in terms of the complete GIS ecosystem. We’ve been able to do a lot of things before, but we’ve needed this piece of software, that piece of hardware, the expertise to understand both, and the data to enable it all. We’ve really had to pull together a lot of things, and now everything is there. There are also different levels of complexity for beginners, intermediates and experts — without a huge barrier to entry that has been there before. It seems much more complete and accessible.

Szukalski: I like that observation that it seems much more complete. It’s been the domain of a few experts historically, and over time that’s been changing, but really with all these new capabilities we’re allowing GIS professionals to reach new audiences. We’re also offering a number of new things for free that we’ve had to charge for.

All these base maps and applications that people can do are free, and that’s a really big thing too. Especially a big thing for a private company like ESRI that doesn’t have the deep pockets like Google. We’ve found a way to make it work within the context of who we are and where we are, and it’s great to see this capability become much more public and easy for people to access and create geographic information.

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