At Web 2.0 Expo, had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with disaster geeks Jesse Robbins and Allegra Searle-LeBel. Jesse gave a great rapid talk on his experiences organizing relief for Hurricane Katrina and the applications to the web and technology, Failures, Disasters, & Resilient Design.
One point in his talk that really jumped out for me was about a bridge. US Route 90 travels over a bridge from Waveland, Mississippi to Pass Christian, Mississippi. Jesse established relief operations in Waveland. The entire area was absolutely devestated by Katrina, and that bridge was destroyed in the storm. However the Red Cross was directing people to travel over that bridge. When Jesse tried to let them know they were sending people to a bridge which no longer existed, they said “but it’s here in Google Maps!”. Even when he succeeded in convincing one person at the Red Cross that the bridge was gone, there was an entire organization, minus one, that wasn’t getting the message.
This is the most basic type of situational awareness that distributed, cooperative mapping can bring to disaster situations. Simply letting everyone know that a bridge doesn’t exist is not without technical challenges in a disaster zone, but we’re also talking about an organizational and social problem. The Global Connection Project which processed NOAA imagery post-Katrina, for Google Earth, is growing into something more substantial to address this.
Looking at Google Maps in Waveland today, the bridge is still there. Yes there was a recent flare up about the satellite imagery reverting to pre-Katrina .. but here we’re talking about the road data. This is vastly simpler to update, all it takes is someone at a computer about 1 minute to remove that bridge.
It’s not just Google, but every major web mapping provider that’s out of date. Here’s Yahoo giving directions over the bridge. The issue is with the data providers, Navteq and TeleAltas, whose business processes insert huge delays between reality and its representation catching up. Yes, there are efforts right now to rebuild the physical bridge, but that doesn’t excuse a huge obvious mistake from persisting for over 1.5 years.
This model of collecting and distributing mapping data is fundamentally broken. Basic geo-information about this world is too important and changing too fast to be in the hands of closed off corporations. Of course, there is another way, where the loop between users of data and contributors of data is closed (in an open way), and where the time data was collected and updated is transparent.