Viewing the World Through ESRI Eyes

Map of The Inland Empire

To visit ESRI you fly into Ontario International Airport, in the heart of Southern California’s great “Inland Empire,” that endless stretch of huge cities that follow the Santa Monica Freeway into the desert. Once on the ground, I rented a Geo Metro and navigated East on the 10 Freeway, driving cautiously amidst the SUVs and 18 wheelers that thundered down the road over the great desert turned oasis now called greater Los Angeles.

Driving from Ontario, Redlands is the biggest town before the desert really begins to open up. The downtown lies just south of Interstate 10 and is framed by red mountains that have steep rock strewn faces and peaks that rise to startling heights. Art Deco, Adobe, Victorian, and southwestern heritage architectural styles were all apparent in the buildings of the old downtown. ESRI is located on an extensive campus a couple of miles west of downtown Redlands. ESRI, or “Environmental Systems Research Institute,” is the world’s leading manufacturer of mapping software. They manufacture Global Information Systems software used by virtually every major corporation and government organization worldwide.


The ability to store map data on a computer has increased productivity in many industries including transportation, communications, energy and resource extraction. The ability to overlay and edit map data quickly has also revolutionized our potential knowledge of the world’s ecosystems. ESRI has become a $340 million company (ref. www.esri.com) with 2,600 employees worldwide (1,600 of them in Redlands), by marketing its software to the above named industries, among others. But behind the scenes ESRI quietly gives away its software to organizations that are working to preserve and restore species and ecosystems.

Jack and Laura Dangermond founded ESRI in 1969, initially building a consulting business. But their own software for geographic database management continued to develop until eventually, in 1981 they launched the ARC Info software, followed by the ARC View IMS software. This advanced software allows information from any map projection to be converted to a common spherical standard. This means, very simply stated, that any scanned map image can now be scaled and projected to overlay with any other scanned map image.

The logical extension of this sort of software was the topic of an article by Adam Gopnik in a fall 2000 issue of the New Yorker Magazine called “Street Furniture.” Apparently the City of New York has commissioned, and largely completed, “The Map,” a GIS database that has collected every bit of map detail for the entire city, down to some of the street furniture. This level of detail can be integrated with other data sets at greater scales, yielding marketing data along with information useful for construction, resource extraction, and restoration.

Charles Convis, ESRI’s Coordinator for the Conservation program, has worked with thousands of conservation groups around the world, providing them with free GIS software and support. Convis is well suited to the task of identifying and supplying conservation groups with computer services; before joining ESRI he spent ten years traveling internationally, mostly in Africa, working through various agencies to give computers and computer skills to local conservation groups. In Botswana, in late ’86, the government was not able to identify poachers who were repeat offenders, which crippled their attempts to effectively stop the poaching. Convis helped the Kalahari Conservation Society with anti-poaching databases, in the Okavango Delta area. How’s that for adventures in programming?

Using databases in the ’80s and ’90s, especially after the spread of cheap and powerful PCs, was a boon to efforts to preserve the environment and species. Along with helping enforcement efforts, they were invaluable in providing a means to track and manage populations of wildlife and domestic stock.

The new tool that has only made it to PCs in the last few years is GIS. Having not just a database engine, but a spatial database engine is of obvious use to environmentalists, who are concerned with the geographic dynamics of ecosystems. GIS software, invariably manufactured by ESRI, is now integral to the mapping and cataloging of environmental data and is heavily used by the United Nations, the World Resources Institute, the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, U.S. Geological Survey, the EPA, CIA, FAO, EcoWorld and the list goes on.

Smaller organizations also use GIS software from ESRI, such as the Arizona based Wildlands Project, which researches and maps the most feasible wildlife corridors. Until GIS software came along, it was very hard to integrate preservation efforts. Since only a finite amount of land can be preserved each year, having GIS software has made land acquisition
for wildlife corridors much better targeted. In the far reaches of Namibia, Laurie Marker and her small organization, Cheetah Conservation Fund, struggle to preserve habitat for the cheetah, using GIS software to track the movement patterns of the big cats. The Society for Ecological Restoration, lead by Steve Gatewood, supports restoration efforts in over 2,000 locations around the world. Again, this work is greatly assisted through the use of GIS software. But surprising challenges still remain.

“We still don’t have a good baseline data,” said Convis, “we have global scale biome maps with margins for error of hundreds of miles.” While some biomes do not have clearly defined borders, such as those between the Sahara desert and the Sahel, others are fairly precise, such as in areas where the elevation changes rapidly from mile to mile. A distinct mountain ecosystem can fully emerge in one or two horizontal miles, meaning that biome maps that scale to the hundreds of miles have no value in managing ecosystems. “Global warming may include subtle changes such as a climate zone moving a few miles up a mountainside, but in the process extinguishing whole ecosystems.”

Not only are biomes still poorly charted, but there still are diverse classification systems. “There are international classification systems for plant and animal taxonomy, but there aren’t any single international standards yet for taxonomic databases,” said Convis. Using GIS to overlay the various classification systems could greatly assist efforts towards a single international standard. As you can see, if the GIS database of the world’s ecosystems was The Map of NYC, we’d still be trying to figure out when a street becomes an avenue, and whether or not a big statue should be called street furniture or have its own category. Long ways to go, folks.

Both Charles Convis, and President Jack Dangermond, who I’d met earlier in the day, seemed nonchalant about their company’s premier role both in GIS software and their laudable policy of giving the software away to people who are working for environmental and conservation organizations. As Charles said about ESRI’s conservation philanthropy, “Our environmental
services group does billable work too. But we often give away software because we feel it’s the right thing to do.”

Nonprofit groups often have a difficult time getting access to state-of-the-art computer tools. Having GIS software allows nonprofit groups to also compile spatial geographic data for use in policy analysis and dialogue, and allows non-profits to join forces and pool their information using another great force for democracy, the internet. ESRI has sponsored the Geography Network, where hundreds of participants, including the World Wildlife Fund and the National Geographic have contributed online map data. This “spatially enabled html” said Convis, “matches GIS tools with the capability of the internet to reach people worldwide.”

There is a lot more to report on ESRI, but suffice it to say we are lucky that the programmers who invented and sell the global standard for geographic information software also decided to give it away when in support of conservation efforts.

After a pleasant afternoon as a guest at ESRI, I got back into my Geo Metro and drove up Interstate 10 back towards Ontario, through the sprawling watered desert cities of the Inland Empire. To the distant west, the urban center of Los Angeles pulsed with energy that poured across the roiling November skies and washed away into the Mojave Desert. The energy gleamed over the western horizon and its luminosity competed with, then overpowered the setting sun. I got onto an absolutely full Southwest flight and blew off into the night.

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