Unless you’re that proverbial dark-side-of-a-rock dweller, you’ve certainly heard all about the wildfires that ravaged through Southern California. I was in the thick of the plumes, and while my own humble abode was nestled safely within the heavily concrete grids of Google’s LA Street View, I can testify that for one scary week my hometown looked like a real-life backdrop of Kurt Russel’s latest. Only in Hollywood, I suppose.

Anyhow, there’s a real cool NPR All Things Considered story on how a small San Diego public radio news outlet – KPBS — belied their modest staff and resources and became the go-to media outlet on up-to-the-minute coverage of the raging wildfires, directly relaying critical information to a public literally running from the advancing flames. Even as the fires knocked out their broadcasting towers, the KPBS staff kept marching on, using Google My Maps to create a “virtual map of Southern California speckled with symbols showing — down to the block – what had burned, where to find shelter, what roads were closed.”

And true to the blogging / social media ethos, the map “was persistently updated and became authoritative. Even the state fire agency’s Web site linked to KPBS.” Furthermore, KPBS supplemented the graphic updates with up-to-the-minute Twitter updates.

Over at Google, the KPBS traffic spike sparked initial fears of a malicious DoS attack. Google My Maps project manager Jess Lee relays the team’s response, upon learning of the source:

“When we realized where all the traffic was coming from, we got in touch with the folks at KPBS. They gave us their list of feature requests and we scrambled to implement the things that could be done quickly. We added caching and more machines so that the maps would load faster and more reliably, increased the number of items that could be displayed on the map at a single time, and changed the info windows to display “Last updated X min ago” so people would know if the information was recent or not.”

You can read the rest of Jess Lee’s personal account of the efforts in her blog. Quite an engaging “inside look” into the day-to-fiery-day routines of a Google project manager. The official pageview count of the KBPS map totaled 1.2 million hits; but as Jess Lee points out, the impromptu feature add-ons broke the page count several times, resulting in a grossly undercounted total.

The point being, in a moment of fire, a small broadcasting outfit was able to disseminate more information, more public good, to more people in need, contributing more than all the fancy major media outlets with their puffed up teams of journalists, their cavalry of helicopters, and their army of IT personnel.

More than just a feel-good, little-train-that-could allegorical sign-of-the-times, I like this story for the following less-obvious reasons:

*** I was classmates with Jess Lee in college; some members of the paparazzi would even call us friends. Now that she’s an NPR quoted business magnate, that makes me a proud, vicariously-inclined hanger-on-er with really low standards. If you work out the mathematics, this increases my social status up two-fold.

*** “Genuine Branding” by way of Product Perfection:
If you haven’t read Jess’ blog yet, read it. It’s telling that a major department of a 700 gazillion dollar company would drop everything they’re doing to cater to the needs of a regional public radio news outlet. But of course, it’s more than a one way relationship. One cool added feature that caught my attention was the real-time “last updated X minutes ago” function. It’s one of those “DUH” features that seem obvious in hindsight. But if you really think about it, it’s not quite as intuitive when building an application to graph things like “Mike’s favorite bike trails”.

By working directly with the KPBS folks, the Google Maps team collect engineering details that rose above the flames, pun intended. And by impressing the users with an intuitive feature like real-time updates, Google Maps gains a passive but persuasive reputation as a useful, thoughtful, relevant, fully-baked application.

*** Google Maps is hardly a niche product. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t even know a person in your peer group or younger that doesn’t use Google maps. Non Google Map users under 30 are like unicorns: the stuff of antiquated myths.

But what about the older demographic? What about your parents? Uncles, aunts, grandparents? You know, the type of person who might own a house on a parched San Diegan hillside. The type to flip through their trusty Thomas Maps Guides… the ’99 edition, that is. To them, intuitive online usability is less of a concern than proven routine. No matter how useful an interactive, multi-layered, geographical work of art Google maps might be in the abstract, it don’t mean shit to the person whose fingers are programmed to flip through the spiral-bound Thomas Guides. In short, a product’s usefulness is not always in proportion to its user adoption.


Except, of course, when the flames are licking your local fire station. In certain extreme situations, the usability and real-time interactivity of a product like Google Maps can shine. And all it takes is for a “connector” like KPBS to tip off a trend so explosive, even the traffic weary engineers of Google are startled. I can almost guarantee you that a solid chunk of those were new users who consciously left behind the stack of Thomas Guides just before their house burned down.

Which brings us full circle to Jess’ famous quote in the NPR piece:

“If you give people the tools and the technology to do this, they’ll do it.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a little wildfire to up the ante.

*** Now here’s where I make the overextended connection to the music biz. The progress of consumer targeted technology and it’s corresponding user-adoption jumps along in fits and spurts. Meanwhile, CD sales is clearly deteriorating, and it might take a couple mini-cataclysmic events to fire up the tech/adoption innovation.

Clearly, an industry in declining flux is a prime environment for such mini-cataclysms. Major labels are increasingly turning to “360 degree” contracts to sign up new talent, nickel-and-diming their own artists while decreasing their ROI. The music industry’s neighbors in Hollywood are locking out their writers over online monetization — regularly scheduled programming be damned.

The conditions are ripening for a perfect firestorm. And when the old growth burns, the circle of music will reemerge — harder, faster, better, stronger. (end of dramatic, overblown, Kanye-sponsored metaphor)

*** The overall conclusion here is this: whether it’s a wildfire in Malibu or a rap music video glorifying the pleasantries of a lazy Sunday, the most dramatic leaps in user-adoption are oftentimes the unintended result of *gasp* a good product. Now, I’m not naive enough to dismiss the power of good ‘ol marketing, but the Google Maps / KBPS wildfire story has the power to melt even the crusty heart of the thirstiest capitalist … such as yours truly.

Now excuse me as I spam the fuck out of this post’s URL.

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Comments ( 1 Comment )

I’m honored to be mentioned in one of your posts : )

I’m a big believer in the power of user-generated content. Give people the right tools and the right publishing platform, and they’ll create amazing things. It democratizes the market, levels the playing field. You don’t have to be hyped up by a record label’s marketing machine to be famous, you can just release some videos on YouTube a la Esmee Denters. It’s definitely happening for music via things like MySpace and YouTube. I’m excited to see it happen for mapping too. It used to be only scholars, priests, governments, and big corporations that made maps, but now anybody can create their own My Map on any damn topic they like.

Jess Lee added these pithy words on Nov 29 07 at 3:17 am

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