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New Place, New Signs

2012 October 10

By Jeffery Robichaud

Yesterday was the first day in the new office.  My things all arrived.  I have unpacked.  I found the restroom.  For those of you who were left with a cliffhanger based on my last post, this is my view out my new window (which actually looks out on a window which looks out on the windows across our courtyard).

In a meeting yesterday our Regional Administrator told Senior Staff about his trip to Joplin Missouri last week for an event with the City marking the additional funds EPA is providing for sampling and remediation of contaminated soils disturbed by the May 2011 Tornado.  It didn’t show in the directions he generated online, but the RA certainly noticed the lack of street signs as he doubled back a few times before making the correct turns to arrive at the event.  The city is doing a wonderful job rebuilding, but with 2000 signs to replace, the City has had its hands full.

Driving in to our new office yesterday in the dark, to a part of the metropolitan area that I rarely visit, I really had to pay attention to the signs without the benefits of the few landmarks I knew to help guide me.   It got me thinking, is reading street signs starting to become a lost art, just like reading a map?  The proliferation of GPS in cars and phones now give you turn by turn directions.  GoogleMaps or BingMaps will give you a route with turn by turn instructions and even provide you with streetside views of those turns and your destination.  Some GPS units let you even choose the voice (one of the guys here has Darth Vader…he says for his kids but I’m not too sure).

With the explosion of these devices, for those of you with kids, do you think you could hand your own kids a map and have them navigate while you drove?  I know my Dad would hand us the maps while on vacation to help navigate (partly I’m sure as a way to keep my brother and me from fighting).   Are navigation instructions from hand held devices keeping us from making sense of maps and even leading us in the wrong direction? 

My wife and I started watching a new show called Revolution a couple weeks back.  In a nutshell, it is a post-apocalyptic world, if the apocalypse was caused by all electricity ceasing to be.   The characters do quite a bit of walking and one character says to the other, something to the effect, “I’ll meet you at this small town in Indiana in a couple weeks.”  In last week’s episode, while more walking was taking place, the second character pulls out a crinkled paper map to check their progress.  It wasn’t lost on me that this character’s back story was as an executive at Google.  Just another reason to teach your kids how to read a map.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.  He will miss his view of Kaw Point.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Karl Brooks permalink
    October 11, 2012

    Jeff’s blog about the wonders of paper maps got me thinking about how people learn to navigate new spaces. In our new Region 7 EPA building, the move team managers and building managers have posted large maps throughout, showing where each person works and all the common spaces (dining, library, etc). And these do help: I look at them all the time to figure out who my “new neighbors” are, as our configuration of divisons has changed substantially from our previous building.

    But maps are only part of the exploratory process: wandering around, putting together “mental maps”, remains a powerful way of fixing a real landscape into our heads as the working landscape of memory.

    My colleagues see me wandering around and we chat and see how the move is going. All the time, I’m noting locations of stairs, doors, coffee pots, rest rooms. What we do in buildings where we work, we do in the outdoors as hikers, hunters, and the like.

    Last month I did two pretty extensive backpacks in northern New Mexico. I didn’t really know the country, and relied heavily on a fine wilderness map prepared by USGS for the USFS (Carson and Santa Fe National Forests). But lots of the time I was gathering crucial data about my surroundings and intended route by wandering around and looking for cues from the landscape. In several places in the Pecos Wilderness, the trails have been blocked by long stretches of deadfall. In other parts, trails have just been overgrown or scuffed away. You have to use all our experience and senses to stay located.

    Just like in our new building: we use flat paper maps and our own eyes and brain to get around.

    Fun to consider how we “geo-locate” within a new work space.

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