This morning at Code for America, Jack Dangermond ( founder of ESRI (and one of the pioneers of GIS) is giving an amazing talk about the origins of his business, complete with viewgraphs from 1972, which he scanned for us last night.

He talked about the original problem he first confronted when working with the city of Los Angeles - disparate, disconnected databases containing environmental information, land records, engineering data, roads, administrative boundaries - that really belonged together, and the realization that the base map could be a unifying framework for all that data.

It wasn't just a technical problem - getting everything onto a single database platform - but also a conceptual one. It seems obvious in retrospect, but realizing that this data, previously held in standard databases, would become more useful if viewed on a map, was a powerful advance. It strikes me that many advances are like this: we reframe a problem, and new possibilities unfold.

Jack also talked about ESRI's current vision of working with government to provide a platform to open and share freely downloadable GIS data. One great line: "National GIS will provide an 'information surface.'" Since ESRI software is widely used by government, this is a really valuable initiative.

P.S. Jack also demonstrated his wonderful "just do it" spirit when +Jennifer Pahlka apologized for the loud industrial air conditioning, and said someone was coming to turn it off (the switch was up at the ceiling, on a large industrial unit). Jack said, "I can do that now." He hopped up on the table, and flipped the kill switch. It reminded me of one of my favorite stories about Samuel Johnson. On his visit with Boswell to the Hebrides, they came across an old man sitting in the shade of a huge oak. The man said "I thought nothing of climbing this tree when I was a boy." Johnson, who was even older, kicked off his shoes, climbed the tree, and upon his descent, drawled, "I thought nothing of it now."

It's that spirit that has allowed Jack not just to invent a new field but to lead ESRI through four industry transitions, from mainframes to client server, to PCs, and now to the cloud. He's one of my heroes and role models.
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