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Editorial: Saving playoffs lobster

No, your editor has not suddenly developed a love of free-form beatnik poetry in middle age, producing that seemingly nonsensical headline.

It might not look like it, but those unrelated words are conveying critical information that could save lives under the right circumstances.

The problem is a familiar one to any rural resident — how do you tell someone unfamiliar with your neck of the woods how to get somewhere?

“Go four miles north, turn east at the old school, then north again at the red barn,” is fine when it’s something that isn’t critical. But when the stakes are higher, that just won’t cut it.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is rural emergency services. Police, ambulance and fire vehicles need to get to where they’re going as quickly as possible, and often that can be in a relative middle of nowhere. When they get lost on the way the stakes can be life or death.

The problem loomed large during the resolution discussion last week at the annual general meeting of the Keystone Agricultural Producers.

With emergency medical stations closing throughout rural Manitoba and calls being answered by centralized dispatches, the province’s farmers are rightly a bit worried. Suddenly it’s not local women and men responding to the calls, but personnel from much farther afield, with little or no local knowledge.

Add to that there’s no coherent system of conveying geographic locations, as Shannon VanRaes reported, and one has the makings of a serious situation. Right now the province has a patchwork of different standards, leaving those seeking emergency services wondering just how they should tell an ambulance operator how to get ‘here from there.’

In some rural municipalities, properties are assigned numbers, but those standards vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, leading to confusion. GPS co-ordinates might work, but they are a long string of digits that can be easily confused when the caller is under stress. In the middle of a heart attack, there is no time to try to rattle off latitude: 49.911304, longitude: -97.202134. As for directions based on geographic features, let’s just say there are a lot of old schools and red barns in rural Manitoba.

The answer to this thorny problem may lay with a frustrated concert promoter from the United Kingdom. A few years back, Chris Sheldrick was struggling to get bands and equipment to venues — venues that could, in the case of music festivals, be isolated and hard to find, often in rural England. Eventually he and partner Mohan Ganesalingam hit upon a concept that would convey this sort of information quickly and easily.

In ‘simple’ terms they divided the world into three-metre squares — about 57 trillion of them — and give each one a three-word name based on a list of about 25,000 words. Their app or online platform (what3words.com) can then be used to find a location and the assigned three-word code. In the case of both the headline and the GPS location used in this article, I have given you the location of the offices of this publication, for example.

An approach like this has a few other merits, in addition to being a simple way to tag a location. Unlike a property number system, this approach can not just tell emergency responders where a field is, but also where within a field the problem lays. It also requires no data connection, other than the GPS function of most phones, as the entire information package is roughly the size of two or three full-resolution still photos or song files.

In other parts of the world, it has amassed a track record of success as the music promoters suddenly find themselves heading a tech startup. The Red Cross and United Nations are already using it to co-ordinate disaster relief efforts. Mercedes Benz is beginning to include it as a navigation option in its cars. Postal services in Mongolia and Nigeria, locales with substantial nomadic populations, use it to co-ordinate deliveries to these groups.

It’s not a perfect system and there are some caveats. A private company owns it, rather than being open source or public. The organization has, however, stated it will find a way to work with non-profit entities that’s fair, and has offered assurances that if the company fails, the data and system will go open source, lowering the likelihood of it becoming an ‘orphan’ technology.

One thing is certain — we all now exist in an era where it’s possible to design and implement these sorts of solutions that mask the complexity behind the scenes and make the interface for the user simple and intuitive.

Where better to do that than for emergency services?

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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