After more than 50 years, Esri is still mapping the world

Founded in 1969, Esri pioneered GIS and paved the way for the ubiquity of digital maps

stuart bonthrone

We’ve all learned over the last decade or two that one of the easiest ways to conceptualise knowledge is via a map. Maps help us understand not just how to get from A to B but the spread of pandemics, places to visit, sales opportunities, hazards, environmental pointers and much more. Digitisation of mapping has created a step change: we no longer pore over dense, folded roadmaps and Ordnance Survey booklets. We expect, without thinking of the underlying complexities and massive underlying data sets, everything to be radically simplified, contextual, always on and able to act blank canvas for information overlays. In short, we expect maps not just to be cartographic guides but assistants in work and play… and in pretty much everything else we do.

Google Maps changed a lot of course when it launched in 2005 and we have been following its blue dot ever since but to go further back and understand better how maps became pluralised and democratised, we could do worse than look at Esri, founded in 1969 and which in many ways is the precursor to, or founding father of, modern digital mapping.

Esri was in at the Sixties genesis of what specialists still call GIS, for geographical information systems. Founder Jack Dangermond worked at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics where much of the ground-breaking work for digital mapping was done. Remarkably, he is still president of Esri, which today is a serious global concern with about 4,000 employees, supplying tools for utilities, environmental agencies, construction, healthcare, telcos, emergency services, transport, energy, governments and educational institutions, including about three-quarters of the Fortune 500.

Notably too, the company has achieved success by plotting a route via the road less taken. While most tech firms build mountains of debt, sell out or IPO, Esri remains a fiftysomething private company that licenses out regional franchises.

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