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February 2006
X Marks the Spot... and a Lot More!
By Ellison Clary

How does the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Services Agency, better known as Medic, decide which unit will answer an emergency call? Medic uses computer mapping to locate each vehicle. It monitors speed limits and traffic flow. Considering the variables, the system selects the crew that can respond the fastest and feeds it the quickest route.

That system employs GIS, the acronym for Geographic Information Systems. GIS can represent in digital map from literally any data on earth. The GIS component of Medic’s system comes from ESRI.

“I just love this job,” says Christian Carlson, whose Charlotte office of ESRI provided the GIS technology for that Medic system. Durham native Carlson, 35, is southeastern regional manager for ESRI.

“I’ve worked with a ton of different customers,” says the gregarious Carlson. “It’s an absolute joy. We go into people’s offices and learn what they do. Then we apply our technology and help them make their business more efficient.”

Carlson’s company supplies tailored GIS systems to government agencies and private companies in more than 30 different industries, including real estate, finance, insurance, utilities, environmental management, engineering, transportation, landscape architecture and a host of others. It serves clients across the United States and in more than 100 countries worldwide.

ESRI is a privately held firm that Jack and Laura Dangermond founded in Redlands, California, with $1,100 in 1969. They still own it. Sales for fiscal 2004 were $560 million.

With about 36 percent of the GIS software market, ESRI is among the largest firms in its sector that also includes Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., and MapInfo in Troy, N.Y.

 From offices in southeast Charlotte, Carlson presides over ESRI business in six southeastern states as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Bermuda.

How does GIS work? Carlson explains: “GIS references data through a map,” he says, “but instead of looking at a street that has a label that says Providence Road, you can click on that street and find out the speed limit, the type of road it is and the last time it was maintained.

“You can extend it further,” he smiles. “You can create a 50-foot buffer on the side of this road and find the value of the property within it. For a street-widening project, we can determine the cost to acquire that buffer section of each piece  

 of property.”

   Carlson adds an oral

exclamation point: “It’s only limited by the data you use and by your imagination.”

Think you haven’t used GIS? If you’ve checked your property value online with the Mecklenburg County Property Ownership Land Records Information System (POLARIS), you have. It’s an ESRI system.

Kurt Olmsted, GIS administrator for Mecklenburg County, says his office has worked with ESRI’s Charlotte unit since the mid-’90s. He praises the system that shows by address most any detail about a piece of property, including a picture of any structure on it. It’s used millions of times each year.

The county also employs ESRI software for tasks as diverse as mapping mosquito infestations or showing the proximity of library card holders to library branches.


The Big Picture

The ESRI southeast office handles a surprising range of projects – from high-profile to the occasional unusual request.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Frances’ 2004 assault on the Palm Beach area of south Florida, some of Carlson’s crew provided GIS damage assessment tools for various governmental agencies.

“We developed an application to use on a hand-held device,” Carlson says. “It is designed to integrate with FEMA damage assessment forms. It streamlined the assessment activity.”

By contrast, in the upscale community of nearby Manalapan, Fla., Carlson worked with a wealthy couple whose hobby was their own botanical garden, large enough to employ 30 people.

“I remember sitting in their breakfast nook with their dogs running by me,” Carlson laughs. “They bought our technology. They used it to map their property and develop a watering schedule for their tropical and subtropical plants.”

Another offbeat project was the charting of tarpon (large silvery game fish) migration patterns at Boca Grande Pass near Fort Myers, Fla., something of interest to both environmental groups as well as fishermen.

Then there’s the map of North Carolina showing the demographics of people most likely to watch the cartoon television series “King of the Hill.” This came about after North Carolina Governor Mike Easley revealed that he instructs his pollsters to separate the state’s voters into those who watch “King of the Hill” and those who don’t so that he can find out whether his arguments on social and economic issues are making sense to the sitcom’s fans. One variable is how many also enjoy NASCAR races.

A more traditional project is the economic development application Carlson’s office supplied Georgia Power Company. It pinpoints commercial warehouses throughout Georgia by location, and also by square footage, floor thickness and ceiling height, among other variables.

The price tag for GIS applications runs $1,500 to $10,000 for common desk-top systems. Elaborate applications can cost much more.


Putting Charlotte on the Map

Carlson’s enthusiasm for GIS and ESRI’s application of it comes naturally. At the University of Colorado, he earned dual bachelor’s degrees in Geography and Economics. “I liked looking at politics, the environment, science, biology and economics,” he says. “Geography pulls all those things together to understand them in a holistic way. Fortunately, I’ve been able to apply those degrees in my career.”

