Data-Smart City Pod: Jack Dangermond on Multi-Dimension GIS and Equity

Episode Summary

Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Jack Dangermond, the founder and president of Esri. They talk about the way cities can utilize multi-dimension GIS, how important mapping is for equity-focused organizations and the interrelatedness of systems and policies.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Jack Dangermond, the founder and president of Esri. They talk about the way cities can utilize multi-dimension GIS, how important mapping is for equity-focused organizations and the interrelatedness of systems and policies. 

Listen below, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear Professor Goldsmith and Jack Dangermond discuss the invention of computer map-making, how the pandemic is shaping innovation, and the new geospatial infrastructure.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

Subscribe to the Ash Center wherever you get your podcasts for future Data-Smart City Pod episodes. 

Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

About the Ash Center 

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello, this is Steve Goldsmith, professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School and your listening to Data Smart City Pod, where we bring on the top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

This is Steve Goldsmith, professor of Urban Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I'm with today the founder and CEO of Esri, the world's leading platform for our geographic tools for cities, states, countries, and nonprofits. And we're going to talk to you and we have a great opportunity to talk to Jack Dangermond.


Steve Goldsmith: Let me just start by saying, I don't know about, it must've been 25 years ago when I was mayor of Indianapolis and first met the Esri GIS guy in the corner of the city county building. I became aware of Esri and since that time, I have taught the Esri tools have worked for Jack, consider him a good friend. Jack you're on the forefront of a lot of these issues so let's take advantage of your time here to kind of push the frontiers of state local governance and a GIS system. I'm going to start with just a general question about you and kind of what you're doing today, and then we'll go directly to kind of geospatial, but tell the audience just a little bit, what took you this route in the first place, right? How did you see this usage of mapping? What went off in your head to lead to the eventual Esri company?

Jack Dangermond: Well, as you know, Steve and I started at Harvard, so that's a good foundation. I was studying Landscape Architecture and before that Urban Planning and Environmental Science, and I got acquainted with a gentleman called Howard Fisher, who invented some of the first computer map-making tools in the world, in the basement of Memorial hall over there. So I just became fanatical about this, seeing how computer-based information could really assist in urban planning and make cities better and also environmental planning better. So when I left Harvard, I came back here to California and started this organization. And now it had gotten out of hand, it keeps growing and it's very popular. It's basically a center we have about 12,000 people around the world who basically build, support our users, building these GIS tools, and then they do their work. We say, we support them doing their work better in urban, as well as environmental categories at all levels.

Steve Goldsmith: Let me ask you a few questions that are maybe a little bit abstract. You know, I teach at Harvard, but maybe, maybe not so much…I specialize in governance as contrasted to government, how you create public value across a number of sectors and systems and distributed systems that we all every day on our iPhones or Androids. We live in distributed world, so distributed systems can create fragmentation or they could create value. So how do you think about the tools you're associated with just as a futurist, help us think a little bit about whether a distributed systems present opportunities or they present challenges for us?

Jack Dangermond: Well, both, I think, I mean, how we're organized socially is into different stovepipes of activity. Engineers do engineering, policing does policing planning does planning and each of these different disciplines and also organizational components and cities develop information systems. And these, as you rightly call them are distributed systems. Some of them are systems for record keeping like keeping the parcel fabric, manage the water networks, manage the utilities, manage the demographics managed to and so on. And these separate individual systems are increasingly being made open so that people who are citizens or from department to department can use each other's data and they can fuse it, not confuse it, but fuse it. And this is exciting because what these systems all have in common is geographic references. We all belong, I mean, all of this data is somewhere in the city.

