24 Mar

Background to the 2014 Washington GIS Conference – Communicating Our World

David A. Howes, David Howes, LLC

The theme of the 2014 Washington GIS Conference was “Communicating Our World” and, in the spirit of that theme, some details regarding why the topic was picked and how the conference evolved may be informative and helpful for anyone wishing to consider a similar endeavor. It should be noted that what follows are my perspectives and not an official statement of the views of the Washington Chapter of URISA. I am, of course, very grateful to the conference volunteers who helped put the event together and helped realize the ideas and outcomes described in this article.

Talk to Your Executives
For many years, I attended the Esri International User Conference in San Diego and, each time, the Esri President, Jack Dangermond, would tell the audience to “talk to your executives” as a way to persuade them of the benefits of GIS, to involve them in decisions and to improve communication. There may have been other intentions behind Jack’s message, but these three stood out for me. However, year after year, I was never really sure whether the message as I saw it was having much of an impact. “How well analysts and executives are communicating about GIS” wasn’t and still isn’t a typical conference topic, despite its importance for the success of GIS projects. A measure of progress could have been useful, along with a discussion on what worked and what didn’t work.

Disasters in GIS
In 1991, the Institute of British Geographers Quantitative Methods Study Group (since renamed the Quantitative Methods Research Group) used the working title of “Disasters in GIS” for their Spring meeting. The title always stuck with me because of its rarity as a topic and, as the notes about the meeting state, “few speakers admitted to major ‘disasters’ and apparently several commercial organizations decided against sending representatives to the meeting because they did not want to be associated with signs of failure”. Thankfully, that sort of hardcore avoidance of project difficulties has softened since 1991, but we still have a long way to go. Most meeting presenters still focus on what worked and make little mention of what didn’t work, regardless of the fact that the latter can potentially yield more valuable insights and help ensure that the mistakes are not repeated.

As a sign of progress, the 2013 Washington GIS Conference included a “GIS Project Headaches” session, in which Karl Johansen of Port Madison GIS explained the background to major legal difficulties pertaining to the City of Seattle’s original GIS implementation in 1989 and Dorrel Dickson of Tulalip Tribes explained how a fiber optic mapping project fell apart. In both cases, as with most situations in which GIS projects (or many other projects for that matter) experience difficulties, communication, or lack thereof, was a key factor. In fact, it’s fair to say that failure to ensure or, more strongly, insist on good communication can often do far more damage than technology ever can, which provides a strong incentive to give communication more consideration in our conferences.

Lone GIS Professional Interactions
When a group of us started our lone GIS professional conversations back in 20081, the emphasis on so called “soft skills” was a strong component, so the following year I asked Matt Stevenson of CORE GIS and Gretchen Peterson of PetersonGIS (now at Mapbox) to tell the audience at our 2009 Washington GIS Conference session2 about their experience of working together on a project. They both worked for themselves and had their own ways of operating that weren’t always consistent or complementary. As they pointed out, it can be difficult, especially when working remotely, to appreciate what the other person is thinking and to understand what actions may help to ensure that processes and interactions are as efficient, effective and as stress-free as possible. Matt and Gretchen were refreshingly candid in conveying their perspectives and advice and the audience was treated to a positive break from the tradition of mainly technical presentations that tend to be a dominant characteristic of GIS conferences.

Initial Session Idea & Board Position
The interest in communication topics as part of GIS presentations and sessions that we saw from our lone GIS professional interactions convinced me that there was a lot more we could do that would be helpful to GIS professionals. One idea, which a few of us considered privately at the 2012 Washington GIS Conference relates to a potential session in which we would bring together a representative from each level of the administrative hierarchy in a city or county and have them discuss how well they work together to understand their respective roles and support each other and the organization when it comes to GIS-related projects. Other activities got in the way of organizing the session then, but in 2013 someone asked me when we were going to make it happen. In response, I made a commitment to do something on the theme of communication for the 2014 conference. That year, I was also elected to the Washington URISA Board in a Member-At-Large position, which provided another reason to increase the level of my involvement in the 2014 conference.

Some Positive Changes
Initially, my 2014 conference ideas were limited to something like the administrative hierarchy session and, possibly, something else on the communication theme, but, with help from contributors, my aspirations grew to include not only presentations and sessions, but also alternate approaches designed to make a positive difference to other aspects of the conference.

In recent years, other organizations, such as Esri with their annual Geodesign Summit, have successfully adopted new approaches to conducting their events and increasing the overall value for attendees so we have some great examples to follow. Thankfully, the Board President, Heather Glock, and the Conference Chair, Chuck Buzzard, were  supportive of incorporating some positive changes to the format and content and we were able to see all of our new ideas come to fruition.

