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Thoughts: ESRI Developer Summit 2014

Last week I attended the ESRI Developer Summit in Palm Springs, CA.  This was my first venture inside the ESRI world, and I came away impressed.  As a one man wolf pack in my office, it’s not always easy to stay ahead of the technology curve.  After 4 days at the conference I feel that not only am I up to date on all things ESRI, but that I can also see clearly where they are headed in the near future.

ArcGIS Online:  In one of the JavaScript sessions, a presenter asked for a show of hands on who was using ArcGIS Online.  It looked like somewhere between half to three-forths of the attendees had their hand up.  Of course, I don’t mean this to be a reflection of the GIS world as a whole, but rather to give some perspective; it might not be a stretch to think that ESRI already has quite a few more AGOL subscriptions than ArcGIS Server accounts.  So it is not just with a sense of optimism that ESRI seems to be orienting their future plans around AGOL, the JavaScript API and web mapping.

Javascript: In February ESRI released their roadmap whereby they announced they would be discontinuing further development with Silverlight and Flex in favor of their JavaScript API.  It appeared that people were starting to catch on.  There were a couple of sessions introducing the JavaScript API in addition to classes instructing users how to transition out of Flex and into JavaScript.

Lest you think ESRI was solely courting the JavaScript noob, there were also a multitude of advanced sessions.  The demonstration of using Angular (a JavaScript framework created by Google) was cool enough that even though it was well over my head, I keep returning to it to see if I can figure out how to bend it to my will.

As far as JS API improvements, the most useful to me is the canvas blending functionality.  (Sorry, no link)  For those exclusively using the JS API (rather than out-of-the-box ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Server, which will allow you to create ‘map sandwiches‘), we have had to endure the rather clunky design of having our translucent polygon features obscure the labeling of the standard basemaps.  With canvas blending (predicted for version 4.0 of the API), the basemap labels showed through the features clearly.

Additionally, the JS API debuted many cool new symbolization capabilities including a continuous color scale, a dot-density renderer, and label layers.  You can view more about the JavaScript API here and here.

Github:  It was telling that the very first session on the very first day of the conference was ‘Intro to Github’.  Perhaps that’s to be expected when your keynote speaker is Chris Wanstrath, who founded the company.  However, as it turned out, ESRI was not just throwing a bone to their keynoter – they really are obsessed.  ESRI has truly embraced Github. Perhaps if you’re picky with semantics they haven’t embraced open-source (per the naysayers), but they certainly have taken to social coding.

The vast majority of the sessions provided links to Github repositories where examples and utilities were stored.  It was clear that the code was not posted as an afterthought (or under orders), presenters genuinely encouraged participation.

While I have noticed ESRI’s Github repositories for some time now, I had no idea of the breadth of projects that were out there.  ESRI-Leaflet and ESRI-Bootstrap will almost certainly find their way into my upcoming webmaps.

 

Previews:

The new Webmap Builder was a big hit.  If you’ve spent any time working with ArcGIS Online, you’re probably aware that AGOL can create some pretty clunky looking webmaps.  Additionally, the creative options are rather limited.  The out-of-the-box functionality creates maps that mostly fall into the category of: “here is my data, click for a popup”.  Anything beyond that will require some programming chops. This is where the Webmap Builder shines.  It creates a more highly customized application that does not require any coding whatsoever (though you are free to embellish the apps with your own code if you choose).  As you can imagine, there are a lot of people who do not have the time or energy to work their way up the steep learning curve of coding, and this will be a game changer for them.  However, seasoned programmers have no reason to fret.  As one ESRI speaker put it, “We’ve made it very easy to create web maps.  But don’t worry, not too easy.  You’ll still have a job.”  Thanks.

ArcGIS Professional: This is the new desktop client – or – if you listen to ESRI, an additional desktop client option that you will receive in addition to ArcGIS Desktop.  In my opinion this will replace ArcGIS Desktop altogether within 2-3 years.  The integration with ArcGIS Online is a lot tighter. One (or two) click publishing to the web will be a reality.  The AGOL workflow as it is now is a bit clunky, with the uploading of shapefiles, and the re-uploading of shapefiles again when your boss wants to add another attribute.  ArcGIS Pro will significantly improve that experience, all while preserving the core functionality that most Desktop users are familiar with.

3D: I rarely work in 3D, so the first few times they mentioned it in the plenary I tuned out. I didn’t see a use case for it, and ESRI’s previous 3D offerings seemed fairly lackluster to me. But after seeing multiple demo’s, and even integration into the JS API, I can see a lot of data visualization type projects where it could be useful. 3D web-app animations, for one, would be an awesome way to visualize some of the demographic trends that I work on. ArcGIS Pro even appeared to have a full suite of 3D features.  And all of the examples I saw, (both on Pro and the JS API) looked surprisingly zippy.

Other Notes:

Dojo is still decidedly unpopular. So why Dojo? The question was asked in a session, and rather than try to reconstruct the verbatim response, I think the long and short of it is that this was a decision made back in 2007, and now the JavaScript API and Dojo are inextricably intertwined.  It is a bit troubling to me that instead of trying to extract themselves from Dojo, they seem to be doubling-down.

A colleague pointed out that ESRI may be the only thing keeping Dojo from slipping into oblivion.  Seems likely.

 

 In Closing…

All things considered, it was a very fun and informative conference.  It’s really quite the bizarro world of coding and mapping enthusiasts.  Where else can you find people who drop ‘feature class’ and ‘api’ in casual conversation?  Those are my type of folk.  With any luck I’ll be back next year!