Jack Dangermond’s Vision Still Helping Change The World

July 2013, Vol. 240 No. 7

Jeff Share, Editor

In 1969, Jack Dangermond founded Esri with a vision that computer-based mapping and analysis could make significant contributions in the areas of geographic planning and environmental science. Now commonly referred to as GIS, geographic information systems have long played an important role in the pipeline industry for ensuring regulatory compliance and integrity management, and pipeline operators rely on Esri technology every day for data maintenance and operational management.

In this interview, this pioneer of digital mapping Dangermond embraced a wide range of topics, from how he got his start in GIS to the evolving role of GIS in the pipeline industry.

P&GJ: So, you were planning to become a landscape architect?

Dangermond: When I was young, my parents owned a nursery and landscaping business here in Redlands, CA. We all grew up growing, planting and selling things. From an early age, I worked on and also managed landscape crews. Of course, there’s a difference between landscaping and landscape architecture, and I like to think of it really as a question of scale. So when it came time for me to go out on my own, it only seemed natural to take some of the concepts I learned working at the nursery – about plants, design, and running a business – and apply them out in the world, on a larger scale.

P&GJ: How did you get involved in developing GIS technologies?

Dangermond: After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona (California) with my bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture, I went to the University of Minnesota for a master’s of architecture degree in urban planning. My master’s thesis there – a study of recreation along the Mississippi River – included about 20 maps, and all of the analysis and the maps were done by hand.

After graduating, I entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design and was quickly exposed to the pioneering work they were doing in the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis. I was used to doing geographic analysis manually, but at Harvard I learned that with the assistance of computers, you could do this all much more quickly and more accurately. It really opened up the world for me.

P&GJ: Who has had the greatest impact on your life?

Dangermond: There have been a number of people who have impacted me in different ways. My life’s work of GIS really started with Carl Steinitz, my professor at Harvard. His work laid the foundation not just for what I have done, but also for the widespread adoption of GIS technology around the world. Carl’s pioneering work was expanded upon by many people and organizations, including the work we have done here at Esri. He gave me, and the world, a whole new way to leverage geography. As GIS is increasingly embracing design, Carl is again at the forefront of a new movement called geodesign. He still is a tremendous influence and inspiration on the work that I do, and consequently the work Esri does.

P&GJ: What prompted you to start Esri in 1969?

Dangermond: The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of great change, of growing awareness of how our planet worked and of the impact we were having on it. We were facing a lot of big problems, rapid population growth, pollution, and widespread environmental degradation.

My experiences at Harvard led me to believe there was an opportunity to use new data processing and computing technologies to change the way landscape architecture and environmental planning were done – and through this to hopefully have a profound effect on the world. So we created Environmental Systems Research Institute, an organization with the goal of doing just that. The business skills I learned at my parents’ nursery – issues like cash flow, customer service and how to grow a business – had basically given me all the “business school” lessons I needed to start and run a successful business.  

Environmental Systems Research Institute became ESRI and is now Esri, and over time has evolved from a company doing projects for our customers, to a company providing the tools to let our customers do the project work themselves, and now to where I see us moving today, which is providing a complete platform to enable a better understanding of our world.

P&GJ: What role did you perceive GIS technology would play in the pipeline industry?

Dangermond: When a pipeline is placed across the landscape, you need to consider various aspects of geography that may determine issues like where you will place the pipeline and how you might operate it – how the environment affects the pipeline. Conversely, the pipeline itself may have certain impacts on the environment, and you need to consider these as well. These are basic environmental planning principles, where GIS has its roots, and where GIS has long been a critical asset to pipeline operators.

Over time, as GIS use expanded in to other areas, such as business operations, utility management and facilities management, use of GIS in the pipeline industry expanded to where it is now possible for a pipeline company to benefit from GIS throughout their entire business operation. In coming months and years, I think geodesign will play an increasingly important role in many industries, including pipeline.

P&GJ: How has Esri grown and evolved to meet customer needs?

