Jack Dangermond: the Man Behind the Google of Digital Mapping

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Digital mapping pioneer Jack Dangermond at ESRI headquarters in Redlands, California. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Almost 50 years ago in the town of Redlands, east of Los Angeles, former landscaper Jack Dangermond launched a tech company that would eventually grow into a multibillion-dollar leader in the field of digital mapping.

“Geography basically, in a digital form,” says Dangermond, seated at a long table in a conference room at Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) headquarters in Redlands.

Dangermond still comes to the office every day, despite landing on Forbes' list of the richest billionaires in tech, an achievement that actually makes him cringe.

Dangermond says much of what he earns goes right back into the company. He and his wife Laura launched ESRI 46 years ago in a small Redlands storefront after graduating from Harvard.

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“We lived like church mice,” says Dangermond.

Laura Dangermond still comes to work every day, too. An ESRI employee says she still signs every paycheck and sits in on every employee interview she can.

And that’s a lot of interviews. ESRI employs over 3,000 people across the globe, though most are still based at the sprawling, pastoral ESRI campus in Redlands.

It’s also where Dangermond launched his career in business, at the nursery and landscaping business his Dutch immigrant father operated for many years.

“My father came from Holland, and he married a second-generation Dutch lady here. He was a gardener and she was a maid. So they started a nursery,” says Dangermond.

He says growing up around a nursery "was learning how to grow things, how to sell things.”

The Redlands nursery once operated by Jack Dangermond's parents.
The Redlands nursery once operated by Jack Dangermond's parents. (ESRI )

“It gave me a foundation for what do today but at a much broader scale.”

ESRI has since grown into a billion-dollar powerhouse -- it's kind of like to digital mapping what Google is to search engines.

The company boasts a worldwide customer base that includes federal government and law enforcement agencies, large retailers and tech companies.

Dangermond draws a direct correlation between the gritty experience of nursery and landscaping work and the gradual evolution to landscape architecture and eventually digital geographical mapping.

“Some people first hear 'geodesign' and think it’s a thing for artsy people," Dangermond says with a laugh. “No, farmers do geodesign. They bring in geographic science and they lay out the design for what they're going to grow. It’s problem-solving in a spatial domain."

This is not the kind of mapping that you have on your phone that keeps you from getting lost.

GIS essentially mashes up dense layers of geographical and other data to create computer-friendly interactive maps that work like digital guides or forecasting tools.

Screen grab from an ESRI mapping software program.
Screen grab from an ESRI mapping software program. (ESRI)

“Think of it like overlaying plastic maps digitally. When you overlay plastic maps you might just have a mess, looks like spaghetti or something,” says Dangermond. “But we digitize these data sets, overlay them and then computationally look at the relationships and the patterns between the different layers.”

This kind of GIS mapping can help cities around the globe determine where to locate schools, based on population density and other factors. It can help farmers figure out where to plant crops so they get the best yields.

“Soils and slopes and climate and water availability, I might weight these different factors and say grow a certain crop here,” explains Dangermond. “And it will make a map for me that will show the best place to grow it and the worst ways to grow it.”

The same software that ESRI charges farmers, businesses and government agencies thousands of dollars for, the company donates to public schools and nonprofits.

“I think over 5,000 nonprofits around the world,” says Dangermond. “Some big ones are like the Nature Conservancy. Small ones are some watershed organizations.”

Earlier this year Dangermond donated about $11 million to the Audubon Society to, among other things, help it forecast the effect of climate change on several hundred bird species over the next century.

Screen grab from ESRI digital mapping software program.
Screen grab from ESRI digital mapping software program. (ESRI )

And last year ESRI pledged $1 billion worth of mapping software to public schools as part of President Obama’s Connected program.

There’s now a push to get ESRI software into the hands of public health agencies in vulnerable parts of the world.

“Like Ivory Coast and Myanmar so they can track diseases,” says Dangermond, who recently visited World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to observe ESRI software in action.

“And I went into their control room where they have been working for the last 12 months on Ebola, watching the spread and emergence of this crippling disease," he says. “They are mapping the patterns and the changes that are occurring daily in the Ebola spread."

The mapping, says Dangermond, has essentially helped corral Ebola into a box.

Geographically speaking,” he says. “By locating where the hospitals should go, setting up quarantine areas and other resources using maps and geography as a framework.”

If there’s one thing that surfaces throughout my conversation with Jack Dangermond, it’s an expectation he has.

It’s a hope that the mapping software he pioneered amid the orange groves of a quaint little Southern California town will somehow help create a better world.

“We sort of blindly expect it to work out, and right now it’s not working out so well,” says Dangermond.

“I read the [news] this morning. Every page is filled with bad news: climate change, crimes, drought. What our customers do is, they are using these sorts of tools to try to create a better place.”