Esri and the Scientific Community

Updated: January 7, 2017

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At Esri we are concerned with supporting basic and applied science, but we also recognize that there are many major themes of compelling interest to society that will drive scientific research for the next two decades. And thus we view science as helping us to understand much more than solely how the Earth works, but how the Earth should look (e.g., by way of geodesign), and how we should look at the Earth (i.e., by way of Earth observation in varying forms and the accompanying data science issues of analysis, modeling, developing and documenting useful datasets for science, interoperating between these datasets and between various approaches).

There are many major themes of compelling interest to society that will drive scientific research, at least for the next two decades. And thus we view science as helping us to understand not only how the Earth works, but how the Earth should look, and how we should look at the Earth.

Along these lines, Esri is fairly well known as a vendor of GIS technology to research labs, universities, and other places where great science is done. However, Esri continues to work toward contributing as a MEMBER of the scientific community as well. We define members of the science community as scientists within universities, research institutes, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and similar. As such, you may not know that Esri maintains objective scientific representation on various scientific boards and councils, including several of the committees therein that do the work of these bodies over the long-term. Examples include:

Esri also serves on various advisory boards or collaborative research teams for specific scientific projects. Examples include:

  • New! Global Content Challenge: for students, opening August 29, 2016
  • GEO/GEOSS: See this blog post for more information.
  • NSF EarthCube Liaison Team: See this blog post for more information and further involvement.
  • The NSF-funded Research Coordination Network (RCN) on Ocean Observations
  • The White House Climate Data Initiative and related resources + Climate Resilience App Challenge Winners + Global Disaster Resilience App Challenge Winners + Data Viz App Challenge Winners
  • The Research Data Alliance (RDA)
  • the Industrial Associates Program of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM)-Joint Hydrographic Center (JHC)
  • New! NASA: various experiments, prototypes and with climate, ocean, and hydrologic multidimensional datasets particularly with the NASA Earth Science Technology Office
  • New! University College London: Various small citizen science and urban risk/resilience projects, including story maps (example 1, example 2) with the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) lab of Professor Muki Haklay.
  • New! The GIS Program of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is working with us on developing a series of web services to provision climate data (e.g., netCDF) within the Living Atlas of the World to drive some amazing new apps, particularly in support of the NCAR Community Earth System Model (CESM). They are also working with us on the development of new LearnGIS modules around the use of climate and weather data in GIS, and various other activities to further develop and strengthen the Weather, Climate and Atmospheric GIS Community.
  • University of Wollongong, Australia: Esri’s Statistical Design Teams will be consulting with Distinguished Professor Noel Cressie and his research group on a range of development projects in areas including geostatistics, space-time pattern mining, R statistical software integration, and statistical clustering algorithms to optimize Esri ecophysiographic, ecological marine, and world population layers.
  • MIT: Esri’s Chief Scientist teamed with the Esri Story Maps and Strategic Marketing Teams in a collaboration with Dr. Amy Glasmeier, Professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning. The aim was to explore how to better “spatialize” her famous Living Wage Calculator, which analyzes the minimum level of income required for individuals and families to pay for basic living expenses. The result was the Living Wage Story Map, which has received hundreds of thousands of web hits since its launched. It has been featured in dozens of media outlets such as The Atlantic and Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Politico.
  • Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP): Esri is working with SCCWRP on a variety of collaborative projects including the development of a desktop tool for the assessment of hydromodification via geomorphic landscape analysis. This assessment is focused on changes to stream runoff and sediment supply as a result of land use modifications. Also in the works are the design and development of decision-support tools for adaptation of coastal wetlands to sea level rise, and 3D visualizations for environmental decision support within estuaries.
  • Global Ecological Land Units (ELUs): GEO/GEOSS has commissioned the USGS to create a new map of global terrestrial ecosystems for a host ecosystem research and management applications, including assessments of climate change impacts to ecosystems, economic and non-economic valuation of ecosystem services, and conservation planning. Under the leadership of Dr. Roger Sayre of the USGS in collaboration with Esri and several agencies and organizations, global terrestrial ecosystems are now characterized in an ecophysiographic stratification comprised of 3,923 terrestrial ecological land units (ELUs), at a base resolution of 250 m. Datasets from the study will be shared in a series of web services as part of the Living Atlas of the World, thereby representing the most current, accurate, comprehensive, and finest-resolution available globally for each of the four inputs: bioclimate, landform, lithology, and land cover.­ This project was officially released at the 2014 ACES Conference (A Community on Ecosystem Services) in December. See the related blog post, technical report, story map, app, and an ArcGIS Online content white paper.
