Governor Jim Geringer is Director of Policy at the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which focuses on educating business and government on using geospatial technology for place based decisions. His career has involved a myriad of responsibilities, ranging from the Governor of Wyoming, to his current role where he helps decisionmakers tap into the diverse applications of GIS. Governor Geringer sat down with the Science and Technology Innovation Program to discuss his perspective on the future of this field, the first part of which appears below.
Governor Geringer, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. To begin, you’re bringing multiple perspectives to bear when you comment on GIS, social media, and related issues: you’ve been both in the private sector and government. From your role as Governor of Wyoming, what types of information were you looking for in a crisis and how do these new data flows fit?
Preparation is an important key: you can make sure the maps are in a standardized format that you know what and who you can rely on. But, assuming a crisis has already happened, we know the Internet is going to be up and running, as it stayed up in Haiti. People on Twitter can offer you situational awareness, like getting a phone call from someone on the scene. In the best of circumstances it can be like what FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate described when using Twitter after the San Bruno gas explosion: he found out more from using social media than any other resource.
What’s stopping more comprehensive incorporation of these tools?
There needs to be a way to evaluate all the information coming in. The problem isn’t a lack of data, it’s too much: what do you take seriously? How do you vet the information? I would say that anyone who is an incident commander on the ground needs to develop a plan and have infrastructure prepared to deal with these challenges: who will you call and what can they do depending on your needs? We’re past the point where total on-the-scene control is possible anymore: there will be people on Twitter and Facebook commenting whether you like it or not.
You made a comment during the Liability and Reliability panel discussion. I’m paraphrasing, but the thrust was that as much as it’s good to be aware of the potential legal liabilities, the responsibility of people in government is to figure out how to say yes, not reasons to say no. For a decision-maker who’s intrigued about these technical solutions and wanting to know how to get to “yes”, what would you recommend?
A great place to start can be learning about some of the wonderful work that many volunteer technology communities (VTCs) are spearheading. Ushahidi is doing remarkable work in Liberia; GISCorps has been one of the few organizations to continue to call attention to Haiti even after it dropped out of headlines. Focus on those that can produce high quality work and also feature professional messaging. Again, you’re going to be dealing with comments from all sides, so you have to partner with people prepared for criticism as well. We can’t limit ourselves by fixating on what can go wrong. Protecting yourself from liability is important, but it’s your responsibility to help, so figure out how you can do it.
From the flipside, how do you think people with the technical tools can better approach decision-makers to communicate their value?
The most common mistake I see is selling the technical tool and not understanding the problems the decision-maker is faced with. When you take the time to understand them and what they’re faced with, your approach can improve. You’re not walking into a meeting expecting them to buy a $2 million satellite. Instead, it becomes, here’s one specific problem you have, and here’s how we can offer a solution through technology. Meet them where they are, not where you are. When they see how what you’re offering can help, you can build the relationship.
Contributor Zachary Bastian
Zachary Bastian is a third year student at George Washington University Law School. Before joining the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, he worked in the United States Senate studying policy and supporting the work of personal and subcommittee offices. His interests include intellectual property, disaster mitigation and recovery, and leveraging technology to support better government.