And so GIS has this role of being able to take distributed databases and visualize them as maps, and then organize a way to bring those maps overlaying on top of each other so you see the whole. So city planners, mayors, politicians, they all see the whole, they listened to citizens, they talk about the whole, the whole meeting, all the interrelationships in the city and they want to have holistic solutions. This is what actually got me working when I was a kid at Harvard is I could see that through geography, you could actually see the whole. So today what we have is this amazing technology where all these individual distributed systems are being brought together through the infrastructure of the internet. And I don't know if you know, Mike [inaudible 00:05:14] he's an old friend, he's a professor at a University College, London, UCL, and has been writing recently about pandemics and the role of information in the current pandemic.

But he made reference to this fact that in the pandemic of 1918, the first one dealing with flu, millions of people died. People were going crazy, kind of like they are now, but there was emerging technology coming in the form of automobiles and people began to, this was very early days in automobiles. They began to see the technology of automobiles could actually make them feel better by being able to buy an automobile, live in the country, and, they got roads built and the whole city's changed. The fabric of the city, the idea of the city that sort of riding on public transit or limited living in high rise housing, they could actually be out in the country, so the emerging technology of transportation in those days started to catch on during the pandemic. Today, we're at another pandemic and there's emerging technologies, which are being talked about.

He writes about it quite heavily about the emerging technology of digital and like you and I are talking today, using a Zoom meeting, things have changed. If we look at downtown London where he lives, he refers to the fact that it's virtually empty. And so the whole role of everybody being together and interacting with each other as being changed by the technology of digital and more specifically of things like Zoom and other things, this has caused me really to think a lot about the role of, of GIS in the digital city. Because if one of the infrastructures of cities that's emerging just like automobiles emerged a hundred years ago, it's going to be digital and strong communications. Then how is that going to change cities and what should we pay attention to? When people talk about broadband, for example, reaching the haves and the have-nots with respect to connectivity, to certain population segments.

Well, GIS is on top of that. Digital infrastructure is a new kind of infrastructure. I like to call it the geo-spatial infrastructure. And this geospatial infrastructure just needs to be taken care of, just like road they're taking care of to accommodate the automobiles, just like water infrastructure needs to be taken care of, just like social infrastructure, various types of have been built up over the last a hundred years. And these are all the responsibilities of cities, geospatial infrastructure, this digital model, a digital twin of the city is increasingly becoming a foundation which will guide and help people make better decisions. I mean, we have digitized at all and we're building these apps so that we can see into the city, like the COVID mapping out the dash boards of what the city is spending money on, is connecting citizens to city governments, to policy makers, policy makers are getting connected with their citizens of new generation of democracy is emerging through digital.

And the workers in the cities are operating through little, cell phones to connect to the digital infrastructure called geospatial infrastructure like where the water lines, where the breaks, where the road problems. We are moving to this geospatial infrastructure, which is an essential element for at the policy level and at the operational level for managing the city.

And this gets me excited actually, because it means that well, we're spending all this money on fixing and modernizing the physical infrastructure, which one might argue is at least invented a hundred years ago with technologies. Then what about the geospatial infrastructure? We should really spend money on that because the value of it is, it creates more efficient cities. It helps people communicate more effectively, it creates better decision-making, introduces science and data-driven management decision-making and communication to everybody. So, well, you can see where I'm at on this today. I think that today's technology is emerging rapidly because of the pandemic, just like automobiles did a hundred years ago and smart policy and people in cities have to really pick this idea up and say, "Wow, let's modernize our city or transform the city with digital geospatial infrastructure to run it."

Steve Goldsmith: Yeah, that's interesting on many levels. I was deputy mayor of New York for a while and no matter how big and important New York City is, eventually I would cross a bridge into New Jersey or no matter how good our water department was, the water was shipped from upstate New York down to the city, right? We fill in the blank, right? And so your answer, your last two answers actually kind of go together because in this distributed system, there are many different communities that have used, there are many different agencies and have you, so, and I've been thinking of that the president's infrastructure bill should include infrastructure to manage infrastructure. So just help us, as clearly as you can define geospatial infrastructure. So if we wanted to make a case that said that the funding of infrastructure should include geospatial infrastructure, that the platform itself, how would you define that? Just for helping me with that.

