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February 27th, 2011
GITA Tackles the Transformation of Geospatial Technology and Practice

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Samborski_Bob_thumbThe Geospatial Information Technology Association is holding their Geospatial Solutions Conference in Dallas, Texas from April 10-13. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Bob Samborski, executive director of the association about some of the highlights of the upcoming event, and the overall trends for geospatial technology for infrastructure organizations.

Samborski_BobThe Geospatial Information Technology Association is holding their Geospatial Solutions Conference in Dallas, Texas from April 10-13. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Bob Samborski, executive director of the association about some of the highlights of the upcoming event, and the overall trends for geospatial technology for infrastructure organizations.

V1: You did some in-depth focus group sessions at last year’s event about future directions for the event and the organization. What have you learned from those sessions?

Samborski: I think we had more honest and straightforward answers by using Attendance Marketing than we would have gotten if we would have done that ourselves.  They issued a roundup that we’ve been using in various ways since then. The review dealt with some really fundamental issues that we’ve had to consider and reconsider.

There were some things about the industry in general, not just in GITA’s role, but also prominent trends in infrastructure and the geospatial industry overall. The technology is continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, and everybody is busy trying to catch up or stay current with all of the solutions entering the marketplace.

It’s not so much a focus on the platform anymore, which was the focus in the late 80s and early 90s, when it was GITA’s heyday and the conference was the place where you would learn about what technology platform to go with and why. You could talk to your peers, and relate to them on a user-to-user basis about what decisions they were making.

In some ways you could say that we’re victims of our own success. Now most major utilities and large municipalities have mature systems and are looking for ways  to do more things to  leverage their large expensive investments. In the utility space they are looking at outage management and tree trimming programs, and everything in between.

The focus is now on new approaches to solve infrastructure-related issues, and you will see a lot of that at the upcoming conference. We need to move forward with these new focused solutions, and do what we can to maintain our perspective as a trusted source of information for our users.

There is a lot of loyalty to the association, but you can’t expect to rely on that. We need to keep earning it every day. We need to better define the needs of our audience, and develop new resources to address them. You don’t do that overnight, because pivoting is difficult when addressing a wide variety of needs and issues. Often times the people we’re trying to help don’t know what they need, so you guess in many cases. There’s a complex response to market change and what we have to do to remain relevant.

V1: You have been very aggressive in how you’ve overhauled this year’s conference program.

Samborski: Well, we had to be. On the one hand we’ve realized that GITA is still mostly the conference, despite everything that we’ve tried to do to broaden the association’s overall focus. We have succeeded in broadening the sources of revenue, but the primary activity that we’re identified with are our conferences.  We heard a lot from the focus groups about what we needed to improve the conference from both users and vendors.

Oddly enough, one of the things that the users told us was that we needed to partner more with solution providers to keep them up to date on what was available. We’ve had some paranoia about getting too involved in the vendor community. We strove to be completely non-commercial, and not play favorites, as we felt it was the best way to impart unbiased knowledge to the benefit of our users.

That’s changed, because people were getting annoyed that we wouldn’t allow the use of product names in presentations, for example. We’ve been lightening up, but we’ve heard from the field that we need to lighten up even more and partner with industry in a way that isn’t overly commercial. People don’t have time or the inclination to guess, they want answers and they want to know where to go.

Another thing that we learned was that we need to focus more. We’ve tried to broaden into transportation, telecomm and some other areas. The message we received is that we need to focus more on utilities, and that is one of the major overhauls that we made for the conference.

We went back and identified our core constituencies, and made sure that each was well represented in the conference program. Rather than have a session or  two in a aparticular vertical market,  we made sure we had a sufficient number of sessions that would appeal to that market.
We had good response to our call for papers, but we knew that we would have gaps in areas such as sustainable energy and smart grid. We knew we weren’t going to get a sufficient number of sessions in each of those areas, so we went out and solicited presentations for the gaps that we identified. I would have to say that the result is a major improvement over previous years, in terms of the depth of educational programming.

V1: One element that I saw that has changed or different is the lack of an emergency management focus. You’ve had a conference within the conference in the past years.

Samborski: We’ve had the Emergency Response Symposium for the past three years. We marketed it as a conference within a conference because the first responders probably wouldn’t go to a GIS conference, but would be attracted by the separated marketing effort.

Last year we decided that we have proven the concept, given that over the last two years many of our speaker award winners have been coming from this content, and we filled the rooms. But it wasn’t hitting the audience that we intended it to, because most of the attendees were from utility organizations.

