I was watching a very interesting TED video (Amos Winter: The cheap all-terrain wheelchair) about Amos Winter’s efforts to create a wheelchair for the developing world. His presentation and the apparent success of the program is very impressive. The engineering approach he uses applies to so much of the world and it started me thinking ¬†about some of the efforts that we’re working on for MASAS.

The whole concept behind MASAS is to make information available to the first responders and emergency managers that are serving the public. Sharing small amounts of information (e.g. location of fire incidents, evacuation areas) amongst the various groups involved in providing emergency response is critical. It is also potentially confusing – information can be portrayed in so many different ways and we each have our own context and expectations so what I expect may differ (wildly or subtly) from what you expect.

The problem that Amos (@amoswinter) and team is pretty impressive Рthe goals that they had set opposed each other but they also created the bounding box that the team had to work on. I suggest watching the video but I want to focus on a concept that really hit home.

The goals for changing the largely unchanged wheelchair technology seemed almost impossible – the need for a device that could work in various modes (high-torque/low-speed for rough/hilly terrain and low torque/high speed for smoother/flatter surfaces) seemed to imply a very complex machine (e.g. a mountain bike like version of a wheelchair) but that opposed the goals of cost (<$200) and serviceability (use local technology and service capabilities).

The concept that Amos and team came up with turned this whole complex machine on its head – they kept the machine simple, using a lever and moved the complexity into a place that is available everywhere – into the user. The device is incredibly simple and powerful – when the user wants high-speed they slide their hands down low, crank at a low torque but short movement, creating the speed. When the going gets rougher the user slides their hands up to generate far more torque at a lower speed.

Leveraged Freedom Chair (USAID)

The shift from a machine being complex to allowing the user to manage the complexity while using a simple machine drives a few key thoughts that are going to be bouncing around in my head for a while.

In much of the work that I do, I work to get more information presented to a user but I am always worrying about how much information to show, and how much information to hide or simplify. I deal with a wide range of user types – GIS folk expect complexity and want to see everything but the key users (police, fire fighters, EMS, and emergency managers) want simplicity, but they don’t want to miss out on things. So, how do we present information for these folk without messing it up?

I am wondering how I can help the users of the systems that I work on and how can I advise the vendors that I work with to consider presenting the potentially complex information that systems like MASAS and others make available. How can we make the information easier to digest is a typical concern. Perhaps that may be the wrong question – maybe the question should be how can we present the information in a simple form and let our users do the complex analysis that they are already good at?

I half-jokingly refer to the information shared in MASAS as digital “Post-It” notes. The information is generally simple but we may have a lot of individual simple pieces of information that may create some clutter. These notes usually include:

  • location
  • what kind of event (fire, flood, road closure, evacuation zone, etc.)
  • description about what is going on
  • how bad is it, when will it happen/end, how sure are you?
  • who created it <- key for knowing who to contact for more information.
  • more details (pictures, voice annotations, presentations, documents/reports, etc.)

By ensuring that the system can summarize the information above we can leave the complexity of analysis and deep understanding to our very capable users – the fire fighters, police officers, paramedics, and emergency managers.

This has me thinking and I’m hoping it twigs someone else.

Kudos to Amos and his team for making such a change in the wheelchair space – now if we can just make a similar shift in ours…