A Two-Day Conversation on Communicating Our World
A primary goal for the event was to encourage communication on the topic of communication itself as it relates to GIS and, with that in mind, we wanted to facilitate a two-day conversation about the overall conference theme as well three sub-themes:

  • How have you communicated the value of GIS to your organization or clients?
  • How has your use of GIS supported a communication effort?
  • How have you improved communication between participants in your GIS projects?

Our way of creating a cohesive set of offerings to support the conversation involved several approaches, which are described below.

1. Connect the presentation content to the sub-themes
In the Call for Presentations we asked presenters to explain how their presentation would address at least one of the sub-themes.

2. Address the sub-themes in the keynote presentation
The keynote speaker was Breece Robertson of the Trust for Public Land. Breece was very enthusiastic about our ideas for enhancing the conference and worked with us over several months to fine tune her content and ensure that it supported the overall theme and the three sub-themes.

Breece’s involvement in the conference has its origins in a presentation at Town Hall in Seattle by Lucy Moore, a mediator, facilitator and author based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her perspectives on bringing groups together had great relevance to the communication theme of our conference and when I spoke to her afterwards she recommended Breece, whom she knew since they were both based in Santa Fe. I submitted Breece’s name to the conference committee and, since most members knew who she was, she came top in the keynote presenter vote.

3. Include a GIS Communication track
The GIS Communication track consisted of a set of six high quality and well-received sessions with each addressing important aspects of communication of value to GIS professionals:

  • Mapping Your Unique Value, a Roadmap to Personal Branding
    Tonya Kauhi, Amber Raynsford and Christina Gonzales
  • A Proposal for National GIS Data Sharing – What Does it Mean for Washington State?
    Greg Babinski, Tom Carlson, Nancy Tosta, Karl Johansen and Ian Von Essen

4. Encourage lunch table discussions
The idea for encouraging discussions on key GIS-related topics at lunch time on the first day of the conference came from conference committee members who’d witnessed their effectiveness at the GIS Pro-2012 conference in Portland, Oregon. Approximately, two-thirds of the lunch tables were allocated for discussions and a sign was placed on each table to specify the topic for discussion at that table and for which a discussion leader was available. Maps of the room were posted to help attendees find a discussion to match their interests so that they could meet and converse with others with similar interests. A group of 20 local GIS professionals were kind enough to serve as discussion leaders, each focusing on a topic of their choice, such as open source GIS, ArcGIS Online and geodesign.

5. Establish a group of “Thought Leaders”
The Thought Leaders group consisted of a set of well-respected individuals whose task was to gather ideas and stimulate conversations related to the conference theme and its sub-themes. You can read more about the group in the article entitled Thought Leaders and Closing Session in the Washington URISA newsletter The Summit, Issue 35, Summer 2014 (pages 9-12).

6. Provide a contribution collection station
At a prominent location where attendee traffic was expected to be high, we placed easels with large-format notepads and marker pens with which people could write their thoughts related to the conference theme. Others could then respond with their own comments or rate items using small circular labels (dots) that were included in their packet of conference materials. The station served as a great focal point for attendees to converse and share their thoughts.

7. Hold a closing plenary session to reflect on what was learned at the conference
This was a new item on the conference agenda for which the Thought Leaders group prepared by summarizing the contributions to the conference conversation from the contribution collection station, the presentations and the discussions that took place during the conference. With the summary as a guide, we then held a final conversation with the remaining attendees (at least half of those who came for the conference) to identify some key takeaway messages or deliverables from the conference. The three deliverable statements that emerged from the discussion were:

  • Walk a mile in their shoes
  • Create an inspiring teachable moment
  • Be a mentor to the education community

To quote the Thought Leaders and Closing Session article, which provides full details of the session and its outcomes, “if everyone who attended the discussion or reads this article were to take steps based on one of these statements, our GIS community would benefit significantly. The statements also provide a basis for ongoing interactions to consider how well our efforts are working and how we can expand the set to include other positive intentions. Ideally, this will extend the spirit of the conference well beyond the closing discussion and make a strong and positive difference for everyone involved.”

Overall Result
The conference was regarded as being quite successful with the highest attendance at a Washington (URISA) GIS conference accompanied by a corresponding revenue boost for the organization. The cohesiveness of the activities and their relevance to the conference theme played a key role in this success and, thus, provides a model for future conferences at which it would be great to see more new ideas introduced to build on what was learned at the 2014 conference. Undoubtedly, incorporation of such ideas will help make future events as valuable as possible for attendees in many respects.


1 Howes, D.A., Benson, J. and Bailey, A. 2008. Supporting the Lone GIS Professional: The Concept and Rationale. Session conducted at the 2008 Washington GIS Conference, Seattle, Washington, USA

2 Howes, D.A. 2009. Supporting the Lone GIS Professional. Session conducted at the 2009 Esri International User Conference, San Diego, California, USA