The ESRI sessions are a great place to really see what the people in our field are doing. The diversity is really inspiring. Occasionally I’ll get the random person who’ll ask, “What can you do with GIS?” I’d love to have a copy of the User Conference program to whip out when that happens and say, “Take a look at this. The question you should be asking is, ‘What CAN’T you do with GIS?’”
That being said, the User Conference sessions aren’t without their issues. A big part of the problem lies in the sheer numbers of topics available. If the final session is any judge, ESRI is clearly aware of this and trying to take steps to fix it, which is great. Some sort of vetting process or voting process might help keep the focus on the sessions that people are really interested in attending. One danger in voting I can see is that it might make a self re-enforcing system. The stuff that makes it into the sessions will be the stuff that everyone is used to seeing. New and innovative ways of doing projects or applying existing techniques to new applications might not make it into sessions simply because those voting might not see the value. Whatever vetting system ultimately gets created, it must allow for new innovations and techniques to surface in sessions. In fact, it might help to have a few sessions left open for those very things.
However, I think a vetting process really just starts to scratch the surface of the problem. Anyone who’s attended any of the programming-centric sessions can tell you that max capacity only isn’t just a possibility, it’s increasingly the norm. The User Conference seems to be the victim of ESRI’s success. I think they figure the developer’s conference is the place for the programmers. Sure, that’s the hope, but what ESRI is forgetting is that they’re making the tools so easy everyone is turning into a ‘programmer’. Opening up second and third offerings of those sessions has helped, but it hasn’t fixed the problem. They really need to expect that those sessions are going to drag in WAY more people than anticipated and ask the conference center to open up some of the rooms that have moveable walls.
Something else that would help so much is a better ‘classification’ system for the sessions. One of my favorite parts of the closing session was when someone asked for more keywords for each session or paper. In essence, they’re asking for more metadata on sessions (everyone take a moment to scream now). That’s a great idea. However, they’re really going to have to make the traditional paper format and kick it up a notch. Clearly 9.4 is going to embrace the iPhone application space. Why not take the program in that direction as well? The online scheduling is really cool, but it’d be nice if there was a way to download that stuff down to a mobile device.
On top of that, I’d like to see a better track system than they’ve got so far. Right now, you have these tracks that are pretty varied and wide. It’d be much more useful if you had tracks broken down by reasonably broad job descriptions, like Developer, GIS Manager, Analyst, etc. Those could be color or icon coded and each paper could be tagged with the color/icon combo for that job. I think it might help people more closely figure out what types of materials will be covered in sessions. Too often I found myself in sessions that seemed to be targeted at one broad group of people and contained much different material.
No doubt about it, the annual International User’s Conference is an amazing place to learn about our ever growing, ever changing field. I’ve run and hosted my fair share of conferences and I know it can really be disappointing to throw your everything into making it the best conference you can and get criticism. ESRI has always been good about listening to feedback from the users. The 2009 UC was my third and each has gotten better than the last, so I have no doubt next years will be even better!