Wisconsin Geospatial News

EWUG 2005 draws users statewide – and a wide range of needs

In mid-November, I attended the ESRI Wisconsin User Group (EWUG) annual meeting held in Green Bay, as did hundreds of other “users” from around the state. One two-pronged question I had in mind to answer was: what is a “GIS user” in Wisconsin these days, and what are their needs? ESRI software products represent a major GIS software platform in use throughout Wisconsin – so I thought this user meeting would be a representative sample from across the state. After two days with over thirty educational sessions arranged in two tracks, here is what I observed.

Out of several hundred folks present over the course of the meeting this year, the degree of diversity in the audience continues to increase. 2005’s GIS users are: dispersed across the state; operate at all levels of government and the academic and private sectors; vary widely in immediate needs; vary widely in current experience; and are excited about the possibilities of this sometime still-perceived-as-new technology. Municipalities continue to be one of the burgeoning markets in the state where new GIS investments and implementations are accelerating.  One thing was clear – they all do in fact “use” GIS in their daily business… but how?

Public works, enterprise GIS and more
To answer this question, I looked to both the sessions and direct feedback from individuals. First I looked at the focus of the session offered by ESRI staff. Along with the standard opening plenary which summarized the ESRI International User Conference held last July, there was also a plenary session on user case studies looking at public works and enterprise GIS. These two themes were supported later with ESRI-led sessions on Parcel Management with Geodatabases and GIS Web Portals, both timely topics. Another prominent trend in the tracks offered on the first day was Internet-based GIS resources and tools.

Other recurring themes over the two-day meeting included environmental applications such as groundwater sustainability and wastewater management; mobile GIS/GPS applications; and the use of GIS in emergency management in Wisconsin – from county to enterprise applications. I particularly liked a session presented by staff from the Applied Population Lab at UW-Madison on a geo-demographic analysis in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to help guide land acquisition for state recreation areas. All of these things highlight how many of us in public and private sectors are being asked to apply our GIS and mapping skills to get work done. So – is this what folks wanted to see?

While I leave it to the conference organizers to sum up the evaluations, my guess is… yes and no. Based on my interactions and perception, one natural divide in the audience at EWUG this year was between those who ‘operate’ in a GIS environment, and those who contract for GIS-based solutions.  And of course, some fall on both sides. Nonetheless, these two groups have, at times, diverging interests.

GIS users and GIS managers
Technical GIS staff I spoke with want more sessions (here or elsewhere) on tips and tricks, best practices, and rules of thumb for doing the same reliable work they’ve been doing but in the most current and capable software environment. This is admittedly a constant learning curve and requires picking up training whenever available.

GIS managers I met, public or private, are finding that as the capability and impact of GIS databases and applications grows, they must necessarily take a ‘big picture’ or enterprise approach and focus on use-case scenarios, overall requirements, budgeting, and application lifecycles. Yet, even to do that one must keep up on current software trends and most importantly, talk to others who are doing the same thing. With both groups, the importance of networking and communicating with other users was underscored.

As GIS becomes more pervasive, our roles diversify, and training budgets shrink, one interesting trend is the spawning of even more localized ‘user groups’ around the state at the RPC, county, or even city level. It would seem sometimes these are the venues where local technical issues and best practices are being shared. But not all users around the state have this luxury and for some, this may still be their primary opportunity to “learn something I can use.” Which brings me to the common threads among Wisconsin’s GIS users.

Education, standards, networking
Unique topics important to all parts of the community included sessions on enterprise addressing, county coordinate systems, emerging GIS standards, and web services. I only have a few opportunities a year to get in-person updates on GIS issues that affect us statewide. Most recognize the importance of staying current on many of these themes.

And it’s not just the educational sessions, I spoke with many people who pointed out the unquantifiable value of networking with their peers and comparing notes. No matter what type of ‘user’ you are, there were more than likely others like you in attendance with whom to connect and share.

In conclusion, I would encourage ‘users’ statewide who have not tried the EWUG annual meeting to consider attending next year’s conference and see what it has to offer. And for those who have attended, I’d encourage you to give a presentation next year that offers to others exactly the type of information you would want to hear yourself. This is a great community of users, and meetings like EWUG rely on the support and participation of all of us who seek to benefit.