Jack Dangermond: Well, it's taking all of the paper and digital records about geographic stuff in the city and organizing it in such a way that it's an open and accessible and integratable. So I have clearer ideas, I don't know if your listeners could really visualize it with me, but the idea would be each stove pipe system gets exposed through open data and open maps services. And then a key element of this infrastructure is a portal that allows the data to be referenced in a kind of catalog. And I can grab from this portal, different map layers, and mash them up or overlay them dynamically together. Many cities are beginning to do them, but then in some cities they're making that available through what they call a hub, where they can take all of this information and communicate with our citizens around key initiatives, like fixing roads, fixing parks, addressing community issues ranging from physical stuff to social stuff of many types.

And they start to hold conversations around maps and the maps are coming from the various departments, and citizens can begin to mash up these maps and see relationships between things and come to conclusions that often government people don't even see. The citizens are cross-cutting in a way that they see the city and maps offer this opportunity for unifying or integrating data and working on problems that are of a powerful nature. So I don't know Steve, if I'm really defining infrastructure geo-sptcial infrastructure, surely geospatial content unified in an information system that could be brought together dynamically to solve complex problems. And these complex problems are related to the physical worlds like roads or housing or social issues, everything from policing to social welfare.

Steve Goldsmith: I know we don't have it very long and I've got a bunch of questions I'm going to do this quick. So in listening to you talk, I was thinking about two things, one was a Mayor Garcetti's showing off to me the way he organized all his open data on a geo hub and how that allowed engagement. The other thing I was thinking about was recent developments in Chicago, 311 where they've provided a GIS tools to community groups for purposes of looking at what's happening to their infrastructure on a community level. Is either one or both of those, an example of what you're talking about?

Jack Dangermond: Yeah, they build on top of the infrastructure. So if it just spatial infrastructure is probably a technical propeller head idea, it's really geographic data and interconnected using web services, kind of portal, which is an open portal to make it accessible. But yeah, Mayor Garcetti first saw the power of bringing GIS together to bring a city together.

And he loved that first time I met him, he was just all excited about GIS itself, but then he actually had the idea of making all of that information available, not as raw data, but as map services out to citizens and began to work on his key initiatives that he wanted to really work on during his tenure here and see if he could get citizens to comment around geographic-mapped information like road conditions or park conditions or graffiti in the city. And that pattern has been picked up literally by dozens and dozens of communities now across the US but across the world. The City of Escondido is one that I'm most familiar with, has most recently gotten all these people to volunteer, to help the city do their work by catalyzing key issues and initiatives around maps and people volunteer to clean up trash or to address social and physical issues in their city. That's a very powerful way to do it.

Steve Goldsmith: Jack, just a few more questions. Can you help me, so one of the things that's most interesting to me is how the GIS platform I met 25 years ago now as a cloud-based platform and how you think about LiDAR or BIM or 3D or big data just it's almost breathless, I mean, drone data. And I know you can't describe each of those, but just a statement about the current kind of state-of-the-art and where it's going, so dynamically brings alive the positions you've been mentioning.

Jack Dangermond: Well, all of this data is becoming more available and cheaper. So cities want a platform where it can all be integrated and made available. And that logically as a GIS system, things like a drone data can now fly over a city. I love drones can fly over a city in a couple hours capture in quite great detail, [inaudible 00:16:14] 3D picture of the city. And what our users are doing is taking their traditional 2D information and they're fusing it with these 3D pictures. So you can bring up the 3D picture and zoom around it and fly around it and then poke at the 3D picture but the 2D information is still inside of the picture. And so people are 3Dizing their cities. They're also integrating them what the engineers and architects are building in with the GIS so that there's a seamless digital twin.

So just like people update financial records record at a time, they change a record, they add a record, they delete a record what's occurring with them is they can add a BIM into the GIS, almost like it's a transaction or a change. So the city becomes suddenly 3D eyes and transactionally alive. So traditional GIS has been static. What we're moving to is dynamic and 3D or multi-dimension GIS.