After his 1992 graduation, Carlson signed on with the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. As a GIS technician, he collected global positioning data on the Tar Heel coast, entering it into a computer system to produce maps.

“I became drawn to the broader applications of the technology,” he says, “ESRI basically pioneered the GIS industry. I was aware of them and admired the company. So I pursued ESRI.”

Carlson started in the ESRI Charlotte office in 1995 as an inside sales person. Then he moved to outside sales and commuted between Charlotte and various points in Florida, his area of responsibility. He got the Southeast Region manager position in 2000 and now reports directly to founder Jack Dangermond.

Of the 2,100 ESRI employees system-wide, more than 1,500 are based in the Redlands headquarters. Of the company’s 11 regional offices, Charlotte ranks second in size to Washington, D.C., with 56 associates. That’s up from 19 when Carlson started with ESRI in 1995. The Charlotte office will account for nearly $47 million in revenue for 2005, almost doubling the $25 million it did in 2000.

Client numbers have increased, too, Carlson says. While continuing to develop new clients, a significant portion of ESRI’s growth is through existing customers. That’s because ESRI tends to grow laterally inside a client’s operations, as the client sees more and more applications for GIS software.

Customers of ESRI in the Southeast are split about 60 percent governmental and 40 percent private or public enterprise. Carlson is reluctant to list private firm clients because most have negotiated nondisclosure clauses. He does allow that the non-governmental sector is growing dramatically.

To nurse that trend, Carlson has tweaked his organization. Traditionally, the office operated along geographic boundaries of states. Recently, Carlson formed small teams, including one that works with local and state governments, another that sniffs out commercial prospects, one for utilities and yet another for healthcare. Organizing by industry allows ESRI to understand the business needs of each market and provide solutions that match the customer’s business requirements.

In five years, Carlson hopes to double Charlotte region revenues and add 30 percent more staffers. But he cautions that he seeks only “sustainable” growth.

“My goal is to continue to run a great business and serve our customers well,” he says. “If we do that, we’ll grow and our customers will be happy. Growth in revenue is a byproduct of doing everything else right.”

Carlson wants to get better connected to the region’s business community. Increasingly, ESRI is helping customers implement solutions at their work sites, he says, and that is feeding commercial growth, which he hopes to nurture.

To that end, Carlson seeks a certain profile when hiring. He looks for applicants strong in both GIS and information technology. “We also want people who are interested in what other people are doing,” he adds. “We want to be in worthwhile projects, in things that can be successful. The last thing I want is to do a great sales job on somebody and not be able to deliver.”


How to Explain

The hardest part of his job, Carlson thinks, is explaining how GIS works and what it can do for an organization. “Our technology is a bit different and, if you haven’t been exposed to it, it’s a little hard to understand the first time around,” he admits.

“We say, ‘Let’s talk about your business and find out what your problem areas are,’” he says. “It’s about learning what someone does and proposing a solution that is relevant to them.”

The Charlotte office includes a team tasked with building custom applications for clients. There’s also a training staff to help customers get the most out of what they buy. A customer service group makes sure the products continue to work right.

Carlson leads a visitor to a conference room where Kevin Yount, a technical sales representative, is poised to demonstrate a basic GIS product geared to the greater Charlotte area. Yount programs a computer screen to show the region’s outlets for a brand of fast food. He picks a specific location and finds demographic information for residents within a 1-mile, 3-mile and 5-mile radius.

Switching gears, Yount finds every area branch of a large bank. He shows a set of demographics for those living near a specific office. He can even show the distance between each bank office and each fast food place.

“This is a core piece of technology,” Yount explains. “You could buy this and install it on your machine. Then you can integrate it with your own customer system and make it Web-based.”

Todd Willems, a sales representative on the commercial team, displays an ESRI demographic analysis that splits the entire U.S. population into 66 socio-economic profiles. With names such as “Up-and-Coming Families,” “Metro Renters” and “Rooted Rural,” they delineate the characteristics of people in each category. It helps those looking to locate a business to find the optimal spot, near their most likely clientele.

How long does it take to develop a product like this?

Willems has two answers. The short one is that it doesn’t require as much time as you might imagine. A team of 400 ESRI workers in California is constantly inputting new information and developing new software. “On the other hand,” Willems says, “it has taken since 1969.”

Carlson is quick to point out: “These types of spatial data are already a part of many companies’ data assets. Using a GIS can unlock this spatial data and give the vision and analysis needed to save time and money – and to make better decisions. The value of this technology is so great that companies in the twenty-first century who ignore the unexplored potential of their existing databases will be left behind.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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