The View from Here

By Adena Schutzberg

I've been writing about geospatial technology on a regular basis since 2000. In the early days, both GIS and my newsletter were very specialized things and search engines were still new. The letters I received (strictly e-mails back then) were 100% on topic and nearly 100% in response to what I'd written in the latest issue. That was most gratifying.

Now, seven years later, at a larger organization with more publications and with more powerful search engines and RSS feeds and ways to get access to information, the letters have changed. The largest percentage of letters is actually comments posted directly by readers. Those comments still address the topics we and our contributors cover week to week via our different offerings. Those we get via e-mail tend to be on other topics. It’s some of those letters I want to share with you, because they tell interesting stories.

Let's start with one from someone who wanted to find, not a map of the Chicago Marathon, but "some kind of data for the route." Now, while the writer (who, I have to point out, shared his last name with a famous marathoner and now coach) could not articulate exactly what sort of data he wanted, the fact that he wanted data versus a map struck me. He wanted the raw data, most likely, I think, because he wanted to do something with it! There's no indication this was a GIS person (such a person would have said, "I need a shapefile…"), but rather a regular person. I feel badly it didn't occur to me to do (or suggest) a KML search. That actually turned up a dataset that would've been a great starting point, even for a non-GIS person.

Some of the letters we get are honestly heartbreaking, but perhaps not in the ways you might think. We received an e-mail titled "Bad Directions" which detailed how the writer apparently used "our" mapping site, recommended by a funeral home, to navigate to a funeral and was late because she got lost. She noted how horrible it was that "we" could offer such error-prone directions "at a time like that." Now, of course, we don't offer driving directions, so clearly, there was some confusion. Still, the idea that this episode could so motivate an individual to write to let off steam (even to an entity not involved) is telling. Expectations are high, and if not met, someone will hear about it.

I truly felt sorry for this individual and wrote back expressing that. I did point out that if, at another time, she felt up to finding the site that had the errors, there was surely a way to report the misinformation. I doubt that'll actually happen. On the other hand, I do feel good that the individual did something to react to the situation, and I feel fairly confident that it made her feel better.

The other letter that's stuck with me over these last months was from an older brother. Apparently his younger brother had created a video game (shooter style) that used his school as a backdrop. Authorities had taken the boy out of school and at the time of letter to us, he was heading to legal proceedings. The writer was turning to us for help finding other situations like this in order to try to keep his brother in school and out of whatever punishment might arise. I spent some time searching the Web but concluded I had no special insight here, and could only wish the writer the best of luck. I also let him know his little brother was lucky to have him around, no matter how things turned out.

I like that the Web, with all its challenges and hiccups and individuals trying to make trouble, still allows these sorts of communications between strangers. I like that it reminds me, and I can remind you, of how maps and applications play out in individuals' lives. If you haven't heard it lately: what you do matters, and it matters in ways you can't possible imagine. I've got the letters to prove it.

Published Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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