How do I do the thing?

A lot of questions and doubt flooded my mind when I accepted my current position two years ago. Coding was something that scared me despite incorporating it into various aspects of my life since I was young. Plus, it has always been one of those arenas that have scared off many geospatial professionals because of the learning curve associated with it. But, why?

Is it the code we inherit? The fear of not living up to a predecessor? The fear of failing? All of the above?

It doesn’t matter if you have never touched code or if you code daily; there is the constant fear of being able to “do the thing” and exceed the expectations handed to you. Nothing is impossible but we have deadlines to meet and sometimes despite what management, a user, or a stakeholder ‘needs’ there isn’t an easy fix. So how do you keep the happy medium between what you can, and are capable of, and what is needed?

good-idea-thing

  1. Take a breath, you got this! 🙂
  1. Use your resources: Use fellow colleagues (in the office and/or social media), StackOverflow, and library documentation (e.g. ArcGIS for Developers, jQuery API, Leaflet API, Mapbox API, etc.)
    1. Be ready to think outside the box. Just because someone says something isn’t possible, doesn’t make it true. There is always a way. You might have to really state your case, especially if you are going against the grain, but start by thinking in new, innovative ways.

bird-thug

      1. Determine your time frame: If there is something you know will have a greater return on investment or is needed, try to incorporate it but communicate all of your concerns or potential roadblocks with your stakeholders before proceeding.
      1. Next, break down the problem as much as you can. From my previous post #5: Break down e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g):

Coding is awesome in that we can fix small pieces to make an entire application better. For example, if our problem is that we need to buy more milk, let’s break it down:

Q1: How much milk do we need? A1: We need a gallon of milk.
Q2: How much money do we need to buy a gallon of milk? A2: We need, at most, $3.00 on either a credit card or in cash.
Q3: How do we purchase the gallon of milk? A3: We will walk to the convenience store down the street.
Q4: What if the convenience store doesn’t have a gallon of milk to purchase? A4: We can walk an additional five blocks to a larger convenience store.

Some of these questions could be broken down even further (ie: What kind of milk?) but you get the point. Breakdown each problem into individual components, for both your sanity and your code’s sake. To get going on this respect, start by writing out some of the processes you plan to take. Eventually it’ll become second nature. Trust me on this one.

  1. Set many small, realistic milestones based on these steps and determine what you need in order to accomplish them. It is important to set three or four small milestones instead of one large one to help you achieve your goals.
  1. Reward yourself when you hit those milestones by treating yourself (video).
  1. Lastly, but most importantly, don’t dwell on the milestones you don’t meet. We’re human – we need breaks (vacations, sick time and lunches) and some things simply aren’t feasible in the time frame we’ve been given. Keep note of these moments for the future but don’t let them overtake your thoughts.
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Warnings

Meteorology has always intrigued me; living in a metropolitan area covering 6,365 square miles and 3,615,902 residents (Census 2010) making it the 13th most populous metropolitan area in the United States makes weather prediction very difficult across the viewing area. It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized how difficult such a prediction could be. There are many days throughout the year where the northwestern Twin Cities metro region will receive large amounts of precipitation and the southern cities wouldn’t see a cloud in the sky. Meteorology, in particular severe weather, has always fascinated me and I have always been interested in the formation of severe weather and tornadoes.

Development of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area from 1966-2006. Map published by Metropolitan Council.

I recently read meteorologist, Mike Smith’s books titled, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Time the Weather (2010) and When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community (2012). Both of Smith’s books discuss the evolution in warning the public of weather warnings in the last fifty years to today. If you haven’t already, read both of Smith’s books – you will not be disappointed.

        

One of the reoccurring themes in both of Smith’s books is the Forecaster’s Lament from an anonymous writer (113):

“And now among the fading embers;
These in the main are my regrets,
When I am right no one remembers;
When I am wrong no one forgets.”

It is very much true in Minnesota where weather is dynamic and can change in the matter of hours. Minnesotans have coined the phrase, “if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes and it will change.”  Often time’s meteorologists take the blame for the dynamic weather seen across the Midwest. There are times when I see the variations across the metropolitan region where I wish I could send a direct response to the local meteorologists to show my support of them because they are accurate more than the public gives them credit for and they have saved many lives throughout their careers.