And moreover it's not just the data models or what you can see through the data model. It's also, it's becoming accessible on devices like my iPhone here, I can actually access across the web, this living dynamic changing cities. And I know this is something you care about, which is policies that interconnect citizens to their government. And so you can say, well, we can have open data as a stage in the history of informatics and cities, what they really want to have is their information in context and that really means maps in 3D visualizations. So I'm very excited with we're learning how to measure it and monitor virtually everything that changes in the city. I kind of living digital city and then make it accessible such that it's not just for a few specialists and stove-piped departments, but it's able to be dynamically fused and seen by everyone and then of course, citizens can get more engaged.

Steve Goldsmith: Jack, let me just ask you maybe one last question. So I've had recently both in the columns on data smart city solutions that I have at Harvard in this podcast, we featured a number of stories about the NAACP and the YMCA who are looking at policy making geographically, right? Whether it's voting rights or census or the delivery of services equally. And I know that Esri has been very important as a foundational for those areas, right? I mean, the NAACP has used mapping and support is low. So just kind of, maybe in closing to tell us a little bit how you think GIS can support advocacy groups, particularly advocacy groups for equity.

Jack Dangermond: You have another few hours? It's a very exciting subject. We have been working on a series of templates that are easily downloadable and usable that really allow communities to create a lens, an ethic lens, or a racial equity lens to their city. That really means maps that you can kind of overlay on top of other things or other things can be overlaid on top of this racial mosaic of characteristics that are typical in every city done in variations. The city of Austin particularly has developed a new website that allows all action in the city, like CIP funding to be overlaid on top of this, a racial equity lens. Let's just call it that a framework, a web map. And so we can see before actually the money is spent or before the action is taken, what the impacts we on this and see it in terms of equity. I like this idea that we can make available to our users, templates that allow them to overlay geographically on top of the subjects that they're working on, or the phenomenon they're working on this equity lens.

Steve Goldsmith: I said, that was the last question, but actually this is the last question. You're one of the country's, world's leading environmental advocates and philanthropist and we see, I mean, just the definition of the word ecosystem, obviously it started there and we apply it now kind of willy nilly, but how did you unlock so much value with mapping for sustainability and environmental causes that we can think about those principles and apply them to equity? Always been impressed about what you did for the environment what can we learn from that, that we can port over to geospatial infrastructure or equity in particular? And I promise that's my last question.

Jack Dangermond: Oh, well, GIS is actually built on geography, the science of our world, which encompasses virtually all of our world, both the physical side as well as the social side and also the biological side. And what geography provides us as a framework where we can look at relationships and patterns, how these things are interconnected, how we can see what happens here, affects something over there. And so in ecological modeling on a geographic plane, we can see how things are interrelated, like predator-prey, or food chains, or movements of animals across a geography. Exactly the same kinds of models pertain to human activities, we're interrelated. What happens over here, as we saw with COVID affects what's happening over here, and being able to define in explicit terms and databases, and also in the maps that can view them, we can come to understand situations better.

And that understanding as our common friend, Richard Saul Wurman, talks about the precedes action that should proceed action. So I'm really very interested in advancing the urban models that allow us to understand these relationships, whether they be transportation modeling or allocation of the right infrastructure at the right location, and interrelating it to the other infrastructures like buildings and water and pavements and roads and physical facilities, and also the social interaction using geography. So these, from my perspective, they're all really actually interconnected and GIS allows us to define what those interconnections are and then analyze them and then make better decisions as a result of it. This is really what GIS and urban planning are really moving to as a technology.

Steve Goldsmith: Thank you very much. This is Steve Goldmith, professor of Urban Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, Jack Dangermond, futurist, environmental philanthropist, and oh, by the way, CEO of Esri. Thank you so much, Jack.

Jack Dangermond: Thank you, Stephen.


Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us at DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities, interested in the intersection of government, data and innovation. Thanks for listening.