Reflections on 25th Anniversaries in 2016… What was it about 1991?

The end of the year is often about both reflection and prognostication, and as we head into 2017 I’m a little stuck on the reflection side. In 2016 AppGeo celebrated its 25th anniversary, and as the sole member of the team who’s been at the company for all 25 years, I’m proud of the business accomplishments and also astonished by how much our geospatial industry has changed and evolved in a quarter century.

And, in the same way that someone will mention a new song (or movie, or book) that you’ve never heard of, and then once you hear about it you realize that it’s been all around you, my ears have been particularly attuned to other 25th anniversaries this past year. And indeed, AppGeo was not the only geo organization that was celebrating this milestone. And in talking to a couple of people involved in other 25th anniversaries, I don’t think it was accidental that AppGeo and others got started in 1991.

Utah State Geographic Information Database (SGID) celebrates 25 years

My first encounter with “another twenty-fiver” was when I attended the 25th Anniversary Utah Geographic Information Council (UGIC) annual conference in Bryce Canyon, UT in May. While there, I also realized that the state geospatial office – which has a classic “early days of geo” name of the Automated Geographic Reference Center (AGRC) – was also celebrating the 25th anniversary of their State Geographic Information Database (SGID).

NSGIC turned 25 in 2016

My second encounter with an organization that started in 1991 was the year-long celebration of the National States Geographic Information Council’s (NSGIC) 25th birthday. Since 1991, NSGIC has provided a forum and amplifier for statewide geospatial program offices to meet, compare notes and to advocate for geo initiatives, while also collectively tackling the common challenges that span states.

During my trip to Bryce Canyon, Bert Granberg and I were musing on these anniversaries. Bert is the current Director of the AGRC and someone who has been active in NSGIC for over a decade and is – as of October – the current President of NSGIC. And over beverages we concluded that it was not entirely random that AppGeo, the SGID and NSGIC share a birth-year. Indeed, there was a confluence of at least three important and self reinforcing factors that came together that year.

First, by 1991 there was a critical mass of geospatial data that became more available than ever before. With the massive sea of available data we all have access to today, it is easy to forget that in the early days of geospatial, when starting a project you had to create your own data, often through the painstaking digitizing of hard copy maps and by using complex, command-line based “GIS software”. This process could take months, if not years. But, by 1991 enough of these projects had taken place that collections of data could be assembled into resources like the SGID. And, in 1991 the US Census accelerated this process by making the first TIGER files – representing a detailed nationwide digital database – publicly available (although the ability to simply “download” TIGER was still years away).

I started my career in geospatial in 1985 when I was hired as an intern by a small Massachusetts state agency involved in hazardous waste management. My “project” was literally to find out what other states were doing with geographic information systems (GIS) and whether any of them were having success with “GIS” for hazardous waste facility siting. And at that time, the pickings for peer states were slim. We ended up focusing on a planning study done by Rhode Island and active implementation work in Alaska (funded by the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline) as well as work by USGS. But, just six years later in 1991, almost all states were waist deep in geospatial. And it wasn’t just states, many other large organizations and the Federal government had begun geospatial programs. And, out of this growth came NSGIC, which originally was both an “empathy club” for common challenges and a motivational meeting for taking statewide geo to the next level.

First meeting of NSGIC in Atlanta, October, 1991. Courtesy of Bill Johnson, former GIO of New York and invited 25th Anniversary speaker at 2016 Annual NSGIC Conference. My former boss for MassGIS state government work, Rick Taupier, is the bearded fellow in the second row, just right of center.

First meeting of NSGIC in Atlanta, October, 1991. Courtesy of Bill Johnson, former GIO of New York and invited 25th Anniversary speaker at 2016 Annual NSGIC Conference. My former boss for MassGIS state government work, Rick Taupier, is the bearded fellow in the second row, just right of center.

Last, 1991 marked a huge turning point in geospatial technology availability. In short, the costs of getting started with geo plummeted and it became feasible for “three folks with an idea” to start a company like AppGeo. No longer did you need a >$500,000 (1991 dollars) mini-mainframe computer, and a $150,000 copy of ARC/INFO to run on your Prime or VAX. Rather, a $40,000 UNIX workstation and a $25,000 copy of ARC/INFO for workstation would get you going. And, you also didn’t need a $50,000 electrostatic plotter (and its $1,000/month maintenance contract). The new HP750 large format, inkjet printer had come on the scene for less than $10,000. Things weren’t inexpensive, but they were a ~10% fraction of what they had been in even 1989.

“Workstation GIS” and a digitizing table at AppGeo, circa 1996.

“Workstation GIS” and a digitizing table at AppGeo, circa 1996.

So 1991 marked the confluence of more ubiquitous data, a critical mass of users pursuing common goals and facing similar challenges and the beginning of much, much broader availability to geospatial technology. And now, 25 years later, many of us celebrate.

And, we’re not just celebrating overcoming the “bad old days” when things were difficult and expensive; we’re celebrating the promise of what will come in 2017 and beyond. None of us thought our phones would have more power and memory than those old VAX’s. At that time none of us had experienced the Internet much less the idea that searches could uncover terabytes of public data, available for ready download. We weren’t seeing the emergence of free and open source geospatial software becoming the number two option to an industry powerhouse. But we now know that geo progress is inevitable, and that the ubiquity of geospatial will continue to grow and that more innovation is coming.

Michael Terner, Executive Vice President


Aside: I was reminded of one more 25th Anniversary when I attended the global Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) Conference in Bonn, Germany this past August. During his talk Vlad Agofonkin, the creator of the widely used Leaflet javascript mapping framework and a key developer at MapBox, noted during his typically fabulous presentation that 2016 was the 25th Anniversary of an independent Ukraine (his home country and base). If you want to get a flavor of what makes me personally so excited about 2017, and to see the people and companies that are making innovation flourish, please consider attending the 2017 FOSS4G Conference in Boston, Massachusetts this coming August.

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