This year we’ve elected to split off the Emergency Response Symposium and conduct it separately. We’re looking at the October/November timeframe in the Washington, D.C. area. The location is good in terms of the concentration in population, the types of national organizations that are headquartered there, and also in terms of federal agencies present, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

We’ve just finalized a contract with the Department of Homeland Security, with funding for three-years worth of our Geospatially Enabling Community Collaboration (GECCo) program for outreach every quarter in a major metropolitan area. The central element of the workshop involves a scenario-based exercise designed to test participants’ ability to respond to a realistic emergency event. We’re looking at Dallas, Seattle, possibly Minneapolis, and maybe metropolitan New York for the remainder of this year. We want to have ahealthy GECCo component to the Emergency Response Symposium, and these efforts will lead into that.

V1: Sustainability is a strong component of this year’s conference program. Is there growing awareness of sustainability within the utility community?

Samborski: Yes, and I think our members would agree. Our members were telling us that sustainability was very important to them. There are a number of ways that I think you can interpret sustainability and sustainable energy.

There are three sessions in the Sustainable Energy area that are water utility based, with water conservation strategies, and the use of SCADA for predictive failure analysis and managing infrastructure. Just looking around our home state of Colorado, Xcel Energy is doing some interesting work with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) with solar and wind.

There is one session where a major utility user is using GIS for analysis for compliance of federal avian requirements for wind turbines. It’s an interesting peripheral issue with organizations that are hoping to harvest wind, and taking into account bird impact.

Another portion of sustainability is all about the people. We have a number of workforce-related issues, including in our opening plenary, where we have a speaker talking about the 30% of utility managers set to retire in the next five years, without an adequate re-supply coming through our educational system.

V1: I know the economy has been hard hit, and some of the discussions of new ways of doing things have met with push-back, because there haven’t been the means to invest. What has been the feedback from your members related to ability and flexibility with budgets to invest in new approaches?

Samborski: I think it varies. If you’re talking to a local government responsible for maintaining infrastructure, and hoping to extend the life of those assets in the face of budget cuts and other economic pressures, that’s one thing.  In terms of utilities, at least for the moment there is a considerable amount of ARRA money out there that is starting to hit. Some of the major utilities that are members of GITA are implementing and expanding their smart grid systems.

We’re looking at intelligent infrastructure to understand their application outside of electric utilities in gas and water, and trying to understand if they will continue to be funded by federal funds that have started to flow. There’s a lot more positive energy out there in terms of outlook for things getting back on track.

This year we have three featured speaker sessions sponsored by major vendors that highlight what they consider leading-edge applications with which their clients areinvolved, and places where there is active investment. Bentley will talk about 3D modelling and intelligent infrastructure, and is sponsoring the former Mayor of Charlotte, NC who will articulate his vision of sustainable development. Intergraph has some interesting things going on with Oncor Energy, one of its clients, which is leveraging a geospatial platform for smart grid automation. . And Esri is organizing a session on GIS in electric transmission.

Most people I talk to think the worst is over, although at the same time they acknowledge that it will take some time for all boats to rise. The elements of the utility industry that are involved in smart grid implementation may be out ahead of others. I’m a little worried about the municipalities and public agencies, but we’ll have to see.

V1: How are you tying geospatial with the smart grid?

Samborski: The backbone of the smart grid is the meters. We’re seeing a lot of interplay between the automated meter reading and automated data management and telemetry side of utilities. Geospatial and meter data collection are coming together, and we’ll have some of that in the program.

We’re also working with a group called Utilimetrics. They are very much like GITA in a lot of ways. They’re an association that used to be called the American Meter Reading Association, and they changed their name because they wanted to branch out from what their name sounded like, which is only reading meters, but they’re about so much more. The geospatial platform would really enhance what they’re trying to do with the meter data. I’m working with some people there in a very specific and serious way, and one of the featured speaker slots will be sponsored by Utilimetrics.

V1: The amount of data is definitely on the rise for utilities isn’t it?

Samborski: You used to get touched by your electric company just once a month, when your bill came in. Now they’re pinging the meter every seven minutes. There’s a huge data management issue with terabytes of data coming in. If it’s not geospatially enabled it poses a big problem. This could be an area where you see some interesting collaborative opportunities happening.

V1: Is there any one element of the event that is exciting you right now?

Samborski: We mentioned the featured speaker sessions, which is new, and I’m excited to see how that goes, and how our attendees receive it. We try to build on our strengths, and one thing that has worked well, and that our attendees really respond to, is the Industry Trends Analysis Groups, or ITAG, meeting. We’ve rescheduled that so everyone can attend. It used to happen on Monday morning when people had a choice between that and workshops. We’ve now put it on Tuesday morning, with nothing competing.

I don’t know what is going to happen, to tell you the truth. I think we have to plan for a much larger turnout, which is going to change the complexion a bit. It will be a valuable means to collect industry feedback and understand where the industry has come in a year’s time. We’re going to use last year’s ITAG content on Intelligent Infrastructure to prime the pump for discussions, and we think it will be well received.

You always want to take good care of vendors, and we’ve done a few things to hopefully keep people on the show floor and interacting with our vendor community. And we have one of the best Beatles tribute bands in the United States playing on Monday night, and I’m excited about that.

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