  • To complement the Ecological Land Units, we have now turned to Global Ecological Marine Units (EMUs), and are building a first ever, robust, standardized, data-derived map of global marine ecosystems. It has been commissioned as an official task for the second decade (2016-2025) of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), as part of the GEO Global Ecosystems (GECO) initiative. An initial advisory group includes scientists from the USGS, Duke University, GRID-Arendal, the Marine Conservation Institute, NatureServe, and NOAA. The environmental stratification approach will involve creating an empty, volumetric column-based mesh as a global, spatial reference standard and analytical framework, populating the spatial framework with relevant marine physical environment data including water column variables and seafloor geomorphological features, and clustering the abiotic data into ecologically meaningful, 3D regions represented as volumetric polygons. The EMUs will subsequently be analyzed against species distribution data to assess strength of relationship between distinct abiotic environments and species biogeography. Initial results were presented at the Global Marine Protected Areas Summit and the Esri Ocean GIS Forum, both in November. See video 1 and video 2, as well as this 2017 News feature in the journal Nature.
  • UCSB Space and Time Knowledge Organization (STKO) Lab: Esri and the STKO Lab of Professor Krzysztof Janowicz and his students are pursuing joint research projects of mutual benefit and interest in the areas of Linked Data, semantic search, data-mining-based metadata enrichment, and geo-ontology. This includes experimenting with the ArcGIS ingestion of ontologies and Linked Data for data queries and the associated issues of user experience (UX), semantic search, automatic interpretation, web analytics, and more.
  • The University of Bamberg in Germany has been partnering with Esri on a project focusing on GeoGames and Playful Design, as a medium for education in spatial thinking, for problem-solving in spatial design. The Bamberg team has studied and developed location-based games for different educational scenarios (e.g. river ecology, cultural heritage), and continues to develop prototypes of games and design tools based on ArcGIS technology. See the latest developments at
  • Indicator-based Interactive Decision Support and Information Exchange Platform for Smart Cities Planning (INDICATE): Our Zurich R&D Center is partnering with IES (a leader in architecture, engineering, and construction or AEC simulation tools), Dublin Trinity College (providing numerical simulations), DHP Consulting (spatial planning experts), and D‘Appolonia (a large Italian AEC and connsulting firm) on this project. The goal is to create an interactive, instant Design-Validate-Feedback loop for urban planning, taking into account energy performance, livability. The project will also share best practices and their impacts using a neutral indicator framework to enable other to assess the effect of measures on their context.
  • SAFECITI: The Esri Zurich R&D Center is partnering with Next Limit (3D Rendering), Golaem (Crowd Simulation), and the Spanish National Police in creating a virtual-reality training and simulation environment for organisations with security mandates using procedural content and crowd simulation. The aim is to develop a simulation platform that will help analysts predict crowd behavior under certain threats in order to help the police develop better safety plans.
  • Open Water Data Initiative: Esri is partnering with U-Texas-Austin, Kisters, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Consortium of Universities for Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUASHI), and others in this project seeking to bring together water information for the whole Earth, at all spatial scales (global, regional, local), linking both geospatial and temporal information, and linking data with modeling.
  • KIC-T: The Esri Zurich R&D Center is partnering with ETH Zurich, IBM Research, and Birmingham City University on using real-time data and simulation for urban planning for climate-change resilient cities. This involves extending the Esri GeoEvent Processor to provide streams of 3D events to the ArcGIS Web3D platform, and in researching and implementing new visualization methods for these real-time streams.
  • Integration of Python Spatial Analysis Library (PySAL) for Geospatial Analysis and Computation: Esri has been collaborating with Professors Serge Rei, Luc Anselin, and their students at the GeoDa Center for Geospatial Analysis and Computation, Arizona State University, on a deeper integration of PySAL into the Esri ArcGIS platform. PySal is an open-source suite of spatial analytical tools (e.g., spatial autocorrelation, spatial econometrics, computational geometry including Voronoi diagramming, and clustering analysis) programmed in the Python scripting language, thus allowing researchers to incorporate these analyses into their own application development environments. Using PySAL in ArcGIS.
  • Adaptive Composite Map Projections: In 2015 Esri completed a collaboration with Professor Bernard Jenny and his lab at Oregon State University on integrating into the ArcGIS platform a composite adaptive map projection, which seamlessly morphs map space as the user changes map scale or the geographic region displayed. The composite projection adapts the map’s geometry to scale, to the map’s height-to-width ratio, and the central latitude of the displayed area by replacing projections and adjusting their parameters. The result is a scale-aware, adaptive projection, free of the constraint of having to deal with multiple zones or multiple sets of graticules, and ultimately free of the pitfalls of WEB MERCATOR!
  • and many more.

