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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Afternoon Plenary Session, Esri User Conference 2015: The Importance of Location

July 24th, 2015 by Susan Smith

Decision making in GIS would not be possible without knowledge of location and with it, a sense of place and culture. The stories of the afternoon plenary session at Esri UC 2015 showcased real life examples of this reality, from fighting the Ebola epidemic to fighting crime in Baltimore.


One attendee noted that the stories represented some of the different industry segments that Esri was involved in – health, education, exploration, environmental studies, politics, government, public safety, to name a few.

Ending Ebola

Dr. Bruce Aylward, who worked for the World Health Organization (WHO) for almost 25 years, was a key force in stopping polio in Africa. Last year two weeks from now, he called Jack Dangermond to say , WHO had recruited him to lead the Ebola effort. “Over the last 12 months, we’ve been struggling with greatest challenge in public health with Ebola,” said Dr. Aylward. “There is an extraordinary international and national response, and the role of GIS has been to steer response over the past 12 months. This crisis is not over. It may have disappeared from our TV screens but is very much part of these countries in West Africa. GIS is very important to help us get this finished.”


Aylward makes it clear that we don’t know much about this disease but what is known is chilling. It can kill 90% of the people it infects, there is no vaccine and no cure. It has only been known about for approximately 30 years. In 1976, it appeared in an infected animal, and there were 2 dozen outbreaks in between 1976 – 2012. “We didn’t know how to diagnose it. By really engaging and educating these communities about this disease, finding every case, and getting them into the treatment center, and tracing their contacts, we could break the chain of transmission,” said Dr. Aylward. There is a great need to ensure safe burials. “This disease is one of the most unforgiving we know of. It doesn’t allow families to care for their sick without getting sick themselves. They can’t bury their dead safely.”

When Ebola hit West Africa in 2014, the outbreak began similarly to the way it happened in central Africa originally, and may have come from an infected bat. The virus did something different this time. “The virus took advantage of the fact no one had seen it before and when they finally began to know about it, it had already spread across over 26,000 people, 11,000 people dead,” said Dr. Aylward.
“Stopping the outbreak would require extraordinary international and national response.”

Cultural problems were on the horizon as specially clad teams would have to come and carry away the dead which proved terrifying to the people in the small villages. This is a beautiful area, but the terrain isolates villages and also fed the rumor mill of who was coming to help and what the disease actually was.

By August, the disease had begun to increase exponentially, with a very different profile than it had had in past outbreaks. This was followed by international panic, as it was found in a person in Nigeria who had traveled from Liberia. By that time, 10 countries had experienced the disease. The CDC predicted 1 million people would be dead within six months from Ebola.

What ensued was the declaration of an international emergency to create a major response to get these countries under control. Instead of the type of help needed, airlines stopped flying into the affected countries, economies ground to a halt and countries were isolated.

In September of 2014, the secretary general of the United Nations went to the UN Security Council and declared this a crisis, and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response was formed. This supported the NGOs who were already working on the ground to help stop the crisis.

The target set for the UN on September 23rd was to reverse the projection of the CDC, have 70% safe burials, isolate 70% of the infectious cases over the next 60 days, in which time a huge number of Ebola treatment centers were built.

Safe burials were calculated with GIS modeling tools. Using drive time analysis, the teams could calculate that patients could be within 1-2 hours of a treatment center.

An effort to find every case and make sure they were properly treated and managed was spearheaded by UNICEF. “We had to shift to the next point of strategy, we had to find every single case, contact related to the case, at a time when people were very suspicious of the response,” said Aylward. “They were hiding cases and corpses so they could bury and care for them themselves.” This required searching for cases house by house to stop the transmission chains of disease in the countries affected.

The virus had twice reached zero before it took off and soared, because it existed in villages that WHO and other organizations hadn’t found yet. The disease has not been completely eradicated because there is a “long tail of contact tracing that still remains in corners of these countries,” said Aylward. “We have not finished the job, and cannot finish it without skills. The closer we get to zero the more important GIS response becomes.” The virus needs to be eradicated so that it can’t soar again.

They have a new tool just developed to guide this final aspect of the program of finding every single case. They will be able to target infected areas and see where the most recent contacts are.

There is difficulty getting to zero cases because of community distrust, financial gaps, the rainy season (current) and imperfect information. “We have much better information due to GIS. Almost all this can found on our web portal,” said Aylward. “We’re still very short of expertise we need to get the job done. We may have one mapper, sometimes two. What’s most important, I’d want about a dozen GIS experts out in the field.”

While Ebola is no longer front page news, airlines are not flying to Liberia, Sierra Leona and New Guinea. They are still affected and things have “ground to a halt.”


