Being you

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.” -Alan Turing

Life is hard. People can suck, words can hurt and life as we know it can change in an instant as a result.

I don’t mean to get into a deep ‘life meaning’ discussion but I want you to know that you are not alone. I’ve been bullied, I’ve been put down and I’ve even been told that I am nothing. But I want you to know I have persevered; I am still here and I like to think I am a better person for all of life’s hardships.

So why am I telling the world this? Because when life is down it seems nobody is there for you. I want you to know that is not true. If you are reading this, I want you to know I will always be here for you as I hope you will be there for me.

But most importantly, this is normal. If you are different, which I hope you are, there is no doubt that life has been hard. People don’t like “different” and they expect everyone to fit into a box or machine and when we don’t, people can be rude and mean.

Which brings me to the quote at the beginning of this post. If you haven’t already, check out The Imitation Game. The film touches on the life and work of Alan Turing and a team of British cryptanalysts during WWII. Is the movie completely accurate to Turing’s life? It’s a movie, so of course not. But there are some great life lessons to take away from this film and I don’t think you will be disappointed with this one (plus, it’s an amazing story 🙂 ).

Just remember, you are unique and that’s a great thing. Those who do and think differently, as Turing said, do the things no one can imagine.

So give those haters a reason to sit down and shut up. But most importantly; never change who you are because you are beautiful. Now go do the amazing things you were born to do!

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Which tool is the right one?

A tweet from Matt Kremer last month (listed below) sparked something greater with me that I wanted to share with others. Enjoy, and please comment on your own experiences, too!

Almost two years ago I was sitting with a colleague enjoying a cold beer and he mentioned something that has stuck with me ever since, “GIS is a tool, we use it to produce results but if we don’t understand what we need, it’s useless.

So incredibly true! As someone who has worked in many different sectors, I’ve applied GIS technology to many different departments, areas and projects.

Two years later, Matt’s tweet hit home yet again. As a developer – code isn’t the end goal, it’s a tool, like GIS is, to produce something great. Is it always the answer? No. But it could be.

What I’m getting at is – don’t think of the means to solve a problem, think about the end product (but remember that end product can change over time, too). Here’s a list of some of the questions I think to myself before initiating anything in my life:

  1. Why do this?
  2. What is the goal/purpose?
  3. Will I have help? Guidance? If yes, how much?
  4. What is the anticipated timeline?
  5. What do I expect to see when I’m done?

After answering some of these questions, we can better define the means, and which tools best suit our purpose and goals. Will we always use the right tool for the job? Not always but we can try our best to solve the problems that we face to find solutions – and I think that’s a pretty cool thing.

Innovation

The wheel, the printing press, refrigeration, the automobile, the printing press, the light bulb, the computer and the internet. Imagine how different our lives would be today without the list above and if their inventors stopped their efforts before arriving at the inventions we continue to use to this day. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.

In the Emergency Management, GIS and Social Media fields innovation is key – finding tricks of the trade that have been used and manipulating them to find solutions that work and increase production. Yet many in each of these fields get lost in the crowd. Why? As Robert Atkinson once said to his son, “When you don’t have to complete for eyeballs, you don’t have an incentive to be innovative. At a real fundamental level, you don’t have to be innovative.” When pressures don’t surround us, many of us don’t see the need to be innovative.

I can definitely relate to Atkinson’s words. In my high school days I was a goalie for my school’s ice hockey team. We were one of the top teams in the state my junior year and were undefeated headed into the playoffs. I was the only goalie on our team and while I did work hard throughout the season I didn’t have another goalie pushing me and if I got injured there was no one there to back me up – I was it. In the section championship against our rival school we headed to overtime, where you guessed it, we ended up losing the game.

Fast forward one year later to my senior season – we had a good backup goalie join our team, who helped push me to be a better goalie. I was a better goalie with her presence at our practices and on the bench watching our games. She made me skate harder in practice, sweat more and, with the hardships of the previous season, push harder than I ever had since she could replace me at any moment if I made a mistake. In the same game against the same opponent we lost to just a year earlier we were down a goal with a minute left in regulation time. In what seemed like a near-repeat of the previous year, my team came back with an equalizer and scored another goal a few minutes into the overtime session to send us to state where we eventually took home the state title for the first time in our school’s history.

Could I, or anyone of my teammates, given up after our section championship that year? Definitely. Just as Emergency Managers or GIS professionals can continue to do the same monotonous work every day but just doing the work will not give you the same results – it is the innovation and entrepreneurship of an individual and/or team that allows for success. The answers may not appear as you hope they will and while it seems all hope is lost – keep going. The greatest moments in life don’t come easy – hard work, dedication and most importantly, YOU will get you there. Keep pushing and never look back.

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.