Tucked away in a small office on Commercial Street in downtown Portland is one of the brain centers for a company whose products are so versatile that they have been used to combat deadly viruses, thwart terrorism, clean up environmental disasters and cheat at Pokemon Go.
The office is home to Esri’s Portland Research and Development Center. Esri is a California company founded in 1969 as Environmental Systems Research Institute. Its specialty is coming up with new ways to combine maps and data to help customers accomplish various tasks.
Currently, the company’s software is being used to conduct cleanup and damage-assessment operations on the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana. Waste management personnel there are using Esri apps to register the location of remaining debris, while U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local officials used the company’s crowdsourcing technology to create an app that shows whether businesses are open or closed, and ensures that the information is available to the public. Esri said it is the first time anyone has combined crowdsourcing with official data during an emergency.
Esri’s crowdsourcing software is just one iteration of the technology that has helped it grow into one of the world’s largest companies producing geographic information systems, or GIS. These systems collect, display, analyze and manage spatial or geographical data. A GIS can map any type of data onto locations in the real world. Esri produces a range of GIS applications led by its flagship product suite, ArcGIS.
The company’s Portland office is headed by Director and Chief Technology Officer for Mobile Applications Jeff Jackson, a veteran software developer who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and attended the University of Maine. He began working for Esri at its headquarters in Redlands, California, shortly after receiving his master’s degree in 1990. Jackson said he attracted Esri founder Jack Dangermond with his master’s thesis on the then-nascent field of geographic information systems.
“I didn’t know who he was at the time,” Jackson said about Dangermond. “He said, ‘I want you to meet my friends in California.’ ”
According to Tripp Corbin, president-elect of the nonprofit Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Dangermond is considered one of the fathers of GIS. Corbin, who is also CEO of Atlanta-based eGIS Associates, said Esri’s products represent the industry’s gold standard.
“Esri provides the only solution I know out there that can serve one individual or thousands of individuals,” he said. “I think they have some very innovative thinkers.”
NEW IDEAS, PRODUCTS
In Portland, Jackson and his team of 16 designers and developers are constantly brainstorming new product ideas and ways to improve existing products. Their focus is on ArcGIS applications for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Many of their ideas come from talking to customers, he said.
“People have ideas all the time about new apps that have a geographic component,” Jackson said.
One example of a product developed by Portland R&D is Collector, a field data collection app. It allows a company or organization to enable every field worker with a mobile device to easily input data and photographs, which are automatically incorporated into a central GIS database along with the time and location of entry. A companion app called Operations Dashboard allows other personnel to view and analyze the GIS data in real time.
Collector and Operations Dashboard have been used to track wildlife affected by environmental disasters including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, disease outbreaks including the Zika and Ebola viruses, injured Syrian refugees in need of treatment, and potential security threats at major sporting events. For example, they have been used by security personnel at the Boston Marathon ever since 2014, the year after the infamous bombing that killed three and injured more than 260. Other major marathons also have adopted Esri’s software for security purposes since then, Jackson said.
“It gives them a common operating picture of the security situation,” he said, such as the exact location of spectators who are behaving in a belligerent or suspicious manner. “It’s not just a list of reports. Now they’re actually seeing it.”
Another Portland-developed app called Workforce allows companies and organizations with mobile workers to more easily track their locations and activities. Unlike fleet-management systems that use vehicle GPS to track the locations of vehicles, Workforce is tied in to personal mobile devices and tracks the locations of people.
Why does that matter? Imagine a police officer who pulls over a suspect’s vehicle and then chases the suspect into a forest, Jackson said. With typical fleet-tracking software, police personnel would be able to send backup to the vehicle’s location. With Workforce, they can pinpoint the exact location of the officer who needs assistance.
“We did a pilot project with the Oklahoma state police where we gave Workforce to all the state police officers,” Jackson said. “(They) just raved about how successful this app was. They said it’s saving lives.”
Other uses for Esri products are less serious, and some not quite as noble. Recently, a group of hackers used Esri’s servers to host a map showing exactly where all of the Pokémon characters are located in the insanely popular mobile GIS-based videogame Pokemon Go. Jackson said traffic on Esri’s servers spiked hundredfold as a result of the Pokemon Go map before the developer of the game asked that it be shut down because it enabled players to cheat.
Jackson said he and his team spent a day making their own version of the Pokemon Go cheaters’ map just to test their skills.
“We had some fun with it,” he said.
Esri has about 3,500 employees and had annual revenue of $1.15 billion in 2015. Its products make up more than 40 percent of the GIS market and are used by 75 percent of all Fortune 500 companies.
The price to use ArcGIS applications starts at $1,500 for a basic license, but the company also offers free versions of its products with more limited functionality.
Jim Barry, Esri’s manager of developer evangelism, said Jackson is the reason that Esri has an office in Portland. Jackson wanted to relocate back to Maine with his family, and the company didn’t want to lose him, so it opened the Portland office in 2005.
“He’s probably the lead innovator at Esri,” Barry said.