The Tool Maker

Jack Dangermond built a tech colossus, and a fortune, from GIS. Now he’s sharing it all to save the world.

By Jonathan Lerner 

Photo by Spencer Lowell/Trunk Archive.

Jack Dangermond wears oversized tortoise-shell glasses. At 72, his hairline has receded halfway back on his head. For work, he dresses casually—open collar, v-neck sweater. His manner is gracious and energetic, but calm and notably confident. He tends to speak as if in final draft, which he credits to years of dictating correspondence. He is tall and rangy, but it’s quite possible that when he arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 1967 to earn an MLA he would have been taken for a geek. His ulterior motive in going there, after all, was “to start playing with computer mapping”—when computer mapping barely existed.

The school’s pioneering Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis had been founded two years earlier by the architecture professor Howard Fisher.

Dangermond says that on meeting Fisher, “He immediately hired me. Within an hour. Which was the luckiest thing that ever happened in my life.” Harvard was one hot spot of the era’s radical activism. “The Vietnam War was going on,” he says, “revolution in the air, protestors shutting down the university, creating all kinds of controversy. This big aha! moment came for my wife Laura and myself, who were both working there in the basement of Memorial Hall. We had a job making computer maps, doing air pollution studies and land-use suitability studies. The realization was, ‘We don’t want to go right or left; we just want to go forward with this idea of rational thinking and computerized, systems-based analysis.’ We simply said, ‘Let’s just double down and make that our life work.’ It’s funny when something like that comes into your mind—that you really would like to do something serious with your life—just one afternoon, sitting around.”

A map’s-eye view of an Esri staffer, who gazes through a digitizing puck. Digitizing transfers data from an analog map to a digital product. Image courtesy of Esri.

Dangermond never pursued conventional landscape architecture practice. In 1969, after Jack graduated, he and Laura returned to their hometown of Redlands, California, east of Los Angeles, and founded the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) to explore “anything to do with mapmaking and computers.” (Laura has served as the company’s executive vice president ever since; she has a B.S. in social science.) At first they “eked out a little existence” with consulting subcontracts from landscape architects and engineers. Eventually people started asking to buy the software they were building. In 1982 they released ArcInfo, the first commercial geographic information systems program. (An arc, on a map, is a shape defined by connecting x, y coordinate pairs; counterintuitively, an arc may be curved or straight. The term has been incorporated into the names of Esri products ever since.) “We actually sold four copies the first year, which was just amazing to me,” Dangermond says. Esri soon transformed itself from a provider of contract mapping services to a developer of mapping products, including the extensive ArcGIS family of programs. Those have become all but essential for work in land-use planning, but also in fields as wide ranging as epidemiology, interior space planning, and package delivery. The products are powerful. And expensive—except to the schools and nonprofits that get them at deep discounts or for free.

By the end of 2016, Esri had 3,800 employees in 41 locations around the world, and the Dangermonds’ personal net worth was $3.4 billion. They still live in Redlands, which is closer and perhaps more akin to the Sonoran Desert than it is to Tinseltown. Both Redlands and Esri’s headquarters there are attractive, but the glam factor is minimal. The campus is a complex of clean-lined low-rises designed around gardens, courtyards, and atriums, all designed with Dangermond’s hands-on involvement. It’s a shady, verdant microenvironment in a dusty locale. The extraordinary lifestyle blandishments some tech companies provide employees—lessons in stand-up comedy, soundproofed jam rooms outfitted with drums, amps, and guitars—are not in evidence, nor are too many of the millennials such perks are supposed to attract. The vibe is relaxed, but mature. Kaitlin Yarnall, a cartographer and the deputy director of the Centers of Excellence in Photography, Mapping, and Journalism at the National Geographic Society, has been involved in Esri’s collaborations with National Geographic magazine, and says, “It’s run like a family business. Laura still does the books. They don’t have expense accounts. If you go out to dinner with Jack, it’s awkward—he’ll be like, ‘OK, how do we want to divide this up?’”

