Interview with Bob Kerrey - Former Senator and President of The New School

By Joe Francica

Bob Kerrey, former Senator and now president of The New School, keynoted the ESRI UC this year. Directions Magazine editor-in-chief, Joe Francica, had a brief interview with senator Kerrey to discuss how he sees GIS influencing not only education but political decisions. The New School is working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on a new "geomedia tool" for policitians.

Joe Francica (JF): How do you see the geographic literacy of those students that you see coming in?
Bob Kerrey (BK): Somewhere between mediocre and poor.

JF: Do you believe that most politicians, especially local government or even in Congress, do not have an appreciation that government is a fundamentally geographic business?

BK: I actually think that they do understand that government is a geographic business. But you’ve got to get the language right. One of the things that I’ve noticed, whether it’s with (ArcGIS) Explorer or Google…you show them…by typing in their address and you see where they live. They see things they didn’t before. They get up in the morning and they see where the rivers are. And all of a sudden it all starts to make sense. And if you show a member of Congress their congressional district, a map of their congressional district, they get all excited…You begin to see these things. And even for a politician who may not immediately understand the importance of GIS or geography to make a political decision, they will begin to say that ‘Hell, it’s everything!...Geography is everything’. If you’ve got to get on a plane to cross 500 miles from one end of your state to the other, that’s a lot different in governing than if you are sitting in New York City and you’ve got basically three or four neighborhoods to cover with the same number of people. So, I think that they all understand the importance of geography to allow them to make discoveries that ‘place’ is important…What GIS is doing, very rapidly in my opinion, is changing the way people orient to ‘place.’ It’s a brand new way of governing.

JF: One of the things that concerns me is that we are facing another terrorist attack and there is very little communication between the private sector with highly vulnerable infrastructure assets, like a utility, and government who need to work with them to get them the right kinds of data at the right time.
BK: We’re actually building a tool that we’ll demonstrate, with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the customers are congressmen, and the reason we’re building it…it’s actually a “geomedia tool” that will allow them to go to whatever media outlet that they want to get their news from. It’s based on the observation that you were making.

Kerrey went on to provide an example of the overworked congressman who must depend on aides to decipher bills that are sometimes hundreds of pages long and are then expected to vote on bills with some forethought and understanding of what they are voting for.

BK: They are very dependent on someone else to do the work and the problem is that the size of the 'haystacks' gets bigger and bigger and bigger as we search for these social, economic and political needles. So what GIS offers and the processing power that goes along with it…let’s load the data onto a GIS platform and see how much money is being spent and where it’s being spent. Let the congressman participate instead of having three bleary-eyed staffers read the thing between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. People are going to be threatened by this new kind of transparency and they’ve got to learn to let go, and it’s hard to do…A picture is worth at least a 1000 words.

JF: Thanks very much for your time, senator.

Published Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Written by Joe Francica

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