I have spent the bulk of my working life demonstrating the "art of the possible" to public safety and human service organizations seeking greater efficiency, collaboration, or resilience from spatial technology. My professional story began somewhere along I-81 between my hometown of Danville, PA, and Birmingham, Alabama, home of my Dad's brother. After floating hundreds of possible careers past me, my chemistry-professor-uncle finally threw out something that stuck in the mind of this carefree college graduate. "Evidently," he said, "the fields of geography and computer science are being combined to create a new field of study called Geographic Information Systems." It was 1992 and I was going back to school!
From Birmingham I went to the University of South Carolina and joined a class of geography students that have been my friends and professional colleagues ever since. My very first career opportunity was to assist rural South Carolina counties with their 911 conversions, so that GIS maps could be used to improve service delivery at the county and state levels. Having spent 5 years working with local governments on behalf of the state, I learned early and often how important it was to spend time "in the trenches" and understand how things really worked, since trust and teamwork were the best way to sustain our technical innovations.
Along came the Internet boom of 1999-2000 and a chance to start something new working for the United Way of South Carolina. I was tasked with translating their vision for community building into a dynamic, web enabled reporting capability that combined statistical information from many different sources. It was during this project called "SCAN21" that I discovered the power of a good metaphor to reduce complexity and make technology less threatening. Instead of referring to data in terms of layers which required GIS expertise, we borrowed the shopping cart metaphor from e-commerce to simplify information discovery. Most importantly, this context made it easier ask better questions and zero in on community goals.
A few years later as the United Way project was wrapping up, I was offered the position of solution engineer with Esri, a leading GIS software company. While at Esri I was challenged to apply my creative energy to projects that supported crime analysis, homeland security exercises, event planning and operations, information sharing, and case management logistics. It was exciting to contribute to nationally recognized projects such as Virginia's VIPER program and to partner with innovatively minded public safety agencies. I regularly draw upon the patterns we discovered while immersed in a wide variety of missions. Looking back over nearly 10 years, almost all of these efforts were tackled with a 2 stage approach: 1) Simplify the problem and 2) Put the solution in context.
As a technologist with a penchant for problem solving, I am more convinced than ever that progress happens when complexity is reduced. This principle has helped me reach for what is better, and avoid those things that are merely new, a particularly difficult task when surrounded by the gadgets of a complex modern life. I have recently been inspired by a universally recognized metaphor of human progress. In 1969 NASA put the first humans on the moon. According to former Apollo 11 flight director Eugene Krantz, NASA Engineers tasked with creating the Lunar Lander were confronted with serious design constraints of raw weight, essential functions, & crew safety. Krantz artfully encapsulated the design aesthetic that helped them navigate recurring and difficult technological choices. "Our approach," he said, "was that simple = reliable." One area where this played out was in the propulsion system. They designed the lander to have only one forward speed. It was on, or it was off. The Apollo 11 program was and still is a marvel of human ambition and technology, but it was successful because of a commitment to simplicity.