Esri and the Local Community
As I go through this history, I am intentionally not using any names and am sticking with my experience.
I’ve always enjoyed participating in the local geo-community. Our local group here is the New Mexico Geographic Information Council. At one point I served on the board for an 8 year stretch (2003-10), including two terms as president (2006 & 2007).
It’s a volunteer led, grass roots GIC. Twice a year it holds a one day conference (spring and fall). It is incorporated as a non-profit. Meetings are funded via memberships, donations and sponsors. They also produce the Map Legend newsletter and offer student scholarships. For our 20th anniversary in 2004 we convinced Jack to give the keynote. I think that still holds the record for the largest NMGIC meeting (I wanted to include the photo but can’t seem to find it.)
Also in the southwest U.S. there used to be a conference named SWUG – the Southwest User Group. It was formed right here in New Mexico way back in 1986 as the "Southwest Arc/Info User Group." It included the ARC label because there weren’t too many choices in those days. You basically had Arc/Info, MOSS and GRASS. Below is a scanned brochure of the first meeting. Look who’s giving the opening remarks!
In the 90's the group was rebranded as "SWUG" and expanded to include Wyoming. Through the years, Esri has set up regional user group meetings in most portions of the U.S. However, ours was the first regional UG, and was not started by Esri. Like most geo-conferences of that era, it was always dominated by talks using Esri tech. Importantly though, with the re-branding came a clear mandate to be an "open" conference and welcome to everyone regardless of their relationship to Esri. For example, I could present on the MapServer web apps we were building.
For me these local conferences were a big part of my professional development. They are where I first started meeting others in the local community and where I gave my first talks…back when I had severe stage fright.
SWUG conferences were always volunteer led community events. The annual SWUG Conference traveled on a five year cycle among New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. They were typically 3 day conferences with ~200-300 attendees, complete with workshops and a map gallery. Each state set up a volunteer committee to organize the conference for the coming year with seed money from the previous state's conference. It operated this way, as a grass roots event, for over 25 years.
When it cycled around to New Mexico in 2007, I was one of two Co-Chairs. That is when the NM contingent of SWUG began having concerns about the conference being taken over by Esri. The previous year, Arizona had incorporated SWUG (I still have a copy of that incorporation document!) and had included the following language on the new SWUG website:
“All presentation topics must involve the use of ESRI products or that of their authorized business partners and developers. SWUG is a users group conference for GIS professionals who use ESRI software and related products.”
As we began to get organized for the 2007 conference most of our energy wasn’t going into planning. Instead our time was monopolized by seeking answers to questions like:
Does the fact that the individual in AZ incorporated SWUG within that state mean that SWUG is considered a formal entity that affects its status in the other states?
Who will participate on the Board?
Are we bound to follow whatever regulations and by-laws related to it being incorporated in AZ?
Can we continue to use the SWUG name in the other 4 states?
There were other messy and time consuming financial issues related to the incorporation of SWUG, too deep to get into here. Then there were issues around getting the keys to the new website. Eventually we came to the conclusion that we would run the 2007 meeting as they always had been. We also felt that we might be able to use this opportunity to put in place, a sound governing policy for the SWUG. Our conference that year was held on Halloween weekend in Santa Fe and we came up with cool orange on black tee shirts with a skeleton Kokopelli logo.
It ended up being a great meeting and we were able to pass a nice amount of seed money on to Wyoming for the 2008 edition.
The 2012 SWUG
The conference moved through its five year cycle and in 2012 returned to New Mexico. During that time there were increasing warning signs that Esri was still trying to assume control of SWUG:
The 2009 event in CO had been called the "Esri SWUG."
Again in 2011 Arizona only allowed talks to be submitted if Esri software was used.
As a previous co-chair, I returned to the planning committee. This year the conference would be held in Albuquerque. On December 5, 2011 we received an email (I still have a copy of it!) from the regional Esri rep at the time, saying that the Esri event teams were working on potential sites for the 2012 Esri South West Users Conference (Esri SWUC). The potential towns included: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver and Phoenix. It would be held during the same time as our meeting.
New Mexico has some fight, especially since the group was founded and started right here. We had the institutional memory of the intention behind the conference. We had assumed - even taken it for granted - that all kinds of software, and all kinds of methodologies for exploring geographic issues could and would be explored at our gatherings without bias. This was also back in the days when GIS, Remote Sensing and GPS were separate but related fields. People were also welcome to share on those topics and Esri wasn't a remote sensing or GPS vendor.
We replied that:
”We’ll do this as we’ve done for over 20 years, and will let Esri know when we are ready to invite them. Esri needs to understand that this is a User Group event independent of the “company”. We use the products and convene to share that experience. That was the original intent. For New Mexico and other states, this conference has not been an ESRI event, yet they can participate in any degree as they see fit. Note - we started this in 1986 in New Mexico as SWAIUG. We’ve invited and kept the conference open to anyone who wishes to participate; whether an ESRI Business Partner or not.”
After that email exchange, Esri escalated the issue by asking for a spot on our community SWUG Board. We told them that no vendors were permitted on the board, but that they could be a sponsor.
Then they went rogue. Esri organized their competing "Esri SWUC" conference for the same week we settled on, just an hour up the road in Santa Fe, NM. They locked down a domain, set up a web page, and began aggressively competing with our conference.
Esri’s Event and Marketing teams were damn near impossible to compete with. As a result, our community led SWUG had lower attendance and the seed money for the next conference in WY wasn’t what it needed to be. For the 2013 conference in WY, representatives from the five states met and decided they had to let SWUG go. It was re—branded as the "Geospatial Conference of the West." Unfortunately that just didn’t have staying power and was a one off conference.
Esri kept the pressure up and their conference team intentionally and aggressively took SWUG over. It was a conference coup! Esri SWUG still exists today but doesn’t happen every year, and only pops up in high population cities. We all know location matters! It no longer travels to each of the original five states, a true loss for our region. For example, it has never returned to New Mexico. Like most Esri events it’s now largely a marketing show instead of a community networking and technology sharing event. Esri successfully killed a community led conference that had thrived for over 25 years.
Perhaps incorporation could have protected SWUG as it has protected NMGIC, but in 2006 it wasn’t set up cooperatively among the five states. It became too difficult to both compete with Esri and come to consensus about by-laws among the participating states. It overly complicated a system that had worked for 25 years.
It was a painful period of time and reading all the old messages brings up all the feelings again. I still harbor resentments about this. When this was happening it took all the joy out of trying to come together and share. I see Esri’s motivation as a business decision, but also feel it was so unnecessary. They could have just participated in our conference and let it be. Esri has a penchant for being way more overbearing and aggressive than is necessary. This is just another example.
These days NMGIC serves the purpose for New Mexico. I regularly participate at that, regularly giving FOSS4G talks. I’m glad to see other community led regional conferences springing up, like the GeoRodeo in Austin, Texas. These are really important in maintaining local geospatial communities.