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Tag Archives: News

Getting a Web perspective

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I don’t watch a lot of TV news these days, largely because I often find the news a little quicker online.  Just like watching the news on TV, though, it can sometimes be tough when following news to judge the scale of events, especially those of a tragic nature. I find that the often obvious TV film script is usually more concerned on the fate of individuals, because there’s no easy way to convey a disaster of any scale in simple TV terms.

The Web isn’t constrained by the terms of television, however. I’ve recently become aware of a fascinating project being undertaken by the BBC, called Dimensions. Dimensions is, in its own words, an experiment in “in trying to find new ways to communicate history.”. Specifically, what Dimensions does is use global map data — if you can name it you can find it — and then superimpose the effects of a given historical event over that area, to give the reader a genuine sense of the scale of an event.

There’s some fun stuff in there — like being able to see how long the Space Shuttle runway would be if it was located in the middle of Melbourne (howbigreally.com/dimension/space/shuttle_runway#Melbourne) or what would happen if you dropped St Peter’s Basilica in the middle of Canberra (howbigreally.com/dimension/festivals_and_specticles/pope_st_paul#canberra).

What really grabbed my attention were the disaster superimpositions. It’s all too easy to forget about a crisis when it’s a thirty second news spot and the camera only focuses on a couple of people. But drop it into your neighbourhood, and you get a proper sense of the scale, and almost inevitably start thinking about the consequences. The recent floods in Pakistan might seem quite far away, but if you dropped them, on say, Adelaide (howbigreally.com/dimension/environmental_disasters/pakistan_floods#adelaide), the scope of the disaster shifts from distant to breathtakingly close.

Or take the Pacific Garbage Patch. This was one I didn’t know anything about, and the short version is this; there’s two large swirling patches of garbage floating either side of Hawaii, held in place by ocean currents. When you think of Hawaii, you probably think of dusky island maidens and delicately lit beaches, rather than fetid stinking pools of swirling plastic and muck. But hey, it’s only a little garbage in a big ocean, right?

Well, not so small. If you superimpose it over, say, Alice Springs (howbigreally.com/dimension/environmental_disasters/great_pacific_garbage_patch#Alice_Springs) you’ll get a better idea of the scope of the problem — especially as that’s only half of it!


Keep your brain in gear when using GPS

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I’ve tested a lot of GPS units over the years — probably more than any other Australian tech journalist. That’s why a recent ABC story regarding a family of four that got trapped after following their GPS unit’s instructions (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-08-02/family-rescued-after-gps-blunder/928058) made my brain spin a bit. The family got bogged after driving down a closed road that the GPS indicated was the correct route. According to the ABC report, the driver ignored road closure signs to do so, and as a result got bogged in thick mud. Four days later, emergency services were able to tow them out.

While I’ve got sympathy for the family in that spending four days trapped with kids in a car can’t be much fun, that sympathy only goes so far. Yes, the GPS unit may have indicated that the closed road was the way to drive. It’s entirely possible the driver wasn’t familiar with the roads in question. I’ve certainly used GPS in places where I’ve had no road familiarity at all in the past, and will do so in the future. The majority of the problem, however, isn’t in the GPS. It’s in the person behind the wheel ignoring road signs and road rules.

Does that seem harsh? I don’t think so. A GPS is just a big electronic map. It’s not yet feasible to update maps on an absolutely dynamic level. In this case that would involve the local authorities noting on a database somewhere that the road in question was closed due to dangerous conditions, and that data being sent to every nearby GPS system. Currently GPS systems are limited by the data that was present when the maps were drawn up. In that context it’s exactly as smart as a paper map would have been. GPS systems can be smarter, though, as they’re capable of re-routing if you go the “wrong” way. I’ve certainly had a share of GPS units that have given wacky directions. Perhaps the most memorable was when driving back from Adelaide to Sydney, and having a GPS insist that the fastest possible route was via a small country town in Victoria. When I say small, though, that might be a bit of an understatement. I understand Melbourne’s quite bustling these days.

That was daft instruction, and the GPS system’s fault. I read the road signs, realised it was wrong and adjusted my driving accordingly. The GPS spent a very short while thinking I was driving the wrong way before adjusting its outlook and sending me on the right way. If I’m reviewing a unit I’ll certainly note its errors, as they should improve over time, but the correct thing to do isn’t to ignore road signs, road rules or common sense, in exactly the same way that you shouldn’t do when driving without a GPS. Most GPS systems can have maps updated on a regular basis, and many now come with multi-year map subscriptions. GPS systems can and do go wrong, but they don’t drive the car for you. The driver does. They’re an aid to driving, and a very pleasant one that I’d say still gets it right more often than having a badly folded map illegally wrapped around your legs while you try to navigate and drive could ever do.


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