The top three things I took away from Smith’s books were:

1. Time;
2. Communication; and
3. Innovation.

Time

Smith mentions the time it took to perfect the warning system in the United States. “It was only nine years after President Kennedy had committed America to putting a man on the moon that Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps. It took double that amount of time to get a network of Doppler radars running in the United States” (187).

We cannot expect overnight results, no matter the urgency. Some things take time despite their needs today.

Communication

Things have certainly changed in the last 100 years. Tornadoes continue to strike as they always have destroying homes and towns along the way but deaths and injuries are on the decline. Why? The National Weather Service technologies, including NOAA weather radios, as well as broadcast meteorologists have been able to warn residents of danger hours and in some cases prepare days in advance.

For instance, as Smith writes, “The Greensburg (May 4, 2007) and Udall (May 25, 1955) tornadoes were as identical as two tornadoes could possibly be. Both occurred in the same state – Kansas – so there is similarity in the building codes governing the two towns. Both occurred well after dark. The two tornadoes approached from the south, rather than the much more common southwest. And because of the southern approach, the tornadoes themselves were obscured by rain and hail…In both cases, 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed, and the other 5 percent were damaged. Both tornadoes were F5 intensity…The two supercells [from radar] are virtually identical. In the Udall (1955) tornado, eighty-two people were killed and 260 were injured. The casualty rate in the town was 68 percent. In Greensburg (2007), with triple the population, nine people were killed and fifty-nine were injured. The casualty rate in Greensburg was less than one-fourteenth that of Udall’s” (275-6). “Two hundred thirty-two lives saved in a single evening. Meteorology has come a long way since my dad came running into the house shouting ‘Here it comes!’” (279).

There is, unfortunately, the Joplin tragedy. Due to many factors, warnings were not provided in either a timely or accurate fashion to the city of Joplin. There were “too many tornado warnings with no tornado. Too many siren activations. People learn from experience. Sometimes they learn the wrong thing. The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained not to act when the sirens sounded” (14). “[The National Weather Service] were behind the curve. But May 22, 2011, was an extraordinarily busy day. For example, a fatal tornado, EF-2 in intensity, struck Minneapolis two and a half hours before the Joplin tornado…Forecasters were behind events and confused about the location of the threat. Their warnings included incorrect locations of the tornado; incorrect directions of movement, focusing on Galena when the threat had shifted to Joplin; and incorrect threat emphasis, with discussions of golf-ball and then baseball-size hail as the tornado was about to move into and through Joplin. These issues only served to confuse what should have been an urgent and straightforward message: Take cover Joplin” (42-3).

AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions (AES) predicted tornado path at 5:16pm compared to the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted tornado path as the tornado entered Joplin. Image source: Mike Smith Enterprise Blog (http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com)

This is why, to this day, even as technologies have altered the way we can predict the weather – we still need to remember to deliver clear, concise reports to residents. One message delivered a minute earlier could save a life.

Innovation

Both time and communication are key but one of the most important takeaways from Smith’s books is innovation. As Smith writes, “Good  science does not have to take billions of dollars. It requires dedication, outside-the-box thinking, and a willingness to go where the data and experimental results might take you” (284).

I believe this is not only true for science but in everything we do every day. We should never go “through the motions” but rather learn something new every day and apply our knowledge elsewhere in our lives.

Relationships

One of the best things any person can accomplish in his or her life comes back to one word: relationships.

This past week I attended the ESRI User Conference and Homeland Security Summit in San Diego, California. This was my fifth time in attendance and by far the best experience I have had. Why? For the first time I was able to connect with fellow EM/GIS professionals and GIS professionals from my home state of Minnesota. I was also very fortunate to connect with someone who inspired me to start a blog – this blog.

Which brings me back to relationships. Relationships – professional and personal, even in today’s technology-driven age, are one the most important components in our lives. If it was not for relationships I would not have a state championship, I would not have the job I hold today, nor would I be an assistant hockey coach. All of the things that define me and that I love would not be part of my life if it were not for relationships.

With technology, we can now form electronic relationships via e-mail or social media. It is the understanding between you and those you communicate with. It does not matter how you communicate but that you do so. We do not need to be in same jurisdiction, county, state, or even country to maintain our relationships. If anything technology should allow us to maintain even healthier relationships.