National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society has been a big user of GIS for many years. Gary Nell, formerly of Sesame Street and NPR and currently CEO of National Geographic, spoke about journalist Paul Solomon, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting. Solomon’s claim to fame is that he has walked from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia and plans to hit the tip of Ushuaia, Argentina in 2020. His goal is to retrace the path of human migration across the entire earth in his “Eden Walk.”

Solomon is writing about Edenwalk (#edenwalk), with 700 classrooms across several continents following his journey and adventures. He gives children a Skype view of the walk. Students who began following him in second grade will watch him when he finishes. One teacher remarked that the learning students have gained from following his journey is “above and beyond the history program.”

Nell talked about engaging the curiosity of children and remaining curious “from K to gray.” Curious, critical thinkers, with decision making skills, are what employers also want. He noted that Alexander Graham Bell almost beat the Wright Brothers in inventing the plane. He was the first person to have photos in National Geographic.

“40% of kids under age 2 are using smartphones and tablets regularly,” said Nell. “This isn’t going away. Kids are digital natives. They will never know the world without it. We need to figure out real world apps that relate to them.”

“We need to connect kids to outdoor learning, Bioblitz, using smartphones for document findings,” said Nell. “The power to tell stories is greater than it’s ever been.”

K-12 Program

Charlie Fitzpatrick, a former National Geographic employee, is a mainstay at the Esri User Conference with his tireless work with the K-12 program for Esri. He reported that a year ago, Esri joined Obama’s ConnectEd program. Now they have over 1700 programs in place. However, he doesn’t feel they are growing fast enough. He asked for more geomentors to join the program at

On the island of Molokai, Hawaii, young mangrove in the Niaupala fishpond on the east side of Molokai, are invasive to coral reefs. Mangroves have an aerial root structure that has grown bigger, denser and taller than anywhere in world, at 5 feet in diameter and 80 feet tall. This is caused by overgrazing and agriculture.

Lily and Sara Jenkins are two students who have been studying the problem and have calculated the total present day area of mangrove, and with aerial imagery and coastal surveys, figured out that mangrove has inundated over 2/3 of the fishpond area. Only two fishponds are in working condition. Mangrove can turn open ocean in to dry land, according to the two researchers. The two students have won awards for their research and Sara will be attending university next year to study environmental studies.

Governor Martin O’Malley


Governor Martin O’Malley, Maryland between 2007-2015, is not a technologist, he says he is a generalist. He spoke of the need for government that works, that is creative and sustainable. What some attendees may or may not know (it was not mentioned in his talk) is that he is planning to run in the 2016 presidential race.

He sees the Web GIS transforming organizations and as a movement from authoritarian to shared understanding.

President Clinton helped Baltimore put 200 more police officers on the streets. O’Malley said where those police officers were sent reflected a decision to put them where they could save the most lives, which meant putting them where there were the greatest number of citizens being shot, robbed and murdered each year. The result was that Baltimore achieved the largest reduction in Part 1 crime of any major city in American from 2004-2009.

O’Malley talked about the essential question most people want to know when faced with maps: Can you show me my house? It can also be phrased as a demand: show me my house. This demonstrates how location matters. “We can only understand from the place that we know,” he said.


To me, the stories told in the afternoon session all reflect the importance of location:

– critical need to know the location of disease in the Ebola story

– the eagerness of students to know about the location of Paul Solomon as he traversed areas of the world that these students had not heard of before, bringing them a personalized history and geography lesson

– the location of mangrove on the island of Molokai to bring attention to the need for environmental intervention

– the location of crime spots in Baltimore to facilitate a program to diminish crime in that city, a program that ultimately saved lives and ensured public safety

All these stories lead to the importance of not just points on a map, but to the lives and culture of people living with daily challenges that can be diminished or solved by having a better understanding of where they are, the landscape they live in, and the resources they have at their disposal.

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Categories: 3D Cities, 3D designs, analytics, ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, asset management, Big Data, citizen science, climate change, cloud, cloud network analytics, conversion, crowd source, data, disaster relief, drones, emergency response, Esri, geocoding, geomatics, geospatial, GIS, image-delivery software, LBS, lidar, location based sensor fusion, location based services, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, Open Source, public safety

2 Responses to “Afternoon Plenary Session, Esri User Conference 2015: The Importance of Location”

  1. […] « GISCafe Exhibiting at Esri User Conference 2015 in San Diego Afternoon Plenary Session, Esri User Conference 2015: The Importance of Location »    GISCafe Voice Susan SmithSusan Smith has worked as an editor and writer […]

  2. […] « Afternoon Plenary Session, Esri User Conference 2015: The Importance of Location  GISCafe Voice Susan SmithSusan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the […]

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