Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Do Mapping

My friend Ed is what I like to call an Internet savant. If you want to know something, and you think the Internet may have the information, ask Ed. In fact, even if you don't think the Internet may have it, ask Ed. In June of 2010, there was a small earthquake on the Ontario/Quebec border that could be felt in Ann Arbor. We don't get earthquakes, but I felt something. I looked on the USGS website to see if there was anything there, but it was too soon. So I sent a message to Ed. He knew.

One of Ed's particular talents is gather information from all over the place and compiling it in one place. He's particularly great at maps. During a power outage in central Ann Arbor last year, Ed invited people to let him know if their power was out. He mapped it on Google maps. The result was a very clear visual of where the outage was, where it wasn't, and what might be the cause (it turns out there's a substation right in the middle of it).

Last night, Ed's blog was about the rioting in London. He begins:
There is an instinct, when things go bad, to want to make sense of the situation by putting the fragments of information that you have on a map. Things are going badly around London tonight, and several people are making sense of it the best they can with maps of what is being reported on Twitter as #londonriot.
I thought this was an interesting observation. Why do we want to see maps in a crisis?

I think what Ed is referencing is actually a small piece of a much larger phenomenon. In a crisis, we try desperately to maintain our own sense of safety. There are all kinds of ways we do this, many of which you've heard me talk about before. We convince ourselves that those doing the "badness," as well as its victims, are not like us or are doing things we would not be doing. We place blame for it not being prevented or feel guilt that we allowed it. All of these are predicated on the idea that whatever has gone badly either has nothing to do with us (and hence could not happen to us) or that it was preventable (and hence we or others will prevent it from happening to us).

Ed's observation adds another dimension. We look for maps because we want to understand not just that what and who the event is do not concern us, but that where it is does not concern us either. As Ed points out, mapping helps us "make sense" of an incident. Reading that there is "rioting in London" doesn't actually tell us much. London is a big place with lots of people. Is there rioting all over, or just in a few places? Is it confined to the incident that initially sparked it, or is it spreading? Is it affecting the places I know about in London? How exactly am I supposed to feel about this?

When we look at a map of an incident, the badness goes from being generally "out there" to being very specific in its location. If it's not near us, we feel safe. And if we are there, we can see that it's not everywhere. There is a place where this is not happening. That means that the time is foreseeable when it will not be happening to us. In a crisis, good information, in whatever form, may be all we have to hold onto. That's why it's great to have an Internet savant like Ed on your side.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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