Earlier this week I embarked on what I thought would be a journey into the world of Story Maps, my latest obsession after our media team used the Esri ArcGIS software to tell the story of historic segregated beaches in California. Esri’s Story Maps platform combines interactive maps with text, images, and multimedia to create dynamic sharable narratives, and the company just happened to be hosting its annual Partner Conference in Palm Springs, an hour’s drive from my home. Of course I wanted to attend, and I was fortunate that Jack Dangermond, Esri’s co-founder and president, was kind enough to allow me to.
Jack and his wife Laura founded Esri in 1969 pioneering Geographics Information Systems (GIS) technology and grew it into the industry’s global leader. The company was founded in Redlands, the couple’s hometown, where it remains, even as it has expanded to Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, South America, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the United States, and the Caribbean.
James Fallows, another Redlands native and one of Jack’s favorite authors, once wrote that the few times he tried to ask the Dangermonds “the ‘why here’ question, their answers have boiled down to ‘where else’?” “This is where they were from and where they wanted to be, so they felt lucky to be able to make it work here,” Fallows surmised.
Deployed in over 350,000 organizations including most national governments, Esri’s ArcGIS software is ubiquitous, and much like the air we breathe, an essential element to planning, building and maintaining the development of our world.
In our current climate fueled by a nationalism that promotes building walls over building bridges and that fears technology and automation will replace workers instead of making them more innovative and productive, it’s clear the Esri world is an alternate universe, a multi-lingual, connected, and culturally rich landscape, where almost everyone is from “somewhere else”. Take two steps at the Partner Conference and you’re in Turkey, two more and you passed through Latin America. Stop at the coffee station and you’ve visited France. During the plenary session I was surrounded by Colombia and during one break I shared a table on the patio with Costa Rica. One attendee from Jamaica even swore I was from Jamaica too. And then Jack introduced me to Africa.
Kenyan millennials Clifford Okembo and Samuel Kimani of Esri’s Eastern Africa division in many ways are representative of the individuals I met that day…intellectually curious, creative and excited to make a living by making the world a better place. Clifford studied GIS as an undergraduate and started working for an Esri distributor as an intern. He was encouraged to complete his graduate studies in GIS and attended a one-year intensive masters degree program at the University of Redlands.
“A lot has changed within a short period of time,” he said of the GIS field in Kenya, “most national, local, and county government agencies use geo-technology. It’s a big opportunity for young people who want careers in a growing industry.” Samuel agreed, “Most private sector industries are using the technology as well from petroleum, utilities, and mining companies to conservation and environmental organizations. Like Clifford, Samuel studied GIS as an undergraduate and worked for the Kenyan Forestry Research Institute for 6 years using Esri software before being recruited by Clifford to work for Esri Eastern Africa. “I’m not sure if he interviewed or we offered him the job first,” Clifford joked. The two young men are part of a growing team of 44 who work in four African nations: Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
“We’re growing at an alarming rate,” Clifford said, “because usage is growing in all of the countries, but especially the three developing nations of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda.” Kenya, he said, is a more mature market. “We had 14 people working for Esri in Eastern Africa nine years ago, 44 now, and 56 by the end of the year with projections to double that number in the next few years.”
My journey in search of Story Maps knowledge culminated with a 45-minute tutorial from Rupert Essinger, a Brit residing in San Diego who works on the Story Maps team. Rupert was responsible for posting our story in Esri’s online gallery. As I navigated my way through what became two days at the Partner Conference, I learned so much more than I anticipated. Beyond the world of Esri Story Maps, I was able to catch a glimpse of a much larger universe, a collegial community connected by the desire to solve a huge scope of global problems using “the science of where”.
If the Dangermonds could create the best “business and technology ecosystem on the planet” not in spite of physical geography but because of it, why can’t we provide financial resources and mentorship opportunities to encourage more entrepreneurs in our community to do the same?