2008 Peter S. Thacher Award Recipient: Christian Jacqz
Christian Jacqz has been Director of the Office of Geographic and Environmental Information in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) since 1992. This program, commonly known as MassGIS, serves as a geographic information system (GIS) resource for EOEEA, for other state agencies, for regional and local governments and for the private sector. Christian is currently involved in a variety of projects relating to climate change and alternative energy. Past projects include statewide orthophoto imagery (as seen in Google), a statewide addressing update for 911, the completion of build-out analyses for all Massachusetts communities, development of a protected open space inventory and supporting standardized municipal parcel mapping. Christian has also been instrumental in developing open-source based Internet mapping services and a strong web presence for MassGIS. During his tenure the program has been recognized for innovation and excellence by the Urban and Regional Information Systems Associaion, the Geographic Information Technology Association, the EPA and the Environmental Systems Research Institute.
When Niels told me about this my first reaction was oh god, I'm going to have to say something, what will I say and then I realized that it didn't much matter so I stopped worrying about it. What matters is that I get up every day and go to work and that what I and my colleagues at MassGIS do is to build and maintain a shared resource for people in Massachusetts that use GIS, and I'm sorry the rest of the staff are not all here because they are the most dedicated and greatest bunch of people to work with, we're like a family and what motivates all of us, why we go to work beside getting paid, is that GIS is such great technology, a better way to inventory resources and manage assets, to operate efficiently and make the right decisions in government and in business, and its also a way to see patterns, to develop and test theories, a way for all of us to communicate and to explain and get things done.
But having said that, I worry a lot about technology, that we get so caught up in it that we get disconnected from people who don't speak our language, who don't understand the value of what we do, who don't, as Shane White says, "get it." That's an insider kind of phrase, we get it and they don't -- I know I often talk that way – and its unfortunate, because if GIS becomes your religion, if you've drunk Jack's kool-aid, you can come across as righteous or arrogant and that can really turn people off. When the person you're talking to has that glazed look of someone who doesn't get it, who has no clue what you are talking about, then it's your problem not theirs.
So I want to share with you two little stories about the techno-disconnect. Not long ago I was going out for a few days on a sailboat with a friend from Watertown and his 13 year old son and my own son who are best buddies. For those of you who aren't sailors, boats these days are equipped just like some cars, with chart display systems that show the boats position, speed, course, destination and anything else that you might want to know. This particular boat's navigation system was in the shop so I had brought with me a backup, a ruggedized laptop with navigation software on it, which I hooked up to the GPS and when I went to plug it into the 12 volt outlet I realized, oops, I didn't have the power supply. No nav system. There was a moment of panic, but then I thought for god's sake, people sailed around for thousands of years without this stuff, why am I so dependant on technology, my wife and I went cruising before GPS, without even a motor on occasion, and I survived, unless of course I drowned and was so cold and wet that I didn't notice.
So the four of us took off, and everything was fine there was plenty of wind and the weather was clear, at least for that first day. And I have to tell you that navigating with paper and pencil is a wonderful thing to show kids, a real teaching moment as they say. To draw a line on a chart, to say we are going in this direction and to lay out the distance with dividers and say we've gone so far, and here we are, x marks the spot - that's really pretty amazing, when you're out of sight of land, and the ocean looks the same in every direction, that you still know where you are, of course its because we have a coordinate system, latitude and longitude, that covers the whole earth, so everywhere is somewhere. That's a pretty abstract thing for a kid to understand, even for some grown-ups. In the most basic terms, it's about knowing how to get home, that when we get to this point, if we steer in a certain direction then we'll start to see the hazy dark break between the sands of Plum Island and of Salisbury that gradually resolves to be the mouth of the Merrimack, the breakwater and the buoys that are so familiar.
But there's another lesson to be learned from navigation, and that's the one I was referring to above, the one I haven't learned very well myself, to understand that knowing which direction you want to go isn't everything. Let me give you a little fragment of dialog between the navigator, which was me, and the helmsman, Henry, my son. "Henry, what course are you steering?" "About 120, Dad." That's 120 degrees, roughly Southeast on the compass which is of course right behind the wheel where the helmsman can see it. "120, what do you mean 120, I told you to steer 110, you need to keep your course." "I can't steer 110, Dad, the wind has shifted…I can only make 120." Now the navigator is upset because now he doesn't know where he is, his carefully constructed lines are for naught, and the helmsman is upset because the navigator is asking him to do something impossible. That dialog happens on land too, all the time, it's the tension between the navigator's platonic ideal, the world of perfectly straight lines and angles and how things should be and the helmsman's world of wind and waves and compromise and budget deficits and every other thing that we have to deal with when we go to work every day. The navigator and the helmsman need each other, just as we need all the people that don't get it – but maybe with time they will and we will too.
A couple of days later it wasn't so nice, in fact it was very foggy. And again you could see the different perspectives of the helmsman and the navigator. When I said before that there was no backup, in fact I'm a pretty cautious guy, and I had with me not one but two battery operated hand-held GPS units, and when the fog came in, it was re-assuring to have those. On our way around Cape Ann, we needed to avoid some nasty rocks and so I programmed in the location of a buoy shown on the chart that we wanted to leave to port. I set the GPS to keep reporting the heading to that buoy and the helmsman steered accordingly. But there was just one little problem – the buoy wasn't there. So of course we steered in circles, in the fog, until we figured out what had happened. As you can imagine, the helmsman just wanted to keep going, and the navigator couldn't believe that the coordinates were plugged in wrong, the chart was wrong, that there was some kind of error that he couldn't understand. As they say, the map is not the territory, and the chart is not the ocean. Sometimes, no matter how high-tech you are, you have to deal with an imperfect reality.
Thank you very much for this award and thanks to Cindy and her crew for running such a great conference & to NEARC for getting us all together.