ESRI UC Day 2 Roundup – Couple of Sessions

Frank Looking at His Tweet in the Socail Media Lounge

I caught a few sessions and two in particular I thought were worth taking notes.  The first is about return on investments and calculating them for government.  Ultimately the presentations weren’t that strong on this topic in that session, but there was a wealth of information about how local governments can develop GIS even on limited budgets.  Personally, I think the session was slighly misnamed, which is unfortunate because the presenations were great.  The second session wasn’t even actually a regular session – it was a Special Interest Groups.  Not a lot of people note the SIGs – largely because they happen at lunch time, I suspect – but there was a lot of great information at the Flex developers Special Interest Group.  There was a fascinating presenation by Adobe concerning skinning your Flex application.  Although the topic sounds trivial, anyone who’s done much with the Flex development environment can tell you that the interface development is a bit of a bear.  The session really helped boil some of that complex stuff down, I think.  Anywho, enough with my monday morning quarterbacking comentary and on to the notes!

Quantifying the Benefits of GIS in Government

Using GIS to track ROI, which is a pretty cool way to use GIS, I think.  Rebecca from Chesapeake VA is going to give the presentation.  She’s a tad quiet, but whatdaygonna do?  She works at the planning department of the areas.  In 2001, they had mapbooks and development would be approved and recorded only in the mapbook.  Sadly, that’s how it works in much of WV to this day, which is nuts.  They moved the product to a personal geodatabase.  That must have been hard to get all the records into the early versions of personal geodatabase.  She’s showing a lot of usful maps that show how developments are approved and actually developed.  From the development, they moved to a more analytical mode.  They started looking at things that were in pre-improvement phases.  So far, typical GIS-y stuff.  I wonder how they convinced the policy makers to invest in this stuff?  Hope she gets to that soon.  Seems they developed a fairly standard GIS system for county/local planning use.  What they’ve done well is go back to the policy makers and show them this stuff in public meetings.  So policy makers get to see this stuff working in real time, and they get to see the public respond to that stuff in real time.

Next up Bruce who’s worked with various groups in California.  He’s doing stuff with dealing with difficult financial times.  Clearly a skill he had to develop from working with CA agencies (ZING!)  Seriously, he has a small list of counties and areas that have had to deal with declining “revenues” from counties in the state and I’d challenge anyone to drop 8-15% and not blink.  He’s going through a pretty stock slide of how GIS gets rid of redundancy and all that.  Anyone familiar with GIS can probably picture most of what’s on the slide in their head.  Next he’s moved onto how to implement this stuff in the standard low/medium/high budget scenarios.  It’s interesting he’s highlighting web portal implementations.  Personally, I think this would be attractive for even high budget situations when a lot of the users are fairly unknowledgeable about the technology.  He’s also highlighting the free software option, which too many people ignore.  There are a number of grants for software/hardware acquisition.  There are DHS grants, ESRI grants, USGS, and even state grants.  It’s a good suggestion as all of these groups would like you to get into GIS if you’re not already.  Bruce tells us to think about phasing your GIS system.  Great suggestion!  That can really help spread the cost across budget years.  Again, too many people miss this option.  He’s pointing out that you really have to ask the question “how much accuracy do you need?”  High spatial accuracy can really burn through your budget in no time at all.  Sometimes fuzziness isn’t really that bad a thing.  He’s also suggesting you consider getting consultants or outside groups to manage your GIS.  I’m not hugely supportive of this one, as my experience is outside consultants can save cash in the short run, but really catch you in the long.  Of course since he’s a consultant, he might be slightly more biased toward this option J  Finally, on to the idea of regional programs.  You can get surrounding areas to work together to get regional groups to implement GIS.  That’s a really good idea.  It can help spread the cost out, especially when paired with the “good enough” accuracy suggestion.  He’s now suggesting dong a ROI analysis, and you can head over to for more information.  Personally, I find GIS ROI analysis to be a bit tricky.

