Q&A with Patty Mims, director of Global National Government at Esri and a USGIF Board member
In your tenure at Esri, what are the most substantive business changes you have overseen?
The impact of the cloud has been amazing. I’ve been at Esri for 17 years, and when the cloud emerged, first there was a lot of hype, and people weren’t sure what it could do for them. Now, people really understand its usefulness. They can quickly access data and the backend support the cloud provides. There were about 1,000 people using geospatial capabilities on the cloud via Amazon C2S for the Intelligence Community seven years ago; now, Esri software is enabling more than 165,000 people to share, collaborate, and create geospatial applications and products on C2S. Barriers have been broken down and access is much easier.
On the unclassified side, organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can use the cloud for real-time software-as-a-service to provide information to the public, letting residents know what the damage assessment on a certain building is, for example, or letting people know what roads or shelters are open or closed.
The cloud also represents a sea-change in terms of how data is used. We’ve gone from private data on servers to big data shared in the cloud. After 9/11, a big question often was, “How do you find the person who knows where the data is?” Now we can all get to the data and leverage it. It’s an amazing shift.
What are some of the most intriguing products Esri is pursuing right now?
We are viewing environment as a convergence of the outdoors and the indoors. Today, people are not stopping at a building’s exterior when making decisions, they are going to the assets inside the building when evaluating a given environment. This means we have new ways of being able to look at buildings on both the commercial and federal/civilian sides in terms of asset and portfolio management.
Esri is working with Autodesk on seamless integration of building information. This makes it possible to integrate design data with the real world, covering things like environmental controls—allowing someone to actively manage the temperature or air quality to cut down on utility costs—and critical aspects of building security. For example, managing evacuation if there is a weather event like a tornado and using sensors to account for all of the building’s occupants. For example, managing evacuation if there is a weather event like a tornado and using sensors to account for all of the building’s occupants.
From a geospatial perspective, we have tools that are designed to manage people in a given building. For instance, if you are moving or doing construction, we can make sure that people are located properly. This is valuable for organizations that are moving teams constantly. A place like NGA has thousands of people that move around or need proper proximity to one another or certain resources.
Another area we are involved in is in imagery. For a long time, imagery used for mapping and intelligence purposes were separate. There is an increasingly large stream of image data—some with full-motion video—coming from sensors, cameras, and drones. We are looking at how to use object recognition and tracking, and how to implement this across the board for FEMA, the Department of Transportation, and other agencies.
With the growing presence of the Internet of Things, we are using AI to help analyze imagery and data feeds. We are using drones to monitor traffic flow at fast food restaurants, for example, to more closely manage staffing and product planning.
We are also working on natural language processing from text or verbal messages. For example, if I say, “I’m at Tyson’s Corner and next to Esri,” a tool could transform that message into address coordinates, which could be important for the police or military.
Could you describe an interesting project in Esri’s federal/civilian line of business?
One thing that will touch everyone in the U.S. is our work with the Census Bureau. For the first time, the census will be totally digital. Individuals can fill out the form online, and we hope this motivates more people to respond. We will also be using GIS and satellite imaging to discover new residences created between 2009 and 2019.
As census data is collected, and if people haven’t responded online, the bureau will be able to follow up with community outreach to boost response rates. Esri will enable enumerators with the ability to conduct field data capture on handhelds. Each census taker will have a mobile device such as an iPhone that will plan their route, collect responses, log hours, and track expenses all in one app. And because the handheld devices will have location tracking, the bureau will know where the enumerator is at all times and if the addresses reported match his/her actual location. There is built-in verification. This is one of the greatest examples of digital adoption in government using mapping and location intelligence.
What are some of the challenges in working with governmental entities, either domestically or abroad?
Because we are a software company, Esri invests 30 percent of its earnings back into research and development each year. We have new products that are coming so fast that it is hard to keep up, so educating our customers about new technology and how can they adopt and implement it is an ongoing challenge.
Esri has customers in nearly every federal organization globally. To help our customers stay on top of the latest technology, we host a user conference, a federal user conference, and regional events. We also have account teams and professional staff working in many of our customer footprints. Esri knows the government’s greatest asset is its employees, and ongoing training and education to keep their skills current continues to be extremely important.