Esri International User Conference: A Geographer’s Place to Be

Last week, I flew to San Diego to promote Geography Awareness Week at Esri’s International User Conference, the largest gathering of geographic information systems (GIS) users in the world. On a shuttle from the airport, a man in the back talking on his cell phone mentioned ArcGIS, and my ears pricked up. What a coincidence, I thought. I turned around and asked if he was going to the ESRI conference, and he looked at me like I had asked if we were on planet Earth. “Yeah…” he replied, hesitantly. I clearly had no idea what I was getting into. 
The conference started on Monday, and the streets, hotels and restaurants of San Diego were packed with folks from all over the world, proudly wearing their ID badges all day and into the night. The Convention Center where it was held is home to the renowned San Diego Comic-Con International, where more than 125,000 pop art fans, some dressed up as their favorite comic superheroes, had gathered just a couple of weeks before. Although Comic-Con is famous for the animated sub-culture it garners, I cannot imagine a crowd more enthusiastic than my GIS compatriots.
15,000 users – all self-identified “Geogeeks” – came together not only to learn about what’s new in the geographic information systems world, but also to boast of their geographic prowess. Such talents may be scoffed elsewhere, but here, they are revered. During one conference session, attendees were discussing preferred map projections and datums so heatedly that I would have laughed, had I not been just as excited as they. Despite the abundance of geographic knowledge present, I admittedly spent half of my time helping lost users figure out the map of the conference center. 
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The other half was spent educating my fellow geogeeks about Geography Awareness Week. This group of GIS professionals can appreciate that data means nothing without solid geographic understanding, which is exactly what GAWeek is all about. As Jack Dangermond said during the conference, “geography is the platform on which GIS is exercised; GIS is simply a tool for better geographic understanding.” Mr. Dangermond, as you may know, is the President and CEO of Esri, and a rock star amongst the GIS community – a fact I was unaware of when I greeted him one day with a goofy smile on my face.  

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