Flex Special Information Group

First, they need a bigger room.  The thing is packed.  Clearly there’s enough interest.  Adobe is about to give a talk about skinning in the Flex API.  Zoinks!  Intertubse are down!  So much for live demo.  They’re in a Mac, which isn’t suprising, using the Flex builder.  Skinning is pretty cool, but it is kinda intimidating, as the presenter is saying.  I’m sorry, I missed his name, so I’m going to call him Bob.  Apologies to “not Bob” if you read this and it turns out your name isn’t Bob.  He’s demoing converting the Flex Builder styles into CSS.  I’m not a huge fan of Adobe’s CSS implementation (sorry Dream Weaver fans), but it is the industry standard.  It generally works, which at the end of the day is what you want, so no knocks there.    That’s their first major tip – use CSS to do the styling, so you can work with classes and groups of classes.  Good tip.  However, canvases only have so many things you can mess with.  Sometimes you want to do some radical designs, so you have to turn to something he calls graphical design.  He then asks how many people here consider themselves designers and not a hand was raised.  Clearly a heavy coding group of people.  Graphical design is pretty cool because your designers can make their designs in Photoshop (or whatever tool they choose) and you can import them as a skin into your elements.  It’s a nice way to separate the design from the code.  What you end up doing is applying an image, say a PNG, to an element, which is pretty neat.  However, I’m curious if you have to re-do that process every time the image changes?  Can the designer re-fresh the image and it automagically show up in the app?  I’m guessing not because the coder can change the details of how that is applied to the element.  That might change with a different image.  The last option is through programmatic skinning.  Basically Action Script can do a lot of skinning elements, like gradients and whatnot.  It’s probably what a lot of the people here will opt to do.  How many GIS shops have designers on staff?  The plus side is the app is smaller because you don’t include a lot of images.  The downside is your code is more complex.  He’s now demoing an interesting little app he wrote that takes the data from this GPS logger he carries.  The app has a default skin, but then he opened the skinned version.  You can really see where the graphics matter.  The skin makes the app pop, that’s for sure.  Now we’re onto Flex 4.  I just figured out Flex 3… (sigh).  There’s a new interaction toolbar that is supposed to bridge the gap between designer and developer.  The way he describes it, it sounds something like ESRI’s model builder, but for Flex.  Flex builder now has a set of tools that describe items in the abstract and then it’s the designer who comes along and makes it look nice.  So the developer says, “hey, there’s a scroll bar named X and there’s a item that makes the scroll bar scroll, and that’s called Y.”  Flex 4 will keep the too linked in its code.  However, the designer can come along and mark up or design those two things however he/she likes.  They don’t even have to be near each other.  The developer just says, “get the stuff from X and Y and do some stuff” and the designer says, “X and Y should look and act like this.  Again, great work flow for Flex in general, I think.  I’m not sure how good it will be for GIS shops.  Not many have full time designers on staff.  And Photoshop isn’t exactly the easiest tool to learn how to use effectively.  Quick update: turns out Bob’s name is Kevin.  Sorry Kevin.  For the rest of this paragraph, the part of “Bob” will actually be played by “Kevin”.  Conceptually, the direction Adobe is moving with Flex 4 really is the future of web development.  Object Orientated Programming gives us the conceptual tools to understand that items are largely independent of each other and can be built well using those ideas.  This is just taking this conceptually to the design world, which is great.  Flex builder is going away as of version 4… it’s now going to be called Flash Builder.  Meh.  However, the idea is still solid.  You basically make your Flex (Flash Builder now, I guess) Builder app and point it to a “skin”.  The skin holds the display, the app holds the functionality.  He’s showing how he can change the skin and suddenly we’re seeing an iPhone-esque app.  The functionality works the same, but the interface alters as per platform necessity.  Also, that’s pretty funny that it looks like the iPhone, since you can’t actually run this on an iPhone, since ultimately it’s Flash.  Also, it doesn’t take into account the fact that a netbook has a different set of power functions than a full computer and that’s different than your average smart phone.  Stuff you might want users to do in a full desktop might not be available or even possible in a smart phone.  Changing the skin doesn’t make the app scale from what I can tell.  Side note: one of the questions led to a comment by Kevin.  Flex uses two models, the vbox and hbox model and the canvas “constraints” model.  Adobe thinks you should use the constraints model most of the time.  That’s kinda different from web standard approaches which require the ability to resize at will.  It’s a different way of thinking.  All in all, the Flex world is clearly highly in flux.  We can do some amazing rich apps now, but we’re going to have to get used to a lot of variability for the foreseeable future.  That’s part of life on the technology treadmill, I guess!  Flex 4 looks to be released in the early 2010 release date.  The ESRI speaker just said that the next API will be moving to Flex 4, so we’re all moving that direction.  ESRI is now calling for more examples codes to be put in the web site.  So if you have anything you’d like to highlight, get it up in the codebase!