How (and why) Esri is driving geospatial literacy

Esri founder Jack Dangermond believes "geospatial literacy" should be an important part of K-12 curriculum.

Environmental scientist Jack Dangermond's decades-long crusade to improve the general public's "spatial literacy" is gaining considerable momentum.

Technically speaking, that's thanks both to the rapid rise of smartphones and tablet computers, along with his company's fast-growing online geographic information systems (GIS) service — more than 350,000 organizations now use the software.

"The app revolution is allowing the concepts we conceived of 50 years ago to come alive in consumer-like apps and consumer-like devices," the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) founder told me during an interview in mid-November. "That's enabled because of the cloud. It's enabled because of fast networks. It's also enabled because of the unique technologies of Web GIS that we have built." 

Esri's online mapping offering, called ArcGIS, hosts literally millions of maps — many of which are "mashups" combining newly "open" public records data about land parcels along with proprietary information collected by entrepreneurs. One example of a business application is a service created by National Land Realty to speed solar project site selection.

"This is really about democratizing mapping and location analytics," Dangermond said. "This is best told by use cases. The city of Boston had about 120 GIS specialists, now they have several thousand web map users on our platform."

To that end, Esri is encouraging city planners, environmental activists and entrepreneurs to consider ArcGIS as a platform for services previously unimaginable — or super costly to produce. It is spurring innovation through contests such as a $10,000 challenge held over the summer in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The winner of the Professional/Scientific category was the Coastal Defense app developed by the Nature Conservancy, which provides information about how natural habitats can protect against erosion. The winner of the Citizen/Public-facing category was VISTULA, which tracks flood risks.

Esri is also building on its longtime collaboration with K-12 schools, hoping to use broad consumer interest in mapping and location-based services to improve "geospatial literacy" in children and young adults. Earlier this year, it pledged to give away its software to more than 100,000 elementary, middle and high schools across the United States — essentially $1 billion worth of technology. It also encourages mapping professionals to donate their time to support the initiative.

Dangermond said 10 new schools download Esri's software every day to use as part of curriculum that combines digital technology with brand-new geography lessons. The public school system in Detroit, as one example, used GIS software as the foundation of a program that sought to educate students about the health issues associated with lead paints and then used maps to help reduce levels of lead paint used in the community.

"To support this kind of thing in a pretty grand way, it's pretty expensive," Dangermond said. "On the other hand, we believe that it's part of our job to introduce this kind of learning, this kind of technology into that environment."

He continued: "If you look at the future of the world, it doesn't look so good. Kids are not understanding all the patterns and relationships of climate change or urbanization or population growth. This is a way to get them to understand those parameters, in a do it yourself, learn by doing, project-based learning environment. Teachers love this. The kids go crazy, when you see them, if they have a good teacher."

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