Dangermond: One guiding principle I learned working with my parents at the nursery was to take care of your customers. We would simply listen to our customers and work with them, show them some alternatives, sketch some things out, and create a successful design for their yard. That kind of customer relationship was genuine and endeared our family to people. I’ve tried to continue that relationship with the customer in everything I’ve done with Esri

We are a very customer-focused organization. Things we do, like our user conferences and specialty group meetings, are crucial to running a successful business, and it’s all focused on giving our customers a voice, on forming a mutual and respectful relationship with them. Every year we try to do a little better job at this.

P&GJ: When you speak to customers, what do regard as their biggest needs?

Dangermond: We hear a lot from customers about the constraints of the economy and how GIS might help them to save money and become more efficient. Let’s face it: our customers come to us because they have problems – geographic problems, like trying to figure out the best place to put something, minimizing the effects of what they are doing, as well as problems with efficiency, money, limited resources … these are all things that GIS does well. They are problems that GIS has quite the proven track record of solving. It seems that when the economy is good, people really value GIS, and when the economy is bad, people value GIS even more.

P&GJ: In what ways has GIS technology most changed since you began Esri?

Dangermond: In the early days, GIS was mostly a product of its roots: the fields of landscape architecture and environmental planning. We were very focused on those core areas – and there was plenty of work to keep us busy. Over time, as we grew the functionality and even more so as people started applying the technology in ways that we had never even dreamed possible, this led to a new understanding of the value of the technology.

For pipeline companies, for example, GIS evolved from being a tool to support the environmental planning process for them, to the point where it is today, where it is an essential tool with a proven return on investment across all stages of their business operations.

Changes in the technology infrastructure are what have really enabled many of the advances in GIS technology. Think about how few people could use mainframe computers, and how, as we moved from mainframes to minicomputers, from minicomputers to workstations, from workstations to personal computers, and most recently from PCs to mobile devices, at each one of those steps, the number of people who could use computing technology increased by orders of magnitude.

Hand-in-hand with computing technology reaching more people has been a simultaneous revolution in ease-of-use. For at least 20 years, I’ve been talking about this concept of “GIS for everyone.” I used to think the challenge with that was literally making GIS easy enough for anyone to use. I’ve realized that it’s a lot more about exposing people to GIS in new and different ways, and that most of these new and different ways are brought about or encouraged by changes in the underlying technology infrastructure. So at ESRI, we spend an enormous amount of time and resources following these changes to see how we can leverage them in the best possible ways for use by our pipeline and other customers.

P&GJ: What do you envision the next generation of GIS tools will enable users to do?

Dangermond: Geodesign is a design framework supported by technology (including GIS) that professionals can use to create designs that leverage geographic information to more closely follow natural systems. Geodesign tools will enable users to plan, design, evaluate and implement projects faster by taking formerly stove-piped steps in the process and integrating them into a single, unified workflow. It’s really a vision that people like Carl Steinitz, myself and others have had for a very long time, but it’s only recently that the technology has evolved to the point where we can finally realize this vision.

Another area where GIS is changing rapidly is in the ability to consume and analyze data in real time. The result is a dynamic platform, which enables real-time visualization, analysis and understanding. It gives us, for the first time, something I think of as a “Living Atlas of the World” – a single, comprehensive map view of our planet that is truly live, linked to and feeding in data from multiple sources across the Web and across the world in real time. This will not only change the way we see the world, it will also change the way we interact with it.

P&GJ: Would you describe your leadership style and how has it changed over time?

Working at the nursery as a teenager, I quickly learned the value of teamwork and a lot from the other workers. We treated everybody equally and we worked hard. Part of my management style is not being elitist, but rather being involved as much as possible with the people doing the actual work – the team. As Esri has become a very successful company and grown to a size I could never have imagined, my biggest challenge has been learning how to delegate more, and doing that without disengaging form the actual work, from the team.

P&GJ: Can you recall any specific situations in which Esri’s services had a profound impact?

Dangermond: I could talk about a specific situation where GIS has had an impact — public health, emergency response, conservation – there are so many of them – but at this stage in the life of GIS I like to think about the greater overall impact the technology is having on society and on the world. Millions use our tools every day, and as a result, the lives of tens or maybe even hundreds of millions more are touched and affected.

It’s massive and even awe-inspiring. Looking back, it’s come full circle; it’s exactly why we started the company back in 1969: to make a difference in the world. It’s very gratifying to see how far GIS has come, and through the great work of our users, to think about how much more it has to offer the world.