Privately, the Dangermonds have taken the Giving Pledge, by which enormously rich people promise to use the bulk of their wealth philanthropically. Esri, the company, also commits significant resources pro bono. Since 2010, it has provided more than 40,000 software licenses to nearly 5,000 nonprofits engaged in conservation, humanitarian, and sustainable-development programs in 134 countries. Most pay only an administrative fee amounting to 2 percent of retail. In conjunction with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, Esri also invested more than $40 million in software, curriculum development, and support for teachers at K–12 schools, and some 4,000 American schools now use ArcGIS Online, a component of the company’s current flagship software package. And recently, at Jack Dangermond’s prompting, and to encourage sustainability planning, Esri has launched a free, open-access, web-based software platform and a trove of mapping data for the United States called the Green Infrastructure Initiative.

Screenshot from Esri’s Green Infrastructure Initiative website shows areas of prime U.S. farmland. Image courtesy of Esri.

An increasingly common understanding of green infrastructure is that it is a set of tactics, deployed at the local level, for things like managing stormwater or mitigating the heat island effect. Esri’s initiative is about green infrastructure as strategy—for larger areas like a county, a watershed, or even, at least conceptually, the entire continent. The idea is to identify and secure the critical remaining large cores of relatively unspoiled landscape. The two senses of green infrastructure aren’t unconnected; both are about ecosystem services. Small, low-tech tactical interventions like planted roofs and rain gardens, inserted into the gray infrastructure of your urban neighborhood, can help prevent it from flooding during rain events. Meanwhile, the naturally occurring systems of an untrammeled mountain valley can supply clean water for your entire city. The places that can support such big natural systems are spatially fragmented and increasingly diminished by population growth and development. It will take strategic thinking at the larger scales to protect, restore, and reconnect them.

That’s the conceptual underpinning of the Green Infrastructure Initiative—the web tool—which is meant to encourage practical efforts in that direction. It provides anyone concerned with sustainability a cost-free and easily accessible way to do mapping and map-based planning. (The nomenclature is awkward. Accurately put, the website with the open-access mapping data and software, in itself, is not an initiative but a tool of the initiative. The web address——could be more intuitive, too.) “Jack realized that habitat loss happens at the local level,” says Hugh Keegan, who led the team that built it. Like Dangermond, Keegan trained as a landscape architect but has spent most of his career developing software at Esri, and currently manages its Applications Prototype Lab. “The place to try and influence is local government, local planning boards, local zoning boards. That’s who the target audience is,” Keegan says. “But GIS is a big fundamental hurdle for many small communities. Most don’t have it.” Neither do most nongovernmental organizations and citizen activists. Now anyone with a web browser can access and use the tool.

The map data, from sources such as the National Land Cover Database, identifies undeveloped areas, or cores, of at least 100 acres and at least 200 meters in width. So you can’t use it for fine-grained analysis, or for planning in urbanized places. But for working at larger scales, it can reveal patterns and systems that green infrastructure planning would protect, such as aquifers and wildlife corridors. The quality and detail of the data, which covers the continental United States, is uneven, depending on its origin. But users can supplement it with more accurate local data they may have. Using the apps that Keegan’s team developed for the site, which are simplified versions of ArcGIS software, you can manipulate the data layers you’ve selected to suit your goals. A particularly useful—and user-friendly—feature is the ability to assign and play around with the relative weight of the various sets of data you’re working with. That can reveal the relationships among them and also the implications of different planning scenarios. You can download the maps you create as PDFs. Also accessible through the website is a “Living Atlas” of maps other people have made and shared. These depict myriad features and conditions in specific regions, such as scenic trails and other cultural assets, topography and soil types, and sea-level-rise projections. The Living Atlas maps serve as examples of how GIS can inform green infrastructure planning, and information from them can be brought into maps you might be making with the initiative’s apps.

The interconnectedness of land, water, habitat, and infrastructure is made visible in Green Infrastructure Initiative maps. Image courtesy of Esri.

That is not to say that it is an especially easy and intuitive platform to work with. It’s no smartphone app. Those without GIS experience will face a learning curve. Nor does it make available for free the full, vast power of the programs Esri sells. Ambitious users will sometimes find themselves at a point where they can’t do what they want without making a software purchase. Right now, as its developers know, it needs refinement—more, and more detailed, data, and better guidance documentation for users—and they’re working on that. Still, over and above providing the software platform itself, there is enormous value in the many layers of national-scale data they have already assembled and rendered consistent and compatible. That’s because locating, acquiring, and matching up different categories of data can be the most time-consuming and expensive aspect of digital mapping. Even after it is enriched, the Green Infrastructure Initiative will not with a few clicks turn people into landscape architects, regional planners, or civil engineers. But it can “create that foundation that can get people going,” Dangermond says. “It’s going to take a million people that get together in their own communities and their own geographies, and stand up—not against the forces of destruction of nature; that’s probably too bold of a way to say it—but there’s got to be a counterforce, particularly at this time, that speaks with the voice of science.”

