Esri, the mapping software and geographical information systems provider, is going after the thousands of tech-savvy SXSW attendees in a big way — by taking over the grand Palazzo Lavaca in Austin, Texas, just a few blocks from the University of Texas campus, and naming it the Esri Lavahouse. The company is inviting developers, hackers, entrepreneurs and executives to relax, eat, view product demonstrations and discuss the future of location- and map-based services. Esri is also planning a number of events, including an Open Data Hackathon focusing on the city of Austin.
On Friday, I talked with Esri Chief Marketing Officer Linda Hecht about the Lavahouse, the SXSW audience and upcoming trends in the geospatial industry. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was the driving idea behind opening the Lavahouse?
For us, a house like this is a great way to interact with folks … where we can sit down and have discussions — help people figure out what kind of help they need, what their vision is, how we can help them with their vision — in a way that’s casual and relaxed. It’s not like, “Just come here and party,” it’s more like, “Come here and talk, let’s dig into what problems you have and let’s help you solve them.” At the end of the day, it’s about helping customers figure out how to use geography to build a better app, solve a problem, modernize their website and help their customers better. So when we think about doing an event, we look for places that have little interesting spots and nooks and comfortable chairs, as opposed to a big area, [because] it’s supposed to be about having conversations.
SXSW attracts a diverse crowd. Who are you looking to bring into the Lavahouse?
The good thing about Esri is we go after at least 60 different industries, and our platform is not only a solution for some people, it’s also a developer platform, it’s also a location-analytics platform, a [location-based services] platform, but also people can just mashup a map and embed it in their website. It’s as simple as that.
One thing we’re excited about is allowing our users to access all these other maps and data, and finding new patterns and trends and mashing them up. You get that in the hands of really smart people, and you can access a lot of really interesting things. So you don’t need to be a developer to use geolocation, but for a developer, they can take it and do amazing things.
You’re hosting an Open Data Hackathon on Sunday that will focus on the city of Austin. What are your expectations for it?
The city of Austin is a user of ours. One of the things people forget is that technology is hard, but getting good data is harder. Technology without data is nothing. A lot of cities are making their GIS data layers available for people to mash up and use to help build applications or solutions. So we teamed with the city of Austin to make that data available, and we have our APIs and technology, and it’s up to the smart people to figure out what to do. It’s kind of fun way to integrate the two sides — local government with really smart startup developers.
Looking ahead, which industries are growth areas for Esri and GIS?
I think the big area is the commercial space. GIS has been used for a long time in natural resources and government, which is pretty common with new technology. But commercial companies are starting to use it more and more, for things like: Where’s the best place to locate a store? What are the trends in demographics so that we can project where we need to be building and buying land? Even things like, “Where should we open flu-shot clinics?”
The really interesting trend that we’re seeing is integrating geographic information and technology with other enterprise systems. Things like integrating spatial in with business-information technology. Or with ERP data, and CRM data. So you have these enterprise systems — how can we take those and analyze them based on geography? These are brand new things. It’s not just looking at your data on a map, you want to do all the analysis — that’s where the power is. Location analytics is the next big trend, and you’ll see that a lot in the commercial space.