The Dead Man’s Switch

By Adena Schutzberg

The Dead Man's Switch There's a large piece of equipment in my neighbor's driveway this week. It's a lift truck - a truck with a boom and a bucket for a worker to stand in while attending to construction or painting high in the air. It's there to support work on my house, up at the very top of the pointy roof.

When the truck was delivered this week, I got the 10 minute training experience.Most of the discussion had to do with the many safety features.The actual operation, I'm told by the operator, is "just like a toy backhoe." I was most impressed with the "dead man's switch." It's a foot pedal in the bucket.If there's no foot in it, the machine will not operate - drive on its four wheels or move the bucket up and down.(Interestingly, to start the motor, you take your foot out.) The idea is that should you become incapacitated and fall down, the machine will stop, not keep doing what ever joy stick command was last given.Being a bit wary of any sort of machine, I found that idea sort of comforting.

As I was pondering the abuse of maps (I just read yet another review of How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier, the latest edition of which came out in 1996) I wonder why we (the geospatial community) don't have a dead man's switch, something to protect the "incapacitated" or novice user from getting into too much trouble with maps.I realize it's not exactly the same thing, but such a theoretical switch might protect both the creator of the map (like the operator of the machine) and those using the map (those near the machine).

On further thought, and after looking at recent news, maybe we do, at least to some degree.Check out this very tragic story about a mother who died when riding on the back of her son's bicycle. The two were hit by a car in Middletown, New York.The son was injured. There's a map, a very simple one, locating where the accident occurred. It's interactive; you can scroll around and zoom in.It was no doubt a simple process to add the map.I say that since three of the eight local stories on the paper's homepage included links to the main article plus a link to a map as well.The Times Herald-Record (serving the New York's Hudson Valley and Catskills, in the title bar of the website - thank you!), which ran the story and map, is one of the smaller papers at the cutting edge of online journalism.

This use of online map services is a safe way to introduce mapping to places where it might not have been welcomed in the past due to complexity, accuracy concerns and other biases.Why? Mostly because all the user is doing is overlaying some simple data, in this case point data, on an already created, nicely-rendered, relatively up-to-date (or better said, up-to-date enough) base map.The "only" thing that can go wrong is that the point is mis-located.In the case of a local paper, the location is most likely input by someone who knows the area, perhaps one who even visited the scene, and reviewed by someone else who also knows the area, making such an error unlikely.

There's a safety for the reader of that article too.The locator map is far larger than the photo accompanying the story, which shows emergency personnel on the scene.That implies something we in geospatial take for granted...that location matters.I'll suggest that is even more important, if that's possible, in reporting local news.Further, the map is clear, uncluttered, and, dare I suggest, familiar looking.It has a "standard look" about it.That's safe, comforting, and confidence-boosting for the reader.The only map that might be better, in terms of reader confidence, is perhaps a National Geographic (NG) map with the location marked.Considering the nature and scale of most NG offerings, it might prove an inappropriate choice for locating this event.

Whether the confidence in the creators of these maps or the users of them is warranted is up for debate.I suggest that this confidence, the safety factor, the dead man's switch, is one more factor in the widespread use of the Web mapping services across industries and geographies.

Published Saturday, August 20th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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