Because the Green Infrastructure Initiative web tool was only launched last June, is still being publicized, and is open access, it is difficult to know how many nonprofessionals have begun using it, for what, and who they are. However—and curiously, because this was not its express purpose—it is already being taken advantage of by planners, and by landscape architects at least in academic settings. Brian Orland, FASLA, a professor in the College of Environment + Design at the University of Georgia, says, “I want to bring the core concepts of geospatial thinking to students without spending the time of teaching them all the technicalities of a full-bore GIS program.” He finds especially valuable the ability to adjust the relative weight, or importance, of multiple factors, for example. “The information is coarse, but I’m trying to introduce the students to the idea of coarse relationships, and how the whole system works.”

Images from a 1980s Esri brochure. Image courtesy of Esri.

Dangermond has had something like this initiative in mind since Harvard. “In the idealism of the time, I began to think we could develop a database for the entire United States. Where would we locate new urbanization? What areas should be in conservation? People had thought about that concept for a hundred years, using plastic overlay maps. But it wasn’t realizable in any practical way.” There were too many kinds of data to correlate, and no ready way to illustrate the interrelationships for decision makers. Then in 2015, in Salzburg, Austria, he met Arancha Muñoz-Criado, who studied at the GSD a generation after him. She was giving a lecture about her work as the director general of landscape architecture and planning for the autonomous region of Valencia, Spain. Muñoz-Criado had championed a planning approach for the region and its 550 municipalities that, simply put, starts with an inventory of existing unspoiled areas, determines which of those would be most valuable if preserved and bolstered, and then directs growth to the already developed or more environmentally compromised spaces left over. In this approach, even for very localized planning decisions, knowledge about the larger scales is essential. Aquifers, forests, the ranges of species, and the impacts of climate change, for example, don’t conform to geopolitical boundaries. Besides, every species or ecosystem service needs a certain minimum amount of space to survive or function adequately—hence the emphasis on large intact cores.

Muñoz-Criado believes that Valencia was the first place where “the name, concept, and content of green infrastructure was introduced into the urban planning process and made mandatory.” Since then, the European Commission has endorsed green infrastructure planning; Muñoz-Criado herself is now helping define a nationwide policy for Spain. Dangermond brought her into Esri’s Green Infrastructure Initiative project; Keegan calls her “Jack’s muse.” She came with both a designer’s sensibility, not a typical strength of software brainiacs, plus, Keegan says, “a European perspective, which is that there are cultural elements of a community that have been in place for 500 years,” such as trails, viewsheds, and other heritage elements that tie people to their landscapes. These also exist in the comparatively young United States. She says, “Green infrastructure has three functions. One is the ecological function. The second is the framework for growth. And the third is about quality of life and access to nature, preserving those landscapes and corridors not only for animals, but also for people.”

Image from a 1980s Esri brochure. Image courtesy of Esri.

Muñoz-Criado says, “Jack knew that this was the future. He knew that green infrastructure was about transparency, about knowledge, about putting, in one map, everything together—and that it could be done now with the technology he had.” That technology has made Dangermond among the most successful people trained in landscape architecture on earth, measured by earnings and also, arguably, measured by the reach and potential impact of Esri’s products. Kaitlin Yarnall says, “Even though he has a tech company, because he comes from a landscape architecture background, it’s all about the application of the technology. To do something, to fix something. He really, actually believes that GIS, and landscape architecture, and green infrastructure, and smart planning and land use can change the world.”