There are many natural science domains in which GIS is being used effectively to understand how the Earth works.

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Other Initiatives
Open Source, Open Data, Standards, and Interoperability: Leveraging open source code and solutions with Esri technology is something that the scientific community is very much interested in. However, many in the science community are still surprised to hear that Esri produces free, open-source products such as Geoportal Server and the ArcGIS Editor for Open StreetMap or maintains a significant presence on GitHub. Esri is also committed to building and supporting an open and interoperable platform that in turn supports many relevant standards, including those from ISO TC 211 and OGC. In any platform strategy, being open and interoperable actually makes very good business sense. In the Esri space, a successful platform is not only open and interoperable, but standards compliant as well. See also these excellent summaries and blog posts:

Federal Government (aka National Government) Science and its GeoNet Community

Spatial Analysis including Spatial Statistics: Several collections of tools in ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap include scores of new functions for space-time pattern analysis and mining (including space-time cube visualization and analysis of changes in temporal trends at a location), raster segmentation and processing, working with 3D and LAS (LiDAR) datasets, pairwise feature processing, suitability modeling, cost distance analysis, data review, and workflow management. For the latest from our Spatial Statistics team, see the Spatial Statistics Resources Blog, frequently updated.

Imagery: ArcGIS provides a comprehensive platform for working with imagery and making your imagery useful, including advanced image management and processing, and robust analysis tools. As example see how the NASA Langley Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC) Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) is improving the accessibility and use of Earth science data with this platform ( and webinar video). And for over 9000 universities across the world this imagery platform and a wealth of imagery data are already freely available under their campus site licenses. See and some pretty amazing explorations of Landsat at

Big Data: Researchers today need to deal with an avalanche of data—from environmental sensor networks (both on land and at sea), social media feeds, LiDAR, and outputs from global- and regional-scale atmospheric circulation and general climate models and simulations. Because of this, “big data” has emerged as a major research theme for the academic community. In 2013, Esri developers released the GIS Tools for Hadoop Project on GitHub. The project contains an open source framework and API that enables big data developers to author custom spatial applications for Hadoop. The GIS Tools project also enables the ArcGIS platform to leverage big data on Hadoop using tools that combine custom Hadoop applications with the ArcGIS Geoprocessing environment. The project supports processing of simple vector data (points, lines, polygons) and basic analysis operations, e.g. relationship analysis on that data, running in a Hadoop distributed processing environment. See also this overview.

Basemaps: Many in the scientific community are interested in and participate in our Community Maps Program. This is in the spirit of crowdsourcing of authoritative content from the community, that Esri then hosts free in the cloud and for which contributors retain ownership and are acknowledged. In terms of GIS analysis directly within the web browser, the geo-analytics web services that Esri offers for hydrologic science are the most advanced thus far.

Story Maps: Story maps allow scientists to make their data and analyses more accessible to their colleagues as well as to policy-makers and citizens (example). Think of the power of telling a 30-second elevator speech about your research to a funder or policy-maker as a story map! Templates and tutorials are available at Related resources: An Ocean of Story Maps | Speaking the “Language” of Spatial Analysis via Story Maps.

The Ocean: In 2012 Esri launched an Ocean GIS initiative across the entire Esri organization to enhance our capabilities to support GIS in both coastal and open ocean applications. As mentioned before in Esri Insider, Esri is particularly focused on a greater engagement with the ocean science community, as complex ocean science questions and data are increasingly used to inform the responsible use and governance of the oceans, as well as effective management and conservation. To support a better overall understanding of our oceans, Esri aims to improve and expand its products, tools, services, partnerships, and connections with the broader ocean community. The origin of the initiative as a whole is summarized in the 2nd edition of the e-book, The Ocean GIS Initiative: Esri’s Commitment to Understanding our Oceans, available here:

Across the entire Esri organization we now have an Ocean GIS initiative, including a comprehensive strategic plan and an oceans/maritime resource center.  We’re also working with a growing list of terrific partners.

