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Appreciating the Power of ‘Where’

This Christmas I’m on a mission to help my Mom (Ed. Mum), a businesswoman managing the family’s corporate logistics business, learn how to use and appreciate the value of a map - more specifically the Philippine government’s geoportal.

My family runs a corporate logistics business in Manila. For over a decade, banks, IT companies and several other MNCs have trusted us to ship, relocate and transport their servers, mainframe computers, ATMs and various other semiconductor equipments safely to their intended destination in the Philippines.

So if you happen to be in Boracay island and see an ATM right next to you, there’s a very high possibility that our crew put it there.

For a business engaged in logistics, updated maps of cities and provinces are not only crucial for operations but even more so for business continuity. While they do have them in the office, they’ve been depending on the same worn out sheets of provincial road maps for almost 10 years. This adds little value in their decision making and planning for their future directions.

End-users like my Mom (Ed. Mum) have this aversion to anything that is considered “too high-tech”. In fact, last Christmas, I noticed her preference for using her old dumb phone over her iPhone. She complained about how complicated the interface looked and insisted that all she needed were the basic call and SMS functions and nothing more. However, after teaching her the wonders of Instagram, the iTunes appstore and instant messaging apps like BBM, Whatsapp, Viber and Facetime, she slowly but surely adapted to new and easier way of doing things that matter to her and her job.

The same thing happened when I told her to access the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ geohazard map. I was trying to convince her to move the company’s warehouse facility somewhere that isn’t vulnerable to floods or potential storm surges from future Super Typhoons akin to Haiyan.

Since the current warehouse is located right next to a creek and about ten minutes away from the coastal area, it is imperative that they move the whole warehouse - and perhaps the whole office - to higher ground given the increasing incidences of flooding around the neighbouring areas.

She encountered difficulty navigating around the geohazard portal, telling me she couldn’t understand what a base layer meant or how she was supposed to see the areas around our city that are vulnerable to floods.

I often write about the benefits of GIS and the value users can derive from leveraging geoportals and other similar initiatives. However, sometimes I find myself wondering why these efforts are underappreciated. Is it a question of marketing? Is it the platform? The language?

Companies like Google have helped liberalise geospatial information. Google Maps is so pervasive that citizens use it more than their own national mapping authority’s geospatial information. They rely on it for their day-to-day decision making so that they can avoid traffic and choose the best route to take to get to their destination at the shortest possible time.

Having this kind of information is empowering, and it gets even better and more powerful when you have very detailed and authoritative geospatial information about things that not only matter to you, but also for your family, your business and your community.

Since its not in Google’s commercial interest to release authoritative information on what areas are classified as “unfit for dwelling” and are prone to natural hazards such as floods, landslides and earthquakes, this gives governments the opportunity to provide citizens like my Mom (Ed. Mum) crucial information to help her save her business.

Having the means and the power to understand the physical and cultural patterns of where you live is critically important. As governments move towards openness by releasing various data sets to facilitate innovation, it is important to consider how public information is translated and communicated to citizens, especially at the grassroots level.

With that said, how can governments or mapping organisations provide a good and meaningful user experience to citizens accessing their geoportals? How can they encourage more citizens to use their existing applications? How can they make it more inclusive?

In 2014, I will continue to be focused on sharing the perspectives and best practices of how governments are making location information matter to citizens. I can’t wait!


On 18 December 2013 Aubza wrote:

Great article indeed; the geospatial community can do more to sell this wonderful technology and its benefits to society. We need to simplify the language. That's my 2014 resolution as well.

On 18 December 2013 Adena Schutzberg wrote:

I sympathize with you and your mother. You make a good point that citizens are adept at using the Google Maps interface. Some governments use that interface with their own authoritative data to make tools more familiar and accessible. That's one solution.

Another possible solution is for Web map developers to study best practices when it comes to user interfaces. It's not something that widely taught, best I can tell. I used to cover it in my graduate course: https://www….>

On 19 December 2013 Clarice Africa wrote:

Many thanks for your comments!

@Aubza - At present, we are blessed with cutting edge tools and platforms to help us confidently arrive at well-informed solutions to various challenges. We can make it more pervasive in the entire organisation (or even in the whole city/country) by simplifying the language used. I wish you well for your 2014 resolutions!

@Adena - Nice to hear from you! Thank you for sharing! I like the idea of sharing best practices on user interfaces! This is definitely something I look forward to covering in 2014. If you have any benchmark model feel free to suggest! thanks again!

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