Dangermond’s origins are rather more modest than such a sweeping vision might suggest. He grew up in Redlands where his Dutch immigrant parents, “a gardener and a maid,” as he describes them, “realized that they needed to get their kids an education, so they started a nursery.” The three sons all studied landscape architecture, enrolling at the nearby college now called California Polytechnic State University. Allen, the oldest, now deceased, quit school early to help run the family business. Pete, the next, who went on to become director of California’s park system and now has a private practice in Sacramento, is widely honored for helping expand parks and support conservancies and environmental causes across the state. Their sister, Marsha MacLean, has been a teacher in Redlands’ public elementary schools for 30 years. Dangermond says, “I learned everything about growing a tech business in a nursery. Because it’s making sure, contextually, that everything’s watered. Nurturing. Making sure things are weeded and fertilized. And then being able to sell. We learned customer service at a very young age. We learned how to figure out what was needed and wanted. It became a natural thing for us to do complex problem solving, which is what a garden and landscape designer does. It was very practical, because we would also have to sell the people on this concept. Sell them the plants. With the workers in the nursery, help them implement these concepts and make it come alive. It’s the DNA of public service that we grew up with.”

Lush plantings in Esri’s Redlands, California, headquarters reflect Dangermond’s background in landscape architecture. Image courtesy of Esri.

The culture inherited from this family business that not only sold things but engaged with customers about how to use them is replicated at Esri. Dangermond says that Esri “is set up fundamentally to support our users.” Once a year, he sends a questionnaire to all of them. “They give me a lot of guidance.” He himself responds in writing to the trends revealed in the feedback. “I spend a month at it, day and night. It’s my way to manage getting customer service in here. It’s a great management tool, but most people are scared to do it.” Hugh Keegan recalls, “The first 500 or 1,000 employees interviewed with both Jack and Laura. That happened up until I had been here 10 or 15 years. Every employee, whether you were interviewing to be a janitor, or whatever. There was no confusion about who you were working for.”

It’s telling that the Dangermonds have stayed in Redlands, once a citrus farming center but long since swallowed into the unfashionable sprawl of San Bernardino County, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Esri is the largest employer in the town, and makes it “much more interesting than the adjacent communities, with a big cadre of international folks,” Keegan says. “We hire smart, well-educated employees who are married to smart, well-educated spouses.” Silicon Valley, “though it’s fun for a lot of people,” says Dangermond, “is fine for young people who are on the get-rich-quick fast track, but it’s not so interesting if you want to have a genuine life.” He also supplies this no-frills explanation: He and Laura were already there, and it was cheap. “We had no money, and to be able to start a company and make it go to our scale we just did very practical things, and we still do.”

In the office suite where Keegan’s lab is housed, just downstairs from Dangermond’s, there is an overhead “dashboard,” an array of monitors showing information such as how many people are currently interacting on the platform and how much information has been uploaded that day. Dangermond likes to step in and savor the numbers. He says, “Open data, open maps—every day between 10,000 and 15,000 new data sets are shared. It’s not Facebook, but yet it’s extraordinary. There are 3.2 million users, creating their maps, matching up their maps, and using other people’s maps.”

Some 350,000 organizations use Esri software. Dangermond suggests that the company’s greatest achievement has been disseminating the concept—even more than the tools—of spatial analysis into so many different fields. But his own grounding and passion remain in the natural world. He notes that the embrace of GIS in landscape architecture has been slower than in some arenas, but that this is changing. “It’s becoming a platform for designing alternatives,” allowing users to “interactively sketch on electronic boards, and quickly assess the impact of ideas.” That provides a way of “understanding the costs of externalities, of bad decisions, as well as the positive side of developing cities that really work.” Considering his possible legacy, Muñoz-Criado asserts that “green infrastructure has to be done at the political level, and I think his dream is to help decision makers and politicians to deliver this concept.” Dangermond, characteristically, assesses himself with modest intensity. “You want me to be inspirational, like I’m a leader. I’m not like that. I’m a very practical guy. But I believe in this deeply, that green infrastructure planning as a methodology can be a huge counterbalance to the continued systematic destruction of nature, and to population footprints that are wiping out so much of what we care about. I’m pretty riled up about that, I suppose.”

Contributing Editor Jonathan Lerner’s memoir of the Weather Underground, Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of a Radical Weatherman, will be published by OR Books in May.

2 thoughts on “The Tool Maker”

  1. This is great… Thanks for sharing. I love GIS and believe the people using it are making a positive difference on the planet.

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