Use of GIS can help bring transparency in the government : Jack Dangermond, Founder and President- ESRI

Tabular databases are increasingly being spatial-enabled using the server technologies. This can be done in healthcare, for information on epidemics, for project monitoring or allocation of capital expenditure

Jack Dangermond
Founder and President, ESRI

Jack Dangermond is regarded as a global authority on GIS and is Founder and President of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) he established way back in 1969. He has been recipient of numerous honours and awards and of at least ten honorary doctorates. During his recent visit to India, egov Managing Editor Shubhendu Parth caught up with Dangermond to seek his vision on GIS applications and advantages in the e-Governance space in India. Excerpts:

Getting Personal

QualificationMaster of Science in environmental science from University of Minnesota, and Master of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Business initiativeCo-founded ESRI in 1969 with his wife aura as a land-use consulting firm

Turning point- Early work in the school’s Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis (LCGSA) led directly to the development of ESRI’s ArcInfo GIS software

pastime Gardening and garden design

It’s been over 40 years since you set up ESRI. How has GIS evolved during the years?

In 60s and 70s, it was totally project-oriented. And I can say that today, although then we strongly believed that ‘it’ was the product. It wasn’t until 1982 that we released the first version of ArcInfo, which actually encapsulated all of the work that we had been doing for 12 years that could be shipped as a volume product. That changed everybody’s perception about GIS. During the 80s, there was an exponential growth in the volume we sold, largely to be used on mini computers. When Unix workstations were introduced, we structured our products to run on standalone workstations or on networks. That really helped the product take off. When we migrated to PCs during mid to late 90s, we witnessed a similar phenomenal growth—from thousands of users to hundreds of thousands, and over a million users on today’s desktop environment.

How has the Web impacted the delivery of GIS services?

About 7-8 years ago we started to introduce products for the Web, and the way I see it is that the Web is the next generation platform. For the last three years  we have been re-structuring all of our software to run on the Web as a platform,  integrating the whole Web 2.0 logic of ‘crowdsourcing’ of geographic data,  mashups and accelerating the usage. The Web has enabled us to connect the GIS  specialists—people who create and manage geographic data in various  agencies to the whole world, serving maps and even analytics through the web.

What does it mean for the users, and the society at large?

GIS, which has so far been a specialised field, will now open up. We can now think of spatially-enabled enterprise tabular data. In fact, we can also spatially  enable all the content on the web. It will also help bring about transparency in  the government. There could be thousands of applications that could be built  n  top of this infrastructure.

In the past GIS has, at times, been seen as a niche technology that is proprietary
in nature, and is focused on certain kinds of applications. What’s happened with
the introduction of server is that we paid a lot of attention on building server-based applications that can be used not only to manage the geographic  data but also as a platform for spatially enabling the rest of the IT organisations.  For example, addresses in a file about customers or citizens can  be ‘geo-coded’ as dots on a map. These geo-coded dots can be aggregated to  give patterns and relationships of a business… where the organisation is doing  well, or where it is not doing so well. In government, the same thing can be used  to determine the quality of citizen services.

In the US, President Barak Obama recently introduced the idea of a transparent  government. He has been pushing aggressively to make all development data in  government open so that academics, entrepreneurs, citizens and others in the  government can have access to. With the release of $780 billion stimulus  money, his idea was to show on an interactive map through dots where all that  money was being spent. Today, citizens can log on to,  zoom to check out what the government is doing for them in terms of expenditure or job. Citizens can also give in their feedback and suggestions.

Similarly, in India, the national government provides money to the local state government, but there are not many officials to keep a track of where the money is being spent and how, let alone having a system that can transparently inform the citizen about the same. Such a map can also help citizens quickly  understand the policies of t he government. Many governments around the  world are adopting this vision. This is just the first step to opening up for change.

With the form factor of computing devices shrinking by the day, and   handhelds becoming more powerful than ever, do you see any     major change in the way GIS solutions could be delivered?

Part of our server solutions is to support the Web services, like maps and spatial analysis, and they are two directional. For example, I can seek a map or an  nalysis from a server that is being maintained by any organisation or  department to my cell phone. This makes me ‘situation aware’ immediately. In  another case, the cell phone itself becomes an extension of the geospatially enabled enterprise environment.What this means is that I can view things and  also contribute to the map. In Washington DC, for instance, the community and  city government are using cell phones to update information about the  condition of water network, which in turn feeds information about the situation  concerned departments that are participating in the infrastructure.

So what is your GIS vision for good governance?

Tabular databases are increasingly being spatial-enabled using the server  technologies. This can be done in healthcare, for information on epidemics, for  project monitoring or allocation of capital expenditure. This mapping is more  effective than the traditional tabular datasets, because you can actually see  where the money is going and its impact, and that is what GIS helps you to do.

You can do simple things on consumer sites like Google and MSN and that’s  really very good, but the ability to actually connect with the citizens in a transactional environment requires an information system that allows citizen to interact and give feedback. Also, the public and the government can  understand and provide performance measurement matrix against the  promises on project components and timelines.

This is similar to real-time evaluation like in the case of business intelligence and you may want to call it ‘geo-accounting’ for all government projects in your  neighbourhood. In fact, this is about using GIS for setting up a system that  can make the government, and for that matter, anybody with the mandate  to spend money from the public exchequer more accountable. It is also about  increasing citizen engagement in government activities.