In July 2023, we attended the Esri User Conference in San Diego, which with 20,000 attendees is the world’s largest geographic information systems (GIS) conference. The conference allowed consumers of GIS like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Exxon Mobil to demonstrate use cases where they applied those solutions. We thought a bit about what we’d learned at the conference during our holidays (and we also unplugged completely, don’t worry), and here’s what stuck with us:

  • Things happen in a place. With extreme heat waves causing temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius, wildfires, and floods facing populations everywhere, Esri sees the opportunity as well as the danger. The theme of the conference was “creating the world you want to see,” and it’s clear that Esri thinks GIS and location intelligence will provide solutions to some of our world’s most pressing challenges: adapting and preparing for droughts; preventing and predicting wildfires and floods; or protecting people from the spread of a pandemic. Knowledge of where things are has always been important, and with the rise of innovative technologies such as smart sensors and AI, we will not only be able to see where things have been or where they are now, but also predict where they are going. GIS and location intelligence are technologies using spatial data in combination with other data sources to conduct geographical analysis on maps.
  • GIS is on the map, and layers provide insight. A rapid technological advancement, together with pressing global challenges, has resulted in location intelligence and GIS being considered with other core systems. Use cases span from governments — like the city of Ottawa using maps for city planning and the New York police department for preventing and predicting crime — to private sector retailers designing and optimizing supply chains and store layouts. Adding layers of data from multiple sources on top of a map creates a powerful visualization to help organizations in decision-making.
  • The knowledge of “where” walks through the door. Retail, manufacturing, and logistics are examples of industries utilizing the knowledge of where people and goods are moving within four walls. Maps are often associated with the outdoors, going from point A to B, but there are interesting use cases arising for the rather untapped market that is indoors. With new technologies, there is a race in uncovering how devices and sensors can be complemented with new technologies to improve the store experience for customers or to support the hybrid work model with office management.
  • XR is rolling up its sleeves and doing useful work. GIS innovators aren’t thinking about a fantasy world that entirely replaces all physical interactions with virtual ones. There was a smattering of extended reality (XR) hardware at the conference. NOAA brought a Quest to help visualize microclimates and equity, and at least one of Esri’s XR sessions incorporated a headset as well. Web browsers, though, rendered most visualizations at the conference. What’s clear is that modern GIS keeps track of things in three dimensions, not two. Future systems must account for the third dimension and the added challenges of storing and maintaining that data. Advanced users are already visualizing 3D changes over time, adding a further dimension of complexity.
  • GeoAI is the future of GIS. AI also revolutionizes how we will work with GIS in the future. The power of GeoAI lies in being able to predict outcomes by combining data sources to visualize patterns or irregularities. NOAA has used temperature sensors to measure warm spots in California to predict where the average temperature is unusually high. This information is used to understand where to place cooling stations, but from a predictive standpoint helps future city planning — identifying opportunities for new green spaces. Comparing this with socioeconomic data helps to identify relationships between temperature and equality.

In Q4 2023, Forrester will publish a report on the state of location intelligence, covering parts of GIS and where the industry is moving. In the meantime, reach out to us if you have questions.