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Delivering on Big Thoughts

There are far too few people who are capable of both thinking big thoughts and doing the grunt work necessary to help make those thoughts happen. While I'm sure he would disagree, my friend Jon Udell ( is one of those people.

The rain inNew Hampshire over the last couple of weeks has caused some significant hardship – not on the scale of New Orleans and its environs, but large for a small state unaccustomed to natural disaster. Jon lives in a region hard hit by flooding and mudslides (not far from me as the crow flies, but I live on top of a hill in more gentle terrain, so didn't experience the problems widely reported in the news). At a time when the outcome was uncertain for his own home, Jon went out on his bicycle to take photos of the area, then wrote a rudimentary application on top of Google Maps to relate those photos to geographic location.

Jon noted that a local television station (WMUR out of Manchester, at enabled viewers to send in photos of damage, which it posted on its web site. He decried the inability to search those photos based on postal address or other geographic key, and noted that we were very close to enabling web applications that could do just that.

The activities that Jon calls citizen journalism go far beyond letting people click on Google Maps to find out if their own house or property has suffered damage. One of the big failings of emergency response professionals in the New Orleans disaster was the lack of information that reached decision-makers on the severity of the crisis. The participation of citizens in gathering data that could be available to officials with the click of a mouse button could turn a slow and uncoordinated response into an effective and efficient operation.

In what we call an information society, the one thing we seem to lack is adequate information on which to make intelligent decisions. This is no different than in past eras, except that today we expect to know enough, and are unpleasantly surprised when we are proven wrong. It is only when we can employ data from all of the available resources, including people who are also fighting for their lives and their property, can we have the information we need to deliver the expected results. Jon's attempt to build a useful application out of the limited data he collected was not only a brilliant implementation of a big thought, but it was heroic given the constraints and very real dangers he faced personally.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/22/2005

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