Editorial: Geospatial and New Media

By Adena Schutzberg

In the past few weeks there seems to have been a surge in geospatial use of "new media." New media is all that is new in communicating messages, everything that's not a phone or a newspaper or a magazine or a video tape.Instead, it's the Web and podcasts and blogs and the like.

A few weeks ago I noticed a rash of geospatial podcasts.Several are interviews by Iowa-based GIS practitioner Howard Butler.He's begun interviewing some of the "minds" of GIS (himself, James Fee) and the open source community (Frank Warmerdam, Tyler Mitchell).O'Reilly and Associates make available podcasts of speakers from its Where 2.0 conference, including presentations by Tim O'Reilly, Stephen Lawlor of Microsoft, David Rumsey and Michael Fruman of Eyebeam (Fundrace).Alan A.Lew, Professor and Department Chair Department of Geography, Planning and Recreation at Northern Arizona University hosts a series of "Geography for Travelers Travel and Tourism" podcasts.(He lists a few others here.) PhD students Jesse and Sue, offer a weekly newsy 30 minute "Very Spatial Podcast." Read an interview with them here.

Google is using streaming video to get the word out about its work. Google Earth was demoed during its Factory Tour.That demo is part of a video now available.Microsoft followed up with a Virtual Earth video via its Channel 9. ESRI is offering online video via its ESRI Developer Network (EDN).(Back in 1992, ESRI's ArcCAD team created a video cassette discussing the product.We gave it away at trade shows.) I praised Laser-Scan earlier this year for hosting a live webcast of its user conference presentations, the first sighting of this type of "new media" commitment.

ESRI and MapInfo are offering press releases in an RSS feed. Interestingly, the content of those press releases is changing, too. Note how many hyperlinks are included in this ESRI release, many of which do not pertain directly to the product in question.

I was frankly surprised to see a press release recently from GITA noting that it would host an "online convention and exposition" later this year.Seven speakers will speak and vendors will offer information about their wares.The event will be free and run from October to the end of the year.

Is the Geospatial Community Ready for New Media?
All of this is cool and interesting.The question is, are these new formats appropriate for the types of communications their purveyors intend? Do ESRI developers want to watch online videos? Do the offerings noted above include content of interest? Will potential and existing GIS users visit GITA's online convention, instead of, or in addition to, buying plane tickets to next year's event? Are more people/press outlets going to tap into MapInfo's press releases because of the RSS feed?

As a staffer at a "new media" company, I hope so.Still, it's hard to get people out of old habits.While online readership of newspapers is up, many diehards still read the print edition.Others opt for a freebie print publication, like Boston's Metro (majority owned by the Boston Globe, which is in turn owned by the New York Times), supplemented with Web reading.In early 2004 when I queried readers of another e-mail newsletter about their interest in RSS, just under 20% knew what RSS was.Today at Directions we get e-mail when a feed (we have several) goes "down."

I for one am a big fan of RSS.And, once you "get the hang of it" it's easy to work with and simply provides another way of filtering information that comes at you electronically.Podcasts, though very hip are simply saved digital audio programs.While I enjoy them on other topics, I'm not used to listening to people speak on geospatial topics without slides or demos or something.This is such a graphic technology, it's hard to imagine being able to "get it" without an image.That said, if the content is an interview, it's another story, especially if the interviewer is skillful.

Streaming video works for me.ESRI's live training seminars are well produced, clear, and in many cases, just like being in the classroom.To date I don't recall seeing any online training that's as compelling, but then I've not sought out such presentations either.

I am still skeptical of online seminars.I've "attended" many hosted by vendors and even spoke at one.Most are simply papers or marketing presentations that might have been given live, but are instead done online.Most have a series of PowerPoint slides, a lame poll (Where are attendees from? How many people are watching with you?) and a demo.The demo is sometimes live and sometimes just a pre-recorded "movie" of a demo.These online seminars have room for improvement.The speaker gets little or no feedback or energy from the audience resulting in a droning presentation.PowerPoint slides which are only slightly dull in a dimly lit room are far worse on screen when one can check e-mail or IM with colleagues at the same time.Demos to a group also can fall flat, mostly due to lack of audience feedback.

Online conferences can be simply a series of PowerPoint enhanced seminars packaged as a group.In addition, there are vendor booths (= websites) one can browse.What is the advantage over simply visiting the company's website? I'm not sure.That said, the one online tradeshow I attended that stuck with me was one where there was online chat at the booths.All of us in the booth at the same time, three of four when I visited, could ask questions of the vendor and "see" the answers.While chat in and of itself is just part of a truly interactive experience, I have to give the Bentley rep credit, as he did an excellent job explaining technical details "writing" in "real time."

I have a few pieces of advice for anyone looking to use new media in communicating about geospatial topics.
  1. New media is not old media.Just because the print version of the New York Times has pages and columns does not mean that the online version must.Just because sessions at formal conferences run for an hour, those online need not.This is the "wild west" - there are few (if any) rules.
  2. Remember that geospatial technology is inherently graphic.A podcast voice describing patterns on a map will most definitely be less effective than sharing that map.Now, how you share the map, is up to you.There is no rule that says you must click through 30 slides in 30 minutes (see #1).Instead consider providing all the graphics in a PDF so listeners can look at them before, during or after a presentation.
  3. Marketing is still marketing, even if it's wrapped in new media clothing.Taking the same old marketing presentation and putting it on the Web is unlikely to produce better results than the live effort.Consider how to best use the new medium to make the presentation interactive and more compelling.
  4. Provide methods for feedback.New media is all about interactivity.Make it easy to provide feedback via forms or e-mail, even via voice.And, users of new media, let vendors and publishers know what works and what does not.
In short, we are still in the early days of the new media.Don't look back, look ahead.

Published Friday, October 14th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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