A major element of the Ocean GIS initiative is the release of ArcGIS for Maritime, which can help ocean scientists to document, manage, merge, and share bathymetric data much more efficiently. Another major effort that continues is the Esri Ocean Basemap which now includes over 2100 high-quality, authoritative bathymetric datasets as contributed by the global ocean community. And on November 7-8, 2012, Esri held a historic, one-time-only Oceans Summit. This was a high-level, strategic workshop for ocean scientists and resource managers, with an eye toward helping Esri to move forward in its approaches to software, associated data formats, tools, workflows, and computing platforms, where the oceans are concerned (and with important implications for hydrology, conservation biology, terrestrial ecology, land geology and geophysics, agricultural science, forestry, sustainability science, and of course, atmospheric, and climate science).

Day one of the Oceans Summit identified barriers to the use of GIS in ocean science and management, along with associated functional requirements and additional implications for atmospheric and climate science. Day two focused on removal of barriers, bridging of gaps via technical solutions in multidimensional and sensor data formats, and in tools, workflows, computing platforms, and issues of accuracy and uncertainty. The Summit has paved the way for our annual open, all-comers Esri Ocean GIS Forum, held in November at our headquarters in Redlands, CA.

In terms of ocean business drivers and business partnerships, our current focus is in hydrography, offshore energy, ports, defense, commercial fisheries, ocean science, and ocean regulatory/policy administration (national, regional, and local). Along these lines, we are developing a strategy to provide a wide range of ocean content, leveraging the business needs/solutions process to define the specific content needs of these sectors. Esri ocean content is currently focused on foundational data (e.g., bathymetry/bathymetric elevation services, support for a polar basemap projection, charting services), as well as support of our public (e.g., NOAA) and private partners in making their data available as free or premium content in ArcGIS Online. Over time, we wish to move into geoenrichment and other analytic services.
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Staying Connected
There are several ways to keep abreast of science developments at Esri:

  • Follow several of the Esri Open Online communities. These contains blog, Twitter streams, discussion forums, videos, case studies, maps, apps, data, and documentation, all of which contain significant content for the science community. Many of these resources are pre-selected to help users in a particular domain complete their work, without having to search through large volumes of content to find what best applies to that domain.
  • Bookmark the Analytics Case Studies site to view various modes of analysis from exploration to decision-making as demonstrated by example, where processes are shown, results are interpreted, data and models can be downloaded.
  • Get involved in a GeoNet community. This is a different kind of resource center where YOU can provide content as the user and have an opportunity to interact directly with Esri staff or other users, including technical “how-to” questions. This gives us at Esri an opportunity not only to listen TO you, but to ask YOU questions as well. See also this helpful video on Getting Your Questions Answered Quickly on GeoNet.
  • Bookmark the ArcGIS Pro web site, which has significant content for the science community, particularly with regard to geoprocessing and spatial analysis across many science domains.
  • If you enjoy Twitter, follow Esri Chief Scientist Dawn Wright via @deepseadawn, where she makes science and ocean-related postings daily, or the @gisandscience Twitter account.
  • Follow the GIS and Science blog of Matt Artz, to see the fascinating array of journal articles, books, and scholarly events where GIS technology is being used to advance scientific understanding.
  • Attend the Esri International User Conference, where there are always high-quality paper sessions and map galleries focused on a wide array of scientific themes (including the annual GIScience Research or Frontiers in GIScience sessions and the new Science Symposium). In addition, there are Special Interest Group (SIG) meetings, and science-related demo theaters (e.g., demo theaters by the wizards in our Applications Prototype Lab are always a treat for scientists).
  • Attend upcoming Esri specialist meetings with science themes (e.g., the Geodesign Summit, Geodesign Summit Europe, the Health GIS Conference, the Ocean GIS Forum, etc.). Consider the Esri Developer Summit as well. Information on all Esri events is available at
  • Esri staffers also do great science themselves, and you are welcome to visit our online Zotero library showcasing our publications.

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Dawn Wright

About Dawn Wright

Dawn Wright joined Esri as Chief Scientist in October 2011 and is responsible for strengthening the scientific foundation for Esri software and services, while representing Esri to the national and international scientific community. She is also professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University and has participated in several initiatives around the world over the past 20 years to map, analyze, and preserve ocean terrains and ecosystems. Follow her on Twitter @deepseadawn.
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